entering the “love wins” controversy

I respect and like Rob Bell, and believe he has a good ministry to many. I frankly have not kept up on reading him, nor do I always necessarily track with him. He is a Christian leader who is in what many would still term the “emergent” category who seems willing to ask questions within a commitment to the orthodox Christian faith. So we have him doing that. And then we have the folks along side John Piper who dislike some of what he has said to the point of either dismissing him as a heretic, or on the verge of heresy.

Rob’s upcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is about salvation in terms of who is saved in the end. Rob seems to want to suggest that love wins to the point of seeing many more people saved than what most of us have imagined, maybe even stirring the waters a bit toward the hope that all might be saved in the end. And yet from what can be told from all we know at this point, it looks like Rob is coming down with a view something like the hell people choose God will let them have.

I have to admit I’m tired of what I gather to be a lack of historical perspective which I pick up among Bell’s opponents. And I’m not sure what to make of it. Are they so steeped in their Reformation thinking that they can’t get perspective from anything broader than that? I am thankful to be part of a denomination that is committed to scripture, the orthodox Christian faith, a Reformation understanding of that within the evangelical tradition, and not only allows, but I think encourages free thinking within that commitment.

I would hope in the end that all are saved. Of course we know that is through Jesus and somewhere along the line means a changed heart expressed in repentance and faith. I have to hold to what scripture teaches, so I certainly hold to hell, though not with the idea of everlasting torment, but along the lines of suffering, then final destruction which is eternal in consequence, in which the person no longer exists (John R.W. Stott). Or if they do, they do so as those whose humanity has been degraded to the point that they are no longer recognizable as human beings (my understanding of what N.T. Wright may mean).

I prefer to simply try to be faithful to what scripture says and let the chips fall where they may as we do that. While also wanting to remain open to the Spirit so that the love of God permeates all we do. We read not that God so hated sin in his holiness that he sent his only Son–though in a sense that is true. But it doesn’t strike the right note evidently because it says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Yes, we have different traditions within the faith of Christianity. We are different while having what is eternal in common through Jesus. I tire of those who want to underscore and make much of the differences, rather than make much of what we have in common. And I tire of those who are quick to label another with heresy, or as being on the verge of it. Those who practice such separation, I separate from as well. I really could get some vital good from their work, after all they are in the family of God through Jesus. But I just can’t stomach what they say, because it is in the context of everything else they’ve said which I find not only abhorrent, but questionable at best, or in error.

As for Rob Bell, I hope he stays the same. He is imperfect, but greatly blessed in gifts and a servant of Jesus. I hope and pray that he remains true to the faith, which to this point he has. And that he continues to ask and think through hard questions in helping others grapple with following Jesus together in a world that is not in tune with the song of God’s grace and love in Jesus.

For more details, here is a helpful post from J.R. Woodward.

23 comments on “entering the “love wins” controversy

  1. kim says:

    I know nothing of this guy. I do like to be challenged to think and examine the word. My son has some 7th day friends who have challenged us to search the scriptures in the area of what hell is. It is interesting to see how much we presume or to see where Christians have reached certain conclusions and why….at the same time there is evidence for much of traditional belief.

    There will be many in heaven–Rev says more than can be numbered or more than one could number in Rev 7. At the same time Jesus says in Matt 7:14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

    • Thanks, Kim. Good points. Yes, I think the Bible on this has some air of complexity. It doesn’t answer all our questions. But it gives us enough. Where we err is when we try to answer questions the Bible doesn’t. We err in all kinds of other ways as well, so we have to keep at it. Keep at understanding God’s Story and finding our place in it through Jesus. And humbly acknowledge that with the truth God has given us in Jesus, there’s so much we don’t know.

  2. Lois says:

    Thanks for this!

  3. Chris says:

    Ted, a well-reasoned response to this controversial situation. I think I read Wright the same way you do-his writing has particularly been helpful to me in my thinking on this topic. I’m also very thankful for Bell and his gift of wrestling with deep questions and pointing to Jesus, & also his concern with the Hebrew context when interpreting scripture. He doesn’t start with the Reformation, and I appreciate that (but that may be what makes other Protestants so nervous). Thanks for your post, brother.

    • Thanks, Chris! Yes, good strengths you mention. We do need to keep working at better understanding the Jewishness of our faith and all that means. While acknowledging the good from the Reformation and from the Anabaptist heritage. 🙂

  4. B2Blog says:

    On facebook you titled this … sad. Sad because you have to put-off otherwise well meaning Christians?

    As to me, I think we are rationalizing salvation in our own verbal/3D world, where the spirit world is completely different, with different rules we probably wouldn’t understand.

    I will agree that making lines-in-the-sand about salvation is destructive and not even well-meaning. I welcome RB’s attempt to answer the question I asked as a child … so what about those in the Bible who came before Jesus? Or those who never heard about him? I don’t expect our faith to have all the answers, and I don’t expect us to make up answers when there are none.

    • B2Blog, Thanks. These are questions being asked today. C.S. Lewis himself opens the door to some speculative thinking on this in a related way from what I understand- although I don’t believe at all that he leaned toward universalism. We want to be true to scripture, and that is not going to be glamorous or politically correct (on any side) in the world’s eyes–I believe. Good point on not having all the answers. We need to boldly believe what is clear and only tenuously hold to our take on anything. Which is likely to change over time, while our commitment to the faith, and in Jesus does not change.

  5. Jack says:

    My issue with this book is not about the book (since I haven’t read it yet), but the promotion. If they are just stirring up the hornet’s nest to get publicity for the book I think that’s disingenuous, because they’ve suggested in the promotions that Bell has adopted a completely universalist position. I have friends who know him who say he’s been leaning in that position in recent years, but leaning is not the same as embracing.

    What irritates me is that Christians already fight too much, and if the publisher (interestingly enough, HarperOne instead of Zondervan) has instigated this online brawl just to sell books I’ll be really ticked. Then again, if it’s an accurate representation of where Bell has landed I think those who believe differently have the right to express their opinion. However, they should do so 1) only after reading the book, and 2) in a spirit of healthy debate instead of hateful rebuke.

    • Jack, Thanks! I may well be off here, but from my perspective I just don’t see that the promo is Bell embracing a universalist position. I resonate with it myself, and I really don’t think I have universalistic leanings. Maybe those on the outside would see it as suggestive of such. I would hope that Rob would have his way completely on what he would do in the promo. It’s interesting what you say about Rob’s own leanings, and your conclusion for now on that.

      I strongly agree. It’s amazing how quick the heresy word flies out and how the sky is falling. If we would talk things out, there would be so much more light than the heat which makes it impossible to get any good out of the exchange all too often.

      • Jack says:

        The publicity blurb from HarperOne that irks me is the one that reads “Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” Of course, it can depend on how you read that, for example, are they drawing out the distinction between God sentencing and our choosing? But I think it’s clear they’re going for the “this may be heresy” slant in their promotion to drum up interest, even negative interest.

        That’s what bothers me, if the book actually falls in line with more orthodox beliefs. Then HarperOne just painted a picture to draw ire, and I dont’t like that.

      • I’m unhappy with that too, Jack. But I think, such is life. 😦 As to the suffering part, many evangelicals nowadays including myself want to reject the teaching that people suffer everlasting torment in hell. We’d opt for what is called conditionalism in which the consequence is eternal to be sure, but the suffering is not.

        Of course we’ll all take a deep breath and go from there if we actually do find out that Bell is a universalist and that Eugene Peterson thought that a book promoting universalism is good.

  6. Glynn says:

    I’ve seen posts all over the place on the “Rob Bell controversy” — yours, Ted, is by far the most tender, respectful, and hopeful.

  7. Crowm says:

    I look forward to reading Bell’s book in the near future. I’m wondering about the idea of Universalism. Although I understand you to interpret Bell outside of Universalism, it seems the discussion regarding salvation and The End Times has become much more popular in recent years. Specifically,I’m wondering about the popularity of Universalism in a Postmodern world. Thoughts?

    • Crowm, It would surely resonate in a post-mo setting, to be sure. In the “I’m okay; you’re okay.” “If it’s true for you, that’s good. Something else is true for me.” I think it could be more of a backlash against a fundamentalism that was unloving and painted a picture of a wrathful god who is holy and can’t stand to look on sinners due to their sin. I don’t know. Just a couple of my thoughts offhand on that. Thanks.

  8. Chris says:

    Here is the text from the publisher about the book:


    Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.


    As I read this, Rob doesn’t just ask the question, he answers it… definitively by “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” That seems worthy of a response from the rest of the Christian community don’t you think?

    • Chris, Not in the way it’s been done, even if they’re right. But it’s not right to have judged a book before actually reading it. Eternal suffering could simply refer to the doctrine of everlasting torment. Many of us do not accept that. We accept hell and eternal consequences for sin, but not that.

      I read (especially used to, I try to avoid them now) them bashing other Christians all the time. One blog is devoted to nothing more than that, evident in its title. Let’s wait and see.

      • Chris says:

        Justin Taylor’s comments were based on reading several chapters that were pre-released by the publisher for review. This isn’t simply a reaction to a 3 minute video.

        There is a difference between bashing the person (which some have unfortunately done) and confronting the error. I think Taylor’s and DeYoung’s responses have not crossed that line.

      • I believe they’re both wrong, Chris. The Matthew 18 thought from DeYoung for example has no bearing whatsoever in Scot McKnight’s calling to task what John Piper did. Let them read the whole book. Not just a few chapters. Then I’ll challenge it if need be, but not with folks who already have challenged everyone who does not hold to their views.

        Peace. And peace now to all.

  9. […] Entering the Love Wins Controversy – Jesus Community […]

  10. 4granted says:

    Great post. Thanks for your balanced approach. No matter what you think of Bell, it certainly seems un-Christian to criticize him before actually reading his book (as some Christians have). Another intriguing book, that offers theological insights on the topic of heaven and who will be there is Dr. Paul Enns’ new book Heaven Revealed.

    • Thanks, 4granted. Some interesting books, or at least a couple I was glancing through in a bookstore today on “evangelical universalism” from people who want to be true to the scriptures as God’s word, and draw out from it a universalistic view. I don’t see it that way, and I doubt that Rob does either. Thanks for the book recommendation.

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