Rob Bell – Love Wins

So I’ve finally read Love Wins, the controversial new book by 40-year-old Rob Bell of ‘Nooma’ and Velvet Elvis fame. I’m a late-comer to Mr Bell – I’ve not read anything by him before nor watched more than a couple of YouTube clips of his Nooma films. But I’m certainly keen to read more now.

Two Mars Hills

There are two Mars Hill churches, at opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum

First, something that’s puzzled me. Rob Bell is founder and teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. But hang on, isn’t Mars Hill also the church of ultra-reformed super-scary hell-preaching pastor Marc Driscoll?

Well, it turns out there are two churches called Mars Hill, on almost opposite sides of the United States and at opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum. Driscoll’s church is just Mars Hill Church (founded 1996); Bell’s is Mars Hill Bible Church (founded 1999). Normally I’d be more scared of a church that had ‘Bible’ in its name, so great that Rob Bell has been able to turn that on its head. (‘Mars Hill’ of course is another name for the Areopagus where Paul famously addressed the Athenians in Acts 17.)

Take a read of this from Marc Driscoll on their Mars Hill website:

“Jesus tells a parable about heaven and hell. What does Jesus and the Bible say about what happens to every person upon death? Not naturalism, universalism, reincarnationism, annihilationism, or purgatory. The fate of every man and woman who has or will ever live is this: death, and then either heaven for blessing, or hell for suffering. Those alone are the options. Your eternal destiny is sealed upon your death. This life is your only opportunity. Hell is the wrath of God in effect. If you do not believe in and belong to Jesus, you are in the path of the wrath of God that ultimately culminates in the conscious, eternal torment of hell.”

After reading Love Wins, I have a feeling Driscoll and Bell may be glad they’re separated by about 2000 miles. Driscoll probably believes they will ultimately be separated by the impassable gulf between heaven and hell. For yes, brothers and sisters, Rob Bell is a heretic, a false teacher and a peddler of myths! Just have a quick glance at some of what’s being written about him by super-conservative Christians on the internet.

What’s all the fuss?

Rob Bell - Love Wins

Back cover blurb of ‘Love Wins’

I think it’s fair to say that Rob Bell was never a darling of the Ultra-Cons, but with Love Wins he’s fallen over the edge of their abyss, never to return. For in this book Bell dares to explore and question the received biblical teaching on hell, what it might be and who might (and might not) go there, and to come up with some rather different (though never dogmatic) ideas from the standard evangelical view. He also dares to question the received wisdom on how people get ‘saved’ and what this means anyway.

Rob Bell and Robin Parry

In the end Bell wisely leaves the questions open

Having recently attended the Spurgeon’s conference on Evangelical Universalism and subsequently read (some of) Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist, it’s interesting to read Rob Bell in light of that and hear the resonances between the two. Bell is more tentative than Parry; he’s not saying that everyone will definitely be participating in God’s Kingdom in the end. But he’s certainly hopeful, and he draws on a lot of the same ideas and sources as Parry: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, the idea of ultimate restoration, the inappropriateness of everlasting punishment for finite sins. He points out that the phrase ‘eternal punishment’ in (for example) Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25) can more properly be translated ‘a time of trimming’ or ‘a period of intense correction’, and that ‘eternal’ can refer to a quality or intensity of our experience of time rather than to unending duration. However, in the end he (I think wisely) leaves the questions open:

“Those are questions, or more accurately those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”

Bell acknowledges at the outset that he’s not saying anything new in Love Wins – that pretty much all the ideas in the book have been expressed and believed by some mainstream, orthodox Christians from very early times. What he is doing is bringing them together and articulating them afresh, offering hope to the many Christians (and others) who feel that the predominant version of Christianity they see is not particularly good news.

Believing in hell

Rob Bell offers a message of hope to those tormented by the thought of hell

There are at least three ways of believing in hell that I’ve come across amongst Christians.

There are those Christians who believe in a dreadful and everlasting hell, but who do so reluctantly and sorrowfully, believing that that is what the Bible teaches but wishing it were not so. They believe it is a terrible necessity brought about by the grievous evil present in the world and in human hearts, and they would be immensely glad if neither evil nor hell were real. I have no problem with this kind of belief in hell, even if I don’t fully share it. For these Christians, Rob Bell offers some alternative takes on judgement, hell and salvation which may at least bring hope.

There are others who are haunted by hell, tormented by the thought of its torments. Will I, will my friends, go there? Are some of my family members there already? Should I spend every waking moment in evangelistic efforts to save others from damnation? And they live fearfully in its horrible flickering shadow, some driven to madness by it, others to over-zealous evangelism, others to lose their faith completely. For these above all, Rob Bell offers a message of hope, and I hope with all my heart that they hear it.

But then finally there are those whose belief in hell seems to have a kind of vindictive satisfaction to it, a self-righteous relish at the notion that those who didn’t agree with them or belong to their group will ultimately get the most unpleasant come-uppance imaginable, forever and ever. For these believers, hell is not a troublesome, regrettable or secondary doctrine; it is essential to their belief that they are the right ones, the good ones, the chosen one, the saved ones, and that others are not. Hell is a source of comfort because they know for sure they won’t be going there, but all those bad people who aren’t like them will be -praise the Lord! These ones will not like Rob Bell’s book at all. But maybe, just maybe, they won’t actually like the Kingdom of God much either, not when they see who’s there.

‘The good news is better than that’

‘Love Wins’ is about salvation in the broadest, deepest and richest sense

Love Wins is about much more than hell though. It’s about life; it’s about love; it’s about hope; it’s about salvation in the broadest, deepest and richest sense. It’s about Jesus, and about us, and about everyone. It’s about Jesus and the gospel being far, far greater and bigger and better and more powerful than we think. It’s about heaven and hell and earth all in the same place and time, depending on how we see and how we respond to the story that God is telling.

I think it’s a great book. It’s not academic theology, and nor is it meant to be, but it’s based on good scholarship – Tom Wright’s for one. For many of us it’s simply saying what we already understood or thought or hoped, but Bell says it very well and with some great use of language. Go and get it and annoy the fundamentalists. 🙂

My vicar Will Cookson has also written a good review of Love Wins.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Hell, Liberalism, Love of God, Orthodoxy, Salvation, Universalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Rob Bell – Love Wins

  1. Will Cookson says:

    Hi Harvey,

    Hadn’t realised that it was your birthday recently – happy birthday!

    As Maggie Dawn has said Rob Bell isn’t a theologian but he is a great communicator. He does draw on good scholars and shares it well. A fair review of his book and the swirling morass around it.


    • Nice to have you on my blog Mr Cookson! 🙂

      I agree that Rob Bell is a great communicator, and I look forward to reading/viewing more of his stuff now.

      Part of me is surprised by the ‘swirling morass’ around Love Wins – just what is he saying that’s so shockingly controversial, really? But the more I experience conservative-end evangelicalism the less surprised I am by ungracious and over-the-top reactions like the one this book has sadly received.


  2. David Holland says:

    Belated HB, HE.

    Now I need to add Love Wins to my shelf. Sound like this is a good thing.



  3. Rosie Edser says:

    I like the look of its bite size chunks of text. Also see Kester Brewin’s review of in Third Way tho that’s to some extent preaching to the converted. (?!)

    So how is this different from Steve Chalk’s challenge-penal-substitutionary-view-of-Jesus-death-and-judgement-and-stir-up-a-furore-of-vitriolic-responses-and-cancelling-of-Faithworks-support-by-trad-evangelical-churches bk of a couple of years ago? (The Lost Message of Jesus)


  4. [NB this comment is in response to one that I’ve now removed as the author posted it by mistake! But I’m leaving mine up for now]

    Dear Ron,
    That’s very interesting, thank you. I’m very interested in mystical experience and I do see it as both important and (as you point out) inexpressible. Nonetheless, I think we do have to try to express it, even if only to say that it’s beyond our capability to express. I explore some of these ideas a little in my post on Christian atheism.

    I’ve certainly got no problem with mystics from all faiths (and none) having similar experiences of the divine (though if it’s inexpressible it’s hard to be sure it’s the same – a bit like not being sure if what you mean by green is the same as what I mean!).

    However, I don’t believe that religious faith is solely or even primarily about mystical experience, important though that is. Crucially, it’s about what you do in the light of that experience, and also what you do in the light of not having such experience. I’d also emphasise that the many people who don’t ever have such experiences are not lesser people or further from God. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    So though most faiths do have an essential core of mysticism, that is only one component and I’m not altogether convinced that it’s always the most important one; it’s certainly not the only important one.

    All the best,


  5. tonycutty says:

    Great review – thanks! I’d personally like to see the Conservatives’ justification for believing that this life is the only chance you get. I cannot find anywhere in Scripture the notion that we have to decide during this life. I have written on this at some length here:


    • Hi tonycutty, thanks very much – I look forward to reading your post and I’ll try and comment there! I think I might be able to dig out a few ‘proof-texts’ that the conservatives use (I think wrongly) to support their viewpoint, but I agree with you. I think we’re certainly better off choosing now if at all possible, but I’m 99% sure that those who haven’t had the chance to choose won’t be excluded – that would seem like a ridiculous system and not like the God I think I know a little.


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