Before you read LOVE WINS by Rob Bell

Some people are amazed at all the blog chatter regarding Rob Bell's upcoming (Mar 15) book Love Wins: A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.

Love wins book by rob bell  I am not surprised. Its a huge issue and its much bigger than Rob Bell. In the world of evangelical demi-gods, John Piper is doing battle with N.T. Wright in the skies over atonement theories and eschatology and its becoming evident that this new generation, apart from a few new-Calvinist oddities, are siding with Wright or at least the way of thinking represented by Wright.

There is a power struggle going on that ventures beyond doctrinal categories and theological correctness. It's a battle for the empire! And if you dont understand that, you wont appreciate the intensity of the Reformed backlash. Or why John Piper broke Lausanne etiquette by veering from his script to add "eternal suffering" to his Ephesians talk in Cape Town last year. I was there. I heard the murmurrings.

A Christianity Today report says it this way. "Naturally there were grumblings. While John Piper was a favorite expositor for many, others resented his importing controversy over eternal suffering into an Ephesians text that had nothing to do with it. Some regretted that N. T. Wright was not invited to speak, sensing an underlying attempt to steer the evangelical movement toward a particular kind of theology."

I don't think I will bother buying "Love Wins" because I don't appreciate being manipulated by publishers and the "evangelical marking machine" [hear PirateChris on this] and I am not convinced Rob Bell will go beyond Wright's Surprised by Hope, apart from offering his own bias and making it more accessible.

Or in other words, we already had this conversation a few years ago. Why should I buy the book?

I might be wrong. And I might buckle and buy the book but I very rarely buy the books that everyone says I need to buy. Praise God I never bought Purpose Driven Life and managed to avoid the Left Behind series.

And the book MIGHT BE RUBBISH! Its possible! Publishers tend to send me winning manuscripts rather than dodgy ones or lame ones because they know I try to be honest on my blog. Previous Rob Bell books were sent to me but not this one – although that might be because Zondervan is no longer in the picture. [Why?]

However, I am interested in the conversation and will probably follow it to watch how the Reformed folk prop up their eschatology in the light of new challenges. I hope the conversation does not get bogged down on predetermined anathematic labels like "heretic" and "universalist" – as Mark Galli suggests it might. Instead, I hope the conversation will move back into the Scriptures to see what was really said and the context in which it was said.

A question to hold in your mind when you read Love Wins and the various blog commentaries that either affirm or attack it:

Are the words translated as "hell" in the New Testament INTERCHANGEABLE?

Do these words point to a SINGLE REALITY, as I was brought up to believe? Or do they reference mulitiple realities and events and thus the need for some NUANCE in interpreting them within their respective contexts. We claim the various Greek words for "love" are vital for understanding what type of love. But what about the many Greek words for hell like "gehenna", "hades", "tartarus" and the various descriptive words as well? 

Screen shot 2011-03-10 at 09.54.58
[image from a Jack Chick gospel tract)

This is why I find Challies question difficult to answer. In his review, he asks . . . 

"But what about hell? Is hell a future reality or a present one? Is it an earthly reality or one that exists elsewhere?

To Challies question, I would have to ask what passage of Scripture is he talking about? Which hell? Could the references to hell be sometimes a past reality (eg, the destruction of Jerusalem) and sometimes future (the final judgement of fallen angels)? And if God is a consuming fire, could there also be a present reality of judgement as he disciplines us?

I hope this will all lead to some discussion on the Scriptures themselves rather than medieval theological categories and word-traps set in place for the uninitiated. Al Mohler, I feel, probably SHOULD buy the book because he may have been too quick to label Rob Bell a universalist, just as he was too quick to label him "emerging church".

Here's my take, as one who has not read the book. It's possible Rob Bell has gone too far, if bloggers I respect are correct, on his view of heaven and hell. However, the default position that many of us grew up with in our world of Jack Chick Hell-fire Dante-inspired gospel tracks will probably never again hold the same priviledged position. Where the pendulum lands has yet to be determined . . . thus the battle for the empire.

Related: Rob Bell and Bullhorn Guy, How to Survive a Christian Bookstore

Recommended among the hundreds of blog posts:

– Andrew Perriman on Rob Bell and Kevin DeYoung and also Tim Keller's view of hell. (HT Scott in comments)

– Greg Boyd on why Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist.

– Scot McKnight on Universalism: Waiting for Rob Bell 1 and 2 and on Relevant Mag

– My Aussie mate Jarrod McKenna at Red Letter Christians


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Wayne Park says:

    Hm. I’m provoked now to take Surprised by Hope off my shelf and finally get around to it.
    I’m also mildly irritated by “being manipulated by publishers and marketers”
    I wrestle with this one, really do.

  • Good thoughts. I shared a few questions on Shaun Groves blog that are related to this. I’m not sure I’ve found a good conclusion… but I think it ties in with your question as well.
    I’m interested to know what the Hebrew (and even Roman) thought of the day was in regards to a literal hell.
    When Jesus spoke of hell, he seems to have specifically used the word Gehenna – the name of a burning trash pile outside the city walls of Jerusalem and as Wikipedia tells me – the same site that was initially where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba’als and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire.
    So perhaps he was referring to “hell on earth?”
    When Jesus mentioned Gehenna numerous times, I wonder if the disciples instantly thought, “Oh yes… Gehenna, that’s code for hell, where all the bad people go for eternity.” Or did they think of the trash heap or the valley where people literally sacrificed their children outside the walls of their city?
    I wonder what term Jesus would use today.
    Sudan? Darfur? Death camps? Auschwitz? The Dallas City Dump? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
    It also seems interesting that in a number of these references, Jesus seems to suggest that something or someone is going to be tossed aside into Gehenna. Perhaps, “You will be tossed out like the garbage?”
    I don’t know. But more things for me to chew on.

  • ScottL says:

    Andrew –
    If I remember correctly, NT Wright, at least in Surprised By Hope, does not share very dogmatic thoughts on hell. So I’m not sure how he would have ‘debated’ Piper at the Lausanne Conference. And I didn’t realise Piper added in the statements on ‘eternal suffering’. But no doubt we probably need to have our typical evangelical, reformed views challenged with regards to hell, death, hades, gehenna, destruction, judgment, etc.
    You might like these two recent articles on the topic of hell by Andrew Perriman. The first articleis a response to DeYoung’s recent post on hell. The second article is in response to an article written by Tim Keller.

  • I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here.
    When Challies calls for clarity not confusion, my response would be that for things that are clear, by all means, be clear. But for things that are confusing (like eternity), we have to have more willingness to let confusing complex topics be just that. And yes, that will mean that conversation surrounding those topics will reflect that complexity and can be confusing.

  • Andrew says:

    Hi Scott. You are correct in saying Wright was not dogmatic on hell – he calls for humility in talking about it. he is a little stronger on “heaven” in his book.
    and there was never a question of a “debate” at Lausanne but rather people wondering why NT Wright was not present to speak or involved.I dont think it was a toss-up between the two.
    thanks for the perriman articles. I like Andrew’s work and appreciated his last book on eschatology. He is a good friend.
    a link to my review of Perriman’s book.

  • ScottL says:

    Andrew –
    Yes, I read Perriman’s book on Romans. Very stirring and challenging to read the biblical text in its historical narrative.

  • Andrew – “Justification” was the book that Wright penned to counter Piper’s claims re: the atonement. That’s where the two of them were having an online discussion.
    My strong hunch having read enough Bell is that like the vast majority of author/speakers, he ocuses on putting on a show that will wow the crowd and push product – and hence, as you’ve pointed out, the books all start to kind of repeat themselves. I’ve talked to a number of Bell fans who quit buying his stuff on the assumption that with Velvet Elvis, they got the gist of what he had to say and they’re happy with that.
    Here’s my take on this battle, which as you point out Andrew is more market driven than anything else – a point also made by Scott McKnight whom I quoted.
    A few things I find disturbing (besides the obvious fact of commenting on a book that most of us haven’t read. BTW, my review copy is being mailed next week …
    1) Rob Bell has not commented on this battle – yes, it was started by his publisher but he clearly could have said “no” to the video and the promotional copy that started this whole mess. This is akin to breaking wind and then blaming it on the dog.
    2. The first time Rob is responding to the claims will be at an event on Monday where one has to PAY $12.00 in order to get the skinny. It is also being streamed live (I presume that’s free). But there’s something about paying to hear authors talk about their book that’s annoying as all get out – I could see say charging admission and with that one gets a free copy of the book BTW.
    3. The person who is interviewing Rob is a Newsweek reporter, whose pieces on Christianity are lacking (and I’m being kind here – and it’s not her fault, most mainstream media coverage of Christianity tends to suck). As she doesn’t get the nuances of the faith, she won’t ask the kind of Qs Andrew that you would.
    4. Rob Bell has now embraced the emergent label – despite whatever strengths Mars Hill Church may have, no church that size that’s led by a staff of mostly missional males could be considered emerging unless we’re now back to defining emergent based on cool candle church.

  • Andrew says:

    Thanks Becky – I read both Pipers book and also Wrights response (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Excellent book that made me enjoy theology again.
    my review—justification-gods-plan-and-pauls-vision.html
    Has Rob Bell embraced the emergent label? I notice its HarperCollins that is publishing this one. Interested if you have more information.

  • I have always been able to review my book jacket, press releases and whatever other PR was done on my behalf. And when I found something that was really off, they were able to fix it. This is why I never buy the BS when an author blames their publisher for marketing them as say an [insert theological term du jour] guru, holy hipster, etc.
    There’s no way in hell Rob didn’t approve this marketing material before it was released.
    And no, I don’t think the marketing was done underhanded – this is brilliant. You float very provocative material in front of some people you know are opposed said material and pray that they will go gonzo because when that happens, you get a bestseller like this.

  • Steve Wheeley says:

    A good comment on this issue, the only thing I take exception to is lumping in “The Purpose Driven Life” with the silly “Left Behind” series. I personally enjoyed Rick Warren’s book and much of the work he does but feel the only good use of the “Left Behind” books would be as a door stop.

  • Adamfontana says:

    Because of this post I just ordered Surprised by Hope to see NT Wright’s take on this. I remember reading a favorable review of it by Doug Wilson, but haven’t gotten around to it until now.
    Also thanks for bringing to my attention the evangelical marketing machine. I hadn’t yet though of that aspect. Really bothers me. I tried going to a church here in Los Angeles that’s well known but couldn’t keep attending because the pastor seemed more interested in selling his books than taking care of his flock and teaching from Scripture. It seemed as if the sermons were marketing material for the books and not much more. So depressing.

  • phil wood says:

    I’ve been aware of the (manufactured?) debate around the book for a while now. So far I’ve studiously avoided it, though I’ve been blogging around similar themes. Listen carefully and it’s possible to hear a familiar sound of the Evangelical guilt-by-association machine cranking up. I have a weary sense of deja vu. Shouting unversalist, liberal, mystic, new-ager, annihilationist and pointing a hyphen in the direction of an intended victim doesn’t constitute an argument.

  • Andrew – perhaps embrace is too strong a word and I stand corrected. But if he objected to being marketed as “emergent,” he could have told HarperOne to change the text – these are the same folks who did the book jacket for Brian’s last book that put him at the head of this movement that supposedly is leaderless.
    I still find it annoying that Rob isn’t commenting until he appears at a paid event – and that the person asking him the Qs has a history of doing softball interviews.

  • I suggest the book “A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions” by Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock. It argues that evangelicals have overlooked much scripture that demonstrates God’s intention to save many people instead of a narrow few.

  • brambonius says:

    I wondered when you’d pick up on the whole conversation… I don’t have much to add, I have blogged a bit about it (not about Rob, more about Christian universalism and stuff) but I’m getting Rob Bell fatigue so I already moved on to some strange facts about Belgium on my blog…
    did you read the interview with the ‘unreal’ Rob Bell by Rachel Held Evans?

  • Bell’s silence until the big paid event is my biggest frustration as well, Becky.

  • Andrew – one more point people are confusing a bit. Harper Collins is the parent company of HarperOne and Zondervan. Just about every major publisher has Christian (and in some cases secular conservative) imprints.
    What’s telling when you go to Book Expo (a secular publishing expo that has some Xn publishers present) is that some publishers like Harper Collins and Hatchette display some of their Xn product,while others like Random House (Waterbrook) mention the Xn imprint but don’t display any books from the line. My fav is Simon and Schuster who owns the Howard Books(publishes Joel Osteen, Hug series, Rick Warren and Mike Huckabee’s Xmas books, etc.) but at BEA, they treat these offerings like porn by not even mentioning they have this imprint.

  • Anderson says:

    hmm can’t agree Jamie. I think that the silence is appropriate from a communicative strategy stand point i.e. if possible try to respond to critics on your own terms. Regards*

  • And Rob’s own terms include the fact he is responding at an event where 1) people have to pay $12.00, and 2) he is being interviewed by someone from Newsweek who has a history of throwing softball Qs. At the very least, I’d like to see say a debate between Rob Bell and Tim Keller who is based in NYC where this PR fete is being held. That at least would really lay out where Rob stands vis-a-vie the traditional evangelical world. Let us not forget that this firestorm was triggered because Rob has a product to push. This is pure marketing genius and hats off to HarperOne.

  • Anderson says:

    Ya the $12 doesn’t rub me the wrong way but I understand how it does some ppl. I would love to see a debate between Bell and Keller! But if there was ever going to be such a thing it would take some time to set up. Consider how long it took to arrange for Piper and Wright to interact with one another and both of them seemed keen to do so. Alas due to Piper’s sabbatical it never happened.

  • Jenn says:

    Thank you! Of all the blog posts that have responded about the Love Wins controversy, your post seems to echo my own thoughts. I always appreciate that you are fair and balanced…and keep the bigger picture in perspective!

  • I hear you but I don’t think we can compare these two. In the case of Piper v Wright, you had two folks who wanted to debate each other. Here Bell has a book out and Harper was securing a place for him to push his product. TRUST me, it took just as much time to nail down this event than it would be to coordinate with Tim Keller. And if Keller wasn’t available, they could have gone to King’s College where Marvin Olasky (World Magazine) is now the head honcho. Heck, between Boston and DC, there are scores of conservative heavyweights, who would have loved to have a serious debate here. Instead of having a debate that I’d argue would benefit all because you can’t BS Keller & Co., they choose the softball route. This way Rob can be provocative without having to really confront the issues. This is akin to being interviewed on the Today Show instead of Rachel Maddow.

  • Tim says:

    Thanks Andrew. Though I am interested in reading Bell’s book, I understand what you’re saying, especially in light of Surprised By Hope (one of the most important books I’ve read in a long while). Still, in my evangelical corner, Bell commands more attention than the Wright and I think as a whole this is a good thing.
    For once, I am not as annoyed by the hype. It’s far better than Purpose Driven, and I won’t even get started on the Left Behind thing. Anyway, here it has led to a lot of fruitful conversation that was pre-occupied by Charlie Sheen and the Jersey Shore.
    Also, good pushback on the Challes post. I liked a lot of what he said, your questions certainly add to the conversation.
    Thanks for posting.

  • If Rob Bell follows N.T. Wright’s view on hell, then he could not be called a “universalist.” Here are Wright’s thoughts on Universalism in Surprised By Hope:

    I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own. Humankind cannot, alas bear very much reality, and the massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.

    I find Wright’s vision of hell to be both compelling and orthodox. There will be those who God turns over to their own pride and stubborn self-worship, who cease to bear the image of God and experience some kind of existence outside the presence of God. I am in interested to see if Bell goes in this direction or if he takes it further.
    We should enter into a conversation about this subject, because I cannot say the Bible is clear on the subject of hell. There are two many exegetical issues (such as the number of Greek and Hebrew words that you have mentioned). And there are two many metaphors describing this “place.” Part of this conversation is this question: Is the doctrine of Hell an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy or it is a second tier doctrine? This of course stirs the controversy, because those who view hell as a non-negotiable doctrine DO NOT want to enter into this conversation.
    The conversation on Hell is helpful, but I agree with you that the media-machine stirring the controversy, before the book comes out, makes me hesitant to purchase it. Maybe it will be available for a free or inexpensive Kindle download.

  • Andrew says:

    it will be interesting to see how they differ, if they differ at all. I notice that Wright’s book remains quite unchallenged by critics compared to what Rob Bell is about to put out. Maybe its weaker theologically and therefore an easier target.

  • I do not think Wright has the same marketing-machine that Bell does either. N.T. Wright has been challenged by the Reformed guys on justification and could be challenged on his eschatology, but I do not think there is much there to be challenged, particularly his views on hell. Wright remains well within the stream of orthodoxy. Bell asks more questions. Wright gives more answers. I appreciate both, because I think the conversation is good, but Wright’s theological prowess makes him much more compelling.
    I love N.T. Wright. He may be the only man I would actually kiss (on the cheek of course!). 🙂

  • Ron Henzel says:

    You wrote:
    “I don’t think I will bother buying ‘Love Wins’ because I don’t appreciate being manipulated by publishers and the ‘evangelical marking machine'”
    I saw Rob Bell’s promo video for the book. If there’s any manipulating going on here, Bell himself is certainly part of it.

  • Thanks for sharing your good thoughts about this. I feel it so much interesting and it entertain me well.

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