Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell

Well I hope that you have been one of those that has missed the firestorm surrounding Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins although it has been all over the Christian Press and blogosphere. Before I even start this review I have to admit that I really admire Rob Bell and think that he is a great communicator (indeed I would love to be 1/2 as good as he is in that sphere).

So what has the firestorm been about? Well the core of the debate that has fuelled the argument is the view taken by many that Rob Bell is an Universalist – that he has come to the point where he believes that all people will be saved and that no one ends up in hell.

Let me come back to that point later.

This book is aimed at starting a dialogue. A dialogue with those that may have been put off Jesus or the Church. As Rob Bell says in his preface:

I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that”

You are not alone
There are millions of us

Of course, this will have set alight some of those who are in the church trying to “uphold” the teaching of the church. I don’t think that will necessarily lose him a lot of sleep. He has been attacked many times in the past for being part of the Emergent Church scene and for his views.

In his sights in this book is the Evangelical view of Heaven and Hell and how it works.

He starts off the book asking questions. In a display of art and poetry someone included a quote from Gandhi that many found “quite compelling”.

But not everyone

Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

Gandhi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?

He goes on to ask many other questions in this first chapter about how we will know that we are in or out. He quotes examples of pastoral insensitivity such as a fifteen year old atheist dying in a car accident and a friend being told that “there is no hope”!

Rob Bell then builds up his viewpoint (and he seems to have drawn heavily from the scholar NT Wright who was until recently Bishop of Durham). He starts off by looking at heaven. He makes the point that

It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now

His argument is that one day heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21 et al) and that the earth is not scrapped and thrown away. Instead the universe is renewed and heaven and earth will be united. This has profound consequences to the way that we treat this world and those around us. It means that we must consider each other and the difference that we make in the world.

He ends up on this chapter saying:

How would I summarise all that Jesus teaches?

There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.

Its a good point that he makes to ensure that we don’t drift off into an other-worldliness that doesn’t take seriously the issues of the world around us.

Then he comes to hell. This is the part where many have been sifting his views to see if he is a universalist. He wants to set his views over and against those who he portrays as thinking or saying

Sin, refuse to repent, harden your heart, reject Jesus, and when you die, its over. Or actually, the torture and anguish and eternal torment will have just begun.

So what is his view of hell? Well again he has taken much from NT Wright (especially Suprised by Hope). He looks at the uses of Ge-henna and Hades (the two words most used to describe hell) and shows how much of their meaning is focused on here and now. He’s talking about our attitudes and our behaviour. He points out that even in situations that might be deemed hopeless God doesn’t declare hopeless – such as Capernaum doing more badly than Sodom and Gomorrah at the last judgement.

He sees hell as often originating here and now. He describes seeing hell in abuse or betrayal. So hell starts here in the choices that we make.

There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.

There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.

But he also argues that hell and its decision can’t be limited to this world. That God can reach even into hell. But he also won’t have it that God forces people into heaven. He points to the story of the prodigal son (or rather two sons). Pointing out that the younger son has to overcome his belief that he can no longer be the son of the father and so be welcomed back. The older son also needs to have his story re-told by the father. For the older son, at the party, Rob Bell suggests that we get a picture of hell – invited to and at the party but hating it.

Hell is being at the party
That’s what makes it so hellish.

Love to be love must allow freedom. It allows us to make decisions that are detrimental to us and often those around us.

I think his real attack is at those who almost glory in the idea of hell.

There is much more to discomfort some. The view of who is in or out. His view that Jesus is so much bigger than we can imagine. So much bigger than our tribal imaginings?

Rob Bell sees that the Bible views as Jesus being everywhere. So in the story of Moses bringing water from the rock in the desert for the Apostle Paul this was Jesus. It means that we can expect to bump into him all over the place. It means that people can share the good news of Jesus to people who have never heard of him and they will say

That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years….

It reminds me of the discomfort of visiting a church where they were about to go on mission to Vietnam and they were proclaiming “Two weeks to save Vietnam” as if God had never been there before and they were the only ones who could “save” it. Rather if they had gone with humility seeking what God was already up to it might have not been so grating!

It’s very clear from reading the book that Rob Bell starts from the premise that God is Love and then works from that fundamental point. A God who seeks us and searches for us to enable us to be more than we could imagine ourselves to be.

It’s a great read.

A provocative read.

It raises many questions. Ones that you might want to try and answer and others that you might feel challenged and want to avoid.

At the root of it I think that he is asking people to look at how they live and can respond to the awesome love of a God who never gives up on us.

Well worth reading.

17 comments on “Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell

  1. Rosie Edser
    April 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    really interested to read this – was watching his ‘Love Wins’ Mars Hill explanation on You tube the other day and was taken aback by the vitriol of comments below.
    Btw, it’s either a great new verb for one’s stomach to ‘church’ or maybe it’s a typo in that first quote

    • Will Cookson
      April 1, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

      Hi Rosie,
      It is amazing the vitriol being poured out on him. I do wonder whether for some its the fear that does it. Fear that the tribe is being lost with the potential loss of hell – ie if hell is a marker that makes it useful to define limits and the tribe.
      Thanks for the spelling mistake!! It does actually look like “church” in my notebook but it is “churn”!!

      • Rosie Edser
        April 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

        ha ha I’d assumed it was lurch!

  2. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    April 1, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    Great review Will. I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

    I recently attended a fascinating 1-day conference at Spurgeon’s on ‘Is Universalism an evangelical option?’ – I wrote up all the notes here if you’re interested: . The main speaker was Robin Parry, author of ‘The Evangelical Universalist’ (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald). He made a very convincing case for a Rob Bell-style ‘apocatastasis’ (as originally proposed by Origen), a final restoration of all people/creatures at the end of time.

    I realise that any hint of universalism is anathema to most evangelicals, but I’m very glad the subject is finally getting a proper airing.

  3. Chris
    April 1, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Will, going to get the book, have enjoyed and been challenged by his previous books. I have often wondered about some of this stuff. It amazes me that as created beings we have the presumption to assume who is and who isn’t “saveable” and when Jesus’s ability to save ends. Perhaps a book title to look forward to is “Jesus in he’ll” or are we to assume that this is a place beyond God’s saving grace – and perhaps by inference assume God is limited. Guess we will never know in this life time, all we can do I suppose is avoid being un-gracious at all costs, and God’s depth of love is limitless.


  4. Esther Somerson
    April 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    ‘A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary.’ Jer 17;12
    I wish I was a zillionth as good a communicator as the Holy Spirit rather than any Rob Bell – no wonder Jesus chose fishermen and practical people rather than the ‘learned’ of his day – and yet they were learned, incredibly learned. It sounds like he is trying to rewrite The Book… but I have not read his book.His sounds like the opposite view of the fundamentalist people that Theroux is programming about. It sounds like he is publishing a theory that to make people feel there is no hell only heaven they will come to church – like a carrot to entice. Expect that is the remit for clergy though!

    Re politics – I was surprised that you have not blogged about the Census. According to the Council of Elders the OPCS has paid £150 million of tax payers money to Lockhead Martin a private USA company, to process our Census. Lockhead Martin are responsible for the making / selling of – not sure which, Trident and F1.11 bombers. Some people are boycotting Census for that reason but will have to pay £1000 fine to not fill it in. We have to obey the rulers of the day though just as the Holy Family did and believe that Love Wins.

  5. Will Cookson
    April 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    Hi Harvey,
    I don’t think that Rob Bell is advocating universalism. I think that he is hoping that all will be caught by the love of Jesus – even in hell – and therefore eventually hell will be empty.
    Of course classic Christianity has always believed that when we say Jesus descended to hell that one of the options is that He sought out those in hell as well.
    I really don’t think that Rob Bell is off the scale – he just cares about Jesus and that’s no bad thing! I am meaning to watch the Louis Theroux programme.

  6. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    April 3, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    I suppose it depends what you mean by universalism! I meant the view that ultimately (though after time in hell for some) all will be saved, which is what Robin Parry also proposes in his book. Not to be confused with pluralism or inclusivism… though the end result is similar 😉

  7. Will Cookson
    April 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    The difference that I would make is that universalism is the “certainty” that hell will be empty. Rob Bell “hopes” that hell will be empty. I think that it is an important distinction to make.

  8. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    April 4, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    Yes, Robin Parry distinguishes between ‘hopeful universalism’, as espoused by Rob Bell, and what he calls ‘dogmatic universalism’, the view that scripture and reason both strongly lead to the universalist conclusion. Robin Parry calls himself a ‘non-dogmatic dogmatic universalist’ – he’s convinced that the Bible teaches universalism, but acknowledges that he may be wrong. I’m still in the ‘hopeful’ camp.

  9. Carolyn
    April 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    Going out this week to get the book … have struggled with ‘who’s in who’s out’ most of my life … catholic grandma and hell probably to blame ! Always felt a bit simplistic in my ‘love wins’ attitude … am very much a Rob Bellian type anyway so looking forward to the challenge !

    Found the videos marked interesting … who’s the aussie ?

    • Will Cookson
      April 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      It is worth reading and I hope that it raises questions as well as answers some for you.
      Which of the videos were you talking about with the Aussie?

  10. nig
    April 17, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    finally managed to read while on holiday. glad to have the brain stretched with ideas that don’t normally trouble my daily flow. Will have to find time to re-read, as with all Rob Bell’s stuff, to further engage with what he has to say

    • Will Cookson
      April 17, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      Pleased you had a good hols and had time to read it. I am sure you will find it worth re-reading. You could try some Tom Wright next!!

      • nig
        April 18, 2011 at 9:06 pm #


        • Will Cookson
          April 18, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

          Well you would only be reading Rob Bell’s original text!


  1. Rob Bell – Love Wins | The Evangelical Liberal - April 14, 2011

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

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