Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  June 3, 2011

Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins
By Michael Wittmer
4 Stars (out of 5)

I was shocked to have discovered several weeks ago that already a book had been published in response to Rob Bell’s, Love Wins. I don’t know if Bell would consider that a compliment or an insult, but I do know that this is one of the most gracious responses to Rob Bell I’ve read. There are no character assassinations. Rob Bell is not bemoaned as a heretic. No tweets offering Bell a sweet “farewell”. Quite the contrary, the overall tone of Christ Alone is friendly and respectful. I liked that.

Michael Wittmer has an exceptional finger on most of the key issues and an eye for showing fallacies in persuasive rhetoric as much in as spotting crafty interpretive approaches.

Like others who have written in response to Love Wins, Wittmer states that the stakes are high and cannot be ignored. Where many people see the Hell-Debate as important but ultimately inconsequential, Michael says:

“Our beliefs about heaven and hell are extremely important, for what we think about them has major implications for our view of Scripture, God, humanity, sin, Jesus, the cross and resurrection, and the gospel itself. As I have demonstrated in this book, when we divert from the church’s traditional, biblical understanding of heaven and hell, we ultimately end  up with an entirely new version of the Christian faith.” – p.155

If this is true, we should not be surprised by the hoopla response to Love Wins. Michael has managed to articulate what a great deal of Evangelicals know instinctively, even if they were not able to communicate it: that the debate over hell, is not really about hell at all. It’s about other matters. It’s about why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s about the nature of sin and of the fall. It’s about humanity and about God and about “the gospel itself”.

Now let me share a few things I appreciate about this book, and then a few things I didn’t.

What I Appreciated

The Persuasion of Great Rhetoric

Throughout this book Wittmer draws attention to Bell’s rhetorical skills (rhetoric: the art of persuasive or effective speaking or writing). Often when reading Bell I feel like saying, “yes! He hit a home run with that one” or “wow, what a great thought” or “I’ve never heard anyone put it like that before”. Rhetoric can be so persuasive that the actual evidence put forth in a discussion doesn’t really matter. When I studied Thucydides account of the Greek wars (Athens verse Spartans), I learned that Generals would gather the assembly together and debate on the best war strategy (or whether or not to even go to war). What I discovered by reading their speeches is that the person who always won – by which I mean persuaded the assembly to side with them – was not the person who made the most sense in terms of reason and evidence, but the person who was most skilled in rhetoric.

While Wittmer doesn’t develop such a specific argument regarding Bell’s use of rhetoric (as I just did), he does draw constant attention to it and shows how that same rhetorical argument can be used just as persuasively (if somewhat exaggerated) in the other direction (cf. for example, p.14-17).

The Purpose of Questions

Wittmer praises Bell for asking questions. In fact, he highlights Bells questions and then adds a pile of his own! His point is that Bell’s questions are not new and every Evangelical has struggled with them from time to time. But Wittmer points out that every question asked about God will have a follow-up question that will drive someone deeper into the mystery of God (no, he isn’t playing the “mystery card” here the way Chan does in his promo video). He gives this examples:

“Is our world eternal or did it have a beginning?”
“It must have had a beginning.”
“Then how did the world begin?”
“God made it.”
“Okay, then who made God?”

So every question has another question which will ultimately end in a mystery. Wittmer points out that Bell’s questions, rather then driving a person deeper into the mystery of God, “seems to raise doubts about the evangelical view of salvation” (p.8). From here Wittmer offers simple evangelical answers to Bell’s seemingly persuasive questions.

Full Disclosure of the Evidence Helps

Then he points out how Bell often reaches for obscure and difficult texts to raise questions while ignoring the clear popular passages that offer answers. Like when he cites 1 Cor 7:15-16 and 1 Timothy 2:15 (are we saved through marriage or through giving birth?). As Wittmer says, “I spent my entire life in evangelical churches, and I haven’t met anyone who thought that marriage and pregnancy might be their ticket to heaven” and he observes, “I wonder why [Bell] didn’t include the Philippian jailer’s question to Paul and Silas…”? (p.10). Bell’s questions seem designed to muddy the waters, to highly difficult, obscure, ambiguous or out-of-context passages while skipping over the passages that directly interact with his questions (as just cited). Stirring the water is one thing, we all need to be stirred up from time to time. But muddying the water is something else altogether.

What We “Hope” and What We “Wish”

Bell sounds shocked when someone says that there is “no hope” for a deceased atheist: “no hope? Is that the Christian message, no hope?” Now this is one of those rhetorical strategies. While appreciating Bell’s desire for “hope”, Wittmer reminds us that it is difficult when he has to tell a student, “sorry, you’re going to fail this program” or a patient, “sorry, but it looks like you’re going to die”. But if you were to tell the student “you are going to pass” or the terminally ill patient “you are going to live”, is that “hope” or “false hope”? Postmortem reconciliation is not taught in the bible and therefore it is not something we can offer as “hope”.

“I wish that God would empty hell, that he would save everyone who has ever lived. But I can’t say I hope for that because I don’t have a promise from God to hang my hope on.” (p.23)

Now combining “Full Disclosure of the Evidence Helps” with “What We Hope and What We Wish” as an example of Bell’s general approach in Love Wins: commenting on the passage of Revelation 20:10-15, Bell says, “the Book of Revelation, a complex enigmatic letter… filled with scenes of scrolls and robes and angels and plagues and trumpets and horses and dragons and beasts and bowls and prostitutes and horses” implying (especially in relation to Revelation 20:10-15) that we can’t say what much of “lake of fire” means. But Wittmer points out that three pages later Bell interprets the symbolism of heaven’s gates never shutting (Rev 21:25) to mean that people are free to come and go implying postmortem reconciliation. Wittmer asks, “but isn’t this a more difficult symbol to interpret than the lake of fire?” But Bell grasps for these straws in order to offer (false-)hope.

An Out Of Date Atonement

I also appreciated Wittmer’s analysis of Bell’s depiction of the atonement. Let me first say that my own take on the atonement is that the Christus Victor motif should be the overarching atonement theory, but that I believe very strongly in the Penal Substitution understanding of the atonement. Someone had to die for my sins in order to reconcile me to God. Christ died so that I would not have to. I think it would be detrimental to the Christian faith to suppose that the idea of Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice for my sins is an outdated relic of an archaic past (p.57).

Bell’s view of the atonement seems to be that humans simply need to acknowledge what they are “children of God”. That’s it. Do that and your saved. In fact, you’re already saved, you just need to believe it (which kind of sounds like New Age to me). When someone goes to hell, it is because they did not know that they were in God’s family and once they become aware of that then, like the prodigal son, they can run through those pearly gates that never shut.

What I Did Not Appreciate

Christ Alone gradually slides from an “evangelical” all the way down to a thin Calvin-Reformed response to Love Wins. One of my frustrations with reading books by Reformers is that the authors commonly assumes that “evangelical” means “Calvin-Reformed”. Nowhere do I recall does Wittmer say, “from here on out, I’ll be making my response from a particular branch of evangelicalism”. But evangelical is a broad term not defined by Calvinism and – for the purpose of this review – should not be restricted to a Lutheran-Calvin understanding of freewill and divine grace. (p.84 ff)

Bell is a Pelagian Heretic?

Wittmer begins to discuss sin in relation to the Pelagian-Augustine controversy. Sadly, this discussion is stuff-packed with prejudice. He leaves the reader with the impression that Pelagius was a mean and angry out-of-line average Joe who simply didn’t like something Augustine had to say. Truth be known, history has not been that clean, but in any case it can be shown that things were almost the exactly opposite of Wittmer’s portrayal: Augustine was mean, angry, and determined (when his pride was offended by Pelagius’ acquittal) to see Pelagius get what he felt was coming to him. Furthermore, the term Pelagianism has more to do with Pelagius’ associates (whom he tried to distant himself from) then Pelagius himself. In the end (third trial, that is) Pelagius was deemed guilty and later “Pelagianism” was condemned as heresy.

I only bring up this point because Michael hangs a lot on an Augustinian view of sin (as imparted from Adam, we are guilty because of Adam’s specific action), but this view is absent from the Church Fathers, all of whom either expressed no interested or flatly rejected what would later be understood as the doctrine of Predetermination. But how does this relate to evangelicals today? Arminians, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans (as least originally, Hooker et al) and other major evangelical conservative traditions would not understand a discussion of sin to be in light of Luther’s book, Bondage of the Will: not in relation to its discussion of freewill and divine grace. Wittmer could have easily put that aside and kept to the argument he build from page 88 on that sin is rebellion against God and that humanities need is reconciliation, without which we remain under divine judgment and wrath.

I believe he places this argument in the context of freewill and divine grace because of Bell’s emphasis on freewill. But I don’t believe Bell’s view of freewill is Pelagian. If anything, Bell sounds more like one of the Church Father’s when discussing freewill (and when the Father’s discussed predestination – in what would later be known as Augustinian predestination – it was usually to condemn it along with the Gnostics who held to it. That’s true, but for full disclosure, I’m obviously not a Calvinist). In any case, I think Bell could have been read here with a bit more charity then Wittmer does. He could have kept to his main argument about sin without boiling it down to Calvinist-Lutheran distinctives.

Who Deserves Hell?

I felt Wittmer’s chapter on “God” was not very well done in his attempt to justify hell – in so far as he could – because this goes back to our discussion we had the other day. He puts forth the normal arguments – we are eternal, God is eternal, our sin is eternal thus our punishment must be eternal – and concludes that if we think God is unjust for punishing someone forever because of their rebellion, then we have not taken the gravity of our sin seriously enough (it is difficult to tell at this point if Wittmer is talking about “our sin” or “our sin nature” or “Adam’s sin”; he says “our sin”, but based on everything that he has already said, it would seem he means “Adam’s sin” and if that is the case, Bell’s questions here become all the more potent).

But one point he does make here that I thought was relevant was that Rob Bell has subtly turned the discussion around and taken the emphasis off of us and put it on God. In fact, God becomes on trial. I agree with this. It is evident every time “hell” comes up these days: “How could a loving God do that?” To which Wittmer would answer with a question of his own: Is God on trial?


Overall, I highly recommend Christ Alone. His arguments against Bell are very well reasoned – mostly in terms of engaging the biblical text and in showing that we cannot allow Bell’s excellent communication skills cloud the issues. If you’re like me you won’t agree with everything Wittmer has to say, and if you like Bell and are looking for a responsible and gracious response to his book, this is it.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • James Palmer

    Thanks for the review, Derek! Sounds like an interesting book. I can agree with much that Wittmer says, by the sounds of it.

    “It is evident every time “hell” comes up these days: “How could a loving God do that?” To which Wittmer would answer with a question of his own: Is God on trial?”

    This sounds similar to Francis Chan talking about how we shouldn’t say, “I wouldn’t worship a God like…”

    While there’s some truth in that, it really doesn’t go all the way. For instance, amd I not right to say, “I wouldn’t worship a God that would rape children while laughing at them”? I’d say I am in full rights to say that. So if I ask, “Is it right to worship a God that would torment his own creations for ever and ever without reprieve?” I think we should treat it as a genuine question, and not just putting God on trial. One could possibly answer the question with “Yes”, but to dismiss the question as putting God on trial is, in my opinion, unhelpful. *

    Also, from my reading of Bell’s book, he didn’t talk much about what Jesus’ death and resurrection means, as much as he talks about how it should be communicated. He believes the atonement metaphor has lost its usefulness and how death and life in nature should be a better metaphor. This is actually how many early apologists presented the resurrection to the Greeks and Romans, but I’m not so sure it really is any better for today’s world.

    Anyway, I’ll stop defending a book that I actually would have rated lower than you did in your review, haha. It’s interesting seeing these discussions, although I feel Bell’s book is so poorly argued that most arguments against universalism based on what Bell says becomes necessarily strawman arguments.


    * – On a side note, it bothers me a bit how evangelicals (not necessarily Wittmer) often use the “we have an innate moral understanding” as a proof for the existence for God, and then are also quick to say that we have no ability to judge morals in this particular discussion.

    • James Palmer

      I should mention that if I read Bell wrong and he really does see the nature of Jesus’ death and resurrection that way, that it’s about showing us another example about how things like leaves die so that there can be life, well, then this is my biggest disappointment with the book. (Actually, it is anyway, since clearly many people read it that way.) Such a view takes away from the fact that there’s nothing natural at all about what happened to Jesus; that it is something supernatural, where it isn’t something we see repeated, but a unique event of God reaching into our world and doing something BIG.

      Then again, Bell’s “Resurrection” video gives me the chills and does give me that impression, so I’m not so sure Bell really thinks of the resurrection as just another death leads to life nature metaphor.

      And that just reminds me of another thing that bothers me – all these people saying Bell is a “great communicator”. I’m not just bothered by the fact that it is always faint praise, but also because I’m not so sure it’s true – it seems everybody’s confused by the book and isn’t sure what the “Hell” Bell is saying. Everybody thinks it’s saying he’s a universalist and he keeps telling people he’s not… it seems to me that he hasn’t communicated as well as he would hope.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hey James… I’d like to pay you a compliment if I may: you are a smart man. I like the way you think.

      Anyways, I generally agree with you. Sometimes I ask myself, “if Calvinism is true, could I worship a God like that?” In other words, if Calvinism was proved beyond a doubt to be absolute truth (theoretically speaking), would I worship a God *like that*, or would I reject him and face the consequences. Because, frankly, I don’t think I can worship god as Calvinist conceive of him.

      Regarding the book, overall I highly recommend it if for no other reason then to have one book on your shelf next to Love Wins that critically – but mostly friendly – engages it.