Love Wins Revisited

Derek Ouellette —  May 17, 2011

This post has been on my heart to write for several weeks now. As I was first preparing to review Love Wins I looked around and saw that many other bloggers far more able then I had already exhaustively taken Rob Bell to task (e.g. Kevin DeYoung and Scot McKnight). I wanted to come at the book from a different angle and ask two questions: 1) is Rob Bell a Universalist? and, 2) what is the main thrust of Love Wins?

I stand by everything I said there, but now I want to balance the scales of my opinion of Love Wins because it seems I may have given some people the wrong impression.

I’m asked all the time what I think about Love Wins. In answer I typically respond first by summarizing what I said in my first post followed by what I’m going to say here.

1. That the chapter on heaven is good and non-controversial, mostly parroting  Randy Alcorn or N.T. Wright

2. That his view on Hell is terribly argued, but his main premise is shared with C.S. Lewis

3. His approach in the book was down-right belittling to anyone who might hold to the traditional view. As someone said, “I suspect many felt poked in the eye by the way Harper and Rob decided to market Love Wins.”

The “Rob Bell” controversy seemed to revolve around the question, “is Rob Bell advocating universalism?” While people have found other primary issues, it was the universalism charge by Justin Taylor that sparked the whole controversy. (I think all of the key issues at stake in this debate were best brought into focus by Scot McKnight in an article for Relevant Magazine, What Love Wins Tells Us About Christians.) For me, universalism simply falls outside the bounds of Evangelical orthodoxy, but I want to emphasize that I always make an effort to distinguish between a person and a particular view held by that person on a particular subject. I think it is possible to hold to a heterodox (or heretical) idea and yet still be an orthodox Christian, albeit in need of correction.

Is Bell a univeralist? This is the question of concern for me. I have advocated that he is not – at least not that I could find in Love Wins. It seems rather that he is a “hopeful univeralist” (as am I, if by hopeful we mean we hope that no one will spend eternity in Hell or be annihilated). But I’ve grown tired of how Rob Bell treats these important issues, playing fast and loose with words and skirting around questions to avoid answers (it seems to me). These issues are important to Christian identity and require careful thinking and sensitive care. Scot McKnight writes:

Ninth, we are still asking a big question: What is the Gospel? Time and time again Bell mentions the Gospel, and it appears to me that Bell defines the Gospel as God’s utter love for us. How odd, I muse at times, that so many claim “gospel” for what they think but at the same time don’t recognize that the word “gospel” seems to be a contested term and category that demands careful words and definitions. I believe reducing Gospel to God’s utter love for us is inadequate, however true. One group wants to define Gospel through the lens of a kind of Reformed theology, another group wants to define it through the lens of the term “kingdom,” while yet another—Rob Bell included—through the gracious, unstoppable love of God for us. Well, which is it?

In an interview with Relevant Magazine (p.61) Josh Loveless (← irony) says, “Last time we talked, you were a Christian. Then we went online and the Internet said something different.” So he asks the straight-up question (~ sigh ~ again) “Are you a univeralist?” The question is a pertinent one because it strikes at the heart of the Gospel. And again Bell’s answer is, in essence, “well, define universalism…” The next time someone interviews Rob on this issue, the question needs to be worded like this: “Do you believe that at some point in the future every person who has ever lived will be partaking in the Age to Come?” Because that is the question everyone is asking, and that is the question Rob Bell is pretending not to hear.

But what if Bell finally answered an affirmative to that question, what if Bell were some type of universalist, how would that affect my view of Bell and his ministry and material? Would he be a heretic? Would he be someone I would tell everyone to stay away from? Would his church and those in his congregation be under suspicion? If Bell’s view is the same as C.S. Lewis, then I really have a personal moral challenge on my hands. If I answered yes to the former I would have to answer yes to the latter. And if I answered no to the latter, I would have to answer no to the former.

And the thing is, I’ve always encouraged people to read C.S. Lewis.

In the end I must say, had Justin never written his article igniting a whirlwind of controversy, I probably never would have read Love Wins (or at least it would have been at the bottom of a very long list). And having read it, I don’t care much for it.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Kyle Pitts

    I watched him debate Adrian Warnock and my first thought was that he somewhat resembles Freddy Krueger… After watching that debate and reading a fairly large article in Christianity Today I was confused about the man. He seems to believe in God but rejects Scripture as God’s Word, in the article he states his view of Scripture: ‎”discovering the Bible as a human product,” as Rob puts it, “rather than the product of divine fiat.” He kind of reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s Deism.

    The amount of double talk and sometimes just not answering a question it is hard to figure the guy out, I have read and watched him enough to know he is far from orthodoxy.

  • Peter

    I share Jeff Cook’s understanding completely. Bell and Lewis have the same ontology about Hell, but Bell has more faith and optimism on the ability of post-mortem repentence.

    My own current position is more or less exactly that of Lewis’… But my view on the subject has changed before, so time will tell.

    Lord, have mercy!

  • brad dickey

    Very well worded commentary. Here are some thoughts.

    Who cares about the universalist idea and why? As best I can tell it’s an elitist hubris driven conversation at best. We are to worry about those on earth right now. Whether Universalists are right, or not, is really irrelevant, it’s post death in most cases, and in God’s realm. He can do what He wants and how He wants. Right?

    The concept of what happens after death is VERY vague, abraham’s bosom, come back with Christ, live in Heaven, Ressurection, all of it confuses the topic. For example, why do some die and get resurrected and some go to heaven? :) Check the verses that would be a valid question.

    The other really big thought is, Since When did the GOSPEL (good news) become something presenting God as a terrorist? If you don’t believe in God and Christ, he will kill you forever and annihilate you! ( I know of the oxymoronic phrase. ) What is the good news about God is a tyrant or terrorist to force your hand or pay HIS imposed punishment. What is the good news there, seriously?

    The GOOD NEWS is that FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD, vs the John Tetzel approach of see the flames, feel the heat, be afraid of God approach. What is the good news in the latter? God has sentenced you to eternal torment, but will save you with a magic prayer and magic bath. (speaking from the perception of today’s people faced with the gospel as presented by most.)

    Consider these vss. I understand few people read and question their presuppositions when fronted with scripture, but consider the following from a LOVE-centric theme.

    Matthew 5:48 be perfect like the father is perfect. I assume you all know the word perfect/telioo and it’s meanings. If you take the context right before from vss 43-47 you will see, it’s a commandment to love like God does, even to the point of providing for him. COMPLETE would be a better word here than perfect, imho.

    Consider also:
    1Jo 4:16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has [fn]for us.

    1 God is love,
    2 and the one who abides in love
    3 abides in God,
    4 and God abides in him.

    1. Hard to sell an unbeliever GOD IS LOVE after you just threatened him with eternal torment focused sales pitch.
    2. What does love mean here that you abide in it. A good example of what was the mindset of the early church were all the comments from Paul, continue to feed the poor, etc… And the sheep goat parable in mat…

  • brad dickey


    The point is, in the sheep parable, in the galatians verse, in the 1 john verse, in fact chapter 4b conversation, is that LOVE is the theme, Love is the indicator, LOVE, is the purpose, of who is His. If you don’t have THAT Love, you aren’t His, yet. Run the race…

  • Tom Eggebeen

    I am a universalist … I’ve posted a note about this – … as to why and what it means for me.

  • Kyle Pitts

    Most of the Apostles, 2000 years of suffering all over the world, Richard Wurmbrand- All these men could have just quietly existed and lived quaint lives instead of suffering intense persecution! Maybe I will go buy a ball of heroin and die in quite peacefulness, I mean hey this life has some great times but Heaven is going to be better! Lets go drink some magic Kool-Aide since Universalism is actually the truth!

    Universalism is a slap to the face of every Christian martyr and those who are being persecuted today, the martyred believe that to deny Christ would result in everlasting Hell. Universalism is a dangerous heresy; there is a reason that the majority of the Early Church rejected it and there is a reason why even the Apostles rejected it and suffered much. I think we all know the reason.

  • Kyle Pitts

    Here is Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Chris E-book, read under the heading “Unspeakable Tortures” in the second chapter. People today still undergo extremely horrid tortures because they will not utter a word against their Saviour!

  • Craig L. Adams

    I’ve been really, really annoyed with Rob’s evasiveness since all this controversy started. I love to listen to him. And, Mars hill Bible Church has been a spiritual oasis for my wife & daughter & myself during a time when Church has otherwise been toxic. But… gee, man! ANSWER A QUESTION FOR A CHANGE! When he takes such shots at traditional Christians, he should expect some pushback, yes, even some anger. His responses have been about as clear as mud. So, Time magazine says ‘Rogue pastor Rob Bell says there is no Hell’ because they can’t figure out what he’s saying either!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Lewis’s Great Divorce is much better at articulating the way that hell is more about our self-imprisonment than God’s yea or nay. I think Bell is basically following C.S. Lewis but he’s way too optimistic. The problem is he’s reacting and deconstructing rather than staking out a positive position. Perhaps he would say that we’re misreading him by expecting his book to be something other than deconstruction but I think that’s a fundamentally dishonest postmodern ruse. I think it’s a good thing for Christian orthodoxy for this book to have happened just like it ended up being a good thing for Nestorius and Arius and Pelagius to have written what they did. At least the more thoughtful forms of discourse that have ensued prove that God works all things out to His providential purpose.

  • Craig L. Adams

    Morgan sez: “The problem is he’s reacting and deconstructing rather than staking out a positive position.”

    I have come to feel that this is what’s going on alright. Someone at the Mars Hill Bible Church, who is in leadership, is reported to have said that Rob is more interested in the questions than the answers. Whereas I feel that it is possible to recognize that all our theological answers are provisional and limited — and interim report until the eschaton — yet still give answers! As in: ‘To the best of my understanding, it’s like this….’

    • Derek Ouellette

      Craig, I think you are correct. I think the “To the best of my understanding, it’s like this…” reflects a mature, non-reactionary approach to these (and most other) subjects.