[Note: This continues the chapter-by-chapter review of Rob Bell's Love Wins.  To catch up on the series so far, read Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, and Part Five.]

It’s not usually kosher to complain when a book written for lay people and even for non-believers fails to reference a particular part of the scholarly discussion of something.  But when in fact ignorance of the discussion leads to misinterpretation of Biblical texts, on issues as large as — ‘on what basis are people saved by Jesus’  then it is time to raise a red flag.  And this chapter definitely raises a few flags.

Let’s start with the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10.  ‘The rock was Christ’  says Paul, referring to the famous story in Exodus about water coming forth from the rock.  What in the world is Paul trying to say?   Well, this would not be a conundrum if a person will have read the good commentaries on 1 Cor. 10 and realized that we are dealing with something called Wisdom Christology — the applying to Jesus of ideas and terms previously applied in Jewish wisdom literature to personified Wisdom.  Lady Wisdom, as she is sometimes called, is discoursed on in places like Proverbs 3, 8-9 but also increasingly in Intertestamental Jewish literature like Wisdom of Solomon and in Sirach as well.  Both Jesus and Paul are very much familiar with and indebted to those two books, as I have shown at great length in my book  Jesus the Sage. Paul believes that the Son of God existed before and participated with the Father in the making and sustaining of all of creation.  And, in 1 Corinthians 10 he believes the pre-existent Christ had a role to play in the sustaining of God’s people in the wilderness.  He has transferred what was previously predicated of Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon to Christ, who is presented as Wisdom in person,  not merely a personification.

How does this help us?   It makes clear that God the Son, like God the Father, has been in the lives of God’s chosen people all along.  What the Exodus story does not suggest, and Paul does not say, is that we can then conclude that the ‘hidden’ Jesus is somehow present in all world religions, saving people through them all.  Paul, frankly, would be appalled at this application of his use of Wisdom ideas in 1 Cor. 10, especially in light of his extensive polemics against pagan religions!  Now I would be the last person to insist that we should ignore the fact that the Son of God and his work throughout the world is more vast that we can imagine, and exists in places we have never conceived.  True enough, and a good reminder to us all that are making the mistake of trying to shoe-horn Jesus into certain narrow parameters that will not contain him.

However (and it is a big however),  when it comes to these kinds of discussions we need to be broad where the Scriptures are broad, and not broad where the Scriptures are not.  It’s no good citing the broad texts and ignoring the narrow ones, or vice versa — at least not if you have, as you should, a high view of Scripture.  And this brings us to p. 154 in Love Wins: “What he doesn’t say is how or when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him even know that they are coming exclusively through Him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

This is where we need, frankly, to back up the truck and dial down the rhetoric.

First of all, the text in Exodus is not about salvation — it’s about water to a parched group of people who are already God’s people!  This is not about the mysterious salvation of the lost through foreign religions.  Secondly, the use of this text in 1 Cor. 10 is to make the point that, just as the Hebrews had divine benefits (manna, water etc.) from God, these divine benefits didn’t guarantee them salvation any more than the Corinthians were automatically saved because they had partaken of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What Paul is countering here is a magical view of the sacraments and their salvific potential, or lack thereof.  What he is not doing is providing an all-too-modern argument for Jesus as the universal Force by which all persons are saved, whether they’ve heard of Jesus or not.

The chapter had begun with the recounting of various weird conversion experiences.  Yes, there are a lot of those out there.  Most recently, I have been intrigued about Muslims in Muslim countries having dreams of Issah (the Arabic name of Jesus) which alters the way they have thought of him.   Now what is interesting about these accounts is that they are not about some vague divine force changing a human life.  They are Jesus-specific dreams or visions.   There is something essential about knowing who your savior is.  You cannot have a personal relationship with someone whom you do not really know the nature/name of.  And here is the real problem with a chapter like this one.

In numerous places in the NT, and in numerous ways, we are told that it is necessary sooner or later to confess with our lips and believe in our hearts not only that Jesus is the savior, but that God raised him from the dead.  Missions, in the book of Acts, is all about making clear that the mechanism by which salvation happens is repentance, genuine faith in Jesus, and a genuine change of a person’s life so that they become a follower of Jesus.  Paul is equally insistent on this.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot see the prevenient grace of God working in those who are not yet Christians.  Of course we can.  It also doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in some mysterious ways.  Of course he does.  Those who are not opposed to Jesus should not be treated as if they are.

But it does mean that when the Scriptures are specific about the means of salvation, both objectively and subjectively, we should be specific as well.  And it is no help to play the ‘anti-religion’ card at this juncture — namely,  ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a new religion’.  Even if it were true in some sense, it would only be a half-truth.  Jesus did come to be the Way and the Truth and the Life, and no one can come to the Father but by Him.  In Mt. 11 Jesus, using again Wisdom language, makes clear that no one knows the Father except those to whom the Son reveals him.  Apparently we need such revelations from and about the Son, and need to process them and receive them, in order to be saved.  When Paul talks about his own conversion he uses the precise language of God revealing his Son ‘in me’.  This is what happens when conversion happens, and the revelation is specific enough that the person is able to know it is Jesus and respond by naming Jesus whether with lips or in the heart, or both.  Jesus is not some fuzzy divine revelation of love, and love is not some indistinct fuzzy revelation of Jesus.  There is a specificity to all this — Jesus is a name brand, a particular quantity, a knowable and known savior.  And in order to have a relationship with Him, you need to be saved and to know him.

And this is the Good News.  It is the News that has always impelled a proper sense of urgency to missions.  We are to make disciples of all nations,  we are not called to go to all nations and explain that if they are devout people they have always already been disciples of Jesus.  Nope.   A change needs to happen,  a conversion needs to transpire, and a knowing of and belonging to the Lord needs to result.  Jesus did not come into the world, die on the cross, and rise again, just so we can go out and tell the world ‘Don’t worry, be happy, you’re already saved, you just don’t know who did it.  It was an anonymous benefactor who wishes to remain nameless.’   The real Jesus is never satisfied with remaining nameless, and the real reason for that is that salvation is only the means to an end — the end of worshipping the one true God, by name.

Adoniram Judson was a missionary to Burma.  He spent nearly twenty years out there with no converts.  There came a day when one of the tribal chieftains decided he had heard enough about conversion to Jesus, and was going to burn Judson at the stake.  Tied up, and about to be lighted up,  Judson was asked by the chief, ‘What do you think of your god now?’  His memorable reply was  ‘the future is as bright as the promises of God’.  At this point, it was the chief who blinked, and said he would hear more of this Jesus.  That was the day Christianity first broke through the darkness of Burma.  I tell this story to remind us all that the world is lost outside of Christ.  And Christ’s people have an obligation to make him known.   Were the implications of this chapter true,  Adoniram Judson could have been spared twenty years of frustration and hard labor for Christ.  He wouldn’t have had to insist that the Burmese people needed to name the name that is above all names, here in this lifetime.   Thank goodness,  Judson hadn’t drunk the water from some rock other than the Biblical one.

Related links:

Patheos book feature on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Ben Witherington, “And Now, The Case for Permanent Residence in Hell

Timothy Dalrymple, “What Launched the Bell Battle? – Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis

Forward Thinking on “Reading Backwards”– Part Five
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
Man Shoveling Snow in Lexington while Break Dancing
  • http://www.christmyredeemer.wordpress.com Daniel Levy

    Great post, Dr. Witherington.

    Doesn’t Paul make it more than explicit though in Romans 2 that we’re judged on our revelation of God? Thus, is it safe to say that all will be judged the same? Namely, thrown into the lake of fire.

    Furthermore, I figured I’d share a wonderful testimony. I’ve had many first hand experiences with Muslims who have come to Christ in a series of dreams or visions of some sort. I worked at a missionary organization formerly known as Book of Hope (now One Hope).

    But, a beautiful testimony I recently heard was in Jerusalem. Just about a month ago I was in Jerusalem studying abroad for about five weeks and met a man in what’s called the Old City of Jerusalem or the Arab Market (I’m sure you’re familiar with this). He was one of the shop owners who sold antiquities (an official dealer of course) and furthermore, one of the only shop owners who is a Christian. I won’t say his name for safety purposes. Anyway, him and I talked a lot and he opened up to me about his testimony. He told of how he wanted nothing to do with Jesus but that even in his contempt for Jesus, Jesus came to him in a dream. In this dream he was in prison locked up, when Jesus came to him, and began to preach to him from Isaiah 61 and said “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (of course I’m highly doubtful it was from the NIV 2011 version I quoted from). At that moment, Jesus set him free from prison. He awoke, and shortly thereafter became a follower of Jesus. A beautiful story!

    Grace and peace in Him,

  • Joe Giroux

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you very much for your graceful review of Rob’s book. I love Rob dearly (he is a distant cousin of mine), and am happy to see that someone is taking the time to critique his work in a helpful and gracious way. That being said I do have one question for you regarding this chapter’s review. When you speak of there needing to be a confession of the tongue. What would you do with a passage like in Phillipians when Paul says, “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess”? Does it matter when you confess? For example does it have to be before death? If so can you point out either Biblical or extra-Biblical sources that would indicate this? Again, thanks so much for your review! Alot of people are just tearing him to shreds which is not helpful at all.


  • Steve

    Ever since “The Hidden Christ of Hinduism,” I have thought that there’s something condescending about telling the devotee of another faith that it’s really Christ, after all, who stands in the background of his faith. This also seems to reduce interfaith dialogue to the attempt to discover that we’re all saying the same thing–just in different terms. Healthy dialogue, in my thinking, discovers, respects and appreciates the seriousness of authentic differences as much as similarities.

  • Dan

    I agree, Steve,

    Imagine how upset Christians would be if Muslims said ‘you can continue to practice Christianity, because while doing so, you’re following Muhammad. The truth is, you’re saved by Muhammad. You may not realize it today, but eventually you’re figure it out. It may be after you die, but Muhammad is really the one actively changing your life.”

    Really, it’s condescending.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Joe: May I ask you a favor? Could you perhaps ask Rob to read this. I think he will benefit from various of these posts, perhaps most especially the last one which is coming before long.

    To answer your question, Romans 10 seems pretty clear as do the early speeches of Peter in Acts, where he tells them they must verbally repent and believe the Gospel. The whole assumption of the mission engine in the Bible is that we need to reach people before they die. Romans 1 is however clear that ignorance of the Gospel is not the basis of God’s judgment of non-Christians. They will be judged on the basis of what they have done with and how they have responded to the light they have received. This text however goes on to say they have all refused the knowledge of God and exchanged it for a lie, hence the further need for evangelism. I do think Paul in Rom. 11.25 hints that a large number of Jews will turn to Christ when he returns. Perhaps this will be true of others as well.


  • Richard

    Was this a review of Bell’s chapter or an opportunity to express the frustration you have with Christians not being concerned with evangelism? This review seems to be toeing around the label of “pluralist” for Bell without explicitly stating it, which would be unfortunate and inaccurate.

    The contention that the rock in Exodus has nothing to do with salvation because these people are already saved actually reinforces his point that they’re saved through Christ even though none of those Israelites knew Jesus’ name or character. Incidentally, water as salvific has plenty of NT and OT references, it tends to in desert regions.

    Where did the idea of an impersonal force come in? From our culture sure (Bell even references the Star Wars “force”) but not from Bell. After all, he writes, “There is a mystery, something hidden in God, something that has existed and been true and been present with and in, God since before time, and that mystery is a someone… Christ Jesus”

    In my reading of this chapter, Bell, without using the language you use, is expressing what you say in your statement here:

    “This doesn’t mean that we cannot see the prevenient grace of God working in those who are not yet Christians. Of course we can. It also doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in some mysterious ways. Of course he does. Those who are not opposed to Jesus should not be treated as if they are.”

    Same as Athanasius in his treatise “On the Incarnation” or Don Richardson with his “redemptive analogies,” though Don hold there are no redemptive analogies within Islam.

    Your points about the necessity of evangelism and personal conversion are great in and of themselves but I find their presence in this review a bit ironic. Bell has always been, and continues to be in his audience for this work, focused on reaching those outside of the church who have given up on Christ because they gave up on church.

  • Aaron Meares

    Excellent points, Dr. Witherington. In reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of the poor Philippian jailer. It is interesting to note that when he asked Paul and Silas “What must I do to be saved?” they did not respond with, “We cannot say how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions!”
    Great reviews! Thanks!

  • Rich

    Dr. Witherington,
    I would love to hear more of your opinion on Romans 1 and specifically the fate of those who have never heard the gospel. You’ve alluded to the idea that those who have never heard of Christ will be judged based on the light they have received and are therefore not NECESSARILY condemned. Above you state that they are probably condemned if I’m reading you right. I’m preaching a series on heaven and hell and use your writings heavily in my research. Your review of Love Wins has literally been indispensable and I am beyond grateful for your blog and the work that you post on here. Please dive deeper into the question of Romans 1 and the fate of those who haven’t had a chance to respond to the Gospel. I personally hold the idea that God doesn’t automatically condemn those who have never heard of him, and that has been a great evangelism tool. Unchurched folks can deal with that idea, and it is not a stumbling block. Help please :)I also teach High School Bible at a large school and am asked this question several times each semester.

  • rDA


    You say “…they must verbally repent and believe the Gospel…”

    May I ask you a question? How was it that, for example, an American Indian living in 500 AD had a chance to verbally accept Christ if they never heard of him before? And, how is that “fair”?


  • Craig

    Hi Joe,
    You asked, “Does it matter when you confess? For example does it have to be before death?”

    Allow me to pose a question in response: If we do not confess Christ in this life, holding out hope that we can still do so after death, then aren’t we playing an afterlife version of Russian roulette?

  • MWT

    Steve said:
    Ever since “The Hidden Christ of Hinduism,” I have thought that there’s something condescending about telling the devotee of another faith that it’s really Christ, after all, who stands in the background of his faith

    I’m not trying to be snarky, but isn’t it similarly condescending to tell a devotee of another faith that their religion is basically wrong?

  • MWT

    By the way, I’m not advocating pluralism – just making an observation.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    First of all, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and each person will be evaluated on the basis of what they have done with the light they have received, there is no fairness issue involved. Salvation is by grace— it is not a right, or a justice issue in any way. God does not owe any of us a chance to be saved. If you will look at Luke-Acts carefully you will see that pure ignorance is something God takes into account—- ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. Peter in Acts makes the same point about Jews involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. So I assume God always takes our ignorance into account. But no one is lost on the basis of simply not knowing Christ.


  • MWT

    Is Hell a justice issue? Does a person who rejects the light they receive deserve eternal, conscious torment?

  • rDA


    Thanks for your response.

    However, in one post you say one must “…verbally repent and believe the Gospel…”.

    But then you say “…pure ignorance is something God takes into account…” and “…no one is lost on the basis of simply not knowing Christ…”

    It would appear you are saying there may be at least two ways one could be saved: 1) Acknowledging Christ and 2) not acknowledging Christ while in ignorance.

    Could you elaborate or clarify? Thanks.

  • Andy

    @Steve regarding the idea of following Christ unknowingly:

    I agree with you that this idea would likely come across as condescending to people of other faiths. C.S. Lewis suggests the same idea, that of following Jesus without knowing it, in the Last Battle. Though I only vaguely recall his presentation of the idea, I think it is both condescending and wrongheaded.

    At the heart of the Gospel is the news that salvation comes from God, in Jesus, for people who do not deserve it. No one deserves God’s salvation, even those who have knowledge of the true God and try to follow Him. The good news is that God extends grace to us in Jesus even though we are totally undeserving and helpless. So, a person is not and cannot be responsible for their salvation; Jesus alone can save. To suggest that one is responsible for his or her salvation is ‘works-righteousness’ (a failure to understand the Gospel).

    The idea of unknowingly following Christ condones a works-righteousness view of salvation; it makes one’s ‘sincere’ attempt at one’s faith the reason for salvation rather than God’s grace. This misses the Gospel.

  • Joe Giroux

    Dr. Witherington,

    I will pass along your request. He has a facebook page, but I think his brother runs it for him. I am still wondering what you would do with “every knee will bow and every will confess Jesus Christ is Lord to the the glory of God the father.”


    To begin with you cannot answer a question by asking a question. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that asking a fallacious question for lack of better term? To answer your question directly, I am not supposing that we put things off to chance. According to the logic of the typical evangelical Christian if we confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord then we are saved. According to Paul “Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess.” If this is true shouldn’t everyone be saved regardless of whether they confessed in life or in the afterlife? I am not sure that this idea is so far fetched. I haven’t looked at the Greek in this particular passage, but from initial readings that is what I see.

    Grace and Peace,


  • http://Patheos Jennifer

    Dr. Witherington,

    I shook your hand this past Sunday when you spoke in Katy, Texas, and mentioned reading your blog. To be honest, I was not familiar with your work (housewife and Bible Study teacher…not a scholar!), but I am now a fan.

    It was the brouhaha about Rob Bell that drew me to your remarks. Our youth group had used the Nooma videos some years ago when I was working with the kids. At first I liked them, with his emphasis on loving your neighbor and doing the right thing, but over time, it was evident that he looked askance at Biblical orthodoxy and those who espouse it. My main beef was that he never gave God the glory by reminding the viewers that any good we do is because we are made anew in Christ. Jesus was admired for His way of living, not revered for being the Savior.

    Your daily comments are like going to seminary;I love to think and meditate on the Word of God, and look forward to reading your thoughts as well as the many insightful comments by other readers. Thank you.

  • Craig


    Jesus frequently answered a question with a question (e.g. Luke 20:1-4).

    “Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess.” Yes, the question, however, is whether every knee bows willingly or perhaps some begrudgingly. Even demons acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

    Peace, Craig

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi RDA: No, I am not saying there are two ways to be saved. In fact there is only one. Again if you will read Rom. 1.18-32 what Paul says is that though all know the existence and power of God, they do not acknowledge him. And for this, and not for their ignorance of Jesus, they will be judged. They are judged for ignoring God, not for being ignorant of Christ. So no, whether now or later, everyone who wishes to be saved must acknowledge Jesus is Lord. God does not judge us for what we don’t know, but for what we do with what we do know.

    As for every knee will bow, we are talking about the eschatological situation when Christ returns and where everyone will be compelled to admit the truth about Christ whether willingly or unwillingly, because the truth will be transparent to all. Salvation is dependent on not merely knowing but allowing yourself to be transformed by this truth.


  • MWT

    I just returned from hearing Bell speak at a church in Atlanta. He opened with, “Hi, I’m Rob Bell and I’m a heretic.” Needless to say, the audience erupted in laughter.

    There were protesters as I expected. In fact, I had a copy of Love Wins in my hand and one guy shook his head dismissively while looking at me and said, “Going to church with Love Wins but no Bible!” I thought he was going to toss me in the lake of fire. (By the way, it wasn’t a church service – it was a talk and book signing.)

    In the Q&A Bell said the past two weeks have been the hardest of his life. For those of you who vehemently disagree with him, I urge you to ease up. Irrespective of his theology, I firmly believe he’s a dedicated follower of Christ and he deserves a little more compassion.

  • Craig

    I agree that Bell is a dedicated follower of Christ. While I disagree with many of his views regarding Heaven and Hell, I do not condemn him nor call him a heretic.

    However, if these past few weeks have been hard on Bell, he hardly has anyone to blame but himself. No one forced Bell to market his book in such a provocative and confrontational manner. You ask for compassion and I agree. I also hope that Bell and his followers could show a little more compassion to Christians who hold traditional views on Hell by not labeling their views as “toxic” or using other incendiary language.


  • Jeff

    Ben, how do your expressed views about relate to infants and the mentally impaired? They don’t really “know” much of anything and certainly can’t verbally call on the name of Christ. I see nothing in Scripture that directly calls for an “age of accountability” doctrine so popular in churches today. But I have a really hard time believing such people are punished for eternity, even if there’s no Bible verse to tell me such a thing.

    Most people I know, including the people who don’t like this book, are universalists for certain classes of people, such as little children and the mentally impaired. Is this wrong?

  • http://gospelcoalition.com Cliff

    I respect you Dr. Witherington, as a Historian,Theology teacher and a very, very, smart guy. But Rob Bell is and has been distorting the Gospel for a long time now. It’s time for the Evangelistic Pastors to come out and tell the truth, plainly and without any confusion. Rob Bell is a purveyor of Universalism. Listed Below IS HIS OWN CHURCH FAQ’s regarding Love Wins:

    What does Love Wins say about heaven and hell?

    Love Wins recognizes heaven and hell to be realities all around us. We see hell everyday through the atrocities of war, famine, human trafficking, broken relationships, and abuse. We also see heaven all around us through acts of love, kindness, and compassion.
    There is also the reality of heaven and hell in the future. Our ultimate future hope is a restored creation under Christ where God will dwell with us forever on a restored heaven and earth [Rev 21-22]. There are many who accept the invitation of the life of heaven and many who reject the invitation. Those who reject the invitation experience a purifying “fire” of judgment in hell, yet there is hope. We live in the hope that the redemptive work of Christ is beyond what we can ask or imagine. Love Wins helps us have a biblical imagination that leaves room for the hope of the redemption of all while recognizing humanities free will to continue to reject God.

    Does Love Wins promote Universalism?

    No. Rob isn’t suggesting Universalism [all will be saved, regardless of their faith]. He is proposing that God’s love is so big that the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved. Love Wins clearly points to the centrality of Jesus and the work of his life, death, and resurrection and the hope that Christ’s work will bring restoration to all. Jesus is the only way to God. God’s love does not force anyone and there may be those who continue to reject the invitation extended to them. Love Wins often speaks of human freedom [72-73, 103-104, 113, 115, 117]. Rob shares, “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” [113]

    “Love Wins helps us have a biblical imagination that leaves room for the hope of the redemption of all while recognizing humanities free will to continue to reject God.”

    This is strange, where is Jesus? Where is the Crucifixion? Where is the Resurrection?

    “He is proposing that God’s love is so big that the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved.”

    This statement is the simplest form of universalism one can every see. “Proposing God’s love may extend into the next life, so that all could be saved” ????

    Again the question SCREAMS to be said Where is MY JESUS? Where is MY LORD”S SUFFERING? WHERE IS MY LORD”S RESURRECTION? Sadly, no where. We can, according to Bell, live a life of total disobedience to God, and then rely on Jesus to save us when we leave our mortal bodies and our souls meet Christ. Please, scream this from the rooftops, tell your neighbors, this is no time to be soft, and warm, and fuzzy about the rejection of the Crucifixition.

    Jude writes so apropiatly for this situation :

    ” I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend for the faith which was once and for all handed down to the saints”. Jude 1:3

    This madness needs to be condemned loudly.
    Contend for the Faith! Let no one say that there is any other way to Heaven except through the glorious grace and redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Craig

    I suggest you read the FAQ more closely.

    1. Jesus is there (“the only way to God”)
    2. Jesus’ death and resurrection is implied (“the redemptive work of Christ”)
    3. The reality of Hell is affirmed (“recognizing humanities free will to continue to reject God,” and “we can have all the hell we want”)
    4. You state, “Let no one say that there is any other way to Heaven except through the glorious grace and redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Rob Bell would agree with you here!
    5. I also disagree with Bell’s position of Universal Restorationism, but distorting his views is not helpful.

  • MWT


    Many people who disagree with Bell resort to really unseemly tactics – like picketing his speaking events or tweeting rude, snarky comments. I have yet to see a Bell supporter do something equivalent. Debating ideas is well and good, but personal attacks aren’t, especially among fellow Christians.

    As for Bell’s strong language, I have no problem with it. When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she was not a Christian. A big reason was she was told many times and very forcefully that she and her family would burn in Hell for eternity. Sadly, she isn’t alone in having experienced that type of Christian witness / theology. If that isn’t toxic, I don’t know what is.


  • Jeremy

    Dr. Witherington. Thank you for these posts. I have read the book and I share your concerns. Unfortunately, everyone assumes that anyone who criticizes this book has either never read it AND/OR is a mean Calvinist. I am a Calvinist (though I try not to be mean!), and I am thankful for Arminians who are willing to thoughtfully and respectfully deal with the issues raised in this book. It is clearly not just about Calvinism. Bell is challenging the beliefs of all evangelical Christians. I do think he is a true Christian who means well, but he needs constructive criticism (like these posts) and he needs to wrestle with these biblical passages more carefully with a more open mind. He seems to see what he wants to see and ignore the rest. We all have that temptation when we read the Bible. But pastors are held to a higher standard. I am praying for Rob. He’s very gifted and I pray that God helps him see his errors.

  • Luke Allison

    “I have yet to see a Bell supporter do something equivalent. Debating ideas is well and good, but personal attacks aren’t, especially among fellow Christians.”

    Just for the sake of argument, isn’t Rob’s entire book a little bit snarky and sarcastic about the beliefs of traditional-minded Christians?
    I for one could care less about the Hell question (I lean towards a more conservative inclusivism, myself, and I don’t think Rob is a universalist), but care very deeply for the theological and hermeneutical problems in the book. The exegesis is alarmingly shallow and remarkably narrow. I can’t believe that someone as intelligent as Rob doesn’t realize what he’s done.

    It’s interesting to remember back when Rob did his “Everything is Spiritual Tour”, my brother (a rocket scientist) and a couple of his buddies from Stanford went and attended the show. In the midst of it, they heard Rob make some rather serious scientific errors. The format was, as my brother described it, “lecture as pop art form” or something like that. That is, he portrayed himself as a lecturing professor, but had zero interaction with the crowd.

    Afterward, my brother thought it would be helpful to send him a list of some of the rather blaring scientific errors, since he is a big fan of his and would like to see him succeed. The letter was not snarky, but extremely friendly….more like a gentle “fyi”.
    There was never a response from Rob’s people, and the show went on. Not only that, but the DVD came out a few months later without any of the errors fixed. Seriously? I seem to have found a similar letter written by an astrophysicist raising similar points not to long ago as well.

    Now, I don’t think Rob is ignorant (I’m absolutely positive he’s not, actually). So why would he write something as exegetically sloppy as Love Wins? Why wouldn’t he change errors that could make him look less than careful to brainy PhD types?

  • Kyle

    Arminian Exclusivists (the view that all persons since Christ must hear the explicit Gospel in this life to be saved) have an intractable conundrum on their hand. BWIII says that those who have not heard of Jesus are not condemned for their ignorance. Fair enough; I agree. He then states that they are condemned for not responding positively to the light that they have – which, we are told, nobody does.

    But the question invariably arises: though of course everyone is guilty of transgressing the law on some level, is it possible for the unevangelized to respond to the light and prevenient grace of God, repent, exercise implicit faith, and be saved without hearing the Gospel? If the answer is No, then Exclusivism essentially becomes geographical Calvinistic election, with the unevangelized having no chance to respond positively to grace and be saved. If the answer is Yes, then we have embraced a form of Inclusivism.

    I also personally do not believe the missions engine of the NT is based upon the assumption that unless people hear of Jesus before they die, they necessarily go to hell. I think there are many other reasons motivating evangelism in the NT, and I honestly don’t think the NT addresses the question of the fate of the unevangelized. Consider: even if we were all perfectly obedient to the Great Commission, it would have been impossible to go out from 1st century Palestine and reach the entire world by the time everyone died. So on this view, God providentially arranged things such that some people cannot possibly have a chance to be saved. Arminian Exclusivism winds up collapsing into a kind of geographical unconditional election, no matter how you slice it. This is why churches like the RCC, and Wesley himself, embraced Inclusivism. They understood that it was a far better inference from the biblical data than Exclusivism.

  • Cliff Walling

    “He is proposing that God’s love is so big that the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved.”

    Sure the right words are there, but just below the surface lurks the false doctrine of sweet evil. many people will come to this doctrine, just because it solves the problem of their loved one who did not accept Christ, and has passed on. Their hope will be false, and Bell will have to answer for this with God.

    This is His Church Doctrine! How many thousands of people will be lead astray by the man? Am I speaking to the wall, or have the true Christians settled back with their cup of tea, cozy chair, and pipe, while thousands of Christians worldwide are being martyred for the real faith. Yes ,the faith that Rob Bell denies!

    His faith, unless he refutes it is simply put, God cannot be such a loving God that He would condemn you for not believing that His son died for your sins. That is wrong my Christian Brothers and Sisters, you know it in your heart. you know it. It’s time to take a stand and contend for the faith. An Indian Missionary recently stated that if this book makes it’s way to the Mission field it will be a disaster.

    I pray for the Church to wake up and stop the loving banter back and forth, and let Rob Bell know in no uncertain terms that, Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, not after you have left your body, but before when it really matters.

    Mark Driscoll responds beautifully:
    “Let me say it clearly, … plainly, … loudly: You are in danger. Without Jesus, you go to hell,” the Reformed pastor told thousands at Mars Hill Church this past weekend.

    Driscoll was preaching from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke – a New Testament book that he has been going over for the past year and a half with his church. But what made the sermon even more timely and that much more urgent was the recent debate on hell in light of the release of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Grandville, Mich., pastor Rob Bell.

    Sola Scriptura.

  • Hermann

    Dr. Witherington,

    I would love to know where the Judson stoy is from!



  • Accelerated

    Ben, this is apparently your opportunity to speak of your writings, Jesus the Sage. Again, you focus on the presumed negative statements of Bell rather than engaging with compassion, let alone understanding, about what he may be saying.

  • Accelerated

    What Bell does say in this chapter is “What he doesn’t say is how or when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him even know that they are coming exclusively through Him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

    If this is intended to mean something positive rather than negative, what could it be? (that concept is precluded by your reactive responses, Ben).

    Could it be that: perhaps His transforming love will include everyone who lives in accordance with the reality of God as manifest in Jesus the Christ as reflected in their capacity to believe, think, feel, imagine and act in accordance with God’s loving will–adjusting for history, culture, family, individual experiences and whatever else He chooses?

    Love wins because, in His infinite wisdom, he gives us the choice not only to love, but also to reject Christ. That love wins is actually ironic, because allowing us to reject Christ (hell), is an act of love, and of course, there are those who do (as Bell states). Perhaps the point is, we (you nor I) do not get to choose those who will be saved, and if you (or I) try to put your limits on God and his salvivic power, that is neither love or good theology, but something very Pharisaically wrong.

  • Sean

    The problem with Rob Bell is not just simply what he believes BUT how he gets there.
    Here’s another review of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.