For whom the Bell Tolls…… Chapter Eight: Coda

If you were to actually begin reading Love Wins with the very last chapter, you would quickly see why I have said the book deserves to be evaluated primarily as a poetic expression of Rob’s faith.   It is not an exercise in detailed exegesis or systematic theology any more than the psalms (songs) should be evaluated as systematic theology.    While I agree that the underlying theological assumptions and assertions in this book are fair game for close analysis and critique,  you would be missing the point if that is all you do.    Love, in the end, will not crawl under a microscope and submit to sterile scientific analysis.   Thank goodness.   God’s love for all of us of course could hardly be summed up in even all the books in the world.

Rob believes God’s love wins because he has experienced it win in his own life, and here we have his testimony of when he prayed the sinner’s prayer as a child and received Christ.  He’s not in any way going back on that.   What he believes he is doing is going forward with a broader and better understanding of God’s love and how vast, dynamic, and persistent it is.  Doesn’t the Bible say ‘love never fails’?    Rob dreams a big dream of God getting what God wants in the life of all his creatures, except perhaps those who persist forever in rejecting it.

But Rob thinks we should see it as the very nature of a God who is love to keep trying, even post mortem,  until Hell is empty, so to speak.   It is in some ways a beautiful and romantic notion,  but it definitely isn’t what the Bible teaches on this subject, because as Rob knows,  love can be refused, and it is, every day.   This is love’s tragedy rather than love’s triumph, and the Bible is about both frankly.   What we do need to say is that when the tragedy happens,  it is not for lack of effort on God’s part, and it is not God’s highest and best will for any of us,  nor is it God’s fault.

Though Rob Bell does not tell this story, he easily could have to end this book, the story of  Frederick Martin Lehman (1868-1953).    Lehman was a Nazarene pastor in Indiana and Illinois who was actually born in Germany.   At some point, he came across a Jewish acrostic poem from the Middle Ages, which is what inspired the third verse of the hymn quoted below.  Lehman appears not to have been the only person moved by this poem for the lyrics of that third stanza were once found inscribed on the padded walls of an insane asylum, written there by an inmate in a moment of lucidity, and presumably in a moment of communion with a loving God.  This unknown Jewish man in an insane asylum was apparently the actual author of that beautiful final stanza.  Here is some of the story,  and the lyrics to Lehman’s hymn (who BTW helped found the Nazarene Publishing House).

This beloved gospel hymn has its roots in a Jewish poem, written in Germany in the eleventh century, Frederick M. Lehman, the twentieth-century author and composer, wrote a pamphlet, in 1948, entitled “History of the Song, The Love of God.”  Portions of Mr. Lehman’s account are as follows: ‘While at camp meeting in a mid-western state, some fifty years ago in our early ministry, an evangelist climaxed his message by quoting the last stanza of this song.  The profound depths of the lines moved us to preserve the words for future generations. Not until we had come to California did this urge find fulfillment, and that at a time when circumstances forced us to hard manual labor.  One day, during short intervals of inattention to our work, we picked up a scrap of paper and, seated upon an empty lemon box pushed against the wall, with a stub pencil, added the (first) two stanzas and chorus of the song. …Since the lines (3rd stanza from the Jewish poem) had been found penciled on the wall of a patient’s room in an insane asylum after he had been carried to his grave, the general opinion was that this inmate had written the epic in moments of sanity.

The key-stanza  then (Third verse) under question as to its authorship was written nearly one thousand years ago by a Jewish songwriter, and put on the scorepage by F. M. Lehman, a Gentile songwriter, in 1917.  The Jewish poem, Hadamut, in the Aramaic language, has ninety couplets.  The poem is in form of an acrostic, with the author’s name woven into the concluding verses.  It was composed, in the year 1096, by Rabbi Mayer, son of Isaac Nehorai, who was a cantor in the city of Worms, Germany.  The poem may be broken down into two parts.

  The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.

  • O love of God, how rich and pure!
    How measureless and strong!
    It shall forevermore endure
    The saints’ and angels’ song.

  When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

  Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

This is precisely what Rob has tried to do in this book.   To go beyond the cynicism and sarcasm of our age, and plumb the depths of the deep ocean of God’s love.    He has not always expressed himself as wisely or cautiously as he should have,  but frankly, this is what happens with a lover.   Rob himself is a lover, like God, and he is groping for terms and phrases big enough to describe God’s love.

Have you ever listened to lover’s talk?    They make it sound like their beloved is clearly the best thing God ever created!     In this book Rob stretches out to make clear God himself is the most loving being in the universe.    I agree with Rob— God is.     And it is precisely because that is the way God is, and love is freely given and freely received,  that God, like all of us, experiences both love’s triumph and joy when a single lost person is saved, and the angels begin to dance in heaven,  and love’s tragedy,  when a lost one prefers their lostness over being found by such a Holy Lover.   If you have any doubt at all about God being the greatest lover of all,  let me remind you here as I close of a passage from Hosea 11—-

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.

5 “Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
6 A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
7 My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.

8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
9 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
10 They will follow the LORD;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.

This is indeed the God of the Bible,  but in the end, not all of God’s prodigals do come home when Aslan roars.  And no one suffers more from that loss, than God himself.

Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
Uncommon Sense— Part One
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Kingsman– The Secret Service
  • Luke Allison

    Dr. Witherington,

    Has Rob contacted you or responded to these reviews in any way? I get the sense that he’s scoffing a bit at his critics, or at least caricaturing them based on his last sermon. I’m assuming he wouldn’t do that with you, but has he given what you’ve said any thought?

  • ben witherington

    No Luke, he has not contacted me, but I have had an exchange with his cousin and asked him to have Rob read the review. We will see.


  • JM

    Thank you for showing the world what a truly generous, yet rigorous, critique should look like. I wish the Gospel Coalition crowd would take note and make a more conscious effort to mirror the attitude displayed in your reviews of Love Wins. May we ALL continue to mirror the love of God, even when correcting or reproving our fellow disciples!


  • Pamela

    Thanks for a nice, balanced review. I have recommended your coverage as the best I have seen.

  • Mike Taylor


    All your reviews of Rob Bell’s book have been excellent but this last post was just what I think we needed to hear. It’s easy to be critical of others when they’re off base. But you also point out what Rob gets right and, especially in this post, where his heart is. He is a brother who deeply loves the LORD. Judgement is coming and it is final. The Bible is repeatedly clear about that and we need to be reminded of that truth. But thank you for being gracious and showing, at least to me, what it looks like to say the truth in love.

  • Sandy

    Thank you for this last post. It was beautiful and so true!! The book called forth the lover in me and this last chapter was powerful. Your story of the song just added to the impact. Thanks for sharing it.

  • David

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you for the full review. For my reading of Bell’s book I used your reviews to help supplement what Bell was describing. All red flags that you demonstrated helped me sift through the material. There are things indeed that need to be highly questioned, but that also leaves things that Bell hits on that are very well worth carrying on with. I think his examples of people choosing hell or heaven in their actions is profound, that it may have been better for the one man to gouge his eyes out than destroy his marriage. My biggest take away from Bell’s book is the weight of the freedom that God has given us and how I cannot reconcile preaching of Jesus but not living of Jesus. I come away with Bell’s plea to embrace God’s love as my continuing motivational factor to live for Jesus and not just have empty words, like “Lord, Lord.”

    Thank you then Dr. Witherington, for describing Holy Love. And this final post in particular really struck a chord with me, Hosea 11 is a passage that has left a great impression on me when I came across it about a year ago. And the hymn is a recent favorite of mine, redone by the band Ascend the Hill. Here is a link to the song:

    Grace and Peace,

  • Greg Van Dussen

    Thanks Ben – you’ve been very generous in what you’ve said about Rob Bell and his book, and also very clear about why universalism can be well motivated and inadequate to describe the implications of human freedom. The angry, legalistic, punishing God some people believe to be the only alternative to Bell’s vision, is an opponent of straw that needed to be identified as such and put in proper perspective.

  • Gerry Breshears

    This is excellent work. I appreciate the heart that loves the love of the LORD but also hears how He expresses Himself. Bell’s assumtion that God gets what He wants is the point at issue, it seems to me. Simply stated, He does not. He didn’t in Eden and won’t in Revelation. If one is Calvinist the resolution is some sort of compatibilism. If one is more Wesleyan-Arminian the resolution will be some sort of giving of autonomy in favor of human personhood. But in any case, we will take the love of the LORD who came to us in Jesus to every rebelling person because His death, resurrection, exaltation encourages and empowers our love.

  • Roger McCort

    Ben -

    Thank you for taking the time to make a detailed review of this book and the many others you do. I always appreciate your scholarship and insights and value your opinion.

    Next I’ll catch up on your posts about “Forged” and decide if there is value in reading it now or if one of the hundreds of other books on my “to read” list will take its place.

  • Accelerated

    You finally dial in to Bell’s message here. You do your own assertions first, rather than affirm the purpose of Bell’s book and his own assertions, thereby invalidating his main message and supportng all criticisms of him: “In this book Rob stretches out to make clear God himself is the most loving being in the universe.” I guess if you can’t agree with someone elses’s ability to express truth, you can criticize them, and claim it as your own–yikes, Ben.

  • Paul d’Aoust

    A beautiful critical review of Rob Bell’s book. After the last chapter, I was quite confused by exactly what Rob Bell believes, because it seems like he things hell exists in heaven, etc. Quite baffling! But your comment about him not always expressing himself as wisely or cautiously as he should have is very charitable, and demonstrates that you see him as being on on fire for God and wanting to promote this beautiful idea of a God we can actually trust and want to share with others… and his scholarly gaps are merely the result of his poetic passion for God.

    Thank you!