More response to Love Wins and the controversy surrounding it

This is a guest post written by one of my students–Austin Fischer.  As you can see, he’s particularly bright (and not just because he agrees with me about most things!) and articulate.  I think he makes some very good points about the controversy surrounding Love Wins here.  However, just because I post a guest essay here does not mean I agree with everything in it (the standard disclaimer!)

Love Wins? God Wins? 


            As has been duly noted at this point, Love Wins has sparked a firestorm in the evangelical world because it has exposed some deep fissures. These fissures have been around as long as evangelicals have but certainly seem to be growing. In a lecture on universalism, Scot McKnight suggested that evangelicals have reacted with such vitriol towards the book because it threatens the very heart of the evangelical ethos, which (according to McKnight) is the belief that people need to be converted. As such, Rob Bell’s flirtation with universalism has threatened the importance of conversion and thus incurred the wrath of evangelicalism.

            Yet McKnight’s contention seems to make two questionable assumptions. First, it assumes there is a blanket evangelical rejection of the ideas in Love Wins. Second, it assumes that those evangelicals who are rejecting Love Wins are rejecting it for the same reasons.

Why Can’t We Agree On What Love Wins Is Saying?

            The first assumption is problematic on a couple of levels. First off, it seems implausible to say there is a blanket rejection of the ideas in Love Wins because there has been little consensus as to what exactly Love Wins is saying. There is an interesting dynamic at work here, because—to speak candidly—Love Wins is not a complex book. It’s not hard to follow and it doesn’t use big words. Bell doesn’t write sentences longer than six words. He writes. Like. This. So why can’t we come to a consensus on what Love Wins is saying? How can some people think the book teaches universalism and some think it doesn’t?

The answer is exceedingly simple: we’re not good readers. And the fact that we’re not good readers has nothing to do with inadequate education or IQ. It has everything to do with a growing trend in evangelical (and perhaps wider) culture towards sectarianism and the loss of moderation. Lots could be said here, but suffice to say there are fewer and fewer people trying to be in the center anymore. The center is seen as a weak place, a place lacking conviction, a place where the cowards huddle together and try not to offend anyone.

Not too long ago I was talking with a pastor about being a “moderate” Christian and he rebuked the very existence of such a thing: “When it comes down to it, I don’t think there are any moderates.” Hmm. When I asked him to substantiate the claim, his answer was telling: “Because even moderates are passionate about some things.” Apparently, a moderate is a person who isn’t passionate about anything…except everybody being happy. This moderate caricature is as pervasive as it is inaccurate. And while I don’t care to offer a full-blown definition of what it means to be a Christian moderate, I think it is helpful to say that to be moderate is to be passionately committed to meaningful conversations in pursuit of the truth. To be a moderate means you check the impulse to caricature, distort, talk over, and assume you know what someone else is saying. As such you can be a conservative moderate or a liberal moderate, a Calvinist moderate or an Open Theist moderate. Whatever.

We’re not good readers because we’re not good at being moderate. We don’t really want to listen to opposing ideas and we don’t want a real conversation. We think “we” have the truth and “they” don’t, so why have a conversation? Bluntly, if we find it difficult to have an actual conversation then it’s probably because we’re arrogant and ignorant, not informed.

So why can’t we come to a consensus on what Love Wins is saying? Because we don’t want to hear what it is saying. We just want to use it as a springboard into a monologue about why we’re right.

What Is Love Wins Saying?

This said, what is Love Wins saying? Like I said, it’s simple and really not that much different from what people such as C.S. Lewis, Moltmann, and Hans Urs von Balthasar have said; namely, in the end we can’t say anything too firm about the destiny of human beings other than the fact that God will do what God wants with us. Bell speculates over what God does indeed plan to do with us (i.e. giving us all eternity to allow God to save us…a flirtation with universalism) and that speculation is certainly fair grounds for conversation and criticism. Indeed a moderate would encourage such! But the fact that so few grasp this clear, simple thesis of the book is a sad indictment of the current evangelical climate. Like I said, we’re not good readers.

The second problem with the assumption is that there simply hasn’t been a blanket evangelical rejection of Love Wins. Some evangelicals agree with most, if not all, the book. This leads us to an examination of the second assumption: Are all evangelicals rebuking Love Wins for the same reasons?

Why is Love Wins Rejected?

            The second assumption—that all evangelicals are rebuking Love Wins because it questions the need for conversion—is problematic because evangelicals are so diverse. The primary example of this is seen in the variously labeled neo-Puritan/neo-Calvinist branch of evangelicalism, characterized by the theology of Jonathan Edwards (especially as articulated by John Piper), the preaching of Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, Tim Keller, and the influence of Al Mohler and company. To state the obvious, this branch of evangelicalism holds as fundamental numerous beliefs that stand in direct antithesis to any “free-will” branch of evangelicalism. As such, it should come as no surprise that while free-will and Calvinist evangelicals might both rebuke Love Wins, they don’t do it for the same reasons.

            My contention is that neo-Calvinist evangelicalism doesn’t rebuke Love Wins because it undermines conversion (I mean what could undermine conversion more than unconditional election!?), but because it doesn’t teach Calvinism. To put it another way, they are not rejecting Love Wins so much as they are rejecting anything that is not Calvinism.

            This is blatantly obvious if you’ve read any of the numerous books written in response to Love Wins, many of which are written by neo-Calvinists. Now to be clear, I’m not criticizing them for writing a response. That’s the moderate way! But what they and many others fail to perceive is that most of the ideas they critique in Love Wins are not critiques of universalism but of any sort of free-will theism. They are not criticizing universalism but basic free-will theism.

God Wins: A Case Study

            An excerpt from God Wins by Mark Galli[1] is helpful: “What is assumed in…Love Wins is that the human will is free, autonomous, and able to choose between alternatives. [Love Wins] assumes that the will is not fallen, that it needs no salvation, that it doesn’t even need help” (71). A number of things jump out. First, where does Love Wins assume that the human will is not fallen and does not need help? This is a massive indictment and if it were true then I would assume all free-will theists would join in the indictment. But where is it? Page number? Nope. See the above section on being bad readers.

            A second thing that jumps out is the lack of an acknowledgement of a mediating position; namely, that while the human will is naturally “turned in on itself” with a propensity towards evil, the grace (prevenient) of God heals our fallen will so that we can actually choose for God or against God. This idea—that prevenient grace heals our fallen will to the point that we can indeed make a decision for or against God—is not universalism. It is classical free-will theism, the predominant Christian understanding of the relationship between human will and divine grace for two thousand years (see Against Calvinism by Dr. Roger Olson for substantiation of this claim).

Does God Give Us What We Want?

            Related to this is Galli’s critique of Bell’s central assertion in Love Wins: in the end, God gives us what we want. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis suggests that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. That is, those who end up in hell are there because they wanted hell and not because God was keeping them out of heaven. God has forgiven everyone (or made forgiveness possible for everyone) through the cross so that salvation, redemption, and reconciliation are possible for every last person and thing in the cosmos. In my view, all Bell does is pick up this line of thought. It’s not universalism. Lewis was clearly not a Universalist and believed many would indeed choose hell (especially the theologians!). It is, I think, a fair and plausible explanation of what Scripture tells us about God and his purposes for the world.

            But according to Galli, the idea that God gives us what we want would be “very bad news” (because he mistakenly dismisses the notion of prevenient grace wherein our wills can be healed so that we can indeed want God), and on top of that it’s unbiblical. He tries to substantiate his claim by citing all the texts that talk about how we’re slaves to sin, insinuating they prove God doesn’t give us what we want because all we would want is sin. In doing so he makes the glaring mistake of failing to acknowledge the basic free-will explanation of such passages. At the risk of monotony, free-will theism holds that we are indeed enslaved by sin but by God’s grace our will is healed so that we can indeed make a decision for God. In other words, according to free-will theism, God does indeed give us what we want, granting us the grace so that we can make a decision for or against God.

            Along these lines, to say that the idea that God gives us what we want is unbiblical is, to a free-will theist, itself unbiblical. I would argue that every single time Scripture admonishes us to repent or perish, to do evil or good, to obey God or disobey, to follow or not to follow Jesus, it is telling us that God gives us what we want. And to put it mildly, there are a lot more verses in the Bible about this than there are about our will being fallen, though both are true and easily reconciled by free-will theism.

Seen in this light, I think God giving us what we want is one of the most foundational and often-revealed truths in the Bible. It doesn’t necessitate some mushy sentimentalism in which God exists to serve our every need and wouldn’t criticize Hitler for beating the Virgin Mary. Nope. It just means that our God’s peculiar way of dealing with his creation is not to give it what it deserves. Rather it is for him to take what we deserve upon himself, up to the cross and down into the grave to ensure that none of us have to get what we deserve. We can get what we deserve if we so choose, but we don’t have to. And God doesn’t do this because he has to. He does it because he wants to, which is the great mystery we call love. Love wins? Yep. God wins? Yep.


            So what does Love Wins say? I think it says that in the end the only thing we can be sure of is that God will do whatever he wants with us, and that Jesus and the Bible teach us that what God wants to do with us is let us have what we want. In other words, in the end God lets us choose between heaven and hell. That sounds pretty orthodox to me. Now to be sure, Bell does flirt with universalism, so fire away with criticism at that. But the problem is that lots of the “evangelical” criticism isn’t that Bell teaches universalism: it’s that he doesn’t teach Calvinism.

            So if the problem with Love Wins is it teaches that God graciously gives us the chance to choose between heaven and hell, then I think evangelicals should have a problem with those who have a problem with Love Wins. In the end, God does give us what we want. I can’t think of anything more evangelical…or biblical.

[1] I should note that I don’t know Galli’s theological presuppositions. Indeed at points he seems to affirm free-will theism (see his response metaphor on 73-74). To me he appears to be either a confused/inconsistent free-will theist or a confused/inconsistent Calvinist.

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  • I read this quote recently and I think it summarizes your ideas well – ‘It’s easier to hold an extreme position at one end of a doctrinal spectrum than it is to hold the biblical tension.’

    I think this may prove to be one of the primary reasons why Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ was rejected by so many Evangelicals – they lack the basic ability to hold the tension inherent in so much of our theological ideas. They believe that certainty is the only way to believe and anything that falls outside of this is to be rejected and/or held suspect. We need to move beyond this.


  • Blake

    Great stuff. My compliments to Austin.

  • “I mean what could undermine conversion more than unconditional election!?”

    I don’t understand this. I am an Arminian and even I understand that UE is a doctrine that *guarantees* conversion. How could it undermine it?

    • rogereolson

      I will allow Austin to respond if he wishes to, but in the meantime… Some critics of Calvinism would say it tends to make conversion unnecessary because, as some Calvinists put it, they were saved the moment Jesus died on the cross. I recently heard a Calvinist declare that he was saved then–when Jesus died for him.

      • This is the kind of thing the “logical necessities” of Calvinism leads to. “If this, then this”. It can go very strange places, like the continuing controversies on paedo-communion within the reformed community. You can wake up and find yourself in places you didn’t mean to be.

    • I believe he means something along the line that if Universalism undermines conversion, so does UE, for they both coerce someone to be converted… in other words, the sinner has no part in it.

  • Scot McKnight


    Good points and a good discussion. I’ll avoid rehearsing what I like and zero in on three observations:

    First, I’m not sure I said there was a blanket evangelical rejection of Bell’s book, but I’d be close to that. There was, then, a widespread rejection of the book. I don’t know how we can prove such things, but that is my perception. A number of letters came to me by associate pastors who told me they were being told to “declare their colors on Rob Bell.”

    And of course part of what you are saying depends on what you mean by “evangelicalism,” and I tend to define it more narrowly than most rather than embracingly. For example, it makes no sense to me to say someone is an “evangelical” Catholic; I don’t think Michael Horton wants to be called “evangelical” in the popular sense; I see no reason to call Brian McLaren an evangelical; and I think Rob Bell is pushing the boundaries. (I’ll avoid discussing where I fit on that question.)

    I’m willing to live with this ambiguity: what one person calls evangelical another person might not. That means where I see a widespread evangelical rejection you might not see i as widespread.

    But it seems you slide into that we don’t know what Bell was saying. True in some ways, but I don’t think it is all that ambiguous what he is arguing.

    Second, I haven’t read Mark Galli’s book yet … I saw some of it earlier. So I want to avoid that discussion, but the one thing I observed in the furor after the book came out — on the part of Calvinists — was the absence of what I would call distinctly Calvinist arguments. Galli does bring in the free will stuff, and the libertarian free theory at work in Bell is obvious and pervasive, but I saw none of this in the furor — and I mentioned that very point in the lectures at Truett.

    Third, on your point about all disagreeing on the same point. Well, yes and no. I did lay out some responses but said I didn’t think they explained the furor. (Remember I was after why this book got so much heat.) So I don’t think everyone responded on the same grounds. But I do think his combination of flirting with universalism and postmortem opportunity cuts the ground out from under evangelicalism’s specific identity-marker: it’s emphasis on a conversion experience in this life. Bell calls that into question, and it is my suggestion why the book drew the heat it did.

    On te very last point, well I think you’re fudging: it’s not just that God gives folks what they want, which is somewhat evangelical (but not Calvinistic), but that God continues to offer that in the postmortem condition. That’s enough to create liminality for the existence of evangelicalism.

    • Austin Fischer

      Dr. McKnight,
      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I immensely enjoyed the lectures and am grateful Truett was able to have you.

      I agree with much of what you said, particularly the acknowledgement of a certain opaqueness to the evangelical rejection of Bell’s book. I can understand your perception that there was a fairly blanket rejection of it by evangelicals, and as you noted, our differing perceptions on it have much to do with how we define evangelical. A little difference makes a big difference.

      The latent issue at work in much of this is the growing influence of what you called the neo-Puritan branch of evangelicalism. In my opinion, the loudest and most influential rejections of Love Wins (i.e. God Wins by Galli, Erasing Hell by Frances Chan, tweets from John Piper) have been from this branch, and this is indicative of a growing trend wherein it appears the neo-Puritan branch is subtly pushing free-will theism out of evangelicalism. Maybe we’re just reading different stuff, but most of the reaction against the book I’ve seen has been rooted in Calvinistic theology that has been inauspiciously disguised as “orthodox evangelicalism”. I think there is a clear parallel here in the neo-Puritan rejection of open theism, wherein many of the accusations aimed at labeling open theism a heresy are really just accusations against free-will theism. Dr. Olson has made this point.

      I think a good discussion is warranted in regards to whether or not belief in a postmortem opportunity for conversion can have a place in evangelicalism. Personally (and I think this gets to the heart of things), if neo-Puritanism can have a place in evangelicalism (and I think it should), then I don’t see how we can deny a place to postmortem opportunity. As I alluded to, I think the doctrine of unconditional election does far more to undermine the necessity of conversion than the possibility of a postmortem opportunity.

      If I fudged on the last point (and I certainly might have because I had numerous problems with Love Wins and thus might have projected what I wish he had said onto what he actually said…but I think it was a small fudge), it was for this reason. If neo-Puritanism is evangelical, then so is belief in the possibility of a postmortem opportunity. In my opinion at least.

  • So, where does Austin plan to pastor? I think I could learn and grow under his pastorate.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know, but I will say I think it will be a fortunate church.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Thanks for posting this! Interesting read.

  • James Petticrew

    This is very good. Well written, well argued and cogent in it’s conclusion. I look forward to hearing a lot more from it’s author. In fact I suggest he does a Phd at Edinburgh just so I can buy him coffee and enjoy “moderate” conversations with him. Thank you so much.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I think many Evangelicals dislike the book is because they see R Bell painting them as “Older Brothers”. This is unfair in many ways, but fair in enough to make them mad at him for pointing this out.

  • The other option per Galli’s position is that he is not confused. He just wants to keep his options open, which is safer and allows criticism of all. It is the besetting burden of those who write for evangelical journals and allows writers to be in all camps at the same time. I found his article decidely unhelpful because he wouldn’t come into the center of the ring. You don’t know from which bush he is shooting at you.

  • Scott Gay

    And I believe that the fear of antinomianism needs to be mentioned. This is a fissure that is always around when prevenient grace is submitted. In plain english, free will in the conversion process leads to a subsequent permissive society. Not saying I agree, just saying it’s part of this dialogue.

    • rogereolson

      I disagree (of course). It’s Calvinism that has been accused of leading to antinomianism more than Arminianism. After all, if one believes he or she is selected by God for salvation unconditionally, why strive to live a godly life? Oh, sure, out of gratitude, but, realistically (given our continuing sinfulness), how much does that really work?

      • Sjoerd de Boer

        Dr. Olson,

        Your rethoric questions to ridicule Calvinism are really tasteless, while your first statement cries out to be substantiated, which (of coarse you do not do). Can it be possible that the ones who have accused Calvinists more of antinomianism than Arminians, are actually the latter ones? Sometimes you give me the impression that you esteem yourself above any reproach, but you do not seem to realize that many of the balls you kick, bounce back into you own goal. If obedience through gratefulness does not really work and UE would in your opinion inevitably lead to antinomianism, than you imply that obedience only then really works when you can earn your salvation. Is that how Arminianism works? But I thought you assured the public that Arminianism is all about grace. Can you then please explain what grace means in Arminian theology? And if you speak of your own experience that obedience by gratefulness does not work, can you explain what other motivation does work to avoid both antinomianism and legalism?

        • rogereolson

          I think I have explained that in some detail in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. And I don’t recall ever saying anywhere that obedience by gratefulness doesn’t work. I only object to those who claim that Arminianism leads to righteousness by works by pointing out that many have criticized Calvinism as leading to antinomianism. Neither accusation sticks. Both sides need to play fair with their challenges. My experience is that in recent years, it is mainly the Calvinists who are “out there” caricaturing Arminianism.

  • Steve Rogers

    Conversion to what? A sin free life? No one I’ve met. Loving neighbor and enemy? Hard to find among militaristic, xenophobic evangelicals. Simple, sacrificial living? Not very evident among materialistic middle class “American Dream” pursuers. Conversion to the authority and control of religious “leaders” and their dogmas? Too often, YES. Over this I earnestly pray that love wins.

  • Bob Brown

    I agree that Bell’s book is a ‘threat’ to firmly entrenched traditional beliefs. I think Austin does a service in pointing out that Calvinists will throw rocks because of ‘free will Theisim’. I would also point out that the doctrine of an ever burning hell where sinners are burning forever has many traditional objectors in both the Calvinist and Arminian camps. It’s too bad that Bell’s book brings both universalism AND annihilationism together. Dismissing one makes it too easy to dimiss the others. See Edward Fudge’s new edition “The Fire That Consumes.”

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not saying it holds true for all critics, but I think a big reason people respond to Bell comes down to a very basic human impulse – jealousy. Whether people are older or younger than him, they see him as the cool kid in class who everyone likes; and they just can’t understand why. Sure, they will wrap up these feelings in all sorts of theological arguments or whatever, but I still think in their heart of hearts many pastors see “success” as sort of an unattainable goal. When someone gets it, they attack that person. After all, they must be selling out somewhere in order to be that successful. Don’t forget, many of the same people who attacked Bell the most, are the same who attack people like Rick Warren. “Defending orthodoxy” just gives people a good cover for being jerks a lot of the time.

  • Richard

    Yep. Our first warning signs should have been when it was mislabeled by so many before it was even distributed to the general public. People that hadn’t even read it jumped on the bandwagon (and continue to do so). Its been a great case study in knee jerk reactions but most of church history is. Praise be to God for his merciful gaze that sees something in us worth rescuing!

  • Roger – I’ve started reading your stuff (blog and books) recently and have come to really enjoy and appreciate your work. Thanks for all you do. And Austin – excellent post. Well done.

  • Thanks for this post. I think you would be correct in saying that many of those who disagree with Bell are doing so simply because he presents a well-articulated view that completely abandons Calvinism. I’ve been saying the same thing for awhile now; even before the book was released, I knew many Calvinists who opposed Bell for unsubstantiated reasons, and it appeared obvious that the problem was simply that he was popular, spoke well, and presented a view inconsistent with Calvinism. However, I do think that quite a few people disagree with Love Wins for more valid reasons – namely, that conversion (or whatever you wish to call it) could take place after death. I think this is a distinct issue from his anti-Calvinist views. Personally, I have no trouble with the fact that his views oppose Calvinism since I am not a Calvinist, but I wouldn’t recommend the book to a lay person because of the post-mortem salvation opportunity that Bell affirms.

  • Edwin

    I think the point about Calvinists and conversion may be a legitimate use of “tu quoque.” Calvinists think that conversion is both necessary and (for the elect) guaranteed. Bell argues that conversion is always possible and may happen post-mortem. I agree that _theologically_ one doesn’t undercut conversion more than the other. However, a case could be made that _practically_ the Calvinist position emphasizes the need for conversion (if you are not converted, you have no reason to think that you are elect) while Bell’s position makes it unnecessary in this life (there’s all eternity to do it in). And I think that Bell’s excessively “libertarian” view of freedom is at fault here–what he doesn’t seem to allow for, in contrast to C. S. Lewis, for instance, is that repeated rejection of God could harden one’s heart so that one is no longer capable of repentance. (Though I suppose he does allow for this under the quasi-annihilationist model which he mentions as one possibility and identifies with Lewis, if I remember rightly.)

    • rogereolson

      Your comment points up THE problem–Bell’s actual belief is so difficult to discern.

      • Richard

        But I think that points to THE strength of the work. I’m not interested in what Bell thinks and believes in his heart personally. To paraphrase, “that’s just like his opinion man” (HT Big Lebowski). I am interested in a text that says, rather plainly, there is a lot of speculation and little uniformity on Christian beliefs regarding the afterlife except in some very core ways: God saves us through Christ’s person and work on the cross and elsewhere, there will be a judgment and the one who judges us is good and knows best and better than we can.

      • JoeyS

        I do wonder why it is so imperative for readers that Bell’s belief is discerned. Why must this work be definitive to be valuable? Can’t it just be, as I imagine Bell intends, a tool to further conversation. Bell’s point, as he mentions in the introduction, is to give those who have rejected the Church, and therefore God, a place to rethink God, salvation, grace and judgement. On those merits I am thankful for the work and don’t feel short changed by the fact that I don’t know exactly what Bell believes on the issue.

      • DRT

        Roger, why do we have to know Rob’s belief?

        • rogereolson

          I don’t think we do. Did I say we do?

          • Richard

            Your statement, “Your comment points up THE problem–Bell’s actual belief is so difficult to discern,” seems to have led several of us to understand you are concerned with what Bell believes.

          • rogereolson

            No, not really. Really not at all. I just don’t know exactly what he believes about some of the things he writes about in Love Wins. He doesn’t state his own clearly enough for me to think I know what it is. I’m fine with someone asking questions “out loud,” so to speak, and revealing their own wrestling with questions. I think that’s what Bell was doing in Love Wins.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    “In a lecture on universalism, Scot McKnight suggested that evangelicals have reacted with such vitriol towards the book because it threatens the very heart of the evangelical ethos, which (according to McKnight) is the belief that people need to be converted. As such, Rob Bell’s flirtation with universalism has threatened the importance of conversion and thus incurred the wrath of evangelicalism.”

    The above quote of Scot McKnight in Austin’s piece sums up completely the vitriol and contempt of many evangelicals to Rob Bell and his book, LOVE WINS. If, in fact, “personal conversion” in this world is the punched ticket to admittance into the world to come, then, several of the very foundations of evangelical exclusionary dogmas are threatened. For example, the doctrine of hell with its implied eternal conscious torture for the vast majority of humanity; most of whom lived and died never having heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Most evangelicals are convinced that unless one converts to Christ in this life, that his/her goose is cooked in the next life (pun intended.)

    “Many Christians and theologians will fight like hell to defend hell. They are so steeped in the concept of God’s wrath that they find it difficult to understand his grace – except for themselves. Then, too, it’s a bit much for some believers to accept that if there is no hell of eternal torture, then God has hundreds of billions of souls on his hands and no place to put them – except – heaven. And that means (gasp!) up there with us good Christians!!” — (an excerpt from DROPPING HELL AND EMBRACING GRACE, a book by Ivan A. Rogers, due for release by Outskirts Press before Christmas 2011. All rights reserved).

    I’m sure that Dr. Olson wishes all his students were as astute (and brave) as Austin. It takes courage for anyone in the evangelical camp to question the ‘party line.’

    • rogereolson

      Okay, I can’t help myself! I just want to remind certain people that I (capitalized, embolded, italicized–“I”) was a lot like Austin way back in my college days. Maybe not as smooth as Austin (I had some rough edges he doesn’t have), but I tried, like Austin, to raise questions about the “party line” (in our denomination and movement) and was vilified and rejected for it. Sorry if I sound bitter, but some things bring it all back with pain. I hope and pray for Austin’s sake and for the sakes of students like him that he finds warm embrace among his mentors and peers and congregants even as he challenges some of their “tried and true” beliefs.

  • I appreciate Austin’s assessemtn of Rob Bell’s book and his interaction with Bell’s critics, notably Galli. After reading Bell’s book and reading some of Galli, I do think Bell’s critics were going after him because he did not believe in Calvinist teachings. As a Calvinist myself, I am not against having good conversations about the subjects Bell brings up (conversion, following Jesus, hell, etc.). My problem with the book was that it was written in such a way as to provide more questions than actual answers. It was almost as if Bell early on decided to frame the conversation in such a way as to leave so much room for discussion without coming down on a position. In this regard, some of the work of Rev. Adam Hamilton falls in the same category. Austin’s point about not reading the text well should be a good reminder though.

  • Thanks Austin. I pretty much discovered the same thing when the firestorm hit here in the West Michigan area. “Love Wins” was hitting (neo)Evangelicalism right between the eyes and demanding that it wake up and re-learn what its pulpiteers have lately been saying. To understand that their brand of the Christian faith was becoming restrictly narrower, less biblical, and less open to the non-Christian culture around it. Thus making it less able to relevantly speak to society of God, his love and justice while creating a “comfort zone” of religiousity amongst its mega-institutions. As a result I’ve had to spend a lot of time re-analyzing what we as Christians have come to mean about things; and more importantly, to admit what we have lost in our overly-constructed theological statements. Thanks for your additional observations.

    One other point, which is a bit off-track, but gets to our need as Christians to “destruct and reconstruct” our faith and its sacramental elements comes to mind when reading your statement “…the great mystery we call love.” I next thought of the following in relation to the concept of God’s love in “Love Wins”:

    Peter Rollins, in his book, Insurrection, describes LOVE as selfless, sacrificial, creative, ordering. Love is like the void of creation. Without it there is nothing just as without creation there is nothing. Love cannot exist on its own but only in service to others… and in this case, through the Creation-God who chose to love man, who recreates man through His love, and choses to be in fellowship with man and all things that would sustain man (

    Here is a loose adaptation of what I think Peter Rollins was saying:

    “The Resurrection plays a key role… because after the death of God as an idol or product we then next discover God is love. While an idol exists, is sublime, and is meaningful on its own, love is none of these things. Love does not exist in itself but brings all things into existence; love is not sublime, but points to others and calls them sublime; love is not meaningful in its own right, but renders the world meaningful.”

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for this! I was not yet aware of Rollins’ new book. I’ll get it right away and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it even if I don’t agree with it entirely. Rollins, like Bell, is a prophet to evangelicals (and also to non-evangelicals). Are prophets always right about everything? Well, maybe only the biblical prophets! But even some of them had their flaws.

      • Sooo agree. Prophet is a good word to use of both these individuals b/c they seem to be on the money in the directions of contemporary Christianity. I think they need to be read, digested, discussed, critiqued, evaluated, listened to, and thought through. To the degree we do that is to the degree that evangelicalism can get out of the box it has drawn around itself (perhaps using a newer box of crayons to draw in the same colouring book?).

        By and large Peter is a philosopher working out his theology publically (which is good to know when reading him; I can allow him his reasonings while trying to sort them out as to their qualifications). His deconstructive views come in through his horrific background to Belfast’s bloody wars with England. Coupled with this he will admit to an intensely personal inner destruction of his belief sets (but haven’t we all gone through this at one time or another?). This is where his understanding of “Pyro-Theology” and “Insurrection” comes in. I don’t fully understand them but kinda get the “death of God, death of faith, doubting ourselves” contexts.

        Whereas Rob comes in from the other perspective to Peter having some theological training and open as well to re-framing our modernistic world into post-modernistic terminology. (Though if I were to judge, postmodernism is the last stage of the modernistic era, and some other era should replace both in time… I came across the term “Age of Authenticity” but am unsure if this is philosophically accurate in post-structural terms).

        Likewise, Rob has gone through a time of personal deconstruction/reconstruction and so has been reframing his evangelic context into expanded, societal terms of outreach (I’d like to make up the word theodetic and/or relate it to theosis, but this is for a discussion at another time).

        Consequently, when working through Peter and Rob’s thoughts I find sources of illumination that can then be pressed forward into greater realms of clarity. Which I think has been the strength to the emergent church movement… its revisualization of church-speak and ideologies to that of evangelicalism’s expressions. I do admit I’m not so advant-garde on all of its mysticisms and theodramas, but I do like the idea of discovering a living faith and not a religious faith, if it is something we as flawed humans can have as we fight through our legalisms, pride and self-righteousness.


      • Bo Sanders recently made an audio recording of Pete Rollins speaking at Claremont School of Theology, Nov 4, 2011. He also wrote a good introductory post on the Pete who wants to help Christians rediscover their faith, and the Pete who wants to tear the corpse of Christianity down. I have summarized both of Bo’s posts as one on my blogsite which can be found here – Enjoy.

  • I do know some (definitely not all) Calvinists that only see Bell through an Anti-Calvinism lens. Unfortunately, some Calvinists embrace arguments along the lines of Maslow’s hammer: “it is tempting if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

    At the same time Austin, be careful that your response to what you see as an Anti-Calvinist response to Love Wins does not resemble Maslow’s hammer either. From my reading and interacting with the entire spectrum of evangelicalism (I am an exec. Director of an urban ministry so I interact with many different denominations) my conclusions of why much of evangelicalism has responded negatively to Love Wins coincides more with what Scot McKnight has written in his comments to this article……..

  • Joe

    It seems that you are illustrating his point with your shooting metaphor.

  • Roger this is one of my favourite places on the web to read and learn. Thank you for posting Austin’s thoughts here as well. I would love to know if Austin has his own corner of the web where I can read more of his thoughts. (as a short Google search yields inconclusive results of baseball players and Myspace accounts, that I suspect are not the *real* Austin Fischer) Thanks

    • rogereolson

      Austin is probably too busy writing papers for mean professors who assign huge essays to final-year seminary students! And/or he might be too busy enjoying married life! But, I would also value that if Austin has time for it even if it means competition for me! 🙂

  • Craig Wright

    Because of Bell’s book, I taught an 8 week study at church on hell and universalism. At the end of the study we looked at Bell’s question about Gandhi. We all agreed that no passage in the Gospels about hell (Gehenna or Hades) would put Gandhi in hell.
    I was disappointed in Chan’s and Galli’s responses to Bell, as to their lack of thoroughness. Chan, in responding to a book titled, “Love Wins”, did not deal with God’s love until the very end of his book in an appendix, with just a superficial treatment.
    It is interesting that Galli, in interviewing Chan in Christianity Today, leaned toward annihilationism, but did not mention that in his own book.

    • rogereolson

      Oh, oh! Watch out Mark! Even “leaning toward annihilationism” (and even being accused of it!) can get you in big trouble in the e-club. Look what happened to John Stott.

    • Jason

      Is that the popular conception of Ghandi, or the historically accurate Ghandi?

  • McKnight – “…It’s not just that God gives folks what they want, which is somewhat evangelical (but not Calvinistic), but that God continues to offer that in the postmortem condition. That’s enough to create liminality for the existence of evangelicalism.”

    I should like to know the further meaning of what Scot is saying here my using the word “liminality.” My take is that it does not support evangelicalism’s continued existential arguments and thus gives its movement a limited shelf life in the Christian eras to come, even though the statement of “God giving man what he wants” is both true now and after death.

  • Richard

    @ Scot McKnight and Jonathan Guenther

    While Bell allows for the possibility of post-mortem salvation, he sure as heck wasn’t strongly advocating it. If anything, his point was, “anytime we talk about the afterlife we’re doing a lot of speculating.” And certainly allowing the possibility of post-mortem salvation if God deems it worthy of his time isn’t a make or break for evangelicalism, is it? I thought the evangelical movement tried to major in the majors, not the minors. But maybe I was wrong.

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps the responses to Bell’s book are revealing the end of evangelicalism as a relatively cohesive movement.

      • JoeyS

        What a daring suggestion. I think that’s a fair observation. Why try so hard to hold onto a label that barely defines a minority of protestants? Can’t “protestant” be the new term for orthodox rather than “evangelical?” (Note, I don’t think that only evangelicals or protestants are orthodox – that would be silly)

        • rogereolson

          What kind of “Protestant?” That’s the question anyone who calls himself or herself a Protestant will hear. Sure, the question will always (especially now) be “What kind of evangelical?” So I say “postconservative evangelical” and ask the questioner to listen for a moment as I explain. I don’t think there are any one word labels that really work in today’s pluralistic Christian environment.

  • Tim Marsh

    Dear Austin and Dr. Olson,

    This must be the best response to those who have responded to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”.


    I think that you hit the nail on the head. Yes, the most outraged responses to Rob Bell come from the Calvinist/neo-Calvinist circles. To say otherwise is to deny the truth. Before the book was released, I noticed the responses of Calvinists and the silence of more Arminian theologians. Arminians can have this conversation.

    However, Calvinism, I believe, cannot be moderate. And the reason for this is that Calvinism leaves no room for the role of “experience” in theology. Experience cannot be trusted. Even though human beings appear to be free, we really are not. We cannot trust un-redeemed human arguments because they are inherently fallen, many Calvinists might suggest.

    There is much to discuss and I regret I cannot be part of the conversation. However I appreciate this thoughtful, well-written response to those who have responded to Love Wins.

    God bless!

  • Austin – as a fellow seminarian (up here at TEDS outside Chicago) who also did some writing about Bell’s book, I appreciate your thoughtful interaction. I too picked up on the fact that many who disagreed with Bell did so because of Calvinism and not necessarily because of some of the book’s specific claims.

    In my opinion, though, the aspect of Love Wins that leaves it most open to (and deserving of) criticism is that it is an example of what I’ve called ‘poorly performed public theology.’ In other words, it is a book dealing with difficult and obviously controversial themes in ways that end up shortchanging those themes: he doesn’t interact with other people, except in a cursory note at the end re: suggested reading (that hardly does justice to the work that has historically been done on these questions); his interaction with Scripture is sometimes questionable at best; his writing style – as you noted – is. Somewhat. Frustrating. (I like to imagine William Shatner reading his stuff to me.)

    And all of this happens in the context of him having a fairly large readership and a fairly loud ‘voice’ in the ongoing public conversations about Christianity in America. What I mean by ‘poorly performed public theology’ is that his handling of these topics, from a methodological and thoroughness point of view, leaves much to be desired. It’s not the sort of book you’d recommend to anyone wanting a role model for how to handle deep theological questions in a more popular-level format.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticizing the book for being what it isn’t (a scholarly work for scholars). I’m just saying that at times it seemed hastily written, and I think it can give nonspecialists an impression of depth, profundity and/or novelty when in fact some of those ideas have been articulated differently, at greater depth and with greater impact by others in other places. People with Bell’s influence ought to be modeling responsible and thorough engagement with Scripture and theology, but his treatment was – again, in my humble opinion – cursory and sometimes deliberately inflammatory. There may be a fine line at times between “deliberately inflammatory” and “prophetic,” and doubtless he intended the latter; but I think the point still stands.

    Best of luck with the rest of your education; keep pursuing the Kingdom first and foremost, and keep writing.

    • rogereolson

      This expresses well my critique of the book. I didn’t find it worthy of the brouhaha it provoked because it is so ambiguous. Still, most of the criticism has been about its supposed theological innovations, not its style. That’s what I think Austin was addressing–the attempts by mostly Calvinists to read Bell’s mind beyond what he actually says in the book and forwarn impressionable young minds to pay no attention to what he might be saying!

  • Josh

    The doors of Hell are NOT locked from the inside. Matthew 10:28.

    Many people do not understand the true sovereignty of God. We break HIS Law, we get HIS punishment. It is not simply “choosing between Heaven and Hell” as if a criminal would ever choose to go to prison.

    • rogereolson

      There are other ways to imagine “choosing hell”–such as a drug addict who refuses treatment, choosing instead his or her self-destructive but (to him or her) blissful “highs.” I have known such people.

  • God’s love has no bounds and His grace will win out in the end 🙂

  • Joe

    Hi, I have some comments that haven’t been approved and I’m not sure why. I believe they clarify the point I was making and add to the discussion. Is there a commenting policy that I’ve missed?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know why. Try posting them again. If there’s something wrong with them that causes me to decline to post them to the blog I’ll let you know. If not, I’ll post them.

  • Austin, thanks… many of my own sentiments. And I’ve heard Scot McKnight point out that Bell’s book evokes more ire over his view of human agency than over many of the other ponts.

    I am an itinerant apologist (of a sort) and was speaking for three days at a large gathering this summer. I made a point in my first talk that we evangelicals have a hard time listening and then attacking one another harshly over the wrong thing. I said the the harshness is a problem and attacking the wrong thing is a problem. I mentioned that the attitudes pointed at Bell’s book was a case in point.

    Wouldn’t you know it, the next day I heard students complaining that I was a universalist. Talking about illustrting my point. One said that he liked what I said but turned off 3/4ths of the way through my talk because of my Bell comment and decided he couldn’t trust anything else I said.

    These are evanglical college students who are training to be tomorrow’s leaders.

    I repeated and clarified in my next talk that I’m not even talking about the content of Bell’s book but the ready, often venemous attitudes against him (even before the book was published!) and you could see the uneasiness in the crowd to live with tension, ambiguity, or even kindness around those with whom they disagree.

    My wife and I published Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spirtual Small Talk (Zondervan, 2010). We did so because we see this glaring need among evangelicals. We claim to be evangleists but fail to know the people we’re evangelizing or where they even stand or even to see them as equally human to us. I think another apt title for it would be “Teaching Evangelicals to Talk.” I’m discouraged the book hasn’t sold better (royalties aside! Ha!), but I think I know why: Evangelicals, by and large, don’t see they have the need.

    Your article reminds me, once again, that we do. I need evangelicals to be better listeners because I need to the church to be strong for my sake as well as theirs.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your post. I’m posting for discussion on my facebook wall.

    • Thanks for these comments, Dale. I find the observations interesting on more than one level. But to name just one: In my family, only my kids are “young” Evangelicals (at 24 and 27)–I’m neither young nor Evangelical (though formerly both), but I am nearly obsessed with understanding the dynamics of religion, spirituality and everything related, having studied them a lot.

      The world of my kids (neither of whom went to Christian higher ed, as I did for many years) and others I follow on blogs like Rachel Held Evan’s seems to be closer to what you hope to see than the situation you’re encountering. Maybe the difference is Christian colleges vs. secular, or your location (my kids and I are in So Cal, which contains both quite liberal and quite conservative communities–Christian and otherwise)…. I’ve not checked your bio or blog or anything yet.

      Another possible “source” for the rigid (I’d add fearful, probably) attitude, I’m guessing, might be that a lot of them have been home schooled. Do you find that? I’m curious re. the demographics involved because what you describe reminds me mainly, from my own exposure, of Evangelicals of a few decades ago, or those less-educated or from the rural South/Midwest, or the 40 or 50 and up crowd today.

      I’d love it if you would elaborate more on what you’ve seen and how you’d tend to explain it’s causes. Would you?

      Also, on the matter of your book–sounds interesting as you describe it, but I’m not sure the title does it justice…. Have you or your publisher considered that a more provocative (and/or descriptive) title might help sales a lot?

  • Jon T

    Roger, I’m a little late to this conversation but it might be worth noting that on the 15th HarperOne will be releasing “The Love Wins Companion: A Study Guide for Those who Want to go Deeper”. From the Amazon description:

    For those looking to go deeper with Rob Bell’s bestselling pioneering book Love Wins, this companion offers:
    Insights and commentary by theologians, Bible scholars, scientists, and pastors
    Deep analysis of all relevant Bible passages on heaven, hell, and salvation
    Detailed chapter summaries, discussion questions, and Bible studies for individuals, groups, and classes

    Excerpts from works throughout Christian history illustrating the variety of teachers also debating the issues Bell wrestles with

  • Kevin McClain

    Dear Austin,
    Congrats on a fine essay. I wish you success in your future endeavors. I only wish to comment on the need to understand an important distinction, and not perpetuate a common mistake. You wrote, “variously labeled neo-Puritan/neo-Calvinist branch of evangelicalism.” Labels are important, and Neo-Calvinist have attempted to articulate that they are very distinct from Neo-Puritanist (aka New Calvinist). The development of Neo-Calvinism can be traced back to 19th century Netherlands. It gave rise to a robust worldview, replete with sophisticated theological, philosophical and social-political systems.
    Neo-Calvinists (aka Kuyperians) have interacted moderately of Bell’s Love Wins. Most notable are the treatments by Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw, and Hearts and Mind Bookstore Curator Byron Borger. These treatments can be found easily on the web.
    I trust you’ll research and understand this distinction. I am confident you will find Neo-Calvinism worthy of scholarly pursuit.

  • Keith

    I think one of the main objections to Love Wins (at least one of mine) is to this line of thought: “in the end we can’t say anything too firm about the destiny of human beings other than the fact that God will do what God wants with us.”
    Yes we can! We can firmly say much more, because God has told us much more about the destiny of human beings. Jesus taught on the afterlife at length several times. The Bible teaches what heaven and hell are like, and who goes where, and why and how.
    The thinking that because man has interpreted Scriptures different ways, we can’t really know what they mean is itself anti-Biblical. Jesus said we “shall know the truth” if we abide in His word (John 8:31-32), and that we “shall know concerning the doctrine” if we do His will (John 7:17). God’s Word is profitable for doctrine and reproof (2 Tim. 3:16).
    Whatever the specifics of the doctrines in question, the Bible is repeatedly clear that we can and should know the truth. The idea that we’ll know only when we get to Heaven concerning things the Bible teaches is what many find objectionable.

    • rogereolson

      I have to be careful not to over react to this, but it does sound like the hellfire and brimstone preachers of my past who pretended to know exactly what the Bible meant about everything and anyone who disagreed with them about anything was halfway to hell.

    • Austin Fischer

      I think one of Dr. Olson’s past blog posts is helpful here. He noted that he often gets the feeling that the people who disagree with him seem to think he simply hasn’t read the Bible, or not read it “seriously” enough.

      I’ve read Jesus’ teachings on hell. I’m pretty sure a few others who would disagree with you have read them too. I take them seriously. I think they teach there is a judgment wherein God confirms our choice of heaven or hell. This is what the Bible teaches God wants to do with us. I think that’s firm enough.

      That said, while I think these are “objective” truths, since we are humans we can only know these objective truths subjectively. So a little charity, humility, and trepidation is more than good manners. It is good theology.

  • I finally got my hands on a copy of ‘Love Wins’ and am nearly done.

    I think that if you are going to teach that there is chance for conversion after death and that if Phil 2 passage about ‘every knee and every tongue’ is going to be interpreted as everyone eventually being reconciled to God in a salvation sense (p.107f) then it is going to take a lot more than poetic musings to make a compelling theological case.

    I am not going to label Bell as a heretic, but I would point people to read C.S. Lewis on the topic before I suggest Bell. Their views are similar, but Lewis’ allegory is much more compelling.

    Bell wants to make a big statement and about God’s love but he couches it with so much ambiguity, rhetorical questions, and post-modern hipness. He will make a statement that is designed to draw the ire of evangelicals and then uses some loose sketches of narrative theology to turn the earlier statement into an open ended question. I don’t think this book deserves the hype it is getting (on any side of the theological spectrum).

  • Jon

    Where in the Bible does it say that those who are in hell desire to be in there? I know, I know Saint Lewis said it, but I’m talking about Scripture here. I seem to recall something about weeping and gnashing of teeth……

    • rogereolson

      Every Bible reader I know draws conclusions from it to answers it does not explicitly give, such as the full doctrine of the Trinity expressed at Constantinople in 381 and the doctrine of the hypostatic union expressed at Chalcedon in 451.

    • Austin Fischer

      What about weeping and gnashing of teeth precludes a desire to be in hell? Case in point…prisoners who hate being in prison and yet don’t want to be released because they are so accustomed to bondage they can’t handle the “real” world. They both hate it and yet don’t want to leave. Sounds like sin to me. And I’ll take Saint Lewis over Saint Calvin or Piper.

      • rogereolson

        Yes. Just yesterday in chapel a preacher quoted some lyrics from a popular singer to the effect that “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no.” As I recall, and so he said, she died of either a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning. Many people reject the cure that could help them out of their misery. They love their addiction and prefer it to being free.

  • rogereolson

    So you think your interpretation of the Bible is just what the Bible says and nothing else or more? That’s the defining mark of a fundamentalist.

    • Jon

      I actually didn’t say anything about my own interpretation of the Bible – I simply asked if there were any Bible passages that referenced hell being locked from the inside. I ask this because many people quote Lewis as if he were the be-all and end-all of Bible interpretation. But we have to be careful, as he was wrong on some critical points.

      On my side, I DO have actual real Bible passages:

      Matt. 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 25:30 – all refer to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – This isn’t something people do who want to be where they are. But even more importantly, they speak of being “thrown” there, or “cast.” If hell is locked from inside, wouldn’t people just walk in there voluntarily? And if Rob Bell is right, that they can possibly change their minds once they get there, wouldn’t some feel the pain and want to choose heaven? But they couldn’t if they are all holding the doors shut from inside.

      These are the sort of absurdities that theologies that exalt man’s free will above all else result in.

  • Juan-Jose C.

    Brother Olsen;

    My name is Juan-Jose and I am a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida. I was pointed by an older brother and professor (Victor Copan) to your writings and I really enjoyed this article and would like to respond to it in an essay I have to write for my English Comp 1 class. Are you opposed to me responding to your article? And though you’re a busy man, I was wondering if you would mind reviewing my response for coherence when I’m done writing it.

    Grace and peace to you, and thank you for your time;

    • rogereolson

      Unfortunately, I receive too many essays, books, articles, manuscripts people want me to read. I can’t begin to do it all. But I wish you the very best.