A good new book responding to Bell’s Love Wins

A good new book responding to Bell’s Love Wins July 7, 2011

A publisher recently sent me an advance copy of what I take to be the first full book length response to Love Wins by Rob Bell and asked me to review it here.  I’m happy to do that.

The book is entitled God Wins: Heaven, Hell and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins.  The author is Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine.  The book is published by Tyndale House Publishers.

I know Mark Galli and respect him highly.  I led a church-based discussion group in reading and discussing his book Jesus Mean and Wild.  We found it a bracingly helpful corrective to overly sentimental ideas of Jesus in much contemporary Christianity and folk religion.

Mark is a serious evangelical scholar with an irenic approach to controversial material.  While he takes on Love Wins with vigorous criticism, he is careful to give the author, Rob Bell, the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions.  In almost every chapter Mark says he thinks Bell does not intend errors he inadvertently promotes.

Before I interact with Mark’s book, let me say that you should read the book for yourself and not take my word for anything–except that it is a serious book deserving thoughtful consideration by both Bell’s critics and admirers.  (Here by “Bell’s” I mean Love Wins’.)

God Wins goes to great lengths to express agreement with much of Love Wins.  Mark does not sweepingly condemn the book or dismiss it as unworthy of consideration.  He has clearly taken the time to read it carefully and try to understand it fairly before expressing disagreement with it.  And his criticisms are, for the most part, generous toward the author.

However, God Wins pulls no punches.  Mark clearly considers it a dangerous book that will probably lead many readers astray–not from Christianity into atheism or anything like that but from a better focused and truer picture of God to a fuzzier and largely erroneous one.

Chapter 1 is entitled The Really Important Question.  There Mark argues that Bell misses the mark by raising too many questions about God that imply an attempt to interrogate God.  Mark says “as the Cross demonstrates, God takes us seriously.  He takes our sin seriously.  But he continues to show relative indifference to our questions.  He does not answer them to our intellectual satisfaction; he refuses to submit himself to our interrogations.” (14)

I wonder, however, whether Mark (I am not calling him “Galli” out of disrespect but because I know him personally and it would be awkward to call him by his last name when we are on a first name basis) is confusing interrogation of ideas about God with interrogation of God.  When I read Love Wins I did not sense Bell intending to interrogate God.  His questions, I thought, were aimed at traditional notions about God.

This first point gives me opportunity to say something about different interpretations of the same book.  Sometimes when I am reading Mark’s account of Bell’s book I feel like he read a different book than I did!  I get the sense that Mark felt things that I did not feel and that I felt things Mark (and others) did not feel.  I’m not trying to reduce interpretation to feelings.  I’m just saying that people often get a different sense about a book.  I thought Bell was reacting to what he perceived to be an overly harsh picture of God as a distant judge delighting in sending people to hell and to an all-too-common attitude among some Christians that hell is a good thing–as if we should celebrate every time we think someone goes there because it reinforces our sense of retributive justice.  So I filled in some gaps as I read, giving Bell the benefit of the doubt and taking for granted that he was trying to correct those images and was not trying to say everything one could say about the subjects.

I think Mark read the book differently–as Bell being seduced by a liberal approach to life and the world and God that places man at the center and God at the periphery.  One reason I didn’t think that is because almost everything Bell says about God and heaven and hell can be found in well-respected evangelical theologians or theologians most evangelicals respect like C. S. Lewis.  (Okay, I know Lewis wasn’t technically a theologian, but he wrote theology better than many professional theologians do!)  But my point is that I get it–Mark “sees” a gestalt, a pattern in Bell’s book I didn’t see.  We read the same book but saw it “as” different things.  I think that may be because Mark is a member of a denomination struggling with rampant liberalism in which conservatives (by which here I mean people who value traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity) feel embattled.  I, on the other hand, have been beset by fundamentalists and aggressive neo-fundamentalist heresy-hunters.  So I read Bell as a fellow questioner of that kind of ultra-conservative Christianity whereas Mark read him, I suspect, as an unintentional ally giving aid and comfort to the liberals destroying his denomination.  Well, all that is surmise and guess work.  I just don’t know how else to make sense of how Mark and I read the same book and came away with such radically different interpretations.

So, where Mark saw Love Wins reveling in unaswered questions that attempt to put God in the dock, so to speak, I saw the book as simply challenging certain cherished but often unreflective assumptions about God among conservative Christians.

Chapter 2 is entitled Who Is This God?  The chapter’s thesis is that “Love Wins tends to come across as beautiful and exciting–but ultimately thin and sentimental.  It does not communicate the gravity, the thickness, the mystery of God.”  There I began to suspect that we are dealing with two different visions of God–one the hidden, mysterious, awesome and transcendent God of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon (Mark quotes the latter two) and the other the very personal, intimate, loving and profoundly caring (for his creatures) God of the Greek fathers, Wesley and Moltmann.  Of course that’s a simplistic dualism.  But so is Mark’s.  In this chapter Mark posits two accounts of God–one is “God as agent” (bad, wrong) and the other is “God the Lover” (good, right).  The picture of God as agent puts humans at the center and views God primarily as existing to serve us and our needs.  The picture of God as lover puts the Trinity at the center and views God primarily as existing in and for himself as inner-trinitarian love that then overflows in grace to creatures.  Mark says “…only when we see God as Lover can we understand how God is more than mere Agent.  As wonderful as it is to experience the benefits of his grace and mercy, they should never be the focal point.  The minute they become the focus, they disappear.  It’s like happiness–make it your goal, and you’ll never reach it.  The blessings of life in Christ, like happiness, are the result of something else, something that has objectively happened–Christ’s death and resurrection.” (32)

I can’t imagine that Bell would disagree with that!  And my reaction to the dualism between “God as Agent” and “God as the Lover” is to ask why these have to be in conflict with each other?  I guess Mark is arguing it is a matter of which comes first.  Giving Bell the benefit of the doubt, I would say he would also put God as the Lover before God as Agent.  Perhaps he could have made that clearer in Love Wins.  Mark sees Bell as inadvertently making our experience of God’s blessings THE central feature of the gospel rather than secondary to God’s glorious nature and sacrifice for us in Jesus Christ.  In other words, Mark thinks Bell puts the accent on the subjective too much whereas the accent ought to be on the objective content of what God has done for us out of the inner resources of his own being in Jesus Christ.

Is this a case of wanting a book to be and do something it wasn’t designed to be and do?  In other words, might it be that Bell ASSUMES things Mark thinks he should STATE explicitly?  Every book begins with certain assumptions.  As an author I can testify to that.  I have often been criticized for not highlighting or underscoring something I THOUGHT I could take for granted and assume as common ground with my readers.

Mark ends chapter 2 with this summary statement of its point: “As great as forgiveness is, it is not our exceeding joy.  As wonderful as are the blessings of salvation, they are not our exceeding joy.  Our exceeding joy is God, the God who has brought us into his very presence through Jesus Christ.” (33)  Would Bell disagree with that?  I doubt it.  But I can’t be sure.  Maybe that’s Mark’s point–one can’t be sure, so Bell should have been more clear and explicit IF that’s what he believes.  On the other hand, perhaps Bell would argue (with some right, I think) that these two things should not be prioritized.  IF God withheld the blessings of salvation from us, we would have no reason to have exceeding joy in God.  We have exceeding joy in God for who he is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ BECAUSE he has extended the benefits of his grace and mercy to us for our salvation.  Is there something wrong with looking at it that way?  Well, I suspect Jonathan Edwards and  John Piper would think there is.  But does Mark?  I don’t know.  I can only hope not.

Chapter 3 is entitled Becoming one again and is about God’s highest aim.  At least that’s what I think it is about.  It’s about several things.  But before I interact with the chapter’s content I have to comment on the “hook” at its beginning.  (Every chapter begins with a story which authors call a “hook”–something to lure readers further in.)  Mark confesses that when he was in college he went to see the movie The Summer of ’42.  I guess we’re about the same age!  (I thought so, but this pretty much proves it.)  That was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater.  I snuck into it just to find out what was so awful and evil about movies in movie theaters.  (The church I grew up in wouldn’t even take our youth group to see a Billy Graham film shown in a secular movie theater!  We were taught that if Jesus returned while we were in a movie theater it wouldn’t matter what movie we were watching, we’d be left behind!)  You have to remember movies back then didn’t have ratings.  I remember watching some of the scenes through my fingers and fearing God was going to strike me dead just for seeing parts of them and hearing them!  Well, Mark’s story and mine are quite different, but I thought it was interesting that we both went to see The Summer of ’42 while in college!  Shame on him! 🙂

Back to the book.  In this chapter (Becoming one again) Mark rakes Love Wins over the coals (gently, of course) for neglecting (not completely denying) the substitutionary atonement model in favor of Christus Victor (which is not false but by itself inadequate) and for implying (not outrightly stating) that the main purpose of the life, death and resurrection of Christ was to maximize our fulfillment as persons through an experience of wholeness.  Mark says “…one cannot help but notice how relentlessly human centered these descriptions [of the cross and atonement] are.  The Cross becomes about our getting inspired and being sustained.  Salvation becomes about something that satisfies our deepest longings.” (52)  Then, “It’s not just about what we experience but about what God has done.”

Mark’s point seems to be that Love Wins neglects the objective dimension of the cross in favor of the subjective dimension.  Toward the end of the chapter Mark accuses Love Wins of downplaying God’s justice in the cross.  “The book is so anxious to show that love wins, it fails to appreciate how important it is that justice also wins.” (57)  There may be some truth to that.  But, again, I wonder how much of this is due to Bell’s tendency to react to overly harsh, one-sided depictions of God’s wrath in some fundamentalist circles.  Nowhere does he deny that the cross displays God’s justice or wrath.  I guess Mark wants that highlighted more and perhaps Bell should have done that.  I admit that when I read Love Wins I took some things for granted.  I took it for granted that Bell believes the cross was God’s judgment on sin as well as the ultimate expression of God’s love.  How could the cross BE an expression of God’s love if it isn’t also a display of God’s justice?

Mark’s major point in this chapter is, I think, that Bell’s book simply doesn’t do justice to the fullness of the cross and resurrection event.  He reads Love Wins as implicitly if not explicitly playing up the benefits of the cross and resurrection for our human fulfillment and downplaying (not explicitly denying) the propitiatory aspect of the satisfaction of God’s righteousness by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  But perhaps one could point to many conservative treatments of the cross event and say that they leave out entirely God’s concern for our well-being because he loves us.  Some theologians and pastors have said recently that Christ died “for God” and not for us.  Was Bell perhaps reacting to that kind of one-sided treatment of the cross?  Could Mark give Bell credit for wanting to balance such popular treatments of the atonement with an emphasis on God’s real care and concern for our fulfillment because he loves us?

Chapter 4 is entitled The Wonder of Faith.  Here is where I almost stumbled.  By that I mean I almost slapped the book shut and put it down thinking I couldn’t say anything kind about it.  But I’m glad I persevered and even read it twice.  In the end I still struggle with it, but I think Mark is trying to give a balanced account of God’s sovereignty and human freedom.  I’m not sure he succeeds, but few do!

Mark accuses Love Wins of focusing too much on human freedom as free choice.  Interpreting Bell’s book as semi-Pelagian, Mark says “This is precisely the problem with Love Wins and with any belief system that ultimately says that faith is left completely in the hands of sinful and fickle people.  That is not good news.”  (66-67)  He’s right about that–except that I’m not entirely convinced Love Wins intends that.  Where I think Mark may be interpreting Love Wins too harshly is when he writes that “What is assumed in this entire discussion in Love Wins is that the human will is free, autonomous, and able to choose between alternatives.  The discussion assumes that the will is not fallen, that it needs no salvation, that it doesn’t even need help.  It assumes that human beings are unbiased moral agents who stand above the fray and make independent decisions about the most important matters.”  (71)  Wow.  If that’s true, then Love Wins is heretical!  But I’m not convinced it’s true.  Now I’m going to have to go back and re-read Love Wins in this light to find out.  This is certainly not how I read the book.  But, again, maybe I was giving Bell the benefit of the doubt and reading prevenient grace into his discussions of free will (e.g., where he talks about God giving us what we want–even hell).

I thought Mark was going off on a Calvinist rant against anything that smacks of Arminianism until I came to this paragraph: “And that’s the gospel.  Not that we have an innate free will, but that God in his freedom came to us to rescue us from spiritual slavery.  Through the work of Jesus on the cross, and through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, our wills are liberated.  Then and only then can we actually recognize Christ, his love, his forgiveness, his grace.  Then and only then can we finally respond in faith.” (72)

I can only say “Amen!” to that.  And I say amen as an Arminian.  That expresses perfectly what Arminians believe.  My question is whether Bell would disagree with that paragraph.  I hope not and I think not.  But clearly Mark, an astute reading with profound acumen, thinks so.  I hope he’s wrong.

But here and there throughout this chapter there are hints of something more than classical Arminianism.  Mark says on page 65 that God sometimes makes it impossible for people to believe.  And he leaves open the question of whether God withholds himself from some people (reprobation?).  But if it is Calvinism it’s soft compared to Piper or Sproul.  I can agree with at least ninety percent of this chapter, but I wonder if Bell would disagree with any of it?

Again, is this a case of an author taking something for granted, knowing his readers are evangelicals and therefore probably already conditioned to believe that God is sovereign in salvation (at least to the extent that salvation is God’s initiative and not ours)?  Clearly Mark thinks Bell shouldn’t take that for granted and maybe that he doesn’t even believe it himself.  When I read Love Wins I took for granted that Bell believes our ability to accept God’s gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is grace-enabled.  Perhaps I was wrong.  But is it wrong to give an author the benefit of the doubt?

Chapter 5 is entitled The Point of Heaven.  There Mark repeats his concern that Love Wins’ main emphasis is on human fulfillment and enjoyment rather than on God.  He criticizes Bell for neglecting the biblical dimension of worship in heaven in favor of emphasis on humanization.  Again, when I read Love Wins I took for granted that Bell believes we will worship God in heaven and was simply trying to open some new possibilities about our continuing spiritual growth in heaven.  And that he was trying to overcome the all too common folk religious idea that in heaven we will be something other than human because humanness is intrinsically evil.  (As a professor of theology for almost 30 years I can tell you that is a common belief among young evangelicals!)

Chapter 6 is entitled Hell and Judgment.  There, among other criticisms, Mark accuses Love Wins of implying, if not outrightly saying, that people in hell may have a chance to leave and go to heaven.  I did think Bell was suggesting that in Love Wins.  But so was C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce.  In fact, I read Love Wins as simply restating much of what is in that book so beloved by many even conservative evangelicals!  Mark doesn’t see any biblical warrant for that and neither do I.  It is sheer speculation based on the character of God.  But Bell would simply ask if God is love and “love” means anything similar to what our highest ideas of love based on Scripture itself (e.g., 1 Cor. 13) how could God ever completely give up on anyone?  Mark raises some valid questions and concerns about that speculation.  But I’m not with him in his criticism that if people can go from hell to heaven it is necessarily the case that people could go from heaven to hell.  That overlooks deification–not just an Eastern Orthodox idea.  Wesley believed in it and used it as the reason why the redeemed will not be able to sin in heaven even thought they will still have free will.

Chapter 7 is entitled The Bad News: Universalism.  That’s an intriguing title and you should get the book and read the chapter for yourself.  I’ll just say that I agree that universalism is bad news.  But perhaps not for the same reason Mark thinks it is.  But my main concern with this chapter is that Mark, like many serious theologians in the Reformed tradition, seems to confuse freedom with free will in non-Reformed theologies.  What I mean is, he/they think we non-Reformed evangelicals (Arminians, Anabaptists) identify freedom with free will.  We don’t.  I don’t know about Bell.  Perhaps he does confuse or identify them.  I hope not.

Let me explain.  As Mark helpfully points out, true freedom is NOT having free choice.  True freedom is being what God intends for us to be–his faithful creatures restored in his image and likeness glorifying him.  Arminians agree with that.  But we don’t have that right now.  What we do have right now is free will–a gift of God’s prevenient grace whose purpose is to be used to cooperate with God’s renewing and redeeming grace to arrive at true freedom–something God wants for us but will not impose on us.  So free will is not true freedom.  But it is real.  True freedom is yet to be even though we may, by God’s grace, taste it here and now.

Mark thinks Bell revels too much in free will and confuses it with true freedom.  I hope not.  I didn’t get that sense from Love Wins.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, is entitled The Victory of a Personal God and this review is getting too long.  I would be surprised if anyone read this far (except Mark)!  I hope some will, but I’d better close or nobody, maybe not even Mark (!) will read on.

Let me wrap up.  I get the feeling that Mark wants Love Wins to be something that wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all–a rehearsal of traditional evangelical theology.  Perhaps he’s right.  Perhaps nobody should offer up anything else.  (I’m not saying Mark says that, but I wonder how far one could stray from it without being criticized.)  On the other hand, I think Love Wins does push the envelope of evangelical theology.  I don’t think it strays into heresy or even flirts with it, but it does intend to shock people out of their dogmatic slumbers into thinking hard about what they believe and it does intend to present them with some possibilities that are outside the evangelical mainstream.  How much Bell himself is committed to those possibilities remains something of a mystery, I think.

The strange thing is this.  I find myself agreeing with BOTH BOOKS!  How can that be?  I don’t mean I agree with everything in both books. That would land me in sheer contradiction.

To explain, let me once again appeal to something Karl Barth said.  Two of Barth’s interpreters had an argument about Barth’s belief about God in himself versus God for us.  Barth said both were right–vis-a-vis the extremes they were using Barth to fight against (one of which was Bultmann and I forget the other one).  Both couldn’t be right.  But both could be right vis-a-vis the perspectives they were using Barth to contradict.  Could it be that Bell is right (not wholly or completely but overall and in general) as an antidote to traditional “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” hellfire and damnation, “let’s take delight in all those sinners going to hell” fundamentalist folk religion.  Could it be that Mark is right (not wholly or completely but overall and in general) as an antidote to serious lacunae in Bell’s theology brought about by his concern to correct extreme views of God’s wrath and hell?

In other words, would Bell perhaps have Mark’s perspective if he were in Mark’s place–trying to preserve biblical faith in a denomination in serious decline due to rampant liberal theology?  And would Mark perhaps have Bell’s perspective if he were in Bell’s place–trying to hold out a vision of God’s love in an evangelical world still fraught with hellfire and damnation preachers of God’s arbitrary sovereignty who sends people to hell for his glory?  Well, maybe not.  And I suspect both authors will think I’m belittling them which is not my intention.  I take them both seriously.  I just wonder if they are both right given their contexts and perspectives?

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