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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  • Steve Rogers

    To press your concluding questions a little further, would Bell agree with Gali if he had to produce a magazine whose dominate constituency were Reformed and neo-fundamentalists? Especially if your magazine had been a big contributor to the pre-publication hype concerning Bell’s book.

  • Scott Gay

    Very well written, and I did read and was interested from start to finish. At the end, I felt the antagonists to Barth were Bultmann and Tillich.
    What you call neo-fundamental I have heard called the soul-sort narrative(especially by liberals). I would like it if you would present some of the hallmarks of the liberalism. It is true that branches of Wesleyanism succumbed to the later more than the former.

    • rogereolson

      I disagree. Most 19th century liberal theologians were untouched by Arminianism or Wesleyanism (which are virtually the same on the basics of soteriology). Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, never heard of Arminianism or Wesleyanism so far as we know. He was Reformed. Ritschl was untouched by Arminianism or Wesleyanism and was Lutheran. Bushnell (who some call the father of American liberal theology) was Congregationalist and I find no evidence of any influence of Arminianism or Wesleyanism in his theology. Like many other post-Puritans he arrived at his liberalizing tendencies through disillusionment with strict Calvinism and through the influence of the New Haven Theology stemming from the Second Great Awakening which everyone agrees was a particular interpretation of parts of Edwards’ theology (ironically) through his grandson Timothy Dwight. Sure, many Arminians of the head became liberals–which led to real Arminians leaving the Methodist Church to found “Holiness” churches during the 19th and early 20th centuries. But I disagree that there is anything in Arminianism or Wesleyanism that lends itself to liberalism any more than Calvinism lends itself to liberalism.

  • “. . . I feel like he read a different book than I did . . .”

    That summarizes much of the experience I have had with people who have shared their thoughts about Bell’s book. And I think your review (all of it!) was spot on. One of the other issues that I am finding is that any defense of Bell’s theology here is often received as a complete sign-off on everything Bell says. I appreciate you cutting through that (hopefully, it will be heard) and showing how to agree and disagree with a particular work, thoughtfully and articulately.

  • WTM

    Dr Olson,

    I found your blog earlier this year, and have very much enjoyed it. Your thoughts on neo-fundamentalism have been refreshing and encouraging. However, I think you are a little easy on Galli here. Some might argue that his response to Bell has been an instance of precisely the sort of neo-fundamentalism that you have been working to identify here.

    You might consider looking over the following materials by two bloggers who have also interacted with Galli: David Congdon published a series of posts responding to Galli’s column in Christianity Today, and Randy Boswell is on part 5 of a series dealing with Galli’s book.

    • rogereolson

      I try to be as generous as possible–especially with friends! 🙂

  • Justin B.

    “But so was C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce.”

    This summarizes my surprise at the whole controversy. I took “love wins” as Bell’s equivalent to “the doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

    I also believe Bell was saying God won’t give up on people who are already in hell. But I think it’s also important to note that Bell never said people in torment would accept those offers of mercy, either. Just because God might continue to pursue sinners doesn’t guarantee they’d ever accept Him.

  • Chris Patton

    Dr Olson, I appreciate your blog and read your posts often. I’m sure my response is a little tangientiel as I have not read Galli’s book yet, but I have read Bell’s. I wonder if Galli and others who might otherwise be close to Bell in thinking have responded so because of Bell’s writing style. I mean specifically that Bell offers interpretations of Scripture and claims solidarity with church fathers/theologians but provides no citations that would help one verify claims. Bell’s views may very well be within the boundaries of orthodoxy but his lack of sources gives one the idea that his views are of the “common” variety, which they are not. Perhaps some of the response has been so strong, not because of the claims, but because of the lack of good argumentation.

  • Dr. Olson,

    Thanks for the review of Mark Galli’s book and the extended discussion over Rob Bell’s. Like you, I’ve found each author to be a helpful voice in larger evangelical discussions.

    I find your concluding thought to be on to something that every preacher must face – what I say each week is audience dependent. To remove the audience or change it, changes the sermon even if the words of the sermon are left intact. The very words that are helpful to one group might be harmful to another. Fred Craddock put it this way, “Words to an older daughter do not carry the same message when repeated to a younger son. And all of us know by experience that we can misquote by changing listeners as certainly as by changing the words” (Craddock, Preaching, 144). Perhaps, our attempts to determine the orthodoxy or the helpfulness of a book should include the question “For whom was this written?” in addition to the normal, “What was written?”

  • Susan N.

    A very insightful and helpful review. And I read every word of it! Thank you.

  • Wow Roger! Thanks for this.

    As someone who had suffered depression from a hellfire and reformed interpretation of scripture, I find that your reading of Bell as a reaction to that mindset explains why Love Wins spoke to me. Not only did I agree with much of Love Wins, but I didn’t really see what the big deal was. It seems to me that anyone who has done their studying in theology and church history would easily understand Bell’s points.

    As someone who adheres to an open-theistic view of the world, and believes in the possibility of annihilation as judgement, I find I am becoming more and more tempted to be silent on these issues. I appreciate your viewpoint on the book, and your blog!


  • I read this whole review with much interest, which is saying a lot since I haven’t–nor do I intend to–read either of the books you discuss! Given the fact that Galli’s book came out mere months after Bell’s, I didn’t expect it to appreciate nuance or break new ground. I wonder how Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell will stack up with Galli’s. He took at least a couple more weeks putting his together!

  • Roger –

    I, too, believe that we will see what we see in Bell’s book based upon our already formulated perspectives. I approached the book much like you, willing to see some positive pendulum-swinging challenges to a lot of evangelical views about God, heaven and hell. Others approach Bell as already convinced that his views are dangerous. The two perspectives cause there to be 2 different approaches to the book/Bell. This is why I liked what Scot McKnight did in his series on his blog, not to mention that he did it a few weeks after all the hub-bub. It gave time for more thoughtful reflection.

  • Richard

    Roger, thanks for demonstrating what a good, neutral book review looks like. Galli’s stance in all this has been very interesting to me as I’ve interacted with his writings at CT and Jesus Creed as a guest poster. I appreciated your theory that he’s writing from a different context and that he’s reacting to Bell from that place. This leads to apparent discrepancies in his positions though. For instance, you demonstrate his concern that Bell is neglecting Substitutionary Atonement in favor of Christus Victor and yet the language you quote from page 72 when he summarizes the Gospel is straight Christus Victor. Its been as fascinating to watch the fireworks as it has been to participate in the discussions… Thanks for providing more light than heat.

  • dopderbeck

    I had exactly the same feeling when I read (parts of) Galli’s book through Amazon preview. If Galli and Bell were conversing, they would be talking past each other because of very different starting points. I don’t think Galli understands the damage fundamentalism has done to some people.

  • K Gray

    …I feel like he read a different book than I did….

    That’s what has struck me, too: there is little agreement on ‘what Rob Bell is saying,” indicating a central problem with Love Wins. It’s suggestive (“you are wrong but what might be right?”) and the gaps require too much reader-filling.

    While theologians fill those gaps with Bible-based knowledge and assumptions, the masses who are reading Love Wins (which seems popular with the partially-churched and formerly-churched, for lack of better terms) fill the gaps with ….? They are open to whatever. That’s often more appealing to them than the Bible.

  • You have convinced me not to buy either book! Why should any reader come away with so many questions about what the author (either one) intended to say?

    In relation to chapter 2, one thing you attribute to Galli struck me: “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.” If accurate in presenting Galli’s argument, the argument is worthless. I like to call this kind of argument “theology by assertion.” A theologian can assert anything; the real issue is can they prove it using a broad-based analysis of Scripture (i.e. not ripping a verse out of context).

    Think about it. Galli evidently argues that human beings can by undue focus on God’s grace make that grace disappear. That seems to make us extremely powerful indeed! So, Galli’s argument assumes we are really powerful, but his whole objection is that we have no such power because it is all in God’s hands. I find his idea strange and contradictory. Perhaps I have not understood it.

    As you can tell, I am no fan of theology by assertion.


    • rogereolson

      I shouldn’t speak for Mark Galli here, but I do my best to explain why I think he believes that statement (to which you object) is warranted. Underlying his entire objection to Bell’s book is (I think) the assumption that God does everything ultimately for himself. That is, for his glory (Edwards, Boettner, Sproul, Piper). His grace to us is really not so much for us as for him. So, if we focus too much on God’s grace and mercy to us we undermine it’s very purpose. Our main focus should be on the God who shows grace and mercy and not on our experience of it. All I can say is, I think that’s a false either-or. Surely we can do both at the same time. That is, give all the glory to God for his greatness and goodness AND revel in the wonderful experience of grace.

  • Ken Haynes


    Great post….so appreciate you challenging us to read generously……and sharpening distinctions. Hope you continue to churn it out on the blog. It is so great to read someone on a regular basis whose books have formed me profoundly. Appreciate it…

  • Rob

    I have not read either book but you mention that they both talk about heaven. Could there be some problems with both authors’ views if they are emphasizing salvation as going to heaven? I realize not everyone loves NT Wright like I do, but a chapter called “The point of heaven” just sounds like it is emphasizing heaven as the end of salvation rather than resurrection. I am not sure I would trust that theologians soteriology if he is confused about the goal or end of salvation.

    • rogereolson

      Neither one denies resurrection. I suspect they would both agree that our ultimate hope is in the new heaven and new earth–God’s resurrection of creation. That’s perhaps what they mean by “heaven.” I tend to distinguish heaven from paradise in order to avoid that confusion. Paradise is the disembodied, incomplete, “waiting” place after bodily death before resurrection which is at the inauguration of “heaven.” The debate about heaven (exactly what they mean by that is somewhat unclear so I’m filling in the gaps) has to do with whether those who go to heaven experience growth there. Bell says yes; Galli says no.