Love Wins Isn’t Jewish Enough for Rob Bell

Love Wins Isn’t Jewish Enough for Rob Bell June 4, 2012

I like Love Wins. Actually, I love Love Wins.

No, it isn’t a thorough theological treatment of the afterlife, but it certainly provokes important questions. The broad vision of the book is admirable and courageous.

One of my favorite themes in this book is how Rob Bell points out that many people choose not to respond to Jesus because the Christ that is preached to them, is not the same Son of God portrayed in the Scriptures. Sometimes, we start to talk about eternity, we need to ask: Which Jesus did a person reject?

Another theme that matters quite a bit in our theological discussion within evangelicalism is wrestling with how God the Father interacts with God the Son on the cross. Do we serve a God who commits some form of cosmic child abuse, pouring out wrath upon Jesus as he was crucified? Rob Bell wisely answers this with an emphatic: N–O!

On the issue of the atonement, it brings me great joy that the only resource Bell mentions in his resource list is written by a close mentor and family friend of mine: Mark D. Baker.[1]

Ever since I first heard Rob Bell speak at a youth specialties conference in 2002, I’ve been impressed with the ways he integrates historical context into his preaching. From the early days of hearing him speak, I love learning about Jesus and Paul as rabbis, the Caesars as persecutors of the early Christians, and the various customs and religions of the Roman Empire.

Bell typically focuses his attention on being sensitive to the Eastern/Jewish worldview from which the Christian Scriptures emerged. He understands, as many biblical scholars have come to recognize, that we cannot extract the Bible or Jesus from the Hebraic worldview.

In Love Wins, although Bell does not use the language of “open theism,” his view of human freedom certainly gives us hints of this influence in his theology. Again, as an open theist myself, I was impressed with the way that Bell poetically expressed the tension between human freewill and God’s desire: “Does God get what God wants?”

A basic premise of open theism is that the Christian church needs to recover a Hebraic view of God over against the Hellenistic perspective that dominates classical theology. Here, Rob Bell is consistent with his focus on the worldview of the Jews throughout much of his preaching and writing.

Perhaps the only major critique that I have of Love Wins (which, really is a minor one) has to do with the fact that when talking about hell, Bell loses touch with the Hebraic realities that inform his view of human freedom in the 1st place. What I mean is that I think he needs to consider the way that Hellenistic philosophy has crept into our understanding of the nature of human beings.

As I said in my recent hell series (Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?):

A presupposition of mine is the validity of what scholars call conditional immortality. Church Fathers such as Theophilus, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr argued this perspective. Clark Pinnock states: “God created humans mortal with a capacity for life everlasting, but it is not their inherent possession.” The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.

If scholars such as Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott (to name a few) are correct, then the idea that humans are innately eternal creatures is an imposition on to the biblical text. A simple example might be John 3.16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”

According to the most quoted Bible verse in history, believing in Jesus Christ guarantees that a person will not perish, or to put it another way: a person will not die permanently. Throughout the Bible, the Final Judgment of those who persist in unbelief is connected with destruction, annihilation, and absolute death.

The most controversial point in Love Wins is the suggestion that some people might have the potential to repent after death, and to therefore be reconciled to God and God’s people in the new creation. Although some accuse Rob Bell of being a standard universalist, the reality is that he presented an idea more consistent with postmortem repentance.

In other words, it might be possible that some who go to hell will realize in the next life that they messed up and are in need of a Savior. At that point, consistent with the God who always gives us free will, some might be saved from hell. As CS Lewis is noted for expounding: hell is locked from the inside.

In my recent series on hell, I express that the language of fire in judgment throughout the Bible always seems to have a final point: refinement. So, in a sense I think Rob Bell might be on to something. The problem is, that based on his book, he seems to believe that people will be in a literal place called hell for eternity until they repent. But, according to an ancient Jewish worldview, death is the ultimate end of existence. When the New Testament authors come from this understanding, they come to understand immortality as only possible as a gift from God in Jesus. Eternal existence, of any sort, will only be reality for Christ-followers.

After the 2nd coming of Christ and the final judgment, those who persist in refusing to be reconciled to their Creator after being resurrected on that final day will cease to exist.  The fires of God’s purifying love burns them up like chaff. Yet, in God’s mercy, it seems consistent with the narrative of the Scriptures that on this final Day of Judgment, some might in fact choose love… choose Christ… And thus find themselves receiving the gift of resurrection into God’s newly restored creation.

If Rob Bell had applied the Hebraic idea of absolute mortality, which in the New Testament becomes conditional immortality, he would have arrived at the view I recently argued: purgatorial conditionalism. Besides this misstep in Bell’s theological discourse, I greatly appreciate the book Love Wins and recommend it to anyone willing to discover a God who has not given up on creation or humanity!


[1] I can’t recommend Mark Baker books to you enough! They include: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (co-authored with Joel Green), Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, and Religious No More.

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  • It may not be worth the effort, but I would nonetheless like to point out that the apocryphal books of the LXX do support the notion of an immortal soul. Since the LXX was widely used in the early Church — and there are strong correspondences between the Wisdom of Solomon and some NT passages — the notion that: “The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.” should be called into question. It’s strictly a notion in Protestant NT scholarship, which tends to ignore deutro-canonical books. Protestant NT studies would benefit from renewed studies in the LXX. It was the OT Bible of the early Church.

    •  Even so, if they are apocryphal books of the septuagint, doesn’t this mean they aren’t biblical? It seems that Kurt’s point was that it’s not an entirely biblical concept that immortality belongs to the soul, regardless of one’s desire to be reconciled to God.

      Not only that, but I daresay the LXX was written once Hellenism spread throughout Israel, further supporting that unconditional immortality could have been a Greek concept rather than a Hebrew one.

    • Ryan Robinson

      It isn’t a subject I’ve looked into a lot, but from my understanding you’re exactly right. I thought that by the time of Jesus and Paul, Judaism did generally hold to a belief in an immortal soul. I can’t cite examples, but I’m pretty sure it was also a stronger theme in midrash of the time. Did they get this idea from the Greeks? Probably. But I think it is unfair to say that it was foreign from biblical (including apocryphal for our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters) thought and definitely not from first-century Jewish thought in which Jesus (and Paul and others) were speaking. 

      • I haven’t studied this in any detail, but doesn’t the controversy between Pharisees & Saducees reported in the NT support Kurt’s contention that the immortality of the soul was not a major point, if considered at all, by Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors?

  • Good stuff. Ever read George MacDonald on the subject? He’s like Bell on steroids. Can’t wait to check out that article on purgatorial conditionalism. 

  • I was going to make the point that Craig made below, but then I saw he already made it I’ll simply affirm it. Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, he shows quite well that the Hebrew mind was divided on the idea. Some held to the believe in conditional immortality and others held to immortality.

    On a side note, I didn’t get the same “open theism” jive From Love Wins as you did. Unless Bell’s changed his views (which is possible), in his teaching video “Everything Is Spiritual”, he affirms a view of time that is clearly within the classical Christian thought and against the Open View.

    • Although the Jews may have been in dialogue on this issue around the time of Jesus, it is clear that Hebraic thought in its earliest forms… and throughout the entirety of the Old Testament cannon is unanimous on conditionalism. I admitted to Craig that I will be doing a bit more thinking on the issue… but I’m 99% convinced.

      •  Kurt, well, obviously you can make this point if you say “Hebraic thought in its earliest forms.” That leaves the LXX out. But, I think there is good reason to think that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was more more divided on the issue.

      • Actually, (Craig), Kurt cannot make this claim, NOT even regarding the “Hebraic thought in its earliest forms…” Jon Levenson in his stellar book, “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel” explores that “earliest” Hebraic thought. Israel’s earliest thought process didn’t consider the afterlife at all, actually (and now I’m talking about the Hebrew Scriptures). Neither the idea of an immortal soul, NOR the idea of “conditionalism”. To suggest so confidently otherwise is impudent … Furthermore – since (as you know full well as a fan of Wright) understanding Jewish thought AT THE TIME OF JESUS AND PAUL is crucial to understanding Paul’s thought process and cannot be so easily dismissed. 1) The earliest Hebraic thought had no opinion on the matter of the after life (yes, that includes conditionalism) 2) Later Hebraic thought was split on the matter.

        Thus, not so clear. 🙂

        •  @2cf139d20ad5cd15252a779c6dd0b1cd:disqus … you are right about conditionalism not being in the OT… I should have been clearer. in the OT, as you point out, there is a uniform view that humans are *mortal* and simply die… well, except for a couple of places that hint toward resurrection.  I think how we view Gen 2 matters here. Most conditionalists have tended to see the tree of life as a source of immortality… the ultimate conditionalism as it were… now that I’ve recently changed my view on that passage, I’m not sure that such an assumption flies.

          All that to say, I edited a couple of sentences to distinguish mortality in the OT and conditionalism in the NT. I’m tired and sick at the moment, but hopefully that makes sense.

          • Thanks for the clarification.

            I think modern assumptions about phrases like “tree of life” or “eternal life” or “eternal death” and so on are spearheaded in the wrong direction. We interpret these things in terms of “quantity” rather than “quality” when I think the Hebrew mind understood “eternal life” and “eternal death” to be primarily about quality rather than quantity. This throws a monkey wrench into the discussion of whether we can even talk about immortality and mortality of the soul in connection to these passages. But that’s were I’m at in this discussion. Hence, still not sold on conditionalism. Peace.

  • Well, I’m really not trying to be argumentative, I just think that a lot of the published literature — including the writing of authors I admire — over-states this. There is reason to believe that the “immortality of the soul” idea co-existed with other ideas in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The early church had this verse in its Bible:

    “…for God created us for incorruption,
        and made us in the image of his own eternity….” (Wisdom 2:23 NRSV)

    And, if there is some evidence from early rabbinical writings (as Ryan Robinson said) that strengthens the point. Though the rabbinic writings are post-NT, they are generally thought to reflect the ideas of an earlier period.

  • Alantiff0301

    What I like about this book is that Bell puts a very human touch on a subject that any person who struggles with their faith even a wee bit has questioned. I’ve graduated from a decent seminary so I can appreciate the dialogue that everyone is having about what the ancient Hebrews believed (however heavily influenced by other cultures). I ended up working in a cancer center and not a church. I find people reading Bell’s book in their hospital beds. The book has initiated fascinating discussions where theology meets the proverbial road. As you can imagine the language looks starkly different in these situations. Patients aren’t concerned with anything but if God will accept them ‘as is.’
    On a personal note, if only those that accept, find, or are found by Christ will avoid destruction then may I be uncreated with the majority of God’s other children.

  • Although these were not your main points, I think they are still worth addressing…

    First, Bell’s integration of historical context is suspect. Many scholars and historical exegetes disagree with Bell’s use of history (and not all of them come from hyper-conservative backgrounds).

    Second, how can God (the Father) be committing “cosmic child abuse” on God (the Son), if they are one in essence?