Love Wins…But What About the Gospel? (Part 1)

Author & Pastor Rob Bell

God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell. Huh?

This quote on the back of Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” sets the proverbial stage for what’s contained within its two hundred or so pages. Over the course of those same pages, Bell questions over and over again some of the essential doctrines that most Bible-believing Christians have believed for nearly two thousand years.

Admittedly, I’m not a charter member of the Rob Bell fan club (or its president, for that matter), so I wasn’t exactly clamoring to scoop up his new book when it hit the shelves. However, after reading on some of the controversy and getting involved in it to a degree, I thought perhaps I would spend some time in reading the book.

Now, I’m not one of those who advocates that in order to have an opinion on a controversial book, that you have to have read the thing in its entirety. In all honesty, there’s already been a plethora of articles written on this particular subject and many of them have been informative, well-written, and done in such a way as to be constructively critical while pointing out error. However, the others are nothing more than poorly-written hit pieces meant to do nothing more than injure the individual who happens to be the focal point, Rob Bell in this case. That’s not the intention here. The intention is, as others have attempted to do, to offer a counterbalance to Bell’s side of the story and warn against false teaching in the church. I’m sure Bell has some good things to say but his readers need to be aware that treading on thin theological ground can and does have major implications elsewhere.

That being said, this piece isn’t intended to be an in-depth theological treatise on the finer points of substitutionary atonement (sorry…had to throw in a couple of big spiritual words for effect) or fiduciary symbolism (two words that I thought just sounded really good but mean absolutely nothing together…). In other words, and all kidding aside, I’m not a theological expert, I’ve never gone to seminary, and I haven’t stayed at a Holiday Inn Express recently. OK, so I reneged on the kidding part…

In the preface to Bell’s book, he states the following about God’s love…

This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” (preface, page VIII)

I would argue that, on the contrary, a true understanding of hell and exactly what Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross has really saved us from could be an essential ingredient to the salvation of many lost souls. Now, I’m no big proponent of the fire and brimstone approach to preaching to the lost but neither do I think it’s wise to avoid the topic altogether. It’s not something that I would throw in the face of a prospective convert just to twist the knife of guilt a little further or plant some kind of unnecessary fear within someone. As a good friend told me recently, just using a calm, matter-of-fact, humble tone with someone while breaching this topic may be the right approach.

Bell does go on to make a good point and one that should be heard by the entire Christian community:

Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: “We don’t discuss those things here.” (preface, page X).

This is one of the things I find most troubling with some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Honestly, there are a good number of unbelievers who ask hard questions, not intending to actually get or even listen to an answer, but to prod, provoke, and pretend that they are only honestly searching. Those aren’t the folks I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ones who are honestly searching for and struggling with questions of faith and belief. After all, many if not most of the heroes of our faith struggled mightily in following our God. On this point, Bell makes another good argument, pointing out that Abraham, for instance, bargained with God and that Job and his friends argue about the “deepest questions of human suffering” and that “God is practically on trial” in the book of Lamentations. Our God isn’t afraid of us questioning him, nor is it sinful for us to do so as long as our hearts are in the right place. Anyway, much applause for Bell on this point.

Bell closes the preface by saying:

There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous. At the same time, some issues aren’t as big as people have made them. Much blood has been spilled in church splits, heresy trials, and raging debates over issues that are, in the end, not that essential. (preface, page X)

That some Christians in the past have abused and misused the Bible’s calling to defend the faith (Jude 1:3) is no reason to entertain theological error. The writers of the New Testament often exhort their readers to not only watch for false teachers but to have nothing to do with them (2nd Thessalonians 3:14). But let’s also not forget that the very next verse, in this case, also says to not regard those folks as enemies but warn them like a brother. That’s the purpose of this article, and this entire blog for that matter.