Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011), is the audacious title of a book by Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. Mr. Bell was educated at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, and spent a brief apprenticeship under Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI. In 1999 Mr. Bell left Calvary Church to found Mars Hill Bible Church, where he was the lead pastor until 2012.
Love Wins is Rob Bell’s response to what he views as the hijacked story of Jesus and the message that only a select few will enter heaven at the end of time, while millions of others will spend eternity in hell. In his preface Bell says, “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” (vii). At the heart of this book is the premise that a loving God simply will not consign millions of human beings to unending torment and punishment.
Reading Love Wins is a challenge, but not because it is written in academic jargon of the theologian. It is written in a very simplistic style that seems intended for the millennial, whose attention span is often measured in nanoseconds. To this end, the page layout is scattered and disjointed. Sentences often begin with a few words on one line, then continue with a few words on the next line, and are completed with a few words on the third line. Vast areas of blank space on the pages makes the reading very quick, but it leaves a more traditional reader wondering why this is necessary. If this book were printed in a more traditional format, it would certainly be far fewer pages in length than its current 198 pages of text.
Mr. Bell takes examples of what he suggests are “typical” Christian attitudes and uses them as the reasons why traditional Christian views on life, death, heaven, hell, God and Jesus are “misguided and toxic.” Like most radicals, he creates a straw man of the most outlandish caricatures of Christian doctrines and then shreds them in favor of his own view. Thus, when one of his parishioners suggested that Mahatma Ghandi was in hell, Bell responded with, “Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” (p. 2). Instead of responding with the biblical truth that no one is in hell yet (cf. Lk. 16:19-31), Bell decides to throw the whole idea of hell into the wastebasket of theological thought.
Rob Bell espouses a modified form of the “paradise earth” philosophy of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses believe only 144,000 will enter heaven while the rest of the righteous will live on paradise earth, Bell takes the view that God’s intention is that the world and everyone in it will someday be perfect. Heaven and hell, according to Bell, are here on earth and we create them for ourselves by our acceptance or rejection of God’s intention for us. As Bell explains it, death is necessary for life, so when we die, we enter the next phase, as it were, in God’s ongoing transformation of us until we become what He wants us to be. He is particularly caustic in suggesting how awful it is to think of God punishing people forever and ever for the sins they committed in their brief lifetime upon the earth.
In support of his conclusions Bell brings the idea of “cherry picking” scripture to a new level. In addition to often pulling single verses out of context to make a point, Bell more often yanks words or phrases out of those verses to prove his assertions. Most of his references to the biblical text include only the book and chapter, leaving the average reader with no idea exactly where his brief quotation is actually found. In many cases Bell flatly ignores the rest of what the scriptures say on some topic, giving instead only the words or verse that says what he wants said. One example is his reference to Isa. 59 (he doesn’t tell the reader he is quoting from v. 1), saying that this proves that God is able to save everyone, and will save everyone. He tells the reader that God’s hand is not so short that it cannot save, nor is his ear so dull that he cannot hear. However, v. 2 says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” This is typical of Bell’s approach to scripture. Anything that does not support his idea that God will remake all of us into godly, loving, peaceable, and saved people is simply shunted aside.
In another example of Bell’s incomplete use of scripture, he makes a lengthy argument about the meaning of the Greek word aion. He correctly points out that this word, which is usually translated “eternal,” may be used to describe any period of time, whether definite or indefinite. He also correctly points out that this word is often used to describe a quality of life (Bell calls it an intensity of experience). From these definitions Bell asserts that “eternal” punishment is actually nothing more than an intense experience of purging or pruning after death with the purpose of enabling the person so pruned to flourish. However, in the scriptures that speak of eternal punishment and eternal life in the same context (e.g., Mt. 25:46), the same Greek word, aion, is used to describe both the punishment and the life. If “eternal” punishment is not forever and ever, then neither is “eternal” life. Bell ignores this truth.
Bell’s ultimate point is that since God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), can we honestly believe that God doesn’t get what He wants? According to Bell, God wants everyone to be saved, therefore everyone will be saved. Like so many other scriptures to which Bell alludes, he has misapplied this verse as well. The overwhelming body of scripture clearly shows that not everyone will be saved, but this is of little consequence to Rob Bell. Jesus said that only those who do the Father’s will can enter heaven (Mt. 7:21). John said that everyone whose name was not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14, 15).
Also absent from Bell’s discussion is any meaningful reference to God’s justice. He twists the parable of the prodigal son to condemn the older brother, and those whom Bell says are his heirs today, because we have a distorted view of the Father in heaven. Unfortunately for Bell, the parable of the prodigal son is not about a second chance after death. Nor is it about the fact that God’s love will overwhelm even the most wicked and eventually make them holy. The parable is about the graciousness of God to forgive even the most vile sinner, if he repents and returns to God.
Love Wins is a New York Times best-seller, and continues to sell millions of copies. It contains snippets of truth, wrapped in layers of a twisted view of scripture. This is not a trustworthy book. Jesus said that if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit (Mt. 15:14). While it might be appealing to believe that eventually everyone will be saved, the scriptures plainly teach otherwise.