Dear Friends and Ministry Partners,
Occasionally something pops up on the radar of Christians, pastors, and local churches that becomes an important teaching moment. The release of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is an example of this.
Since this book is becoming a point of conversation for many believers (and sadly, for many outside of the church), I thought you might want some resources to help navigate through the conversation. The April 25 cover of Time magazine is titled “What if There’s No Hell?” (A popular pastor’s best-selling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation, and judgment). This discussion is not going away. I send these resources to help you process this topic with other believers (and spiritual seekers) in a way that will honor Jesus and stay true to Scripture.
Please feel free to forward this to anyone who might benefit from looking at the resources I have attached.
I have provided a link to a brief but very revealing interview of Rob Bell by Martin Bashir. Martin is a well-respected reporter who does an excellent job calling Bell out on a number of problems with his book. See video.
Here is a link to a follow-up radio interview between Martin Bashir and a very sharp pastor (Paul Edwards), where they discuss Bell’s book in greater detail. In this interview, Bashir also speaks of his own faith. See video.
I have also given you a link to a very thorough theological review of Bell’s theology and new book that was written by a personal friend of mine who I respect greatly, Kevin DeYoung. I was going to write a review of Bell’s theology, but Kevin did such an excellent job that I will simply commend his work to you.
A number of scholars and pastors had a brief discussion on the topic of universalism (the big theme of Bell’s book). Read reflections by Tim Keller, Don Carson, and others here.
I have traveled a unique journey in relationship to Mars Hill Bible Church (where Bell is a pastor) and with Rob. I would like to share some of my insights about what I have learned along the way and also give some of my observations about the content and teaching style of Bell’s books.
I have read a number of blogs in defense of Bell and his beliefs over the past few weeks. In many cases, the writers say that those who critique Bell are jealous, don’t know him, or have not read his work. In my case, none of these are true. I hope my reflections shed some light and give insight from someone who loves the church and is deeply concerned for Rob.
A few months before Mars Hill Bible Church would be planted by Rob Bell (and a group from Calvary Non-Denominational Church), I heard that there would be a new church starting a couple of miles from my house. (At the time, I lived in Byron Center, MI.) I felt led to pray for this new church regularly before it even began. I love new churches and celebrate any time God moves to birth a new congregation! I was praying for Rob and the church two or three times a week for many months before they began meeting.
Once the church was launched, I continued to pray and dropped Rob a couple of notes of encouragement, letting him know that a local pastor was lifting him up in prayer and celebrating the new ministry. Rob responded by sharing one of these notes with some church members and sent me a letter thanking me for partnering in prayer.
Not long after that, I received a call from Willow Creek Church and was asked to write an article about Mars Hill Bible Church, Rob Bell, and the rapid growth the new church was experiencing. I did this, and the Willow Creek magazine published this article (one of the first written about Rob and the church). In preparation to write the article, I visited the church, interviewed the lead elder, a key staff member, and Rob. I was very positive and wrote about the great work God was doing and the way the Holy Spirit was blessing this new ministry.
Over the coming years, I continued to pray for the church and even took Rob out for lunch to encourage him and bless his ministry. I found him engaging, passionate, and desiring for people to know the love of Jesus.
Rob published his first book, Velvet Elvis, with Zondervan. Since I had been writing for Zondervan for over a decade at that time, I received an advance, pre-edited copy of the book. I read it and was deeply troubled with the theology and method of teaching in the book. In that book, Rob clearly questioned the importance of the virgin birth of Jesus as well as the authority of the Bible. I was concerned enough to call Rob and ask if we could meet to talk about his book and what he was trying to communicate.
We met for over an hour, and I read six sections of his book out loud to Rob. I told him things like, “As I read this section, it seems clear that you do not believe the virgin birth of Jesus is important to the Christian faith.” In each case, Rob explained that I had misunderstood what he was trying to communicate. He would then explain what he actually believed and what he was trying to communicate. Each time, I told him that if he really believed what he was telling me, his words in the book were dangerously misleading, and he should be much more careful and clear in future writing. He thanked me for sharing my concern
A few months later, I read the final edited version of Velvet Elvis. Some of the language had been softened, but I still had all of the same concerns. In response to Rob’s verbal explanations, I continued to pray for him and his ministry but had a real caution about where he was heading.
Over the next few years, my concerns grew, and I found myself praying that Rob would humbly seek counsel from wise leaders who are in the mainstream of the Christian tradition and faith. Instead, more and more he surrounded himself with leaders who are liberal in theology, from the liberal-emergent stream of thinking, and those who question and reject core doctrines of the Christian faith. Many of the people Rob looks to for wisdom and support in ministry (and who are guest preachers at his church) are those who seriously question the authority of Scripture and who are rejecting long-held beliefs of the Christian faith.
When Rob’s new book, Love Wins, was released, I read it. I took over a hundred and forty notes and was astounded by the poor theology, abuse of Scripture, and irrational conclusions. The theological concerns expressed in the attachments above are ones I had when I read the book. Here are some of my other concerns (of a more pastoral nature):
From One Inaccurate Caricature of God to Another
In the book, Rob paints a picture of God that is not true to Scripture or the way that most people think of God. Rob’s vision of how most people view God is a Being that says, “I love you,” but as soon as you don’t follow just the way he prescribes, he is delighted to send you to eternal torment. Rob does not grapple with the holiness of God, the justice of God, or the wrath of God in any meaningful way. Instead, he sets up a caricature of a mean and vindictive Being and seeks to knock it down.
It is sad, because Rob replaces one false view with another very flimsy caricature. Rob does not like the story he supposes people are telling, so he comes up with his own story, one that makes him feel better. Rob paints a picture of a god who is loving, but not holy or just. This being, or version of Jesus, is all about love as Rob defines it.
Rob tries to move the reader from one false view of God to Rob’s false view of God. Both are inaccurate and unbiblical caricatures. Neither reflects the glorious, holy, just, loving, and powerful God of the Bible.
God Is Love, but Love Is Not God
Rob is correct that in First John we read that “God is love.” One core characteristic and quality of God is perfect love. But this is only part of who God is. As I read the book, it seems that Rob has turned this passage of the Bible upside down, and he believes “Love is God.” This leads to very confused theology.
A Stylized and Manipulative Form of Communication
I have been writing for Zondervan Publishing and other publishers for over two decades. I have also been preaching and speaking for Christian gatherings for almost three decades. I know a fair amount about communication. I have never read a book that was so cleverly deceptive on the one hand and so transparently manipulative on the other hand. Here is my primary concern about Rob’s communication style after reading Love Wins:
Over and over through the book, Rob does the same thing. He sets up a caricature (straw man) of some idea or theological concept. He then paints a picture of what he will be seeking to dismantle or do away with. In almost every case, it is not a real picture, and few if any people think or view things the way he describes them. His picture is simplistic and childish.
Then, with a cyclical process of saying the same thing over and over, Rob tries to wear down the reader by making the false idea he has painted seem unloving, intellectually shallow, or just silly. At this point, he usually throws in a little joke or humorous comment to break the tension and distract from the fact that he is inviting us to leave orthodox Christian doctrine and travel down a road that heads toward non-biblical belief.
Once Rob paints his new vision of things, Rob assumes we all agree and moves to the next topic. Rob does not like the traditional Christian story (as he has heard and interpreted it). So he tells a new story or offers a new painting of things as he sees them.
It is ironic that he does much of this by asking questions and pretending he is a fellow searcher for truth. The truth is Rob has his conclusions firmly in mind; he knows where he is taking the reader and is actively seeking to get people to shift their beliefs. He is not coming at the topic of heaven and hell as someone who is wandering along trying to figure things out. He has firm convictions and is invoking a very specific method of communication to draw people along and help them agree with him. It is deceptive at worst and disingenuous at best for Rob to pretend he is asking questions because he is a fellow searcher.
I found the approach of how Rob seeks to change the reader’s mind highly stylized and extremely manipulative.
An Assault on Evangelism
As much as Rob claims love for people, he does not believe they are lost without Jesus. Any call to do evangelism and reach people who are far from Jesus is removed if a person adopts Rob’s new theology. He might use the word evangelism, but he does not believe people need to hear the gospel, repent of sin, and receive Jesus to enter this life-giving relationship.
He even goes so far as to (without naming names) make fun of some of the great outreach ministries God has used to reach many for Jesus. Rob subtly (and sometimes overtly) mocks and belittles people through history who have sought to do missions and evangelism.
Hostility Toward Christians and the Church
Rob frames his whole book around the idea of love, but I felt a clear disdain and even hostility toward many groups of Christians and the church as I read Love Wins. It broke my heart. There is a tone all through the book that shows that Rob does not really love the church or most people who are seeking to bring the good news of the gospel to the world.
Rob uses words like “toxic” and “misguided” to describe Christians, churches, and outreach ministries who teach what has been embraced by believers for 2,000 years. With all his talk of love, Rob does a lot of taunting and degrading through the book.
Playing Both Sides
Rob wants to question core doctrines of the Bible and claim he is still in the mainstream of the historical orthodox Christian faith. He redefines hell and heaven to the point that they do not reflect what the Bible teaches or the church has believed for the past two millennia. Yet, he still wants to say, “I believe in heaven and hell.” Rob attacks the church and Christians but still wants to declare his book is a labor of love. He will say, “I am not a universalist,” and then affirm the core beliefs of universalism. Rob plays both sides of the issues in an effort to keep his audience as large as possible and still accomplish his goal of changing the core beliefs of the church. One of the most shocking things I see as people respond to this book is how many don’t see the inconsistencies.
Rob likes dramatic illustrations. All through the book, he points to abuse and other painful sins that happen in our world. As I read this book, I felt Rob abuses Scripture over and over again. He tears verses out of context and seeks to build a case that supports his version of the “Jesus story.” He clips small portions from the Old Testament prophets and points out how God wants to extend grace (and this is true), but he neglects the next verse or chapter that addresses God’s holy judgment of sin.
Rob seems to have made a decision that he wants to give the world a new version of the story of Jesus. It seems to me that Rob decided that a better version of the story would be one where there is not eternal punishment in hell. In Rob’s version, everyone gets to go to heaven. In this revised version, God’s love is the only attribute that matters, and holiness, justice, and judgment are swept away.
I like Rob’s version. It is warm and nice. I wish it were true. The problem is it is unbiblical and false. The only way to arrive where Bell does is to absolutely abuse the Bible, to cut things out of context, and to ignore a large portion of the Bible’s teaching. This, it seems to me, is what Rob has done.
In the end, I find myself praying for Rob, as I have been for about a decade. At first, I was praying for God’s blessing on his new ministry. Now I am praying for a humble and repentant heart. I am praying Rob will experience a deep conviction of the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the God who is loving, but also holy, holy, holy! I invite you to pray with me.