(In this part I examine Bell’s motivations and supporters for this book/view)
What are Bell’s Motivations?
This is a difficult question to answer as no one really knows the inner thoughts, desires and motivations of another individual (except God). I’ve also asked myself if Bell is intentionally trying to deceive the reader. Some of his arguments and exegesis are just too shoddy for someone as smart as I believe Bell is. With this said, the most gracious attempt to answer this question is to assume the best of his intentions, which he does inform us in the book. Bell is eager to enlighten the reader (in the preface) that Christianity has been hijacked by those who hold the traditional doctrine of hell. He believes that “this is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s [sic] message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”[i] His motivation is a desire to share God’s love with as many people as he can, but he believes this is difficult with this horrid doctrine (at least as it is traditionally portrayed) in place.
I resonate with the uncomfortable nature of this doctrine, but his journey into these questions begins with his assumption about the “horrific” nature of traditional hell and the rest of the book is spent attempting to redefine hell to fit his preconceived notions. He is a brilliant communicator and very creative and thus is able to pull the reader into his myopic views without really interacting with the whole of Scripture or all the attributes of God. For instance, he only uses the word “worship” once in the entire book,[ii] and God’s holiness and justice is not addressed adequately at all.
I believe Bell is attempting to make Christianity more “palatable” as the doctrine of hell and the exclusiveness of Jesus are offensive to our culture. Although Bell maintains the exclusivity of Jesus, he does it in a way that if Jesus is equivalent to the “rocks around us” (Bell’s last chapter) then I’m not sure how Jesus is still exclusive. Or, if one can make a choice for him in the afterlife, this life becomes less important for someone to choose Jesus now – since there is another chance. This additionally erodes the notion of exclusivism (in this lifetime).
The ironic thing is that this attempt to soften Christianity or remove offensive elements has been done before (liberalism) and has not resulted in an increase in those who choose to follow Jesus. Mainline Christian denominations have long ago given up the doctrine of hell and Jesus’ exclusive nature and their numbers have decreased. Wikipedia provides the following information about their membership. “Mainline denominations peaked in membership in the 1950s and have declined steadily in the last half century. From 1960 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, then fell to 21 million in 2005. Today, they are a minority among American Protestants, claiming approximately 15 percent of American adults among their adherents.”[iii] While some may point to other reasons for the decline, there seems to be some connection as biblically conservative churches have shown the highest increases in attendance (as a comparison).[iv]
The most troubling aspect of the book is his mishandling of God’s Word. Proper interpretation of Scripture would involve drawing the meaning out of the text using context, structural-grammatical analysis, historical-cultural analysis, and lexical analysis. I have shown (above) a couple examples of this in Bell’s book, but there are plenty of other instances of faulty exegesis that others have adequately demonstrated (cf. References section). What I believe Bell has done in many (if not most) of his passages is eisegesis. This is a process of misinterpreting a text in a way that introduces one’s own ideas or reading into the text. This process is highly subjective and violates Paul’s command to correctly handle the “word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). I believe that Bell’s motivations around his disgust at the traditional doctrine of hell have pushed him to interpret Scripture in a way that fits his predefined goals and views.
Who are Bell’s Supporters for This Book?
I believe it useful to know who has spoken out in favor of Bell’s book, so that we understand the scope of dialogue regarding what was once a watershed issue for evangelicals. Brian McLaren has come out in support of Bell’s views in the book, which isn’t surprising for anyone who has read his recent book, The Last Word and the Word after That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity. McLaren has had some “blog” interactions (defending Bell’s view) back and forth with Dr. Albert Mohler.[v]
Greg Boyd provides a recommendation of the book which is on the back flap of the book, “Love Wins is a bold, prophetic, and poetic masterpiece. I don’t know any writer who expresses the inexpressible love of God as powerfully and as beautifully as Rob Bell!! Many will disagree with some of Rob’s perspectives, but no one who seriously engages this book will put it down unchanged. A ‘must read’ book!” Boyd posted on his blog that he doesn’t think Bell is a universalist, but he also tries to define universalism in the same way that Bell does, “God coercing people into heaven against their free will.”[vi] As I’ve mentioned earlier in this paper, universalism is just the general idea that all will be saved – how this occurs differs among writers. For Bell, God’s love just continues forever after death until a person freely chooses him. It’s nuanced, but universalism even so.
I was a little surprised to find Boyd’s referral on the book, although there were hints in Boyd’s book, Letters From a Skeptic, that he was a bit uneasy with the doctrine of hell as eternal punishment and offered the option of annihilation in one of his letter responses to his father. Boyd is also known for his open theistic views – the idea that it is impossible for God to know the future contingent actions of free willed creatures. William Lane Craig has written and spoken against the dangers of this view.[vii] It is a diminished view of God’s omniscience, and in hindsight I can see some possible connections to Bell’s view as God seems at the mercy of our free will.
Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) also endorses Bell’s book. Peterson writes, “In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of the evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all.” This endorsement surprised me the most, although in further interviews, Peterson claims he doesn’t agree with everything that Bell wrote, but that he thinks this topic (hell) is worth discussing. However, he seems to slam the door on anyone who does attempt to interact with Bell’s book stating, “There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.”[viii] Certainly, there are some who have not shown grace when interacting with Bell’s views, but maybe Peterson has adopted a redefined “tolerance” in that anyone who disagrees with someone else is “nasty” or “intolerant” etc. (cf. Judgmentalism Section below)
I decided to do a sampling of the most direct verses on hell in The Message to determine if Peterson had adopted something similar to Bell’s theology into his paraphrase. I was thankful to see that Peterson interpreted the passages mostly consistent with the historic doctrine (and other translations). I have included this section later in this paper.
[i] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, vii.
[ii] Mark Galli, God Wins: Heaven, Hell and Why the Good News is Better Than Love Wins (Carol Spring, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 87.
[iv] I owe this insight to discussions I recently had with Professor Tim Geddert (Fresno Pacific) as we discussed the book.
[v] McLaren blog – http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/challenging-three-cherished-evan.html Mohler blog – http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/
[vii] William Lane Craig spoke on Palm Sunday (April 17, 2011) at Monte Vista Chapel about Jesus’ knowledge of the future.
[viii] Eugene Peterson: Would Jesus Condemn Rob Bell? http://www.patheos.com/community/loveandjudgment/2011/03/16/eugene-peterson-would-jesus-condemn-rob-bell/ accessed October 24, 2011.