Love Wins: the breakdown


“All you need is love”

That’s what the Beatles reckon.  And at least one Christian theologian is inclined to agree.

That man: Rob Bell.  An American pastor from Chicago who wrote a book that has caused more than a few spilled soy lattes around the churches of the Sydney Anglican diocese.

Prior to the book being released, the ‘great’ John Piper pre-empted any influence it could have by tweeting: ‘Farewell Rob Bell’. 

Perhaps Mr Piper was trying to encourage people not to read Bell’s book? Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way; Bell’s book has raced up the New York Times’ Best Seller list faster than you could say ‘penal substitutionary atonement’, and the fallout has been vast.

For example, my connect group leader told me he was giving a sermon on hell.  I replied, “Maybe you could call it ‘love wins’”, to which he replied, “If I wanted it to be heretical.”

One of my friends on Facebook announced she was reading the book to which a senior Anglican Pastor commented, ‘It’s a very naughty title, isn’t it?”

Another friend of mine, after reading Bell’s book, declared that it was ‘definitely heretical’ and it was ‘a waste of time’ to read it.

Well, there are few things I enjoy more than ruffling a few feathers, and there’s few things more annoying to me than people criticising books they haven’t even read.  So, I took my own advice and read the thing.


In fact, I couldn’t put it down.  I started the book at 7:30pm and finished it by 11:40pm.  Which leads me to one quick criticism.

What is with the large font?  Is this a Peter Rabbit book or a theology book?  Size 18 font and quintuple spacing just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid.

Ok, onto the book.

To properly analyse this, I decided to take a unique approach; I’ll break it down as if it was a blockbuster sporting matchup.  Critics say one thing, Bell says another.  Who has the edge?  Well, let’s find out.  Besides, who wants another boring book review anyway?


Critics: He’s a Universalist!

Bell: I’m not a Universalist!

Dylan: Well, I have to agree with Bell, he’s not a Universalist (yes, according to Microsoft Word ‘Universalist’ needs a capital U.  Sue me.) because on page 115 he says we can never know for sure what someone’s eternal destiny is.  This leads to an interesting thought he has regarding the potential for people who are dead to still be saved, but he never crosses that line by saying “all will be saved”.  

He says this:

“Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?  These are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.” (Page 115)

In other words: Bell doesn’t say everyone will be saved.  In other words, he’s not a Universalist.

Edge: Bell



Critics: God’s the one who does the salvation work!  He chooses who will and won’t be saved.

Bell: God gives people the choice of whether or not they accept his gift of free salvation.

Dylan: No way. You’re not getting me to answer this one.  You want to be a Calvinist? Fine.  You want to be Arminian? Fine. 

Riddle me this though, Calvinists: If God causes everything, then God must have caused Adam and Eve to sin.  However, if sin must be destroyed in God’s presence, because God is holy, not sinful, how can He then have caused people to sin?

And Arminians, riddle me this: If God leaves the choice up to us, how can He also be in control of everything and be sovereign. I.e. “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps?” (Proverbs 16:9).

Sure, you can probably come up with answers to those, but try coming up with answers which ultimately don’t come down to “because He’s God.”  In other words, get off your high horse and stop telling everyone else they have an incomplete and heretical view of God’s sovereignty.

Edge: Even



Critics: He uses scripture out of context!

Bell: No I don’t!

Dylan: Yes, Rob, you do.

There are quite a few examples but I’ll give two specifically.  One is a lot bigger than the other.

First, on page 84, Mr Bell quotes Ezekiel 16 and Matthew 10 to give the impression that the destroyed people from Sodom and Gomorrah still have the hope of being forgiven and reconciled.  The only problem with this is he quotes them more out of context than Lindsay Lohan hanging around Harvard University.

Rather, both those chapters use Sodom and Gomorrah to emphasise the seriousness of people’s sin.  I.e. your sin is SO bad; you make even Sodom and Gomorrah look holy.  That’s quite different to saying, “Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored and we’ll all have tea.”  It’s sloppy theology on Bell’s part.

Secondly, and most annoyingly, we go back to page 115, and to his credit he writes: “…it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details… because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process.”

Unfortunately that’s exactly what he does.  He draws on Revelation 21:25 which says: “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.”  It’s referring to the New Jerusalem and a vision of an end times temple (which Ezekiel also refers to by the way) and it’s entirely metaphorical.  Unfortunately, Mr Bell says: “gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out.  If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.”

Yes, that’s true, unfortunately he links this to people being able to (even after they die) still enter the gates of the temple.  The classic, give an inch and take a mile approach.

Sorry, Rob, but Revelation 21 goes on to say: “The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.  Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

In other words, despite a gate being ‘open’ it meant all the people of the city can now enter it, particularly the most holy place (hence the tearing of the curtain).  Revelation is pretty clear that some people won’t be able to make it into the city.  Again, we’ve just seen some sloppy theology on Bell’s part, or as my housemate puts it, “slopology” which really should be in the dictionary because it is a FANTASTIC word.

Edge: Critics



Critics: He doesn’t preach the tough theology!

Bell: I preach loving theology

Dylan: I’ve noticed a trend since moving to Sydney.  A lot of the preaching I hear has a clear goal to it: convict people of sin, get them to buy into the idea of ‘total depravity’ (you are nothing but a sinful, horrible person), and get them to realise they’ve been saved by the skin of their teeth or “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15).

They like this so much that they preach it almost all the time.  They ignore that Paul the apostle gave sermons where he didn’t emphasise how terrible you are as much as he would emphasise how good God is.  According to many Sydney-siders, any sermon that fails to hammer home that you’re a lying, dirty scumbag that’s 100% evil is often written off as being ‘soft’ or ‘doctrinally incorrect’. 

As true as that is, I’m a little over this, and so is Rob Bell.  Mark Driscoll for instance, chooses to yell at you until you bow to his postulating.  John Piper uses big words, impressive doctrine, and an overall sense of “you’re the least worthy person to have ever lived” to convince his audience of God’s favour.

Bell chooses a different approach.  He emphasises that God is love.  I know many of my friends will jump up and down here yelling: “You can’t separate his love from his judgement!”

No, of course you can’t, but that doesn’t mean you need to preach ‘judgement, judgement, JUDGEMENT’ in every sermon.  Bell says it best on page 135 where he writes, “A gospel that has as its chief message: avoiding hell, or not sinning, will never be the full story.”

Of course you need to preach on the seriousness of our sin; it's fundamental to the gospel, and some sermons need to give us a right belting (we are, after all, sinners), but there's definitely room for some sermons that take a more positive apprach too... some of the time anyway.

So, while John 3:36 is clear; the only way to be saved is through Jesus, sometimes I feel more un-loved after a sermon because it's so brazenly told me how terrible I am. I've spoken to people who walk out of sermons feeling demotivated and a bit down because their terribleness has been spoken about so much, and God's love has been a mere footnote.

Bell then kicks a massive goal when he writes:

…it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgements about people’s eternal destinies.  As Jesus says, he ‘did not come to judge the world, but to save the world”.  We can name Jesus, orient our lives around him and celebrate him as the way, the truth, and the life, and at the same time respect the vast, expansive, generous mystery that he is.” (Page 160)

In other words, as Gandalf said in Lord of the Rings, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Edge: Bell


Critics: He doesn’t even write properly

Bell: Yes I do!

Dylan: No you don’t. 

You add in new paragraphs without rhyme or reason.  You use “Jesus’s” rather than “Jesus’” which is by far the preferred manner of spelling in Australia. Your font size is enormous, your chapters are broken up clumsily, you use commas in all the wrong places, there’s no index, there’s sentences that are clumsy and cumbersome, and many of your thoughts are so obviously incomplete I wonder if you fell asleep while writing them.

Sorry, but while some of what you write is great, it’s not great writing… if that makes sense… which it does to me.

And it’s my website.

So there.

Edge: Critics


Critics: He thinks when Jesus says “all” he means everyone will receive, rather than there being potential for everyone to receive

Bell: What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody – page 155

Dylan: This is where Mr Bell gets very frustrating.  Chapter 5 is called ‘Dying to Live’ and is, without a doubt, one of the best chapters you will ever read regarding the gospel.  The great shame is that chapter 6, ‘There are rocks everywhere’, is one of the most annoying chapters you will ever read. 

He doesn’t just border on new-age stuff; he flies into it at full speed.  Even The Flash would be left in his wake.

The problem is, what he writes has so much potential to be true.  Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection does mean there is potential for anyone to be saved, but it’s pretty clear there’s a particular means by which people are saved: through Jesus.

He tries to get around this on page 155 by saying that, yes, Jesus is the only way, but he’s saving everyone.

And there’s our problem.  You can’t say Jesus is saving everyone and then claim not to be a Universalist.  Either he’s saving everyone or he’s not.  It’s that simple.  And that’s where Bell gets into so much trouble; he contradicts himself and obviously doesn’t take his points to their natural conclusion.

A friend of mine (well, I actually have never met her; I know her through Twitter… ok, it’s not as dodgy as it sounds…. never mind, let’s move on…. fast) reviewed this book and made a great observation. 

She writes:

When I was writing my thesis in grad school, my supervisor often marked up my drafts with the word ‘unpack.’ This meant a sentence or paragraph was too convoluted and he didn’t understand fully the point I was trying to make… There are just so many sentences in Love Wins that sound lovely and well-written but I need them to be unpacked because I don’t fully understand what he’s trying to say, and I wonder if he doesn’t either. This greatly weakens what could otherwise be a strong argument.”

Great point. 

So often Bell just seems to make a statement that sounds nice and then leaves it, even though it might completely contradict something he said elsewhere. 

For example:

What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.  And then he leaves the door way, way open.  Creating all sorts of possibilities.  He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe… we aren’t surprised when people stumble upon this mystery… We aren’t offended when they don’t use the exact language we use, and we aren’t surprised when their encounters profoundly affect them, even if they happen way outside the walls of our particular Jesus’s gathering." (Pages 154-158)

What a load of hogwash.

What does any of that mean?  He’s trying to say that everyone will be saved, but he’s trying to say that Jesus is the only way, while trying to say that anyone can come to Jesus, while trying to say that Jesus is in a whole bunch of different things.

Sorry, mate, but that’s not going to fly.  If I was your lecturer I’d say, “start again.”

The Bible’s pretty clear.  In John 14:6 Jesus says:  "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And John 14:21 says: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”  The Bible is also clear that we should become more like Jesus, who, by the way, is a specific person.

Elsewhere, throughout chapter 6, Bell takes another verse out of context (1 Corinthians 10:4) which refers to a rock Moses struck which poured forth water.  1 Corinthians says: “this rock is Christ” clearly a reference to the ‘sustaining life’ that is given to us through Christ.  Again, Bell takes this inch and runs a mile saying that, really, anything can be ‘Christ’, as long as you do good stuff (page 143).

This is about as new-agey as you can get, and really, he should know better. 

Does anyone remember the song, Breathe? Michael W Smith did a great version and it says, "You are the air I breathe. Your holy presence living in me."

It's not saying that the particles of air we breath are Jesus Himself. The song is metaphorical. I.e. Jesus is what sustains us. He is real life. Without Him, we are spiritually dead.

Sorry, Rob, but I can’t excuse this. A fuzzy gospel is not the gospel, and this is giving those who call you a heretic a serious amount of ammunition.

Edge: Critics



Critics: He thinks heaven and hell are here and now, and don’t exist in the future.

Bell: There’s heaven now, somewhere else.  There’s heaven here, sometime else.

Dylan: Sorry, critics, but I’m siding with Bell on this one... kind of.

I'll explain. 

As we established before, I’m not going anywhere near the Calvinism vs Arminianism debate.  That said, Bell makes a beautiful point regarding the overall message of Jesus.

In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I have come to give life and life to the full” and later, in Luke 17:21, when talking about the coming kingdom of God, Jesus says: “the kingdom of God is within you”. In other words, we have the Holy Spirit within us, Jesus Himself, the power of God.  I.e. the kingdom is here. Now.

Isn’t this a glimpse of heaven?  If the Spirit is transforming us to be more like Christ, then we’re getting glimpses of heaven.  Of course this isn’t fully realised until Jesus comes again, but we have a glimpse of heaven now.  1 Corinthians 13:12 says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

We have a glimpse of heaven and hell every day.  People choosing God and people rejecting God.  We see holiness and we see sin.  We see godliness and we see sinfulness. 

In other words, we get glimpses of heaven now, and a full realisation of heaven later. 

We get glimpses of hell now, and a full realisation of it later.

It all depends on whether or not we are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And this is the problem (other than my sudden generous use of paragraphs – maybe I’m harnessing my inner Rob Bell?).

Bell only goes halfway here.  He says there’s a current and future heaven, and a current and future hell.  What he doesn’t fully articulate is the specificity of God’s manner of dealing with sin. 

A God that ignored sin and said: “Regardless of what you do, I’ll forgive you anyway,” has no need for Jesus’ death on a cross, no matter what Mr Bell says.

So while, yes, there is a heaven now and heaven later (in my humble opinion), you can’t leave it there; as my friend wrote: this is one thought of his that really needs to be unpacked.

Edge: Even


So where does that leave us? 

Essentially, I think Bell writes some magnificent things.  He takes scripture into places I hadn’t considered before, and that’s fantastic. In fact, the best thing about reading his book and writing this column was it forced me to really bury deep into the Bible.

I had to read Love Wins wth a Bible next to me because there is so much scripture referenced. And by looking deeper at verses I can sometime glance over, it's deepened both my faith and, hopefully, my understanding. This is ALWAYS a good thing.

However, Bell does make some pretty dodgy claims; mostly due to sloppy theology on his part.
And the biggest and most common question I’ve been asked (by at least 15 people): Is Rob Bell heretical?

My answer…..

Brace yourselves…


(Ok people, breeeeathe. Come on, stay with me! We can get through this. Just take deep breaths.)

And here’s why.

People throw around the term heresy way too liberally.  Personally, I blame the neo-Calvinists of America: Driscoll, Piper et al. 

If anyone doesn’t fit into their narrow view of theology, they’re immediately dismissed as heretics.  I find this profoundly disappointing.

Surely, there is scope within Christendom for disagreement.  Parts of the bible are difficult to understand.  The disciples hung out with Jesus every day for three years and still had no idea what he was really up to! 

While yes, there are things that are fundamental to Christianity; namely, Jesus was fully God; was crucified; buried; rose again; and the rest of Philippians 2. However, simply because someone has the guts to challenge tough questions (such as: what is heaven really like?  Will people suffer forever in hell? ), they shouldn’t be dismissed.

Rather, they should be engaged.  Not understanding everything is not a failure.  Rather, until the other side of Jesus’ return, there are a number of things to which we’ll likely never get ‘consensus’.  This isn’t something to be scared of.  Rather, it makes us richer that we can discuss, engage, debate, and wrestle with God’s truth.

At no point in his entire book does Rob Bell claim that Jesus isn’t God.  At no point does he doubt that Jesus rose again.  At no point does he dispute that it’s only through Jesus that people can be reconciled to God. At no point does he dispute that it's only by God's grace that we are saved.  At no point does he dispute that there is new life because of the Holy Spirit.

So please don’t call him heretical.  Call his theology bad (because it’s not brilliant, is it?).  Call his writing amateur (because it is).  Call out his sloppy referencing.  But he is a Christian.  And he has an unwavering faith in the eternal and perfect love of God.

Which, quite frankly, is something I could definitely learn from.

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Rob Bell has stolen my glasses

Peter Rabbit
The font size of Love Wins made me feel like
I was reading a children's book.
Lindsay Lohan wouldn't usually be spotted
around Harvard University.
Mark Driscoll has a distinct flair for the theatrical
The Flash would have trouble keeping up with
Bell's speed towards new-age theology.
Love wins
Love wins may not be great theologically,
but it's a great read.