Love Wins raises some important questions but doesn’t help readers think through the questions or search for answers, and that’s a problem.
Let me start with a disclaimer. I haven’t read Pr. Bell’s other books and I’m not eager to do so, having now forced myself to read Love Wins. I told my congregation that I was reading Love Wins and I wanted someone to give me a cookie, because it was a huge chore to get through this book. (Thank you, Connie Shakley, for the spice cake – way better than a cookie!! I finished the spice cake before I finished the book.)
I know that for Rob Bell fans this review may sound snobbish, but I do have some comments that I mean quite sincerely and seriously. I hope you all can receive them with an open mind!
I do not wish to focus on the substance of Bell’s ideas or arguments, such as they are. I believe Bell has good intentions in his heart, and he has taken pretty good aim at one of the theological rotten spots of much current popular Christian ‘thinking’ about eschatology. I do take issue with his style, though, and I hope to convince you readers that this is actually a serious matter.
Here’s a quote from the book:
As Jesus says in John 10, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.”
This should not surprise us. The gospel, as Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (chap. 1).
As wide as creation.
The whole world.
Love Wins is a book that contains Whole. Paragraphs. Of. Single. Word. Sentences. Yes, I know that to many it may sound snarky even to point that out. After all, what really matters is what he says, rather than how he says it. Right?
No, that’s not right. This style is clearly calculated and chosen. It was created by Madison Avenue specifically in order to sway readers emotionally while short-circuiting their reason. We have all read this style before on pages of advertising copy. But I, for one, have never had to face down a whole book of such stuff.
Bell’s cultural skills are impressive
Whatever Bell’s theological and pastoral skills may be, it’s clear that his cultural skills are very impressive, and they are entirely Gen X multimedia. Take a quick look at Bell’s spotlessly metrosexual image, at his highly skilled videos, and at his brilliant media campaign for selling this book. All of the pre-release controversy and buzz about Love Wins was entirely planned in order to sell more of the book. Bell is certainly a media genius.
His weakness, however, is in thinking theologically. Jesus specifically commands us to love God with our minds, in addition to our hearts, souls, and strength, because the newness of the good news he brings requires us to be able to think through in order to think newly. Bell’s media-savvy style doesn’t help us do that.
Thinking is an unusually rare thing, because most of the time nearly all of us are merely opining rather than thinking. Real thinking means at least two things. First, it means thinking through a difficult matter. To think is to think one’s way through a matter from beginning to end, top to bottom, to put the whole question into order and into context. Second, it means leading others through that same argument, that same thought path, such they are then formed and empowered to be able to make their own way through that same matter and then to lead others as well. Opining is mere intellectual dating; thinking is intellectual love. And we know that love builds up.
Love Wins raises some genuinely important questions and does some real good in exploring some answers. He tells some good and touching stories. But my disappointment with the book is that he doesn’t make his readers better able to think their own way through these issues. I believe he fails in this because of his apparently-unwavering commitment to his advertising style.
Bell refers his readers to N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, and I heartily second that recommendation. Wright really has done the intellectual work that this set of questions requires, and the reader will come away from his book far better educated in the New Testament as well as better able to think about what God is doing toward God’s future.
Rob Bell. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. HarperOne, 2011.
N.T.Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008.
Mark Rich holds degrees from the University of Chicago, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and Northwestern University, and serves as Pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, Holland, MI.