4 (more) final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I my previous post, I shared 4 final thoughts on Love Wins. Well, I wasn’t quite done. Here are four more parting observations…

1. Let’s be willing to ask the hard questions.

Rob raised a lot of them in Love Wins. But for me the biggest are still:

  • What about those who never had a chance to accept or reject the gospel?
  • What about those who seemingly reject Christ but in reality are rejecting a misrepresentation of him, as opposed to the real thing? Who will God hold accountable? Those who reject the distortion or those who created it?

What might a God who is “rich in mercy” have in store for those who never had a chance to embrace the real thing? If God has “overlooked such ignorance” before, what’s to keep him from doing so again?

Furthermore, if you believe (as I do) that infants who die go to be with God — in spite of the Bible’s silence on this question — why is it so unthinkable that God might save those who never heard or those who were presented a toxic caricature of the real thing?

These are not easy questions. And my goal here isn’t to answer them. But as Scot McKnight recently suggested, to play the agnostic — to answer “I don’t know” or “It’s in the Lord’s hands” without seriously considering the issues at stake — is a copout.

These questions have to be wrestled with. And simplistic, patronizing answers will not do.

Loads of people were asking these questions long before Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. He may have given a fresh voice to their inquiries, but they’ve been asking for a long time. We might as well create a safe space for questions like these to be explored.

6. For those who disagree with Rob: stop putting words in his mouth.

To say that Rob soft-pedals sin, denies the bodily resurrection, or rejects some other tenant of orthodoxy (all of which has been postulated in response to Love Wins) is not only reading between the lines; it’s reading the worst possible meaning into his book.

Granted, if you’re one for doctrinal checklists, you may never be satisfied with what Rob has to say. But consider the evidence from Love Wins:

  • Rob acknowledges every human being is affected by sin (p. 42).
  • Rob acknowledges that heaven and hell are real (p. 42, 55, 71, 79).
  • Rob acknowledges the incarnation — the fully divine, fully human Christ (p. 146-149).
  • Rob acknowledges the resurrection (p. 133).

It is possible to disagree with Rob without being inquisitorial. (Scot McKnight provides a good example of the right way to disagree with someone.) Unfortunately, far too many have taken it upon themselves to denounce Rob as a heretic. What kind of hubris does it take for some random blogger/pastor/armchair theologian to decide for the rest of us who’s a heretic and who isn’t?

7. Also for those who disagree with Rob: practice what you preach.

Rob could’ve been more careful citing Scripture and other sources to make his case. No argument there. But you might want to stop misquoting Love Wins before you take him to task for such alleged carelessness.

Exhibit A: Martin Bashir. After his confrontational interview with Rob, Bashir went on the Paul Edwards Program to explain what got him so worked up. Bashir was irritated at how Rob (allegedly) misquoted key sources — namely, Martin Luther. Actually, Rob didn’t misrepresent Luther, but I digress.

Bashir explained he cannot tolerate anything less than the highest standards of journalistic accuracy when quoting a source.

Then he proceeded to misquote Rob:

He says in his book, God’s love melts everything in the end. And that at the end of the day, you can be antagonistic to Christianity, but after you die, God’s love will melt your opposition and you will walk into heaven.

Except Rob never said this. He says many believe that God’s love will melt even the hardest heart in the end (p. 108) but that we can’t know for certain whether this will, in fact, be the case (p. 115).

Let’s all deal with the planks in our own eyes before worrying about the speck in someone else’s, shall we?

8. We can (and should) do a better job telling the good news.

Near the end of Love Wins, Rob Bell makes perhaps the most important statement of his book: “The good news begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved” (p. 172).

Is that really the story we tell? The one where “God so loved the world”? Really?

When the fledgling Jesus movement was getting off the ground, what drew people in by the thousands? Was it the threat of judgment? Was it Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Or was it the promise of victory over death? Was it the radical, equalizing love the believers had for one another?

Read the book of Acts and count how many times the apostles use the threat of hell in their proclamation to outsiders.

Read the gospels (particularly Matthew, which scores highest on the “hellfire and brimstone” meter) and ask: who was Jesus speaking to when he warned of judgment?

You may find the answer a bit unsettling if, like me, you’re a religious insider.

Love Wins is not a perfect book. Nor is it the heretical train wreck some have made it out to be.

There were things I resonated with and things I disagreed with. But in Love Wins, Rob does what he does best: he forces difficult questions to the surface.

And that’s a good thing. Because people were asking them long before Rob wrote Love Wins. So let’s dispense with simplistic answers and self-righteous denunciations and actually wrestle with the questions in this book.

7 thoughts on “4 (more) final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

  1. I have not read Rob Bell so I am not commenting on him, but I do have something to add concerning something you said here:

    Furthermore, if you believe (as I do) that infants who die go to be with God — in spite of the Bible’s silence on this question — why is it so unthinkable that God might save those who never heard or those who were presented a toxic caricature of the real thing?

    I do not want to discourage your thoughts towards whether God is willing that all come to a knowledge of the truth (rather than simply being led astray by a toxic caricature), but I must disagree with your path of your reasoning that led to that point. Specifically, the Bible is not exactly silent on the question of whether infants who die “go to be with God.”

    Scripture is Not Silent on this Topic

    As my first example, I could point to the first child of David and Bathsheba which lived only a few days. Speaking of the deceased child, David said that it could not come to him, but that he should go to it. But David is still dead and buried and not ascended into the heavens, so this must also apply to his child of days.

    2Sa 12:23 KJV
    (23) But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

    Act 2:29, 34 KJV
    (29) Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.
    (34) For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand,

    For my second example, I would consider the speech of Job. Although he spoke in distress, he was also a prophet of God who foretold the latter day when God would stand upon the earth and the resurrection of the dead. Yet when speaking of death, he equated the state of an infant of days with anyone else, even as if they had never been. Even just considering a few of the verses from chapter 3, we read,

    Job 3:11-13 KJV
    (11) Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?
    (12) Why did the knees prevent me? or why the breasts that I should suck?
    (13) For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest,

    Job 3:16-17 KJV
    (16) Or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light.
    (17) There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest.

    Job describes death in the same way for infant and adult, wicked and weary, as a state of darkness, silence, and rest. Furthermore, Job is not ignorant of spiritual things, for he speaks of the resurrection frequently, acknowledging that it will be the resurrection of the dead that shall wake men from this sleep (see also Job 14:10-14).

    I like the way you are thinking, but I would suggest that the answer lies in the context of the resurrection at the last day, not in “infant salvation” which would provide an alternative way to God other than love, faith, and belief. There is a third passage that I would suggest might be applicable to this subject.

    Isa 65:17-20 KJV
    (17) For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.
    (18) But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.
    (19) And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.
    (20) There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.

    Isaiah provides the context of this passage within the new heavens and the new earth, which chronologically places us within the scope of Revelation 20-22, in the time of the greater resurrection of the dead, the judgment, and the holy city New Jerusalem (i.e. Revelation 21:1-2)

    So perhaps a different question to consider might be, that when someone stands before God in the final day, regardless of whether they have been misled by a toxic caricature or a false god of the imagining of men, will they see the true God on that day? I think the ultimate question is rather simple. Will they fall upon the Rock and be broken, or must it fall upon them and crush them to powder?

    Luk 20:17-18 KJV
    (17) And he beheld them, and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?
    (18) Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

    Christ came to heal the brokenhearted (see Luke 4:18) but powder (or ash, see Malachi 4:3) will not be restored.

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    • Hi Andrew, thanks for sharing.

      David’s statement about his deceased child cannot be taken as a reference to his eternal state one way or the other. “I will go to him” was simply a euphemistic way of saying, “I will follow him in death.” The fact is, Jewish thought lacks a well defined concept of the afterlife until after the exile. If this weren’t the case, why aren’t there any statements about the afterlife in the OT that are as clear and direct as what you find in the NT?

      A similar point can be made w/respect to Job. His lament in ch. 3 has nothing to do w/eternity. He’s simply saying he wishes he had died at birth so he could’ve been spared all his misery. Re. the reference to the dead being “at rest” in verse 17, it’s quite common to speak euphemistically of death being a state of rest, w/o envisioning a conscious afterlife.

      There might be some vague hint of an afterlife in Job 14, but if there is, it’s all the more extraordinary b/c it was so uncommon in the pre-Christian era.

      Finally, the problem w/reading Is 65 this way is that the writer assumes death is still part of the human experience in the world he’s describing: “the one who dies at a hundred years old will be thought a mere child.”

      Of course, as you move into the post-exilic era, and even more so in the Christian era, you begin to see the concept of eternal life coming together. And it’s clearly taught in the NT. I happen to believe there’s nothing to stop God from saving infants, and that it’s just the sort of thing a loving God who “wants all people to be saved” would do. But I still think the Bible is silent on the subject.

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      • Hello Ben. Thank you for the welcome.

        If you would allow me the time and space, I could easily demonstrate that the bible speaks plenty about the state of death in both Old and New Testaments without contradiction. The reason there is no mention of a conscious afterlife in the Old Testament is because there is no conscious afterlife to speak of. I think it is entirely inappropriate to dismiss pointed statements made by the holy authors that specifically deny “conscious afterlife” as if the Holy Spirit was ignorant in those days.

        Similarly, the New Testament does not say that we have a “conscious afterlife.” The New Testament writers built upon an assumed knowledge and acceptance of the Old Testament, which can be shown from the words of Christ and Paul. Like the Old Testament, our only hope of life or existence is in the resurrection from the dead, or else in this life we of all men would be “most miserable” and “without hope.”

        It is written, “the scripture cannot be broken” and thus New Testament cannot negate the Old. If you really do think that the New Testament teaches that we should expect to have a “conscious afterlife” without prior resurrection and being changed, then please show me these passages so I may address them. I think that there might be some confusion between whether the Bible is truly silent on a subject, or whether there has been an effort to silence the Bible on a subject.

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      • Are you suggesting that humans are not inherently immortal? If so, I’m inclined to agree w/you on that. Only God is immortal by nature, as Paul once wrote (1 Timothy 6:15-17). I believe that apart from his choosing to share immortality w/us (i.e. as pictured by the tree of life in the garden of Eden), we would cease to exist at death.

        I do think the concept of “eternal life” develops/expands as you go from OT to NT. For me, that’s not the same as saying that the New negates the Old. But divine revelation can have a progressive, unfolding nature to it.

        So no, I don’t think the NT encourages us to believe in a “conscious afterlife” apart from being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Not your wording exactly, but I nuanced it a bit to allow for the possibility that those who have “died in Christ” are, in some sense, awake, even if they haven’t yet experienced the final resurrection. I don’t think the Bible is clear on this matter, but things like Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) and Paul’s statement about wanting to die so he can “be with Christ” (Philippians 1) lead me to keep an open mind on this one.

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  2. This Short Reply Turned Out to Be a Little Long

    If man is mortal (Job 4:17) then he cannot be inherently immortal, and eternal life would not need to be a gift if it was something that was already in our possession (Romans 6:23). However, none of these promises have any relevance if basic words like “life” and “death” are assigned opposite meanings. So perhaps I was at least suggesting that man is not immortal.

    Are those who died in Christ “awake” in some sense? The Old Testament speaks of death as a sleep of darkness and silence without thought, emotion, or being, without any regard to the wickedness or righteousness of the deceased… and the New Testament continues to use the same language without apology.

    But why would anyone want to be “awake” in the meantime? They would not be “united with Christ” because that cannot occur until Christ returns (1 Thessalonians 4:17) at his coming (1 Thessalonians 2:19). If Paul believed that the dead were awake in any sense, he did not consider it a comfort worth speaking to the Thessalonians, because he spoke to them about the resurrection, instead.

    Paul spoke quite a lot concerning the resurrection in his first epistle to the Corinthians, even that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. In his second epistle to that same audience, he also said that our new house shall be from heaven, and that we should not be found “naked” but “clothed upon” and with this “clothing” he uses the exact same language as he used to describe the resurrection in his first letter (compare 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5).

    May I please ask you a couple questions concerning the verses you just referenced?

    Two Questions

    Q1If the state of death is truly described by darkness, silence, rest, sleep, and without being, and if one cannot be “awake” or “conscious” in any form until one is resurrected, then if one were to die, then how much “time” passes between death and resurrection to life when Christ returns? Would not one who departs be “instantly” with Christ for all practical purposes?

    Q2What does it mean when someone says, “Verily, I say unto thee, to day shalt thou be with me in paradise?” Grammatically speaking, what occurs “to day?” Please compare this structure with what we also see in Genesis 2:17, 1 Samuel 18:21, and 1 Kings 2:37-42. When God or a king pronounces a decree in the form of “today shalt” it is the decree that is made certain that day, not the fulfillment thereof.

    If someone is reading a very modern translation their reading of Luke 23:43 might be completely different, with Jesus literally predicting that he will be in paradise that day, and that the thief will be with him. This would make liars of both Christ and Peter, for Jesus said that he would remain in the belly of the earth for three days and nights, and Peter said that his soul was in hell until he was raised from the dead (Matthew 12:40, Acts 2:27-31). Even immediately following his resurrection, Jesus told Mary that he had not yet ascended to his Father in heaven (John 20:17).

    I know that it is not popular to say this, but the translation of this verse makes a marked difference in doctrine. “Shall” cannot be freely exchanged with “will” without drastically altering the meaning. On Mount Sinai, did God predict “thou will make no graven images?” But they did! Any decently thick dictionary will explain that these two words (shall and will) have different meanings.

    If the correct translation is “Verily I say unto thee, to day shalt thou be with me in paradise” then Jesus promised salvation unto the thief that very day by royal decree, that he would be with him when he came into his kingdom (see verse 42). It is also notable that because this was decreed that day, it could not have been decreed from before the foundation of the world (that seems to run against “Unconditional Election.”) Regardless, it would say nothing about where Jesus (or the thief) would be that very day.

    If the correct translation is, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” then Jesus literally predicted that they both would be in Paradise that very day, which would fight against the previous context of verse 42, overturn many things that we are told from the Old Testament scriptures, and contradict himself and Peter. Perhaps one could reason that if Jesus was merely predicting what would happen, he may have made a mistake while under stress.

    One reading speaks of the promise of resurrection when Christ comes into his kingdom, resolves without difficulty, and happens to represent our English translations from as far back as the 14th century (Wycliffe) to the current day (almost 700 years). The other reading promises that Jesus and the thief will be together in a place called Paradise that day, which fights against all of scripture and creates multiple direct contradictions besides. This latter reading is relatively recent (inherited from the Revised Standard Version…. that’s about 130 years.)

    Luk 23:43 KJV
    (43) And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

    Luk 23:43 ESV
    (43) And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    Q2Perhaps that was a long introduction to my question, but given a situation like this, how would one go about determining which reading was correct? Even if it is not considered “politically correct” I do not think that this can be ignored. Either Christ issued a decree as God and King, or he was a false prophet who made a failed prediction at the last moment on the cross.

    There is only so much that I can put in a blog response window… so I apologize if I have left any angles uncovered. I know that is considered *the* proof text for “going to heaven when you die” so want to make sure that nothing is left unanswered.

    Would it be a bad thing if our next instant was the last trumpet at Christ’s return, if we rose to meet him together, all at once, so that they without us should not be made perfect?

    Heb 11:39-40 KJV
    (39) And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
    (40) God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

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  3. David’s statement about his deceased child cannot be taken as a reference to his eternal state one way or the other.

    Ironically, 2 Samuel 12:23 seems to be most often referenced by people who do try to apply it to an “eternal state” for the purpose of trying to prove that “babies go to heaven.” Here’s a few examples:

    1. http://www.puritanboard.com/f48/al-mohler-all-babies-dying-infancy-go-heaven-34759/index2.html
    2. http://beginningandend.com/babies-heaven-die/
    3. http://peoplegetready.org/bible-studies/babies-heaven/
    4. http://betweenthetimes.com/2009/07/24/why-we-believe-children-who-die-go-to-heaven-2/
    5. http://www.getchristiananswers.com/articles/do-souls-aborted-babies-go-heaven#.Twn2mIHNlbi

    So you might not be saying that the passage is applicable to the state of death, but many others want to interpret it that way on this question. The silly part is that they all seem to forget that the Peter specifically says that David had not ascended to heaven (is Acts 2 really such an obscure part of the bible?)

    The “going to heaven” doctrine may have pagan and philosophical roots, but our hope of the resurrection of the dead is thoroughly biblical. If this were taught and remembered, I do not think that the question of “what happens to babies” would be such a concern. God will raise the dead, and the dead remain dead until they are raised. Until then, the dead sleep and truly rest, and thus the perceived “difficulties” disappear…

    In the context of the resurrection, the rest of the scriptures make sense and fit together.

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    • Apart from the fact that I’m agnostic about whether the “dead remain dead until they are raised” or whether they go immediately to be in the conscious presence of God (you raised some interesting points about this a few comments back), I’m in agreement with you here.

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