Got a chance to read through Love Wins this weekend, and I thought I’d post a few reflections on it, bullet point style.

  • If Rob Bell isn’t a universalist, then I think he has only himself to blame for the misunderstanding.  I don’t say that lightly.  I think it’s possible for people to give irresponsible and uncharitable readings of texts.  But in this case, I think it’s totally plausible to read the text closely and walk away thinking Bell is a universalist.  Which makes me want to hear John Wilson explain his assertion in the WSJ that Bell isn’t.
  • The closest Bell gets, I think, to rejecting universalism is when he writes:  “Love demands freedom, and freedom provides [the possibility that people will say no.]  People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future” (114).  But how long into the future?  Forever?  Bell’s completely silent.
  • When Bell sets up the problem of hell and gives his taxonomy of responses to it, the universalist option is the only one that he quotes Scripture for.  Which means if he’s not a universalist, he’s clearly out to make the position palatable to evangelicals.  And in every interview he’s given, when asked if he is a universalist, he’s qualified his “no” with the inevitable,” If by that you mean….”  That’s not the sort of phrase a non-universalist would want to use, I think.
  • A bit of snark:  Bell suggests that “our eschatology shapes our ethics.”  Absolutely right.  So does an ambiguous eschatology lead to an ambiguous ethics?  If any sort of precision about the nature of the last things is “speculation” because we don’t have “video evidence,” then how do we do ethics in any meaningful way?
  • With all the focus on his doctrine of hell, I think the problems come much sooner, in his understanding of heaven.  There’s a single paragraph where Bell mentions that “heaven” is a placeholder for “God.”  But this apparently isn’t very interesting, as Bell moves on and spends the next 20 pages talking about the awesome stuff we get to make and do.  That’s all well and good, I suppose, because we will get to do awesome stuff.  But there’s a hint here of turning “heaven” into a projection for all our favorite stuff from here and now.  And if the infinite goodness of God can only hold our attention for a paragraph before we have to move on to the contingent goods of the created (and recreated) order, then it’s no wonder the traditional doctrine of hell has lost its explanatory power.
  • Bell’s suggestion that God would switch from “Loving one moment, vicious the next” when an unbeliever dies is not terribly persuasive.  First, it suggests that the classic doctrine of hell presumes some sort of change in God–which it definitely does not.  But second, it presumes that what happens the moment after death is exactly like what happens the moment before.  I don’t want to get too deep into this, but Bell says earlier in the book (rightly) that “eternal” can mean something other than the everlasting succession of moments.  But if that’s right, then confronting an eternal God might transform us instanteously–either for better or worse–in a way that the movement of our lives here and now might not.
  • In other words, Bell seems to think that if God makes that transition slowly, it’s more palatable than if he makes it quickly.  But I’m not clear why.
  • Bell speaks of “the ongoing creation of the world” which God is involved with and which we participate in.  That seems to impinge upon the uniquely creative activity of God from which he rested.
  • One of Protestant theology’s central tasks in the 21st century is to articulate the relationship between the legal and the ontological.  Focusing on the former to the exclusion of the latter–which Protestants wary of Lewis’ doctrine of hell are always in danger of doing–will lead to an attenuated understanding of the ways in which our doctrines of heaven and hell play out in our lives.The Great Divorce isn’t necessarily incompatible with a doctrine of hell that is grounded in penal substitution.  And Protestants interested in the latter would do well to work out the ontology.
  • Because fundamentally, Bell–er, Lewis, Dante, Augustine–are all right that God will give us what we want. Of course, none of us want the good nearly as much as we might claim.
  • Ambiguity starts at the fountainhead.  It’s no surprise that as a writer at “Mere Orthodoxy” I’m not much of a fan of a Jesus who transcends even Christianity (150).  Jesus is certainly as “wide as the universe.”  But when Bell starts waxing on about how the rituals of communion “unite us, because they unite everybody,” I confess I start getting bored.  But someone else has already made the case for how the creeds expand, rather than narrow, the universe so I won’t repeat it here.
  • John Mark pointed this out, but it is just really odd that Bell is trumpeting Origen.  And a little encouraging.  Maybe it means we are beyond the lazy critiques of neo-platonism from emerging church gurus.  We can hope, right?
  • Speaking of John Mark, his reply to Eugene Peterson’s interview about Bell is gold.  Classic JMNR.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.