Book Review: Love Wins - Salvation Army Canada

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  • Sep7Wed

    Book Review: Love Wins

    A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell September 7, 2011 Review by Dion Oxford and Geoff Moulton
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    The evangelical world is in an uproar about a controversial new book called Love Wins by Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, and featured speaker in the popular NOOMA video series. So what's the big deal? While most evangelicals believe fervently in Heaven and Hell as real places where souls are punished or rewarded for eternity, Bell challenges readers with a new set of questions about our ultimate fate.

    Bell states that the story of Jesus is “first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” He then criticizes the Church for making questions about Jesus, Heaven, Hell and salvation off limits. There is no question too big for Jesus to handle, Bell argues. And too many people have walked away from the Church because no one listened to their doubts.

    Particularly vexing for Bell are questions about Hell. He writes, “It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief [in Hell as conscious, eternal torment] is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

    Bell then outlines a number of alternative theories of Hell, including universalism, the belief that Hell is not permanent and that God will eventually reconcile all of humanity to himself. “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived,” he asks, “will only a select number 'make it to a better place' and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?”

    Using the parable of the Prodigal Son, Bell suggests that Heaven and Hell may be one and the same place, depending on our perspective. The younger son joins the celebration even as the elder son sulks in a self-imposed “Hell” of his own creation. While God, in his universal love, extends the invitation to all to participate in the abundant life, our choice to accept or reject him determines our experience, argues Bell.

    “If we want isolation, despair and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants you that option,” Bell writes. “If, however, we crave light, we're drawn to truth, we're desperate for grace … God gives us what we want … the peace that transcends all understanding.”

    For Bell, death doesn't cut off the ability to repent. In the Bible, Bell sees no “infinite, eternal torment for things [people] did in their few finite years of life.”

    Despite his enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bell's book leaves a number of questions unanswered. What do we do with Jesus' teaching about the final judgment? Why are the Apostle Paul's words about Christ as the model or exemplar of our faith taken seriously, but the verses on substitutionary atonement dismissed as an outdated metaphor? Is Bell tailoring his message to the current culture at the expense of biblical revelation? And if we all end up in the same place anyway, what is the point of the gospel?

    In the face of intense criticism, Bell denies he is a universalist. Rather than embracing any particular view, he wants to leave room for uncertainty. Love Wins presents his “case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.” Some evangelicals see this “uncertainty” as incompatible with biblical teaching, while others say that the book is simply promoting overdue conversation about traditional interpretations of Scripture.

    No matter where you stand, these are questions worth exploring.


    On Thursday, November 10, 2011, Jeff Rocks said:

    Mark and Dwayne,

    Great thoughts expressed. I do not know Geoff, although I have had interactions with Dion as I do work with a partner agency to his within the Salvation Army, and I trust both from our prior talks and from the tone of the review here that he would not consider such debate sabotage - so long as it was both edifying to God and to one another. I have been wrong before, though. I should offer the disclaimer before I begin, however, that although I am employed by Salvation Army, I am not an officer, nor do I attend an SA church (though I am most certainly a Christian), so my views may not necessarily reflect those of SA.

    As to the content of the debate, I see good points on both sides. That said, there are a couple of issues that I feel compelled to address here. First, I do agree with Dwayne when he stated that an assertive challenge is needed of Mr. Bell's conclusions so as not to convolute the issue in the minds of our virtual bystanders for the sake of the gospel, for although these issues can and should certainly be talked about rather than pushed aside, biblical conclusions should be offered to some degree with respect to issues of salvation and hell. Otherwise, they will leave people with less spiritual truth than they came with, and that should never be the goal of those professing to further the gospel.

    To that end, Mark, I do certainly acknowledge that there are aspects of hell and the nature of it that we just cannot assert. Devils running around with pointy tails and pitchforks/tridents are archaic notions of the past, and ones that the Bible most definitely does not mention. However, there are a few things that I can claim with certainty, assuming of course that the Bible is held by all involved in this discussion to be the ultimate authority on such matters. One is that it is eternal, two is that it is a punishment, and three is that it involves a separation from God. These ideas are all scriptural, and supported numerous times.

    A final item of note (as this is getting lengthier than I would like) is that contrary to your most recent statement above, Mark, Jesus most certainly did use the word hell. Abundantly, in fact. Some prominent passages to support this claim are Matthew 18:9, Matthew 23:33, Luke 16:19-31 (particularly verse 23), and of course, Matthew 10:28. I do find it ironic, though I do wish to submit this humbly rather than be contentious about it, that you did mention this verse in another context above, and then right after stated that Jesus never would have used the word. He may have used the word "Hades" in your translation rather than "hell", as the original NT language was Greek, and that is the interchangeable Greek word for the exact same thing. As a Bible college graduate, I can promise you that He did use that word, and also that other NT writers did, and this is a very vital truism to note. If your version of the scriptures does not acknowledge this, I would encourage you to drop your dynamic equivalency translation for a more fundamental one. Or simply take it back to the original text, as there are even websites now that allow anyone to do this free of charge. As for Rob Bell's assertions, I would urge anyone still looking for additional information on the matter to either read Francis Chan's new book "Erasing Hell", which I would highly recommend, or click on this link:

    God's richest blessings to Mark, Dwayne, Geoff, Dion, and everyone else commenting and viewing in this online forum. May your faithful seeking be rewarded with God's truth.

    On Monday, October 3, 2011, Dwayne Goulding said:

    Mark – Thank you for sharing. It was not my intent to cause you – or the authors - any grief. I look forward to continuing this debate with you – perhaps in a more appropriate forum. Until then, I will daily uplift you in prayer as brother in Christ.


    On Friday, September 30, 2011, markbraye said:

    before i comment further and reply to a few questions related to a previous comment i made, let me apologize to Dion and Geoff. their thoughtful and helpful review of "Love Wins" has been a little bit hijacked by myself and others debating hell. sorry. this may not have been the place to have these conversations. they were simply reviewing a book.

    that being said, let me reply to the best of my abiliity.

    "ulterior motives" = social, political, theological, spiritual, etc. it's easier to say "turn or burn" than get to know people and help them with their issues. it's easier to say this is what hell is like than to really wrestle with the many images and metaphors in the Bible. it's easy to scare people with all things hell. much harder to to truly engage with these notions and texts and wrestle with them and know what they truly mean.

    "What is your belief on hell and salvation?"

    wow! loaded question. also, it's asked in an interesting way: "your belief." does my belief really matter? does anyone's belief really matter? the beliefs i hold, i always try to have them be in line with the Bible to the best of my understanding. for me, as our wonderful doctrine states, the Bible is the only book that "constitute[s] the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice."


    salvation is found in no one other than Jesus Christ and his work upon the cross.

    hell, if we want to use the word, remember Jesus would have never used the hell, NT writers would have never used the word hell, is a term used with several images and metaphors in the Bible to describe punishment and judgment and the horrible reality of an afterlife apart from God. we do not know for sure what this is like, though.

    i like the way the authors of "Salvation Story" put it...

    "Biblical references to Heaven and Hell are only faint glimpses of the greater realities, of the final abode of the saved and the lost." (Page 120)

    On Tuesday, September 27, 2011, Dwayne Goulding said:

    Oops. My Bad! Typo in my first comment. Not Mark 13, should be Matthew 13. Sorry. God's littlle touch of humility I guess.

    Mark, could you expand on the "ulterior motives"? Political???

    What is your belief on hell and salvation?

    On Monday, September 26, 2011, markbraye said:

    you make some fair comments, Dwayne. i'm glad you've made a point, though, and not simply attacked a book that mainstream conservative Christianity is attacking.

    here are a few thoughts continuing this important conversation.

    the word "hell" is not found in your Matthew reference. was Jesus talking about hell? maybe; maybe not. eisegesis vs. exegesis.

    i'm unclear of your Mark reference as well. chapter thirteen only has 37 verses.

    does "endless punishment" refer to concious endless punishment or could it refer to annihilationism? see Matthew 10:28.

    there are a lot of things to think about when discussing hell: rabbinic hyperbole, gehenna and the stories behind gehenna, metaphorical language, translation issues, ulterior motives by conservative Christianity, the four main views and ways of defining hell, etc.

    your final statement is bang-on. Jesus is the truth and he can save everyone. we agree on the most important part of your comment.

    On Saturday, September 24, 2011, Dwayne Goulding said:

    First of all, Mark - In your comment you questioned what in "Love Wins" contradicts the eleventh doctrine of the Salvation Army. The doctrine states that we believe " the endless punishment of the wicked." The operative word here is "endless". This is in direct contradiction to Bell's contention that there is no “infinite, eternal torment for things [people] did in their few finite years of life."

    You also state that the doctrine does not specifically describe hell. The reason for this is simple; the doctrine is only a brief summary of our beliefs. If you refer to the scriptures from which the doctrines have been derived, you will find descriptions of heaven and hell. Matthew 25: 31-46 and Mark 13: 31-50 are two such scripture references. I also refer you to the book "Salvation Story" to gain further scriptural insight into the doctrines.

    Secondly, the failure of the authors to assertively challenge Mr. Bell's conclusions could be misconstrued by the general public as a tepid acceptance of them by this publication and The Salvation Army. It is, after all, our duty as a Christian church to preach the true gospel of Jesus Christ. That truth is that Jesus, through his death and suffering on the cross, can save us all from our sin and hell. Amen!

    On Thursday, September 22, 2011, markbraye said:

    i think "Love Wins" is an excellent book. it's definitely worth reading and talking about.

    Philip, i see where you're coming from.

    however, what exactly from "Love Wins" is in contradiction with our eleventh doctrine?

    the doctrine talks about "happiness" and "punishment," among other elements of our faith and theology.

    the doctrine does not, though, talk about hell and what most people in general think about hell.

    the doctrine does not talk about what the "punishment" looks like.

    the doctrine does not talk about where the punishment takes place.

    On Tuesday, September 20, 2011, Philip Brace said:

    The Doctrines of The Salvation Army - including # 11 - encapsulate my beliefs.
    From your review of "Love Wins" (and the comments following), I've concluded that Bell's observations will provide little light for my spiritual pilgrimage. They could result in "bruised reeds" being broken and "smoldering wicks" snuffed out (Matthew 12:20) - a sure victory for the Enemy who is relentless in his perverse mission to provoke God's people to "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24).

    On Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Charlotte Dean said:

    I loved the book and would recommend it to anyone. What is salvation for? For the here and now, to experience fully the power of forgiveness and give that fully to others. Do I believe in an after life? Absolutely. Do I think we need to scare people into being good? Absolutely not.

    I love Him (in thought word and deed) because He first loved me. Not because he scared me into it.

    On Saturday, September 10, 2011, Jackson Baer said:

    Love wins was a great book that sparked debate and study by Christians and non-Christians alike. The Scriptures do not teach eternal punishment. Bell is much closer to the truth than most mainline Christians on this one.

    On Wednesday, September 7, 2011, Tony Cook said:

    I think I will look for the book and read it - if it makes its way here to Indonesia! God gave man a mind of his own and the ability to make his own decisions based on sound logic or raw emotion or anything else in between, and I find it healthy to read (and try to understand) another view - or to put it another way, I find it unhealthy to closet myself away and not try to understand what other people are thinking. [The person best-placed to understand what an alcoholic goes through is the reformed alcoholic himself.] How much credence I place on the views of the writer will be for me to decide when I have finished reding the book. But whichever side of the fence I fall on I don't think anyone could argue against some of his fear-less thoughts.

    On Wednesday, September 7, 2011, Ian Kirkpatrick said:

    I came to the Salvation Army because of its dual emphasis on belief and service. In other words living our beliefs. Having said this I cannot concieve that a God of love can condemn a person, who knows nothing of our Saviour, to eternal torment. My way to sakvation is through Jesus The Christ yet, at the back of my mind, there is always the question: "Are those of other faiths necessarily condemned?" This is a question which, most certainly, needs airing. At the present day we are in the midst of a revival of a thousand year old war, a period of hatred and bloodshed close to the scale of the second world war. What I do believe is that, as Christians, we must love and respect all people regardless of their faith. Embedded in the concept of "Just War" is the very important concept if that war being solely defensive and must, at all costs, endeavor to nprotect the innocent.

    On Wednesday, September 7, 2011, Dawn Green said:

    I do not agree with the writer Rob Bell. I believe in the Holy Scriptures that is what I believe we should live by and he believes that hell isn't permanent. I think that is so wrong . He has cheapen salvation, what I mean to say is that if he believes we end up in the same place then what is the purpose of salvation. God does allow for those to go to heaven or hell because we have been given choice rather to serve Him or not to serve Him. Another words free choice. He loves us so much that He sent us His own son to die on the cross .

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