Bell, Robert. 2011. Love wins: A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived. NY: HarperOne.

Wittmer, Michael E. 2011. Christ alone: An evangelical response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press.

Bell is founder of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Wittmer is a PhD who teaches systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

Reviewing these two books together is redundant, in that W examines B’s book chapter by chapter. I state B’s position on a number of issues and follow with W’s response.  According to Michael S. Horton in the Preface, W avoids “caricature and personal attack” and “carefully evaluates Bell’s interpretation of Scripture.” Horton claims that it is “not a careless diatribe against a book” although that is not always apparent .

B begins his book with an illustration of a painting of flowers at an art show accompanied by a quote from Gandhi. Below the quote someone has attached “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell follows with a question: “Really, he is, confirmation? Somebody knows? No doubt? And with responsibility to tell the rest of us?”

W believes that B has a “one-dimensional God” and is a universalist (in one way or another, everyone ends up in heaven). B lacks the more “mysterious transcendence of the Christian God” so his view of God “too often reads like a souped-up version of us—a God made more in our image than we in his” (18). W believes that people who have “no hope” are going to hell forever. On the other hand, B believes that there may be a second chance for most people and that heaven is not reserved for a select few (random selection?).  B questions this because, If it depends on everyone hearing the message, what happens (metaphorically) “if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Or “flat feet” we might add.

W believes (21) that B’s “wishful words may unwittingly lead more people to hell.” W calls B’s position “postmortem salvation” (a second chance after death) and accuses him of believing that God will eventually and ultimately restore everything and everybody.

B likes to ask provocative questions and W seems more than happy to swallow the bait.  At the beginning of chapter 2 in B there is a photo of a huge cross over a chasm, with the celestial city on one side (with walls around it) and the present earth on the other side.  People are walking from the present earth toward the city. B uses the photo as a metaphor for the story of movement, with images associated with heaven—harps, people floating on clouds, streets of gold, white robes, people singing in perfect pitch and pearly gates with St. Peter guarding them. B recounts that he has heard pastors say that heaven will be unlike anything we can comprehend, like a church service that goes on forever (28). He wryly comments that it causes some to think “that sounds more like hell.”

B notes that Jesus did not use standard evangelical approaches such by asking, for example, the rich man why he should be admitted to heaven or where he would go if he died that night. Instead he tells him to keep the commandments, omit coveting (41) and to sell everything he has and he will then have rewards in heaven. B sees heaven as a continuation of the sacred tasks that God has given us do in partnership with him now.

W, as philosopher-theologian, reminds readers of the Platonic view of heaven—the upper story of Forms is the real world and the lower story is Matter, where we now live (34). This heaven-is-good and earth-is-bad view was a Neo-Platonist view and is prevalent today, although scholars like W have challenged the view. However, W does adopt B’s “welcome recovery of the earthiness of our salvation,” but not entirely. B has the “right content [new earth] but the wrong word [heaven]” (36). His present is too much like the future and his future will be too much like the present because B “insists that heaven will be a kind of purgatory” (41). This comment is partially in response to B claim that “God’s peace, joy and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are” (59) and we don’t have to wait for heaven for them.

In chapter 3, B and W raise hell—as an issue. W recounts Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to remind readers of how vivid the view of hell once was. However, according to W, this stark view was eroded as the Enlightenment and modern science valued reason and autonomy, which, in turn, gave “rise to theological liberalism” (49).

B states that the Jews were more interested in living their life than being concerned about hell. He notes that Jesus’s teachings were “a volatile mixture of images, pictures and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (69).  W exegesis is more literal and he dismisses B’s version, saying that it sounds like a sadistic Joker in Batman: “I really hope you can come to my fantastic party, because if you don’t, I will have you thrown out into utter darkness and damnation” (52).

B notes that people sinfully create their own hell. W seems to agree, although he says that B makes the same mistake about hell that he made about heaven—that our future heaven won’t be much better than what we experience of it on earth and that hell will not be much worse than our own little hells (53). W follows with a theological and exegetical critique of B’s interpretion of the prodigal son story. W says that B “states that both sons attended the same party thrown by their father, which was heaven for the prodigal son but hell for the selfish elder son” (53). He sees B as minimizing the awfulness of hell.

B says that we should not take Jesus’s warnings (e.g. as in Mt. chapter 26) out of context because he is not talking about beliefs and proper orthodoxy. Instead he is talking about anger, lust, indifference and our interactions with neighbors.

W and B leave hell with exchanges about Sodom and Gomorrah, Hymenaeus of Alexander, and the Hebrew word olam (does the word mean banishment forever, or three days, as in Jonah?). W believes that B tries to take the warnings in Scripture about hell and fit them with the modern idea of what a loving God must do (59).

Chapter 4 of B is entitled”Does God get what God wants? It is answered in chapter 5 of W (titled Universalism) where W claims again that B is a universalist—“the belief that everyone will be saved in the end” (61). W summarizes the forms of universalism, beginning with Origen, who proposed that people have free choice, but that their fate is determined by their lot in life. He believed that people never lost their freedom to choose, and held out that there was always hope for salvation.  W also cites Barth, who believed in a loving sovereignty and that “we are powerless to resist God because ultimately our choices don’t count” (65).  Barth exemplified “incipient universalism” (66) and he puts B in the same camp, also claiming, due to an incomplete quote from Marin Luther, that B has a “slippery grasp of history” (68). W claims that B believes that with enough time everyone will turn to God because the love of God will be greater than any resistance (69). He then hedges, saying that B is, perhaps, not really a universalist because he believes universal salvationcompromises our freedom.

B supports his position that God wants all people to be saved and will therefore get what He wants by mentioning Psalm 65, Ezekiel 36, Zephaniah 3, Isaiah 52, Acts 17, Malachi 2, Philippians 2, and Ephesians 3. He also bolsters his positon from the church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, Jerome and Augustine. B’s basic question is: “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” (109). W’s rebuttal is theological, citing the traditional view of “distinguishing between God’s hidden, sovereign will and his revealed, oral will” (73).

In chapter 5, B comments on sacrificial rituals in cultures and how theyiare no longer needed because Jesus destroyed death and brought us reconciliation and peace. W suggests that B says that “God is at peace with us simply because we are human” (86) and that he dumbs down sin. In his chapter on “Sin” W labels B’s theology as “textbook Pelaganism” (claiming that humankind is basically good) because he overestimates the goodness of humans and underestimates their sin.

W’s main argument is against B’s view of reconciliation and is outlined in Chapter 7, “Cross and Resurrection”, where he accuses B’s of promoting existentialism, although it “is on the right track [the fear of death] but it needs to go deeper” (96).  Otherwise followers will “view Jesus as a symbol which reveals a general truth about the world” (99) and that the cross and resurrection do not really accomplish anything—they only reveal something (101).  W interprets B to say that “the cross merely reassures rather than rescues” (102) and is therefore unnecessary. Further, according to W, such an existential point of view looks past the person of Jesus to the principle he represents so that we “are ‘saved’ when we embrace the cosmic truth and can “potentially be saved apart from hearing the gospel” (105).

B’s Chapter 6 is called “There are rocks everywhere”, referring to the rock that Moses struck which, metaphorically, was Christ. B’s question is: Where else has he been?—for he is supracultural. “He is for all people, and yet he refuses to be co-oped or owned by any one culture” (151). In Chapter 7 (The Good News is Better Than That), B elaborates the point by pointing out that people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways and that he came to save the world and not judge it. The sheep are separated from the goats, but B maintains that for Christians this is often a program of sin-management, trying to avoid the coming wrath by angling and working.  We create hell and preach our story, the gospel of goats (180). B illustrates this by returning to the Prodigal Son story, in which each brother has his own version, but both stories are distorted (185).  For the younger son, he sees badness as his problem; for the older son, goodness is his problem, but neither understands the Fathers love.  This is the crucial point to B: Jesus has already forgiven them both.

W responds that B blurs the distinction between Jesus’s roles as Creator on the one hand and Redeemer on the other, a fault that arises from Christian existentialism (113). Paul said that the rock was a symbol that pointed to Christ and “if redemption does the same work as creation, then ultimately redemption is unnecessary” (113). W further relates this confusion to B’s not distinguishing between common and special grace. “Common grace doesn’t redeem creation, but it keeps us in the game. Common grace sustains creation long enough so Jesus can come and save us” (114).

B Elaborates on Christ as “supra-cultural”, because “sometimes people use his [Jesus’s] name; other times they don’t” (158). “Jesus is the answer, but he is also the question, the hunt, the search, the exploration, the discovery. He is the rock, and there is water there” (161).W claims this view promotes “anonymous Christians” (118), and from there it is a slippery slide leading to saying that every religion may contain some truth about Jesus and that such knowledge leads directly to God (118). In Acts 17:30-31 Paul proclaims that in the past such ignorance was overlooked by God, but the implication by W is that surely not now. We should live in peace with other religions, says W, even dialogue with their adherents, but saving grace is only through Jesus.

W concludes his book with chapters about God and the Gospel.  B concludes his with Chapter 7, “The End is Here.” B says that “Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true” (195). W claims that B is putting God on trial instead of ourselves by claiming we don’t deserve punishment, judgment should be rehabilitative, God would be unloving to punish people forever, and that we need to feel safe. W says that the courtroom, rather than the family, is the correct analogy to describe God’s relationship to the world (125). “We have rebelled against God, causing both his death and ours. So as hard as this is to accept, of course we deserve hell. Anything less would be a grave injustice” (130).

W follows by saying that whatever the merits of B’s case, “his view makes an exceptionally bland story” with “limitless happy endings” (145). Instead, “We all are rebellious traitors against God… and are destined to suffer forever in ultimate despair of hell” (148).

B concludes with this prayer: “May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins” (198).

If we follow carefully the arguments of W against B, we can probably assert with some confidence that “theology wins” because W is clearly the better theologian. However, if we explore some of the questions that B raises, we may not be so sure. For example, those of us who have worked for years in other cultures, with tribal societies that understand and interact with nature and its forces, can sympathize with B’s questions about how people come to know about God. Time and time again, when translating the New Testament into a so-called primitive language of Papua New Guinea, I was astonished at their latent understanding of the Gospel. As a village leader put it to me when checking Galatians 5:13-15, “Didn’t you say that Paul wrote that a long time ago?  How did he know that we were [bad] like that?” And vestiges of a creator God were there—it was not surprising that He had a Son who came into the world to help them over come their badness. What if we had had a flat tire?

B is provocative and engaging; W is scholarly, argumentive, and sometimes dull (theologically), which may turn out to be the conclusion of young people who read both books. W probably understands this for he has a study guide on his book’s website.

Evangelical scholars will have a field day lampooning B and calling him a heretic. The proof will be in the pudding—are people growing in their faith and coming to know Christ through B?  If so, we should be reminded of Jesus’s admonition—if someone is not against Him, we should be careful about claiming that they are heretical.

Karl Franklin
Sil International and GIAL