First Thoughts on Love Wins

In the spirit of full disclosure, I still have about 20 pages before I finish Rob Bell’s latest book, “Love Wins.” But in an effort to provide a bit of direction for people in my sphere of influence (and perhaps bump up my site stats), I decided to jump into the conversation with some initial thoughts on “Love Wins.”

Full disclosure point #2: I appreciate Rob Bell; he is a master communicator. We have used his Noomas in our community of faith and I have leveraged them in other teaching contexts as well. On top of that, a couple of years ago a friend and I traveled to Grand Rapids to spend a couple of days with Rob and a small group of pastors talking about the ministry of preaching and teaching. It was, as you might imagine, a rich, deep and meaningful conversation.

For those of you still reading, let me state that I haven’t imbibed the “Rob Bell can do no wrong koolaid.”  I disagree strongly with Rob on many things and at times, he completely frustrates and irritates me by his mode of operation. But I can honestly say that my faith has been challenged, my leadership enhanced and my understanding of the Scriptures has been enlightened by Rob’s ministry. And for that I am thankful.

In the book’s preface, Rob states his three reasons for writing the book:

  1. The Jesus Story, (the story about God’s love for every single one of us), has been hijacked by a number of other stories;
  2. The kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions, but instead takes us deep into the heart of them;
  3. The beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith is that it is a deep, wide and diverse stream that has been flowing for thousands of years and Rob wants to invite his readers into that river.

First thoughts about Rob’s three purposes:

1. The Jesus Story has been hijacked by stories that do not share a single thread of congruence with the Gospel. Racism, sexism, elitism, political, social and economic agendas –  each steer the story away from the Story and I am tired of it.   But the sad truth is, my own telling and living of the Story contributes, at times to the hijacking of the Jesus Story.

How will we return to the amazing story of God’s love for every single one of us? I believe that will happen as discerning men and women live deeply into the Jesus Story within the context of communities of faith where we openly and honestly confess our duplicity and seek to live more authentically in light of the Story – not only in our heads, but through our lives. I pray Rob’s book provokes and catalyzes this.

2.  Years ago, I viewed my role as pastor as the Bible Answer Man. More and more, I see my role in light of asking significant questions and guiding people toward the discovery of God’s truth. I do possess a level of expertise in Scripture study, theology and church history and this serves as a solid foundation (or to use another image, guard rails) for the questions I raise and the guidance and direction I provide. I want to nurture an environment where questions can be voiced, concerns raised and doubt expressed. I’ll be facilitating some conversation around this book and believe our community will be enriched by these dialogue (interested in joining us? Drop me a comment or email).

Rob is masterful at raising questions (his technique in this book will drive some of you crazy). However, I also believe there is a time and season to formulate some answers,  particularly as one who serves as a leading and guiding voice in the Church. Rob leaves way more questions on the table, then answers. I think it is pretty tough for anyone to label Rob a heretic because he doesn’t definitively state much in this book.

3.  After reading most of the book, I’m not sure there is a single original thought here. As Mark Gaillo from Christianity Today writes in his review of Love Wins, “Rob is at his usual best here, casting fresh light on biblical truths, engaging readers with the compelling metaphor, turning the arresting phrase, and reminding all that the love of God is more powerful and sweeping than we can imagine.” Totally agree! But here is a big personal critique of the book: while Rob acknowledges that there is nothing in the book that hasn’t been taught, suggested or celebrated in the past, he fails to provide or in many cases even acknowledge the source of his ideas. While he claims he is writing as a pastor and not a theologian,  he does all of his readers a huge disservice by not providing a better foundation for people who want to delve deeper into the primary sources of the arguments he presents.

these are my
first thoughts on
love wins.
until then
I just wanted to see
how it feels to
write like rob writes.)


  1. Thanks for keeping an open mind Terry. Nobody minds a critique when it’s done in good faith.

  2. Thanks for that. Very fair critique. I had the book delivered to me as an eBook on my iPad, and I read the entire thing yesterday. My feelings pretty much coincide with what you wrote. It is an interesting book and I certainly was reminded of some important things by it.

    I say “reminded” because, in reality, much of it is a restatement of C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce and, to a lesser extent, “The Last Battle) and N.T. Wright.

    And that brings up another small thing. He does mention a number of books for further reading at the back of his book. I assume that this is basically his bibliography (although limited… I also have to assume that he used many more sources, some footnotes would have been nice).

    Among those books, Lewis and Wright.

    Thanks again for a good post.

  3. Simon Huff says:

    Thanks for the post Terry. I’ll be interested to hear what more you have to say
    about this book as it goes along.
    In the meantime, I would like to point out that, whether one thinks he is or not, Bell can very much be accused of heretical teaching, no matter how many questions he raises, no matter

    how much his
    say he is just
    artistic…. [EXPRESSIVE!]

    ,because Bell not only espouses a certain perspective on the faith, but this book is not written as a conversational piece, or in a “let’s talk about what MIGHT be” format. He attempts to not only persuade the reader that he what he is saying is the way Christianity should be, he goes so far as to call orthodox Christianity “misguided and toxic.”
    When Mr. Bell claims, as he does in his book, that there is no imagination, there is no art, in the orthodox story of Heaven and Hell (“shriveled imagination” are his words), he truly moves from being a misguided prophet to being a liar and a propagandist. On this point, Mr. Bell has against him 2,000 years of history, art, and culture. Even the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens realize the monumental contributions of the Christian heritage, and attempt to incorporate that into society while leaving the religious baggage behind (something that Bell seems to share with them, hmm?).

    Bell’s great flaw is that the impetus for his book is not to understand Scripture better, but to wield Scripture in such a way as to appease society, and show the modern age how it can be useful (and cool!). He says Orthodoxy isn’t “cool” and those who believe in Hell “don’t throw good parties.” These are the words of my fellow high school dropouts, who would rather huff paint in the alley than go to Sunday school. These are not the words of a prophet, or a great thinker, or even of your everyday man on the street. Morality, and the consequences of right and wrong, are very real to people, a point that Bell seems to be very out of touch on. He seems to have spent too much time, as of late, with the Dali Lama, and others of that crowd and wearing fancy clothes and going to fancy dinners and growing tired of telling people things that are inconvenient or what they don’t want to hear. Because, hell, (pardon my pun), if Bell is right, then there are no real consequences for anything.

    But what’s most dangerous about this book is that it not only undermines the moral law, it undermines the death and resurrection of Christ.

    But I digress. Bell’s theories are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking. His poor scholarship and lack of responsible exegesis shows that he is no longer worth considering. It’s time we harkened back to true prophets and colossal minds like Lewis and Chesterton (who speak out against the very things Bell attempts to do, in “Screwtape” and “Orthodoxy”, respectively).

    The Church today is still like Israel.
    We don’t have sense enough to follow the true prophets.

    • Simon –

      I am looking forward to engaging with you on this. It is clear you have done some serious thinking on the matter. One of the things that bothers me about the book are Rob’s attempts at humor (some of which you referenced in your comments) -hell is certainly no laughing matter.

      Interesting that you mention Lewis and Chesterton – I actually think Rob draws from their work (without citing them or pressing deep enough into them).

      Do you follow Byron Borger’s writing at Hearts and Minds? (he’s the book guy at Jubilee) You might want to check out this post –

      • Simon Huff says:


        Thanks for sending the link to Byron’s page. I think he had a lot of good things to say, but he seems so overly concerned with the conduct of our discourse concerning the text that he sidesteps critical claims made by Bell and downplays any potential impact of Bell’s book. For example, he very incorrectly defends Bell as not intending to “do away with some stuff because it isn’t cool enough for our postmodern world.” But that is exactly what Bell is doing, particularly in the passage already mentioned where those who believe in Hell aren’t cool and don’t throw good parties. If this point is not made to appeal to our postmodern world, than why is it made?

        Secondly, Byron unbelievably makes the caveat that “it’s just a book.” I’m sorry…what? He writes that people already have their minds made up about the issue and it won’t, in essence, change a thing. Then what are we reading and thinking and blogging about? What is he doing running a bookstore? Sure, he concedes to the power of the word, but when it comes down to it, he either doesn’t really believe that people base their world views on books (you know, like…the BIBLE???) or he’s being disingenuous because he doesn’t really want to grapple with the issues (or, to be a bit cynical, lose customers). Byron just wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

        Also, I don’t much concern myself with his appeal to “quiet and slow” civility in our criticisms of the book. This is a view which seeks to protect those like Bell who are making claims about religion, while philosophical books and other works of academia (“secular” works) must “go through the fire,” as it were. The emergent church has always retreated from strong delineations of sacred and profane, so to my mind, invoking Scripture (as Byron does) to protect Bell from harsh criticism is hypocrisy. So I will treat Bell’s work as I treat any other. And his logic is severely, severely flawed.

        His premise for the book is this, that “since God wishes that all would be saved, if all are not eventually saved, then God has failed. God cannot fail, therefore, all will be saved.” But Bell simply need look at other desires of God that fill the pages of Scripture to see that, either 1. God has already failed, many, many times before, or 2. There can be no value judgments made concerning the desires of God and the choices of Man. For example, God wishes that, here and now, on this Earth, man would not sin, but would turn to Him. Even under the universalist doctrine of Bell, this will never be so. So has God failed? I see the problem here as attempting to attach value judgments to God’s desires versus the eventual outcome. Bell treats this problem as he would a human one, where if expectations aren’t met, there is some sort of failure on the part of the expectant one. But I’m not so sure one can ascribe this to God. It’s a slippery slope that can lead to such thoughts as “Well, God’s love for you is pretty much akin to my love for you.” If only!

        Now this is where Bell saws the proverbial branch upon which he sits. For if we revisit the premise above, it is clear that there is no free will in Bell’s scheme to have God and love “win.” Because if love wins, freedom loses. And if freedom loses, love dies. If Bell’s hypothesis is correct, than God isn’t really offering us true freedom and liberty to choose as we will. According to Bell, He will simply overpower us in the end and have His way, which makes the “freedom” of our lives on this Earth meaningless patronage. None of it will have been real; it will all have been for naught.

        Now, does that sound like love? Is that a “better story” as Bell is so desperate to create?

        I think not.

        (And while he cites the great thinkers, this in no way means that they are endorsing Bell’s views. Just read Chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters or “The Suicide of Thought” by Chesterton)

  4. Terry:
    As always, I appreciate your willingness to engage in challenging thinking and questioning. I continue to be monumentally frustrated with the scores of people out there that are quick to dismiss someone like Rob based on a soundbyte. Nobody gets it ALL right…(well, one man did, but that’s why we’re having this conversation to begin with).

    I miss CCC dialogues and long to join in one again. Any chance you’d consider facilitating something online for those of us that can’t be there in person?


    • Nancy – we certainly miss your spirited voice around the table. Mt plan is to post about the book over the next couple of weeks, so please stay tuned…and if you are free on Tuesday nights in April, drive over to the south hills and join us (I’m not quite sure we are ready to webcast the conversations, but i will get my web guru on that!)

      I thought of you the other day as I was in a Serving Leader Board Meeting and we are talking about City as Parish – I am working pretty closely with John Stahl-Wert (he is the president of Serving Leaders) and the vision to see Pittsburgh transformed by the power of Christ continues to live on…


  5. Thanks for the review!

  6. Terry–
    I tried to tell myself I wasn’t going to read your ‘first thoughts’ until my copy came in the mail…but that didn’t hold. That being said, I’m glad I didn’t. I think this will help give me some insight when the time comes to read the book (and help avoid that tasty kool-aid).

  7. Terry,

    I really liked Kevin DeYoung’s ( thoughts on Rob Bell’s question-asking motif:

    One, although Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” Any pastor worth his covenant salt will welcome sincere questions like this. (“Good question, Jenny, let’s see what the Bible says about that.”) But Bell is a popular teacher of a huge church with a huge following. This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that). As Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19)

    I think his great communication skills and question asking often draws us in because we do not have all the answers and questions that come from a popular pastor in Rob Bell let us know that we are not alone in that thinking. But, I do agree with DeYoung’s thoughts that his question-asking is his way to communicate the truths he believes in while asking us to wrestle with ours. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the direction that he is taking his readers, fans, congregation that is drawing much criticism (seemingly deserved, although it needs to be done in love, and not in a John Piper tweeting “Farewell Rob” kind of way).

    • Thanks for stopping by and engaging in the conversation Josh.

      DeYoung’s review is one of the most thorough books reviews I have ever read, that’s for sure. He does raise significant questions about Rob’s approach, methodology and content and we need to pay carefully attention to these as we explore Rob’s book.

      I am looking forward to pressing deeper into some of the questions Rob raises – and I pray that through our dialogue we will come to a more faithful articulation of “heaven, hell and the fate of every person who has ever lived.”

      And just to tip my hand – I do agree with Rob and believe that Love Wins – however, it is in a significantly different way than Rob articulates.

      Stay connected…

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