…there are dozens of problems with Love Wins. The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.
On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against further conversation. For starters, there’s the McLarenesque complaint about the close-minded traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix). This is a kind of pre-emptive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to conversation (cf. 183). In essence, “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.
Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.
Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.
If that weren’t bad enough, the other discussion on Sodom is even worse. Because Jesus says it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for Capernaum (Matt. 11:23–24), Bell concludes that there is hope for all the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs (85). Bell takes a passage about judgment—judgment that will be so bad for Capernaum it’s even worse than God’s judgment on Sodom—and turns it into tacit support for ultimate universalism. Jesus’ warning says nothing about new hope for Sodom. It says everything about the hopelessness of unbelieving Capernaum.
One last general point about Bell’s exegesis: Bell has a reputation for being brilliant and creative, and he probably is in certain spheres. But his use of Scripture exhibits neither characteristic. In fact, it is naïve, literalistic biblicism. He flattens everything, either to make traditional theology sound ridiculously inconsistent or to make a massive point from one out-of-context verse. He makes no attempt to understand metaphors, genre, or imagery (either in Scripture or in his grandmother’s painting).
What’s wrong with this theology is, of course, what’s wrong with the whole book. Bell assumes all sorts of things that can’t be shown from Scripture.
Most readers of Love Wins will want to talk about Bell’s universalism. But just as troubling is his Christology.
To suggest the Lord’s Supper unites all people makes a mockery of the sacrament and the Christ uniquely present in the bread and the cup. The Table is a feast for those who trust in Christ, for those who can discern his body, a family meal for those who together will proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. It brings us together under the sign of the cross.
Bell categorically rejects any notion of penal substitution. It simply does not work in his system or with his view of God. “Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).
At the very heart of this controversy, and one of the reasons the blogosphere exploded over this book, is that we really do have two different Gods. The stakes are that high. If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming. I do not use the word lightly, just like Bell probably chose “toxic” quite deliberately. Both sides cannot be right. As much as some voices in evangelicalism will suggest that we should all get along and learn from each other and listen for the Spirit speaking in our midst, the fact is we have two irreconcilable views of God.
The jubilation of “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine!” is muted inLove Wins. The bad news of our wrath-deserving wretchedness is so absent that the good news of God’s wrath-bearing Substitute cannot sing in our hearts. When God is shrunk down to fit our cultural constraints, the cross is diminished. And whenever the cross is diminished we pain the hearts of God’s people and rob them of their joy.
Bad theology hurts real people. So of all the questions raised in the book, the most important question every reader must answer is this: is it true? Whatever you think of all the personalities involved on whatever side of the debate, that’s the one question that cannot be ignored. Is Love Wins true to the word of God? That’s the issue. Open a Bible, pray to God, listen to the faithful Christians of the past 2000 years, and answer the question for yourself.