Love Wins: Part 1, Millions of Us

On top of the other things I'm writing about (e.g., my ongoing series on the Slavery of Death) I thought it time to write a bit about Rob Bell's book Love Wins.

Perhaps you've heard of it?

As most of you are aware, the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins kicked up a storm of controversy and discussion. Some of it started immediately when the promotional video first hit the Internet.

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

At the height of the controversy a few readers asked me to weigh in. I demurred. It seemed that a lot of the discussion at the time was among evangelicals trying to sort themselves out and, given that I didn't have a dog in that hunt, I didn't want to contribute to the noise. But now that some of the smoke has cleared I thought I'd spend some time working through the book.

To start, my plan is to write a post about each chapter, starting in this post with the Preface. But this won't be a book review. Mainly all I want to do is pick something out of each chapter that I find interesting, either because I agree with it, disagree with it, or simply find the point to be worthy of thinking about.

But if you care about my overall impression of Love Wins here it is: I think the book is very helpful and useful. For this reason. Prior to Love Wins there weren't many good "first book off the shelf" choices for those of us wanting to hand reading material to people coming to us with questions and concerns about the traditional doctrine of hell. When people came to us asking questions our first response was often "Have you read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce?" That wasn't a bad recommendation as The Great Divorce is easy to read and it does expand one's theological imagination. Which, to start, is what a lot of people need. But The Great Divorce isn't for everyone. It's kind of an odd story and a lot of people have trouble working out the implicit theology in light of the biblical narrative. (Kind of how many evangelicals miss the Christus Victor atonement in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

Beyond The Great Divorce sometimes I would recommend George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons. But MacDonald's prose isn't easy. More recently I've been recommending The Evangelical Universalist or The Inescapable Love of God. But those two books are a bit too polemical for a person just starting to ask questions.

In short, as best I could tell there wasn't a good book out there that fit this very important niche. What did you reach for when someone came to you with troubling questions about hell? Nothing really recommended itself. But now I can hand over a copy of Love Wins and say, "Start here. If you like this I can point you in different directions if you want to go deeper." And that further exploration doesn't have to be into universalism. I could be about annihilationism or a deeper exploration into the history and meanings of Sheol and Gehenna.

So that's my overall assessment. Love Wins a wonderful read for those just starting to ask questions or for those whose faith is starting to falter, quite understandably, due to the traditional doctrine of hell.

With that out of the way, let's start with the Preface of the book entitled "Millions of Us." The quote from the Preface that I'd like to focus on is this:
Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: "We don't discuss those things here."
I don't care what you think about Love Wins, but I think Bell is spot on with this particular assessment. Too many churches say to their members, and their young people in particular, "We don't discuss those things here." And I think the younger generation has had just about enough of this sort of thing. And I'm quite tired of it as well.

A lot people smacked Love Wins because it raised more questions than answers. But truth be told, I think that is sort of the point. I sure as hell have more questions than answers. (Was that a pun?) So I appreciate Bell raising the questions and giving voice to them. That's the sort of book a lot of people need. They need permission to ask questions. Hence the title of the Preface, "Millions of Us." You are not alone in your doubts. You're not faithless, weird, or strange. There are millions of us.

I could go on and on about this, but let me just end with a story.

A few years ago I was teaching in my adult bible class at the Highland Church of Christ. I was doing a lesson on doubt. I started with this question, "Have you ever had doubts? If so, let's share them as I write them on the board." It was quiet at first, but then the responses flowed out...

I've doubted that God exists...
I've doubted that God really cares...
I've doubted that prayers make any difference...
I've doubted that there is a heaven after death...

So many doubts came out that I filled the board and it took all of the class time. After class I worried. I thought the class had gone really badly. I mean, all we did for the entire class was to list our doubts and put them on the board. There was no time for a "positive" response. No pretty bow affixed. No "take home point" or encouraging application. Just one long list of doubts.

A few days later a faculty friend and member of the Highland class shared with me this story. Apparently, a prospective ACU student, a highschooler, was visiting Highland with his parents on Sunday and had wandered into my doubt class. Hearing this, I inwardly groaned. I was sure the next part of the story was going to be the parents blasting me for destroying the faith or their son. But this is what the parents said to my friend: "When you see him, please tell Dr. Beck how important that class was for our son. It just might have saved his faith. He had been struggling with church for some time, but that class opened his eyes. Never in his life had he heard an adult admit to doubting God. Consequently, he felt he was strange and that religion wasn't for him. He felt alone, like no one understood what he was feeling and thinking. But hearing all those adults sharing their doubts made him realize that it was okay to doubt and that he really does fit in at church."

Yes, there are millions of us.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

17 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 1, Millions of Us”

  1. MacDonald and Lewis are a great place to start. There's a lot of evangelicals that "think" they like Lewis, but really haven't read his work. It certainly saved my faith in a hard time, then led me to MacDonald and eventually the Torrance's.

    I haven't read the book, but all of the reviews I have read suggest that Bell is no further off the mark in one direction than most conservative evangelicals are in the other. It's just that their errors are more acceptable some how within our church culture, but they still present a wall to many outsiders.

    Your story about the high school student is a perfect example. As someone who was in college ministry for year, I don't know where to start. We have tried so hard to present a perfect faith that we have forgotten to be real. College (or even the college minister) can get blamed for kids "losing" their faith. My experience is that most of them came to college in a deficit already. Teens and college students especially need a critical, authentic witness.

  2. I too have to chuckle (or else I'd scream) at how many of my own peers praise CS Lewis but have deemed Bell a heretic. I'm not sure they actually know how to read.... 

    (was that snarky?... sorry) 

  3. In my head reaction to Bell was almost perfect Prodigal Son.  Older son who never questioned Dad's answers.  Younger son who did.  When young son comes back, older just goes ape - "you are ruining my answers".  The older sons have been holding this flood back a long time.  Hard to discern if you are the watchman on the tower or the Sadducee.

    100% tracking with you on Bell.  He is perfect intro material and the perfect book to give permission for encouraging making that received faith your own.

  4. Completely agree with Love Wins being the book I can give out. (I bought 4 copies to that end.) I would never have tried with the other books you mentioned. These days the book has to make its case in an easily accessible manner and the under 200 pages Love Wins does just that.

  5. I haven't read Love Wins. I also wouldn't call myself a universalist. However, I tend to take universalism (and other ways that you and others in the conversation "deviate" from my traditional understanding of Christian doctrine) more seriously since you obviously take the Scriptures seriously. I have had liberal friends/colleagues tell me that if their experience or opinion is in conflict with Scripture, then Scripture is wrong (or irrelevant). It's hard for me to take seriously doctrines/opinions formulated purely on the basis of someone else's subjective opinion. It is this type of universalism that I have encountered in the past. 

    I do think that questions and doubts are an important part of spiritual growth. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have several pastors that encouraged my questions, and admitted that they didn't have all the answers. 

  6. As a (fairly liberal it must be said) evangelical Macdonald and Lewis I like (and have even read!) but who are the Torrances?

    I think that The Great Divorce opened up my thinking to the possibility of annihilationism (with the spark of life dying in individuals and e.g. just a grumble being left, hell being so small, and also the great cry at the the sunrise that shoots time dead), but not to Universalism (in facts it seems to speak against Universalism towards the end).   But more importantly it  introduced me to George Macdonald who in turn introduced the possibility of Universalism (I'm not totally convinced - but hopeful)…but even more importantly to George Macdonald's view of the deep love of God and the place of duty... which hopefully saves from the trap that CS Lewis points out in The Great Divorce of being the subtlest of all snares - being so interested in proving that God exists, or so occupied with spreading Christianity (or I suppose proving/ disproving Universalism, etc. etc. ) that no thought is given to Christ… to loving God as the true Father and to being Christlike....oops turned into a ramble - I was really just curious as to who Torrance is so I can have a read

  7. I was recently fired as youth and teaching pastor for my belief that
    Hell is not eternal torment. I wrote a book about my beliefs and what
    the Scriptures actually teach on the subject. It's coming out soon, you
    can check out my blog to follow along. I'd love to get the message out
    to as many people as possible. The book is called "What the Hell" How
    Did We Get It So Wrong?

  8. The Torrance brothers are Scottish Presbyterian theologians (now the sons are as well). Thomas Torrance is the most famous for the following: high level theological discussion with the Greek Orthodox community, writing on faith and science, awarded the Templeton Prize and translating Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics into English. You can look on Wikipedia to learn more about Thomas, James, Alan, Ronald, and Iain.

  9. I still haven't read Love Wins. I may not ever, but I do already recognize its place as a good introduction to the questions.

    The book that did it for me (in part), and which I would recommend, is McLarens' The Last Word and the Word After That.

  10. Bell's "Velvet Elvis" brought life back into my dead faith years ago so I naturally loved Love Wins.  I owe it to "converting" my wife into our crazy Universalist group. 

    The one thing I don't get though is some of the knee-jerk reactions.  I bought the book for a once-Christian now Atheist friend.  She told her Calvinist brother and sister-in law that she was reading it and their response was, "We rather see you an Atheist."  

    I also think it's hilarious that N.T. Wright pretty much wrote the brainy version of "Love Wins" when he wrote "Surprised By Hope" and there was little controversy.  Maybe Wright used words that were too big? 

  11. Funny (I'm using the word funny loosely) story.  After I read Love Wins and "came out of the theological closet", my Mom was a little concerned.  She's a wonderful woman of God but very dogmatic.  She called me one morning and said, "Jack Van Impe says that Rob Bell doesn't believe in the virgin birth!"


  12. Thanks Michael... I'll have a look....where's a good place to start...  "The Mediation of Christ" seems to be recommended by some ?  I remember trying to read "Space Time and Ressurection" a good number of years ago but getting bogged down in the theological language (maybe MIchelle is right!)

  13.  Velvet Elvis was an amazing book, very well written. You're quote of, "We'd rather see you an Atheist" is incredibly true of many Christians. Would they really rather see us as atheists?

  14. Scriptural wrestling may also lead to some adopting universalism.  Colossians 1: 15-23 for example, talks about reconciling all created things to God in peace.  It is quite tricky for a traditional understanding of hell to interpret this passage, often going for the very counter intuitive interpretation that being punished everlastingly is a form of peaceful reconciliation. 

    Verse 23 does have a conditional 'if indeed you continue in faith' which may suggest contrary to universalism (only fair I point this out, plus of course, many other passages universalists find difficult).  Having said that, the conditional is not logically committed to saying some actually do fall away from faith, and perhaps a universalist would say ultimately no one falls away.  More trickiness.  Best stop now.

  15. I completely agree about LOVE WINS.  While it's not at all what I needed, it seems extremely well-suited to being just what a lot of just-hanging-on Christians and also seekers (many of both camps being young) very much need.  God bless Rob Bell.

  16. I agree with Tim (a few comments above) that the McLaren book can be good for many in terms of starting to explore new possibilities.

    I tend to read THE GREAT DIVORCE in a way as not even being really about the afterlife: 

Leave a Reply