I recently read Love Wins by Rob Bell (Harper One, 2011). Though I do not recall Bell using the term “universalism,” it’s a book which promotes the idea that everyone will eventually be saved. He essentially says that if we don’t get right with God in this life, there will “other opportunities” (197). He asks questions like, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (98). Bell states, “There is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be okay” (155).
While I do not agree with Bell’s conclusions, it must be pointed out that Bell asks a lot a great questions in this book. Chapter 1, in particular, is packed with questions worthy of contemplation. For example, Bell asks, “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2). Furthermore, Bell points out that “Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is about? Going somewhere else?” (6). In addressing the loving, kind and compassionate nature of God, Bell asks if God becomes “somebody totally different the moment you die” (174). Bell really does offer many good questions that deserve attention.
While most Christians will be disturbed by Bell’s conclusions, I’m equally concerned with how he arrived at them. His interpretive methods are suspect, especially when interpreting parables. While there are various theories concerning the proper interpretation of parables, Bell tends to read them allegorically. Allegorical interpretive method looks for deeper meaning beneath the surface. And when it comes to parables, instead of focusing on the primary point (or points) being made, an allegorical interpretation will draw significance out of details which probably have none at all. In other words, Bell tends to make mountains out of mole hills.
For example, in discussing Luke 16 (the rich man and Lazarus), Bell refers to the chasm that exists between Abraham and the rich man. His conclusion is that the chasm is the rich man’s heart! That is classic allegory and few scholars today would agree with this method or conclusion. Chapter 7 (The Good News is Better Than That) mostly revolves around Bell’s interpretation of Luke 15 (The Prodigal Son). Once again, he makes some interpretive leaps. “In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other,” says Bell (170). He adds, “There is much for us here, about heaven, hell” (170). Later when discussing the older brother who said “he never disobeyed,” Bell says, “You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience” (184). My initial thought was simply, “Yikes. He makes so much from this.” This is the red flag that runs up the pole when I sense allegorical interpretation.
Beyond Bell’s abuse of parables, he tosses so many random Scripture references in along the way, that it comes across like possible “proof-texting” … meaning, here’s my point and here’s a text to back up what I say. I’m not saying Bell is doing this because I sure did not look up every text he tossed out as evidence for his conclusions. But experience tells me that where there’s smoke, there is often fire. So I would simply warn the reader that while Bell quotes a lot of Scripture, he may not be interpreting them well. Of course, this can be said of any book!
If you can get past Bell’s questionable interpretations and focus on the many questions he raises, you may still like this book. Furthermore, Bell makes a lot of great points along the way. I’ll just give you a taste of three of them. First, he makes an interesting assessment when he says, “It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now … it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die” (45). Second, he says, “Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying” (82). Last of all, Bell makes an interesting distinction between “entrance” and “enjoyment.” He notes that the gospel should not be diminished to a question of whether or not a person will get into heaven (178). He adds, “When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity” (179).
So here’s my bottom line with this book. Love Wins makes some good points to ponder and raises a lot of serious questions. But in the end, Love Wins fails to convince because some interpretive methods used along the way are, at best, questionable.