Love Wins: An Incognito Sheep?

28 02 2011

Once again, Rob Bell has stirred up much discussion simply by announcing the publication of a new book…

From the start, let me say this: I like the guy. I think he is a remarkably gifted communicator and a provocative preacher. Many of his insights into preaching are remarkable, and I would far rather grab a beer with him than many of the theological heavyweights in the reformed world with whom I may be more closely aligned… for the simple reason that he’s interesting! He’s creative. He’s quirky. I think he’d be fun to spend time with. He’s a bit more edgy. He doesn’t just serve up a hunk of flame-grilled meat; he knows how to cook it sous-vide, decorate and garnish it! He’s the Heston Blumenthal of the preaching world. And there, perhaps, lies his downfall…

His new book, Love Wins, comes out at the end of March, and already bloggers are wading in and condemning it as heresy, swiftly followed by the predictable backlash of comments saying ‘how dare you? You haven’t read it yet!‘ Well… yes… they have a point. But if the promo video is anything to go by, the concerns of the likes of Justin Taylor and Joshua Harris are quite valid. It does appear that Bell is radically redefining, or rejecting the biblical notion of hell.

But then again, Rob Bell does have an infuriating habit of painting himself as less orthodox than he really is. I found that reading Velvet Elvis I regularly got annoyed at what I perceived to be him rejecting a major doctrine, only to find upon a careful second-reading that he wasn’t really denying it at all. Often he raises incisive questions in order to expose our knee-jerk fundamentalism, and to cause us to rethink how we express our doctrines. Such a strategy is high-risk! Many never recover from their initial anger, and others, not picking up the nuances, will think that his questioning gives them permission to jettison large portions of orthodox faith. Personally I would be wary at taking such large risks when the items that stand to suffer are people’s hearts, minds and souls.

I sincerely hope that this is another of those ill-advised, but typically ‘Bellian’ marketing strategies. We are greatly in need of a way of articulating hell that avoids the equal and opposite pitfalls of grace-less fundamentalism and woolly liberalism. If Bell can help us with that, I will be very grateful. But for the moment I am more inclined to echo the concern of Harris and Taylor… I am dismayed, but sorely hope I am wrong.

Leaving aside the specifics of this book though, this marks a peculiar shift in preaching technique and common sense. I am deeply saddened that we have reached a point in time where people feel that the only way to get a hearing for orthodoxy is to dress it up as heresy! Jesus warned us about:

Wolves dressing as sheep to feed on the sheep

But now we’re beginning to see a strange phenomenon:

Sheep dressing as wolves to feed the sheep

If this continues, sales in lamb will suffer, and nobody will know who to trust…



17 responses

28 02 2011

Thank you for this viewpoint. I have attended Rob’s Church as well as read his books and watched his Noomas. I totally agree with your point that: “Many never recover from their initial anger, and others, not picking up the nuances, will think that his questioning gives them permission to jettison large portions of orthodox faith.”

I have a feeling that this book will be a a way of articulating hell that avoids the equal and opposite pitfalls of grace-less fundamentalism and woolly liberalism.

Thank you for including your last paragraph as well. It is dangerous to claim Heresy as a way to promote the Orthodox Church. It is no wonder that Christianity (and religion in general) are on the decline in the United States.

28 02 2011
Jez Bayes

This may still all turn out as it appears from the preview, but check this out for more considered analysis than some of the ‘big names’ have provided so far:

Jez Bayes

1 03 2011
Dave Matthias

A brilliant, balanced post.

The people who don’t “get” Rob Bell just don’t get it.

The people who run off with his ideas and end up in fairyland just don’t get it.

And yet I am nervous he may just have gone off the edge this time, and hope at the very least this book ends like the Italian Job, rather than the Guns of Navarone

6 03 2011
Jez Bayes

The most sane contribution so far to a debate on a book most people will not yet have had a chance to read:

7 03 2011

I have to say, I wasn’t impressed with Boyd’s blog post… I think it’s deliberately slanted, and says very little about the book…

For example, the video in question did not just, as Boyd claims, ‘question someone’s certainty that Ghandi is in hell.’ It quickly widened out and raised far more questions than that: about billions of people, and how you get into ‘the select few.’ And then ‘what is God like?’ and so on…

All the jibes about reviews from people who haven’t read the book are not helpful. The divide between those who have and haven’t read is not a particularly meaningful divide, since all the people who have read the book are those who are already somewhat in the ’emergent’ camp (Boyd, McLaren…). So really it is both an emergent/orthodox divide and a have-read-it/haven’t-read-it divide, because of the specific decision of Bell (or more likely the publishers) to give copies only to people who are equally enigmatic!

Essentially Boyd’s review (as far as I can see) boiled down to the following:

– Bell is an artist… and he communicates in a provocative way. Agreed
– Artists don’t fit into categories, so we should be wary of using labels like ‘universalist’ etc. Ok… I kind of agree… but even artists can be accurately categorised, hence I don’t go in search for an impressionist or cubist artist at a neo-classical exhibition… but hey, I know what he means.
– He says he ‘strongly doubts’ Bell is a universalist… he then says Bell can’t be a Universalist in the ‘classic’ sense of the word (though might he be in ‘other’ senses? A revised sense? A functional sense?) and then he says ‘Then again, I could be wrong…’

So we have someone who has read the book complaining about those who haven’t read the book, and then admitting that even having read the book, he doesn’t know what Bell really thinks. (And to top it all off he gives some recommended reading on Universalism, and ‘just to be fair’ a couple of other views.)

So, as I said in my original post, I genuinely hope that when the book comes out, we will be pleasantly surprised… but for the moment, Boyd’s post doesn’t put me at ease at all. It just strikes me at another opportunity for an open theist, emergent representative to take a jibe at the Reformed guys, and still hide behind the mask of being enigmatic!

9 03 2011

Interesting comments from Mars Hill staff, and Zondervan on Love Wins:

“We are not anxious about this at all. Because I promise you when you get to read the book, you will find that it is fresh and liberating ─ but that it rests firmly in the wide screen of Orthodox Christianity and in the history of Christianity it fits perfectly. You will be very much at ease.” Shane Hipps

9 03 2011
9 03 2011
Jez Bayes

Am I remembering wrong, or wasn’t the concept of ‘Hell on earth and that’s it’ found clearly in Velvet Elvis as well?

In that book he also appealed to a very narrow rabbinic background to redefine binding and loosing in such a way that it a) ignored the context of Jesus’ words, and b) allowed anyone to decide which sections of Biblical teaching are and are not relevant today.

What I’d like to know is does anyone from a well trained theological background have the ear and friendship of Mr Bell? There might be a storm coming, and he may need a good demonstration of love rather than feeding into his self fulfilling predictions of being lambasted on the internet, all publicised by the secular media’s love of a good bustup.

He’s in the UK in August, so hold on to your hats!

24 03 2011
Jez Bayes

A bit after the event on this string, but I’ve found something helpful on the Rob Bell book from a source I’d never come across before.

Firstly, however, an apology to Liam for linking to Boyd. I had no knowledge of Boyd before reading that, so didn’t know the background he was speaking from. I sensed irritation in your response, and I apologise. If ever I contribute something unhelpful, I’m happy for it to be withheld by the Blogger.

Hopefully, this will be more helpful and measured … I think that the ultimate sensible conclusion on the whole subject can be found from a Theological Lecturer here in 4 SHORT blog posts:

It comes to this fair but straight conclusion:

“If Bell awakens in the evangelical community a fresh, robust conversation about what we really believe about the kingdom, heaven, hell, the lost and the New Creation, we should all be delighted. It is important to recognize that Bell’s response reveals that the depth of his own theological reflection is a bit thin, too …… it is not the gospel which needs to be made relevant to us. It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel …… In my estimation, Rob Bell and, apparently quite a few evangelical pastors, need a thorough re-grounding in the biblical doctrines of God’s love, sin, the kingdom of God, the necessity of human response and ecclesiology.”


25 03 2011

Hello… Not a problem at all! I wasn’t in the least bit irritated by your post – just by Greg Boyd’s post, which seemed to be contributing less to the dialogue on hell and more to the forging of an angry disunity between the reformed and emergent camps.

I shall check out those four posts when I get a moment…

Having now read the book, I must say I do think that Rob Bell has strayed quite considerably towards the heretical end of the spectrum. But that said, I’m still not 100% sure I could accurately articulate what he really does believe! He seemed keen on keeping every conceivable door as wide open as physically possible. And as my mother used to say when I was a child:

‘If you leave all the doors open the draft’ll come in and you’ll catch your death of cold…’

Sound advice!

25 03 2011
Jez Bayes

Worth encouraging you London types to prepare a strategy to engage with him when he’s in London soon to promote the book? Probably a bit of media interest as well if you know of a decent debater?

It’s important that truth is promoted, but not at the expense of love, so careful preparation might be in order?

(Monday 18th April at Central Hall)

See Greenbelt website for details:


25 03 2011

I can’t imagine there being much opportunity to engage him in debate, apart from the odd question here and there. Part of me is tempted to go… I’d love to hear him answer some questions about some of his points. He’s left a lot unsaid!

29 03 2011

Dear Liam,

If what Rob Bell is saying is true, then in effect, isn’t he saying that the death of Jesus on the cross was unnecessary ? If God allows people to repent in hell and God forgives, the Jesus died for nothing. Just a thought that makes me look at Bell’s book with caution.

29 03 2011


I think what he’s saying is that hell is real, but that the gates of heaven will be open for eternity, so you will always have the ability to turn to Jesus at any point in eternity and thus escape hell. In that sense, he would say that the cross is still effective, since people would still need to trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But you’re right, it becomes far less important, and more of a technicality…

Concerning stuff…


4 04 2011

Haven’t read it myself but this review seemed pretty balanced to me: affirming RB’s heart for the lost whilst questioning his approach…

Haven’t read any of RB’s books but the furore around this one will probably make me take a look…win for the marketing department!

11 04 2011
Rob Bell comes clean? « Liam's Blog

[…] do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large […]

7 07 2011
Francis Chan: Hail the conquering her…oh! « Liam and Helen's Blog

[…] to the fact that we’re looking for a ‘good guy’ in a battle of personalities. Related Posts: Love Wins: An incognito sheep Rob Bell comes […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: