In the weeks prior to the release of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, it seemed that it was all anyone could talk about. What is Christian universalism? Is our only opportunity to be saved in this life or are there more opportunities after death? What does the Bible really say about heaven and hell, anyway?
These are all good questions, and ones that we should be asking as we work out our understanding of the Scriptures. One of the challenges that evangelicals face in responding to questions that cut to the very heart of the gospel is doing so with grace, wisdom and humility. Michael Wittmer does that superbly in Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins as he follows Bell’s arguments, offers praise where it ought to be offered and addresses several key areas of contention.
A Personal Challenge
As the co-author of one of the first reviews of Bell’s book, reviewing Christ Alone has been an interesting challenge in that my desire has not been to retread that well-covered ground. So many words have been spent on this controversy that it is difficult to know where to begin as I seek to faithfully interact with Wittmer’s assertions in this book. Time (and possibly some additional proof-reading) will tell how successful I’ve been. While space prevents me from interacting with every chapter as deeply as I might wish to (I’d rather not have this be a series), I trust you will find these few highlights helpful.
Clarity and Charity
Wittmer lays his cards out on the table early on, making it clear that his desire is to help readers understand the biblical and theological issues raised by Love Wins so that “whichever positions you eventually take, you’ll at least be making informed decisions,” examining where Bell fits historically as a theologian even as he responds winsomely to the ideas he expresses. Wittmer makes it clear that his desire is that readers will be persuaded to side with the historic orthodox position on these issues (p. 3), but he also doesn’t hide another very important detail: he genuinely likes and respects Bell as a person. When critically examining what one believes to be errant theology, one can easily slide into examining the person, rather than the beliefs he or she espouses. I’m thankful that Wittmer is acutely aware of this and seeks to defuse a potential complaint from the get-go.
Mystery. Following Bell’s outline, Wittmer reminds us that questions are the right place to start when it comes to the issues addressed in Love Wins. “Jesus is an immense God and the Bible is a spacious book, so there is bound to be a rather large remainder every time we do our theological division. And Bell wastes no time pointing out the leftover bits and pieces that don’t easily fit into our tidy theological systems. Why would a loving God send anyone to hell forever? Why wouldn’t God eventually soften up and save them?” (p. 6)
Wittmer notes that besides these enduring questions, Bell raises many questions that “few evangelicals are struggling to answer;” questions that in Wittmer’s view seem to raise doubts about the evangelical view of salvation, as he attempts to poke holes in the traditional view. “If he can persuade us that our standard line, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31), is a facile misreading of Scripture, then perhaps we’ll be open to what he says about hell and salvation” (p. 8).
As he presents his argument, Wittmer shows us that Bell’s answers are incomplete; Scripture is not silent on how we are to be saved. In fact, on this issue, it’s incredibly straight forward. This is important for us all to remember. God did not intend for us to have to wrestle with the question of how we are to be saved. He has spoken clearly. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. . . . If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Acts 16:31, Rom. 10:9). These are but two of dozens of examples.
Ultimately, he feels that Bell is presenting a one-dimensional God that lacks the “greater, more mysterious transcendence of the Christian God. Bell’s view of God too often reads like a souped-up version of us—a God made more in our image than we in his” (p. 18). Questions are important, but we have to remember that God has given the answers.
Revelation. In this chapter, Wittmer offers a strong corrective to the assertions of Love Wins, particularly that evangelicals who hold to the traditional doctrine of hell do so gleefully. “It’s not true, as some say, that we evangelicals are stingy people who take delight in self-righteously consigning others to hell. We weep for anyone who goes to hell, and that is why we are questioning the apparent claims in Love Wins” (p. 21). Wittmer’s big concern is that Bell seems to be making promises that God has not. “If this unending, life-after-death offer of salvation is what a loving God must do, then why hasn’t he told us this explicitly through the many prophets, gospel writers, and epistle authors inspired by the Holy Spirit?” (p. 22)
Personally, I would love it if God offered multiple chances like this. I would be incredibly happy to see hell empty… but God has not said this will be the case. Wittmer, reminding us that just because we wish something were true does not make it so, offers an important corrective: speak when the Bible speaks and remain quiet when the Bible is silent. “The Bible never promises postmortem salvation, but it repeatedly warns about unending torment in hell. . . . If God wanted people to know they would have a second chance after death, he would have told them. . . . There is no need to reach higher and offer promises that God didn’t make and we can’t deliver. Doing so turns biblical hope into false hope, the cruelest hope of all” (p. 31).
Universalism. This is the big question that many have asked since the first promo video for Love Wins hit the scene. Is Rob Bell a universalist? Wittmer notes that Bell view offers a peculiar blend of Karl Barth and Origen, emphasizing God’s loving freedom (à la Barth) in a direction that presses hard toward universalism, yet his emphasis on human freedom (à la Origen) prevents him from becoming a full-fledged universalist. Instead, Wittmer suggests that it’s best to consider Bell’s view as functional universalism, as “an undeniable takeaway from Love Wins is that everyone who desires to leave hell will be able to do so” (p. 71).
Gospel. So, what’s at stake? If everyone has the ability to leave hell whenever they wish, what impetus do they have for trusting in Christ in this life? Why does it matter? Wittmer writes that “Bell suggests that, like kindergarteners, we humans are never truly in serious danger. Our only problem is unfounded fears which arise from our ignorance that everything is actually fine. So the stakes in Bell’s story are extremely low” (p. 144). He also notes that this story, which he describes as a tale of limitless happy endings, is exceptionally bland. “If the cross teaches us anything, it’s that this is a wild, dangerous world. If the Son of God can be crucified, then anything is possible here. A world which killed Jesus may well have a large number of murderers headed for hell. The stakes are that high” (p. 146).
The God of Love Wins does nothing heroic, for there is no obstacle that calls for heroism. He’s good to all, but he’s not gracious, because no one desperately needs his grace. He merely hugs the world in his warm embrace, patiently waiting for people to trust his story about them, either in this life or after they die. Love Wins simply doesn’t have enough gospel. (p. 147)
Wittmer’s assessment here is incredibly insightful. Part of the power of the gospel is that it is a great—true—story! The most engaging books, movies and television series all have one thing in common: they’ve got drama; there’s a sense that every decision matters and you’re waiting with anticipation to see what happens next. The biblical gospel offers that same sense of drama and anticipation—even as we already know the end!
Christ Alone is a model of how we are to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)—it is a winsome, thought-provoking and challenging defense of the gospel and one that I would without hesitation recommend to any reader, no matter on which side of the debate they fall. I trust it and its companion study guide will be helpful to you and those around you as you wrestle with the issue of eternal punishment and the love and holiness of God.
Title: Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins
Author: Michael E. Wittmer
Publisher: Edenridge Press (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher