Rob Bell’s book wins on pathos and good intentions, but not on solid argumentation or exegesis. He has a heart for the lost and the suffering, which is admirable, but he has to turn the Bible into theological silly putty to make his case.
Bell’s first major error in Love Wins is giving precedence to certain biblical themes both to the exclusion of others and over clear and specific biblical teaching. For instance, Bell makes much of scriptural themes like restoration, but ignores themes of final punishment. By claiming as the central themes only the ones he likes, he can read them into texts where they don’t belong, such as the passage which recounts Jesus’ claim that Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better on the day of judgement than cities which rejected the direct revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Instead of reading this passage in its obvious sense– that there are degrees of punishment on the final day and those who reject direct revelation of Jesus will suffer most– he understands Jesus to be saying that there is a great deal of hope for Sodom and Gomorrah’s salvation– that their punishment was corrective instead of destructive. Even though he doesn’t get anywhere close to proving his case, he seems to fall back on the emotionally-motivated claim that God saving everyone is a “better story” than damning some and saving others.
Speaking of stories, his overuse of this word is one example where Bell is obnoxiously post-modern and emergent. He uses the word story/stories in his short book 138 times. For a book of around 200 pages, large font, and constantly skipped lines/single words on their own line, that’s an impressive display of post-modernism.
Another major error is that he paints the alternative to his view as a belief in a strong exclusivism (the view that only those who consciously respond affirmatively to the gospel message can be saved) along with eternal conscious punishment, which has the effect that when he attacks one, he is in effect attacking the other, making his job easier. Of course, one might hold to eternal torment without exclusivism or even annihilationism, both views he doesn’t engage with.
Bell explains that God will eventually win everyone over, but doesn’t explain how it is that everyone will be saved of their own free will (if free will is truly free, it seems that at least some would reject eternally if they lived that long) . For emotional effect, Bell criticizes the eternal conscious hell camp with having a God that would turn his back on people in hell who are repenting and turning to God. Of course, this assumes that sinners turn to God completely on their own instead of by His grace. Bell here appears to be a Pelagian, or else doesn’t know enough about soteriology to make such distinctions (a terrifying prospect for a pastor). In any case, this is another example where he is misrepresenting eternal conscious hell proponents, which makes his book far harder to take seriously.
One strange and interesting point that Rob Bell makes comes from making the afterlife analogous to the parable of the prodigal son. He claims that hell is not being cast out of “the party,” (despite Jesus’ far more relevant parable about the marriage supper being like a party that people are cast out of) but being at the party but not enjoying it. “Hell is being at the party,” Bell claims. The message to take from that is never to go to one of Rob Bell’s parties.