Critical Review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

By James Rochford

Love-WinsI am disappointed in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins,[1] but I’m not surprised by it. His earlier works (specifically Velvet Elvis and The Gods Aren’t Angry: DVD) reject core biblical teaching, as well. This –his most recent work –tackles the subjects of heaven, hell, and the exclusivity of Christ. To be honest, parts of his book read much like atheistic literature. By this, I don’t mean to imply that Bell is an atheist. He isn’t. However, he does accuse the God of the Bible so persuasively that it’s difficult to tell him apart from one. While I cannot respond to every point in Bell’s book, here is a brief overview of the fallacies that he makes in this work (For a defense of hell, see my earlier article).

Overarching Fallacies of “Love Wins”

1. Bell speculates about doctrines that are clearly articulated in the Bible.

As Christians, we shouldn’t speculate about doctrines that are clearly taught in Scripture. Our speculations should begin, where Scripture ends. Repeatedly, Bell speculates about God’s plan of salvation, even when the Bible clearly speaks to these issues. Specifically, Bell dwells on passages that are confusing or controversial, rather than the passages that are clear. For instance, on page 4, he discusses the age of accountability. While I believe in the age of accountability, it is hard to tell just when someone reaches this age, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. Ultimately, Bell wants to raise the age of accountability to all people who have ever lived. Bell clearly teaches second chance theology, which is nowhere taught in Scripture. He writes,

What makes us think that after a lifetime, let alone hundreds or even thousands of years, somebody who has consciously chosen a particular path away from God suddenly wakes up one day and decides to head in the completely opposite direction? (Page 104-105)

This statement is pure speculation. Instead of beginning with what Scripture plainly teaches and then speculating on the rest, Bell speculates about what Scripture plainly teaches (Heb. 9:27).

2. Bell focuses on the ambiguities, rather than the clear teachings of Scripture.

In every area of thought, we should begin with black and white knowledge and work inwards, rather than beginning with the grey issues and working outwards. Put another way, before you learn Calculus, you should learn addition and subtraction. Even though Calculus can be confusing, you can always fall back on the basic truths of addition and subtraction. However, Bell adopts an opposite approach. He begins building doctrines from difficult and obscure passages, rather than the clear portions of Scripture. For instance, on page 14, he focuses on the difficult subject of perseverance in Matthew 10, which is hotly debated. On page 144, he supports his universalism from 1 Corinthians 10 –a highly debated and confusing passage. Why should we begin with the incredibly confusing portions of Scripture, rather than the clear portions? For instance, why wouldn’t we start with passages like this?

(Heb. 9:27 NASB) It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.

When we read this passage, how many interpretations could we possibly have? But, instead of beginning with the clear portions of Scripture, Bell intentionally begins with the unclear portions.

3. Bell deliberately confuses the universal availability of salvation with its universal acceptance.

time-cover-bell1101110425_400Throughout his book, Bell will argue like this: “God’s love is for all people –not just Americans or religious people… Therefore, all people will be saved in the end.” While the gospel is for all people (Rev. 5:9; 7:9), this does not mean that all people will receive the gospel. Let’s consider a few examples of this in his book:

An altar in the heart of Egypt? An altar was where people worshipped. They’ll worship God in … Egypt? Once again, things aren’t what they appear to be. The people who are opposed to God will worship God, the ones far away will be brought near, the ones facing condemnation will be restored. (Page 88)

Later, he writes,

The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family. What we have in common—regardless of our tribe, language, customs, beliefs, or religion—outweighs our differences. (Page 99)

Before you nod in agreement with these passages on human equality, you need to remember that this is not a book on social ethics or racism. This is a book about “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived.” By making statements like this, he is implicitly claiming that all people will come to Christ –even if they don’t receive him. This intentionally confuses the gospel’s availability with its acceptance. Elsewhere, he writes,

But Paul’s insistence here is that what God is doing in Christ is for everybody, every nation, every ethnic group, every tribe. Paul uses the expansive word “Gentiles”—a first-century way of saying “everybody else.” (Page 149)

This is a great passage on the universality of God’s love for all people, but it is not a good passage for universal salvation. Put another way, salvation is offered to all ethnicities, but not all ethnicities will accept God’s offer of salvation. God does promise to reach all peoples, but not all people.

4. Bell ignores NT progressive revelation in favor of OT revelation on the subject of hell.

The Bible teaches that Jesus brought a fuller revelation than the OT (Heb. 1:1-2). Specifically, we learn more about hell in the NT, because the NT reveals more about it. God wasn’t lying in the OT about hell; instead, he simply didn’t reveal as much. Put another way, what was concealed in the OT is revealed in the NT. However, it’s amazing to watch Bell dodge the NT teaching on hell in favor of the OT revelation. For instance, he writes,

Another way of saying “life in the age to come” in Jesus’s day was to say “eternal life.” In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah. What must I do to inherit olam habah? (Page 31)

Later, he uses the Hebrew term for eternity to explain the length of heaven and hell. Bell writes,

The closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for “forever” is the word olam. Olam can be translated as to the vanishing point,” “in the far distance,” “a long time,” “long lasting,” or “that which is at or beyond the horizon.” When olam refers to God, as in Psalm 90 (“from everlasting to everlasting you are God”), it’s much closer to the word “forever” as we think of it, time without beginning or end. But then in the other passages, when it’s not describing God, it has very different meanings, as when Jonah prays to God, who let him go down into the belly of a fish “forever” (olam) and then, three days later, brought him out of the belly of the fish. Olam, in this instance, turns out to be three days… So when we read “eternal punishment,” it’s important that we don’t read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren’t there. (Page 92)

Ask yourself: Why is Bell reverting to the Hebrew expression for “forever,” rather than staying in the NT text? Jesus brought fuller revelation than the prophets, regarding heaven and hell, and he was explaining the duration of judgment in this very passage. Bell admits, “The Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined.” (Page 67) But, if the OT view of hell “isn’t very articulated or defined,” then why should we prefer it over NT revelation?

Furthermore, Bell appeals to one usage of olam from Jonah, and he applies it to all other uses of judgment –even in the NT! This is an extraordinary semantic extrapolation –especially when we realize that this passage from Jonah has nothing to do with heaven or hell!

5. Bell repeatedly uses false dilemmas.

Bell-RobA false dilemma is when we give two different options –both of which do not work. For example: “Either God is loving and doesn’t judge anyone, or God is evil and judges everyone.” This is a false dilemma; neither option is viable. Bell commits this fallacy throughout his book. For instance, he writes,

In reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word “hell,” what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about “beliefs” as we think of them—he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world. (Page 82)

Of course, this is a false dilemma. God is concerned with both our beliefs and our actions. The Bible teaches that we will be judged for both our lack of faith (Jn. 3:18) and for our deeds (Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12-13). The two are connected. This is why the Ten Commandments began with commandments about loving God and ended with commandments about loving our neighbor. This is why we are commanded to love God first and our neighbor second (Mt. 22:37).

6. Bell repeatedly commits the straw man fallacy.

The straw man fallacy is where you create a false position (which your opponent doesn’t hold), and you destroy it. That is, you don’t fairly represent your opponent’s position. Bell routinely picks the most bizarre, fundamentalist, and unloving view that he can find, and then, he shows how it’s cruel or false. For instance, he writes,

Several years ago I was getting ready to speak in San Francisco when I was told that there were protestors on the sidewalk in front of the theater. They were telling the people standing in line waiting to get in that they were in serious trouble with God because they had come to hear me talk. A friend of mine thought it would be fun to get pictures of the protesters. When he showed them to me later, I noticed that one of the protestors had a jacket on with these words stitched on the back: “Turn or Burn.” (Page 63)

Clearly, this is a distorted misrepresentation of the biblical view of hell. The Bible tells us to speak to non-Christians with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). We are supposed to speak as though “God were making an appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20), which means that we should speak with love (Eph. 4:15; Col. 4:6).

7. Bell repeatedly commits the ad hominem fallacy.

The ad hominem fallacy is where you attack your opponent’s character, rather than their position. For instance, someone might say, “You can’t listen to Frank’s views on astrophysics, because he beats his wife.” While Frank might be a wife-beater, this doesn’t invalidate his position. Bell commits this fallacy throughout his book. For instance, he writes,

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, as Jesus taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die… If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? (Page 45-46)

Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death. (Page 78-79)

Notice, this doesn’t invalidate the truth of hell; instead, it merely attacks the social ethics of believers in the Bible. Moreover, if this is true, then why does Paul tell us to set our minds on heaven (Col. 3:1-3)? The Greek word used here is zeteo, which literally means “keep seeking.” This same word is used in Luke 19:10, where it is used of Jesus seeking to save sinners. In other words, we’re commanded to think about heaven actively. Furthermore, a belief in social justice and a belief in the afterlife are not contradictory; instead, they are complimentary for a number of reasons:

First, caring for social needs is a moral command from God. Even if a Christian has hard time understanding why God would call for this, his command to love the poor is clear.

Second, caring for social issues compliments the gospel. The Bible doesn’t say that good works can replace the gospel, but it does say that good works can support it. Loving the poor attracts people to the gospel, which will produce eternal results.

(Titus 2:10 NASB) [Show] all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.

(Mt. 5:16 NASB) Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Third, focusing on heaven actually makes us more generous with our time, money, and resources. Those who focus on heaven do not become greedier with their resources; they become more generous. Keller writes,

[Karl] Marx argued that if you believe in a life after this one you won’t be concerned about making this world a better place. You can also argue the opposite. If this world is all there is, and if the goods of this world are the only love, comfort, and wealth I will ever have, why should I sacrifice them for others?[2]

For instance, if you knew that you were breaking out of prison tomorrow, would you be more or less inclined to share your limited supply of food with your fellow inmates, who had no hope of breaking out of the prison? In the same way, people who know that they are ultimately leaving this physical world, should be more willing to help those who have no hope.

8. Bell doesn’t cite any sources.

Bell attempts to dress up universalism, as though it was a historic and orthodox view. He even claims that Martin Luther and the church fathers held this view. He writes,

I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. (Preface x)

And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” (Page 106)

Where does this reference from Luther come from? Bell doesn’t cite it. In fact, he never cites any sources! This is highly suspicious. Truthfully, universalism really only appeared in the last hundred years, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Bell’s work.

9. Bell takes many verses out of context.

Promises for Israel: In the context of referring to the unconditional promises of Israel, he writes,

No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever. (Page 86)

God calls Israel back to himself, because he made a special covenant with them that was unconditional. Clearly, God never made any such unconditional covenant with each individual person on Earth. Here, Bell twists a specific promise for Israel into a universal promise for all people. Bell hates fundamentalist preachers, but he’s committing the exact same hermeneutical fallacies that they do! Fundamentalists commonly misapply passages about God’s blessing for Israel with God’s blessing for the United States (e.g. 2 Chron. 7:11-22). Bell commits the same exact fallacy: he misapplies passages that had a specific historical context.

Verses on restoration (Mt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Col. 1:19-20; Phil. 2:10): These verses on restoration refer to the restoration of Israel and the world during Christ’s second coming. They do not teach universal salvation for all people. Bell writes,

And Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Every knee should bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.” All people. The nations. Every person, every knee, every tongue. (Page 99-100)

And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a “renewal of all things,” Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to … reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Page 107)

Acts 3:21 refers to the restoration of Israel under King Messiah. We know this by looking at the context, when Peter speaks about the covenant that God made with Israel (v.25). Notice that this passage refers to all things –not all people. The Earth will be restored for the people of God in the end. Matthew 19:28 uses the term “regeneration.” But, this refers to the regeneration of the Earth –not all people. All people will be regenerated in the general resurrection of the dead, but some will be raised to be judged (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:28-29). Moreover, when Paul says that every knee shall bow, he doesn’t mean that all will go to heaven. Instead, he means that all will submit to Christ, when he returns. All people will bow to Christ, but some with bow in loving respect and others will bow in fearful respect. Some will bow to Christ as their Savior; others will bow to him as their Judge.

Verses referring to church discipline (1 Cor. 5): The Bible teaches that unrepentant Christians should be removed from fellowship for serious sin (1 Cor. 5:1ff; c.f. Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Thess. 3:6ff). However, Bell interprets these passages to refer to hell. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 5, he writes,

“What is clear is that Paul has great confidence that this handing over will be for good, as inconceivable as that appears at first. His confidence is that these two will be taught something. They will learn. They will grow. They will become better… We have a term for this process. When people pursue a destructive course of action and they can’t be convinced to change course, we say they’re “hell-bent” on it… The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention. (Page 89-90)

And yet, these verses refer to church discipline –not hell. Satan doesn’t dwell in hell; he dwells on Earth (1 Jn. 5:19; 2 Cor. 4:4).

Verses on proclamation of the gospel: Bell misinterprets passages on the proclamation of the gospel with the acceptance of the gospel. For instance, he writes,

This should not surprise us. The gospel, Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (chap. 1). (Page 153)

However, proclaimed does not mean received. Later, he writes,

As it’s written in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” (Page 189)

The rest of this passage says that we are now ministers of reconciliation, which Bell despises.

10. Bell argues that having eternal security is arrogant.

Bell makes the bold claim that Jesus didn’t come to talk about heaven. He writes,

When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do. (Page 30)

Scripture clearly disagrees with this view (Jn. 5:24; 14:6; Lk. 23:43). In addition, Jesus’ disciples articulated and unpacked what he did on the Cross. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us to see that the epistles have a lot of material on evangelism and soteriology. On page 52, he writes,

They start asking questions, trying to figure it out. Interesting, that. It’s not a story of people boldly walking in through the pearly gates, confident that, because of their faith, beliefs, or even actions, they’ll be welcomed in. It’s a story about people saying, “What?” “Us?” “When did we ever see you?” “What did we ever do to deserve it?” In other stories he tells, very religious people who presume that they’re “in” hear from him: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7).

This argument doesn’t work, because both the believers and unbelievers are surprised in Matthew 25 –not just believers. Moreover, if this is arrogant, then why does John say that we should “know” that we have eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13)?

11. Bell has a bizarre view of freewill.

The Bible certainly teaches freewill. However, Bell has a distorted view of it. Here, we see (in context) that Bell believes people will have a second chance to receive Christ after they die. He writes,

We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future. (Page 114)

And yet, not all freewill decisions are reversible. For instance, if you decide to jump out of an airplane, you cannot reverse this decision, once you jump. You’re going to splatter on the ground, unless you previously made the freewill decision to pack a parachute. Moreover, freewill does not imply free choice. A prisoner can have the freewill to escape, but he doesn’t have the free choice to do so. I have the freewill to speak French, but I don’t have the free choice to do so, because I never paid attention in class. Similarly, while someone might have the will to leave hell, they might not have the choice to do so. Elsewhere, Bell writes,

He says in John 12, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He is sure, confident, and set on this. All people, to himself. (Page 151)

Here, Bell interprets the passages about God drawing all men without taking into account the passages on our ability to refuse God’s calling (Lk. 7:30; Mt. 23:37; 22:3; Mt. 6:10; Jn. 7:17; Acts 7:51). If we can’t resist God’s will, then why is there evil? Is God causing evil to occur? Moreover, if all get saved in the end, then why does God allow evil to continue to persist? If a New Heaven and New Earth are inevitable, then why doesn’t God end human suffering now, rather than later? From a biblical perspective, God allows human evil to persist, so that the maximum number of people can freely choose him (2 Pet. 3:9). But, if all choose him in the end, then why wait?

12. Bell disdains propositional truths about God.

Bell writes,

As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.” (Page 150)

This is a common emergent argument: “God is bigger than propositional truths about God.” This is absurd. When we say that “God is love,” we are not speaking exhaustively, but we are speaking truly.

13. Bell doesn’t answer a number of key passages about hell.

For instance, speaking about Judas, Jesus said, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mt. 26:24 NASB). If Judas eventually went to heaven in the end, then clearly it would have been good for him to be born! Paul writes that some “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9 NASB). In Revelation 14:11, John writes, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image…” In Revelation 17:8, 11, we find the Beast is going to be destroyed. In Revelation 20:10, we find that this “destruction” is fulfilled by the Beast and the False Prophet (both humans) being “tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Bell addresses none of these passages. While he surveys just about every passage in the Bible on heaven, he seems to deliberately omit these passages on hell. When Bell does handle passages on hell, he forces bizarre interpretations upon them. For instance, referring to Matthew 25:46, he writes,

In a good number of English translations of the Bible, the phrase “aion of kolazo” gets translated as “eternal punishment,” which many read to mean “punishment forever,” as in never going to end. But “forever” is not really a category the biblical writers used. (Page 91-92)

This is what the verse says: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46 NASB) . Notice, Jesus uses the same word to describe heaven and hell; he calls both eternal. Does Bell think heaven will be eternal or temporary? He can’t have it both ways. If hell isn’t eternal, as Bell argues, then neither is heaven. Later, Bell writes,

We read in these last chapters of Revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will “never shut.” That’s a small detail, and it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go. Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions—and the people who do them—from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom? Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? (Page 114-115)

Of course, Bell is focusing on Revelation 21 and 22 –the last two chapters in the Bible. However, he ignores clear passages about hell that occur just one chapter earlier (Rev. 20)! In addition, he’s assuming that “the gates being open” is a reference to all being saved. That’s quite a leap! –especially when chapter 20 has some of the clearest teaching on the doctrine of hell in the entire Bible. How do we know that it isn’t the other way around? Maybe the gates of heaven are open, because people will want to leave and go sin it up in hell? Bell’s argument could go either way. Obviously, he’s reading something into the text something that just isn’t there.


I admit that the subject of hell is extremely troubling (for a defense of hell, see my earlier article). It’s sobering to consider that people are rejecting God and separating themselves from his love forever. However, in the end, we don’t get to decide if there is a heaven or a hell. God decides. And, according to the Bible, there is a hell and people are going there. But, God loved us so much that he paid for hell, so that we could experience heaven. By saying that hell is illusory, we make Jesus’ Cross less sacrificial. Therefore, ironically, by trying to make God more loving, Bell’s universalism makes him less loving.

[1] Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.

[2] Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. 65.