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The furor over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, shows no signs of subsiding. The development of the discussion has caused me to reflect on what a fever is and what it represents. Fevers don’t show up without a cause. A high temperature points to a bigger problem. It’s the sign that the immune system has kicked in and is fighting off an infection of some sort.

If we had a thermometer for the evangelical movement, we’d find a raging fever. But some evangelicals are responding to the fever in unhelpful and pastorally-damaging ways.

Response #1: The Fever is the Problem

When bloggers and pastors began responding to the promotional materials for Love Wins, many evangelicals used the occasion to point out their disagreement with the young, restless, and Reformed instead of dealing with the substantive issues Bell’s book brings to the surface. Conservative evangelicals sounded the alarm that Bell’s book was unorthodox, and a number of evangelicals threw stones at the messengers: You’re an alarmist. You’re just a bunch of heresy hunters. You can’t get along with anyone you disagree with.

Imagine being in a crowded building when the fire alarm goes off. Instead of looking for the fire or heading for the exit, everyone stands around the alarm and begins discussing its shortcomings:

“Wow, this alarm sounds so shrill. It hurts my ears. Someone should change the tone!”

“Who pulled this alarm anyway? I don’t smell any smoke. I don’t see a reason for the warning.”

“Well, I can smell smoke, but I’ve got to tell you – these alarms just go looking for smoke. Who do they think they are anyway?”

“Even if you can smell smoke, you shouldn’t sound an alarm until you see the fire for yourself. Silly alarms… so early. I’ll just sit tight and wait until the flames get here.”

A few days ago, I read a blog post in which the author was mourning the fact that we Americans aren’t more like our British brothers when it comes to controversy. Why can’t we keep ourselves from being embroiled in theological controversy? We Americans are the only Christians who feel compelled to join in robust theological debate with the intent to expose heresies.

In other words, fevered discussion of theological truth and error is the problem. The fever is the issue. Why not take a Tylenol and some Dramamine and chill out?

I can immediately think of two reasons to go after the infection. First, the Bible shows us a way of doing theological debate that is anything but sedated. Paul tells the Judaizers to emasculate themselves. John the apostle of love calls everyone who denies Christ’s humanity an antichrist. Jude calls us to defend the faith against those who deny Jesus Christ as our only Master and Lord.

Here’s another reason we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and say: “Let’s have a cup of tea and talk it out.” Look where that kind of theological engagement has gotten England. The “everything goes” mentality has robbed the Church of its power and has spawned a radically post-Christian society in which the Church practically has to begin all over again to gain a hearing for the gospel. As one British theologian has joked, “Wherever Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.”

Response #2: The Body is Okay with Infection

The other response from evangelicals that has me scratching my head goes like this: Rob Bell’s universalistic tendencies are nothing new. In fact, we’ve always had a segment of evangelicals who lean in this direction. So let’s not get too worked up about universalism. After all, the denial or redefinition of hell isn’t that big of a deal in the long run.

To be fair, this kind of evangelical isn’t denying that universalism is heterodox. Returning to the sickness metaphor, I believe this group sees universalism as problematic. But the underlying message is this: This problem isn’t life threatening.

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Rob Bell thinks so either.

At the heart of Bell’s book is the issue of what God is like. The denial that God saves us from Himself and His holy, just, and awesome wrath is a denial that goes to the heart of the gospel. This is not a discussion on the level of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, views of the end times, or Calvinism and Arminianism (or any of the other “isms” that fall between the two).

Rob understands the stakes and he makes them clear in his book. He describes the traditional view as toxic. I disagree with his conclusion, but I admire his candor. Rob recognizes how high the stakes are in this debate. Why shouldn’t we?

So the idea that we can move forward in good Christian fellowship, accepting these kinds of views as just one segment of evangelicalism, is hopelessly naive. It assumes that there is still a unified evangel in evangelicalism, something that is simply not true if this kind of teaching passes as evangelical.


Evangelicalism has always been a big tent. The question before us today is, How big can the tent be before it caves in? How big can the tent be before “evangelical” means nothing more than “a professing Christian who is serious about what he/she believes”?

Where do denominations and confessions of faith fit into this picture?

What is the center of evangelical theology? Are there boundaries? If so, where? Who decides?

The situation created by Rob Bell’s book doesn’t answer any of these pressing questions. But the discussion certainly reveals the sickly state of the movement. For the past few weeks, I’ve been grieved by the unfolding of events and the response. At the same time, I’m confident. In every day and every age, Truth wins.

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27 thoughts on “Rob Bell & Love Wins: Taking Evangelicalism’s Temperature”

  1. Phil Brown says:

    I agree with your assessment. My wife sent a link to me a couple of weeks ago when all of the controversy began. The guy who wrote the post was defending Bell and hammering Piper and Taylor in his own mocking way. They were upset because Piper and Taylor were criticizing Bell’s work before they read it. I commented and said that I haven’t read the book, but just like Piper and Taylor, I have heard some of his preaching and I don’t think that it is that difficult to fill in the blanks. However, if Bell was just trying to get attention and is really an evangelical, I imagine that Piper and Taylor would be the first to apologize. However, if they are right, then they are right to criticize. The link to that blog is It is amazing the amount of universalist beliefs that are out there. I live in a small podunk country town. I need to get out more.

  2. “At the heart of Bell’s book is the issue of what God is like. The denial that God saves us from Himself and His holy, just, and awesome wrath is a denial that goes to the heart of the gospel. This is not a discussion on the level of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, views of the end times, or Calvinism and Arminianism (or any of the other “isms” that fall between the two).”

    Thank you! …. for clearly distinguishing complementarianism versus egalitarianism camps from being at/in/near the core of the gospel. Sadly there are many who have done so and unnecessarily increase the circle of the kerygma.

    Universalism of any stripe compromises the core teachings of Christendom. In fact, I would offer that given universalism, there can be no defining beliefs that are necessary and sufficient to demarcate one religion from any other. Instead, it’s just a matter of (to quote John Hick) “historically and culturally conditioned” beliefs, none of which have any right to claim truth.

  3. Clay says:

    I completely agree with your point about the heart of Bell’s book being the issue of what God is like. That’s really what this debate boils down to. Is God to be primarily understood in terms of His holiness and offense at sin, or is He to be understood in terms of self giving love? I do not believe these two frameworks for understanding God are compatible.

  4. David says:

    “At the heart of Bell’s book is the issue of what God is like. The denial that God saves us from Himself and His holy, just, and awesome wrath is a denial that goes to the heart of the gospel.”

    Does Bell deny this, or does he say that Love won at the cross, and thus God’s wrath was extinguished upon Jesus?

  5. Trevin Wax says:

    Bell’s words (pg 182):

    “Let’s be very clear, then. We do not need to be rescued from God.”

  6. Pingback: Love Wins
  7. Brian Gass says:

    “…Truth wins.” Loved the ending to your story, Trevin! :-) We must ever speak the truth in love. Leaving out or emasculating the truth leads the Church down a dark path indeed.

  8. Derek says:

    I haven’t read the book yet (as you have evidently) so I can’t speak for what it says. With Bell, he is quite ambiguous and takes accepting “tension” to all new levels (even creating “tension” where there is none! – a la his interpretation of 1 Cor 10)

    But based on the recent interview with Lisa Miller, I’d say he is at best an inclusive guy (though, even there he also accepts the exclusive claims of Christ and claims that God will work out the tension).

    But Bell is not a Universalist and so I don’t think he should be bemoaned as one.

  9. AStev says:

    A few days ago, I was sickened by the response, when it seemed like the vast majority were assuming Bell could do no wrong and his critics could do no right.

    Today, I am much encouraged, having seen substantial rejection of Bell’s brand of universalism and affirmation of traditional orthodoxy from many unexpected directions. As many of the people who defended him over the past couple weeks are finally reading his actual words, they’re coming to the conclusion that yes, he’s gone to far.

  10. Kevin says:

    Thanks. I’ve expereienced Universalism first hand, and I still get worked up about it! Your post explains exactly why we should treat it as a “big deal.”

  11. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    Treven, its an interesting analogy, but I’m wondering if there are only these two rather alarming Responses out there. I tend to think that Scot McKnight’s, Mark Galli’s, and many others’ don’t belong in either. Always a curious argument setup when the only conclusions are extremes. I appreciate your ending with Conclusions that are questions rather than dramatic or alarmist statements. There are serious and important questions besides universalism raised by the issues addressed by Bell in _Love Wins_; the evangelical church does need to look yet again at whether its traditional understanding of them are The Truths of God’s Word or adaptations and extrapolations beyond it.

  12. ron cole says:

    I’ve always appreciated that way Rob tackles scripture…I like to call it deep theology. Much like Jesus did in the way he used parables, these redemptive imaginative eternal riddles. They take us to a space, a place where we sort of unravel…we have to confront our beliefs. We are unsettled, left dangling…is the good, or the bad, money or God, light or darkness, heaven and hell. We struggle to reach for something, and I think so often Rob takes to a place where we truly confront or ( gods ) in hope that we find the one Jesus said, is Love. There I think we find the Grace to embrace something we can’t define much like mystery…but, something we know is eternally Good. And as Jesus put it, ” Love conquers all “…or quite simply ” Love Wins.”

  13. A Catholic Lisa says:

    “What is the center of evangelical theology? Are there boundaries? If so, where? Who decides?”

    Protestants have been bickering over this question for 500 years. Sola Scriptura has come to mean every man is his own pope. Everyone has some sort of right to guidance by the Holy Spirit, so if you disagree with my interpretation, you disagree with God.

    As you said, who decides what are the authoritative boundaries of Christianity?

    The answer to that question lies in the Church that Jesus Christ gave us, now known as the Catholic Church. We accept the decisions and boundaries set forth by the Church as guided by his Spirit in the Magisterium, Scripture, and the Pope. These teachings are clearly set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Its not a mindless acceptance, its a joy of obedience. When or if I disagree with a particular teaching, it is up to me to see where I have gone wrong, and to understand why the Church teaches a certain doctrine. It is not up to me to change the Church to suit my personal opinion.

    It simplifies matters, eh?

  14. Seth Adams says:

    Turning from Rob and looking at the Catholic Church for direction simply trades one error for another. The Catholic Church has no divine appointment. It’s the truth of God’s Word that sets the stage for the grace delivered at the cross.

  15. Phil Brown says:

    Bell’s words (pg 182):

    “Let’s be very clear, then. We do not need to be rescued from God.”

    Thanks for sharing that quote. Wouldn’t that statement go against the scriptures in Proverbs that promote the fear of God?

  16. Clay says:

    I’m not understanding the angst over the statement that we don’t need to be rescued from God. Even if one does accept that the essense of the cross is punitive in nature whereby Jesus rescues us from God’s wrath by accepting the Father’s punishment on our behalf(which I don’t) — because Jesus and the Father are One, in the end you are saying that God rescues us from Himself. If God rescues us from Himself by punishing Himself for our sin, doesn’t that all cancel out so that all we are left with is “we don’t need rescuing from God”? Am I missing something here?

  17. Sam says:

    Let me first state that I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins” but i have a few things on the conceptual approach of it. First on Rob stating that he wasn’t a Universalist and him saying “No” with his mouth, it is more the teaching that he is implying than the reply of “no” to a question. I will say that a tree is known by the fruit, as pastor is known by his teaching.

    Also I think at times we want to label God too often. By label i mean we say He, meaning God is either this or that. My point being, while all of us know God is Love, we fail in comparison to offer that He is equally Holy. There is just as much scripture to reference where God challenged us to be Holy. This I would say that I agree with Rob in that, Our walk is a journey. There are things we must all strip away in this journey, in order to have a closer walk with God. To suggest that all we need is Love, and this I must say is the direction i feel of Rob’s book is grossly an error. I can only hope and pray that this is not the direct philosophy of the book, unfortunately it is the perceived thought of many, That as long as a love God, I’m good. But I challenge why doesn’t that love one has for God make them do and live better as well?

    On the discussion of the wrath of God. So many have a view that God is standing over waiting for us to do wrong and then He condemns us to Hell. Let me mention that scripture says that God set in place seed time harvest. Which means you reap what you sow. It’s not God willingness to doom us as it is our choices. Again this is an area that i agree with Rob with. Our choices must be in the way of getting us closer to God through faith filled living. I always say that if we go outside in 20 degree weather for a long time without a coat, hat, socks and shoes, pretty soon you would start to sniffle and possibly in time sneezing signifying that a cold is developing. Now is it “mothernature” to blame or a bad decision of you not preparing yourself for that type of environment. This is the appraoch that Christians should take with the wrath of God. Our choices produced the outcome.

  18. Jeremy Berg says:


    Good challenge and intriguing metaphor. I like your question about what defines evangelical. What are the boundaries? Who defines them?

    I’m part of The Evangelical Covenant Church, which is unique among evangelical denominations in that we are non-creedal, and when it comes to doctrinal boundaries, we instead have a “center-set” approach. Instead of a closed set of doctrinal positions (i.e., a creed, statement of faith), we believe all of Scripture is our creed, and we therefore allow much more theological freedom as long as we’re all committed to “the center” — which, for us, are 6 core affirmations: Centrality of Scripture, Necessity of the New Birth, whole mission of the church, church as the community of believers, a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, freedom in Christ. I’d encourage you to find out more about us:

    Evangelicalism is broader and more diverse than many of my Reformed brothers and sisters will admit – and that’s my beef in this debate.


  19. Brian Gass says:

    If the SBC begins to call our Baptist Faith and Message “Baptist Core Affirmations” can we be considered unique too? :-) Most Protestant denominations consider themselves non-creedal as long as they don’t call their creed a creed. The centrality of Scripture should be enough for all Christians if we really meant it when we said it. I’m sure Rob Bell affirms the centrality of Scripture while diminishing the significance of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus that the Scripture boldly teaches.

  20. GW Thumper says:

    The answer is YES. God so loved the world that He sent is one and only Son.

  21. Ron Krumpos says:

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell says he believes that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to rethink the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  22. GW Thumper says:

    After reading all the blogs about Rob Bell and what he’s got to say about the things of God, It appears that time would be better spent on getting the TRUTH from Gods own Word and interpt Scripture with Scripture rather then Rob Bell and my own understanding. Does this win me any new friends?

  23. GW Thumper says:

    Not you Mr.Wax, you all know who I don’t mean.

  24. Adam m. says:

    I’ll say before I start that I have read most of Bell’s books before this, and I am inclined to want to believe what he says in love wins. (I just finished reading it.) i fit into the group of people who grew up in a very sectarian congregation (conservative church of Christ). I’ll be the first to say I have strayed from the church, not because of the message I read in the bible, but because of the insistence of the majority of Christians that people who don’t read the bible the way they do are damned to hell. That may be “the Truth,” but if that is the case, I wonder why so many American Christians fail to take seriously the plight of the poor. I only say this because this is why I recoil from Christianity in America. No one can deny that Jesus came for the “sick,” which is what we are in America. We have so much wealth, yet we fail to live like Jesus showed us. Paul said, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That is the attitude we should profess to all people, because that is good news. People who will sacrificially die to proclaim that Jesus was the son of God and the way he lived is the Truth. When Christians in America learn to give up their competitive nature, and embrace the humility Christ exuded (he was God, and he chose to come be with us because we needed to see what God a’s a human looks like-Philippians.)we will see a revival of Christianity. Stop arguing about who’s interpretation is right! No matter how you feel, you CANNOT prove it. If you can, I’d love to hear it…till then, try living the sacrificial love Jesus showed us in his life and on the cross. People who are hurting don’t care about endless debates about who is right, it simply reflects human pride(which is a sin by the way). If God is for us, who can be against us- live like that. That will make all the difference.

  25. Tony Clay says:

    Why is Rob Bells book‭ ‬‘Love wins‭’‬ so‭ ‬controversial‭?

    The obvious answer to this question is that Rob Bell seems to be questioning long held Christian beliefs about the‭ ‬judgment of God and more specifically the concept of Hell.‭ ‬I doubt‭ ‬whether‭ ‬many Christians have‭ ‬easily‭ ‬accepted‭ ‬the idea of the Christian God of love sending people,‭ ‬who might well be redeemable,‭ ‬if not in this life but perhaps in the next life,‭ ‬to a place of eternal suffering.

    It was only‭ ‬72‭ ‬years ago that the‭ ‬Second World War was waged against a man who had the intention of creating a‭ ‬super race and destroying or enslaving those that didn‭’‬t either qualify or refused to accept him as‭ ‬their father‭ (‬Fuhrer‭)‬ there‭ ‬would seem to be many similarities‭ ‬between‭ ‬Hitlers‭ ‬death camps and the‭ ‬lake of eternal lake fire except that the death camps were not eternal.

    If we are honest we try not to dwell on the‭ ‬judgment of God too much and prefer to preach‭ ‬forgiveness‭ ‬and‭ ‬to‭ ‬live in the light of his love.‭ ‬Rob Bell has demanded through his book‭ ‬‘Love‭ ‬Wins‭’‬ that we look again at what the bible teaches about Hell‭ ‬and God‭’‬s‭ ‬judgment‭ ‬and naturally‭ ‬because‭ ‬we don‭’‬t like the subject very much it becomes controversial.‭ ‬He seems to be asking us to consider another interpretation other than the one that is most commonly taught.

    I don‭’‬t see how this makes‭ ‬Rob Bell into‭ ‬a‭ ‬Universalist,‭ ‬which is a very unpopular label in the Evangelical Christian world.‭ ‬A true Universalist believes that‭ ‬whatever religion or philosophy one‭ ‬adheres to will get you to God in other words‭ ‬‘all roads lead to God‭’‬.‭ ‬This is of course‭ ‬unacceptable‭ ‬to Christians who believe that Jesus is the only way to come to know God the father.

    In another sense though,‭ ‬the bible does teach that the breath of God‭ (‬Ruagh in Hebrew‭) ‬that abides in every man and animal will return to the Father when the man or animal‭ ‬dies‭ ‬..‭ ‬so whatever road or religion‭ ‬or philosophy‭ ‬you may choose,‭ ‬according to scripture,‭ ‬cannot prevent the‭ ‬returning of something‭ ‬in you‭ ‬( soul or spirit‭ ?‬) to God.‭ ‬There seems to‭ ‬be‭ ‬no escaping one day having to meet with ones‭ ‬maker..‭ ‬there‭’‬s‭ ‬nowhere to run.‭

    One‭ ‬could assume that the purpose of the breath of life returning to the father is so that we can be judged as to whether or not we are worthy to live with him eternally however if death nor life can separate us from the love of God perhaps the redeeming work of Christ continues beyond the grave.‭ ‬I personally would very much‭ ‬like to think so but it isn‭’‬t‭ ‬100%‭ ‬clear one way or the‭ ‬other,‭ ‬therefore making it‭ ‬‘open‭’‬ to interpretation‭ (‬open as in permitted‭)‬ There are some‭ ‬valid viewpoints on both sides of this controversy.

    I would like to say that I have struggled with this question‭ ‬for the entire‭ ‬36‭ ‬years that have passed since‭ ‬I become a Christian but the truth is I have ignored the question as much as humanly possible‭ ‬feeling,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬that to dwell on it too much would just churn up other‭ ‬tricky‭ ‬questions and become rather depressing.

    If Rob Bell isn‭’‬t a Universalist then what is he‭ ? ‬I suspect that he is a brave man who wants to find the truth behind this question and isn‭’‬t afraid to pursue it nor to share his findings so far with others.‭ ‬Why is it so hard for other‭ ‬‘Christian‭ ‬writers,‭ ‬preachers, teachers etc:’ to accept this‭? ‬Why does it provoke them to label this man‭ ‬a‭ ‬heretic‭?

    Jealousy maybe a factor behind some of the reactions,‭ ‬one cannot ignore that Rob Bell is a fine communicator,‭ ‬and has‭ ‬an effective ministry and that his books are easy to read and well liked. ‘Oh, why is God blessing this mans ministry more than ours ? ’ …. maybe it’s not God who is blessing him but the Devil at work ? …. whatever .. let’s get him! NB: If that is a factor then beware because Jealousy IS the devil at work !

    A more likely reason for the controversy is that many Christians see themselves as defenders of the faith and they are worried that this book will upset the way the church is viewed by the world and CNN news. It’s more likely that the controversy over the book is more damaging to the Churches ‘image’ than what is written in it. More people are going to read ‘Love wins’ because of the controversy than because they are actually interested in the content.

    I have to say in closing that I think Rob Bell may be right and that we will, as CS Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, be surprised at who actually gets into heaven. I also believe that our God is a just and merciful God who will move heaven and earth to redeem mankind and we have yet to see how this will pan out.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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