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Mike Wittmer has done evangelicals a great service. He has penned an easy-to-read, thoughtful, and charitable response to Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins. Wittmer is a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and has written books like Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough and Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God.

This new book, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, is a tour-de-force, brilliant in its critique and gracious in its tone. I’ve always admired Mike Wittmer’s willingness to genuinely listen to the questions and concerns coming from people of differing theological persuasions. When the Emerging Church discussion was taking place, Wittmer readily admitted weaknesses and errors within evangelical theology that need to be corrected. But he never veered from his reliance on the authoritativeness of Scripture and the centrality of the gospel.

So now, Wittmer enters into the fierce debate over Love Wins in order to express his significant concerns about Rob Bell’s theology. Readers of Wittmer’s response will discover that the issues at stake are not just about hell and the afterlife. Theology is connected. He writes:

Theology, or our understanding of God, is more like a sweater than a smorgasbord. We can’t logically walk up to the Bible buffet and load up on the teachings we like while skipping the ones we don’t: give me an extra helping of love but hold the stuff about wrath. Instead, our beliefs about God and the Christian life are intertwined like the strands of yarn in a cable-knit sweater. When we tug on one, the others tend to come, too. (2)

Wittmer’s goal in this book is to help the reader understand the biblical and theological issues at stake. He also wants readers to embrace or reaffirm the traditional perspective on these matters. Unlike Bell, Wittmer is clear:

“The traditional, evangelical story about God and salvation is the only story in which God truly loves, and it’s also the only story in which he self-sacrificially wins.” (4)

Christ Alone is divided into ten chapters, each of which corresponds (roughly) to the main ideas of Love Wins. One of the ways that Wittmer makes his case is by asking the kind of questions about Bell’s theology that Bell asks about evangelical thought. The difference between the two books is not just the theology expressed, but also the tone in which the discussion takes place. Bell openly mocks the traditional view, caricaturing evangelicals and making snide comments about those who hold to such belief. Wittmer, however, interacts with Bell’s arguments in an evenhanded, charitable way that is certainly firm, but never mean-spirited.

The result is that Wittmer ably models how to engage in theological debate, even as he distinguishes error from truth in Bell’s work. This book offers sound advice that goes beyond the debate over Love Wins and is applicable to anyone who wants to wisely study the Scriptures. Here are some examples:

  • “If you sense that as you answer your theological question your reach exceeds your grasp, there is a good chance you are talking about God.” (12)
  • “Better to believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving and wrestle with evil than to weaken one aspect of God to make room for evil.” (14)
  • “Our hopes are only as strong as the reasons we have for holding them.” (23)
  • “Speak when the Bible speaks and remain quiet when the Bible is silent.” (30)

Then, there are the moments where Wittmer turns the tables on Bell’s argumentation. Whereas Bell worries that a traditional view of hell leads to a skewed vision of God, Wittmer worries that Bell’s theology leads to cynicism about God’s character. Here are questions to ponder:

  • “Why would a God who ‘loves’ enough to empty hell want to frighten people now with numerous warnings that sound like hell lasts forever?” (22)
  • “If the appalling mutilation of Rwandan children was comparable to hell, then why would Jesus say that it is better for us to mutilate ourselves than to be cast into hell?” (51) Response: ”Jesus’ ‘shocking images of judgment’ make sense only if Jesus was warning about a real and shocking judgment.” (52)

Wittmer also points out troubling inconsistencies and logical flaws in Love Wins:

  • “According to Bell, when evangelicals say that God gives humans the freedom to reject him and then live with the consequences of those actions, the result is a ‘devastating’ and ‘psychologically crushing’ God who is impossible to love. But when Bell’s God gives people freedom to reject him and then live with the consequences, ‘love wins’?” (73)

Wittmer’s biggest problem with Love Wins is not Bell’s views on heaven and hell. (In fact, in the chapter on heaven, Wittmer sympathizes with Bell’s robust vision of a renewed earth, a subject that Wittmer has written extensively about.) No, the big problem is what Bell does with our view of God, sin, and grace.

Of God:

“Love Wins attempts to make our judgment about God rather than about us. Rob Bell effectively puts God on trial.” (124)

“If there is no looming threat of wrath and hell, then there is little for God to do except be generally kind to everyone. That may be nice, but the Bible wouldn’t say that this God is love.” (146)

Of sin:

“If we say that a loving God would never send anyone to hell forever, we are already assuming that no one deserves to stay there.” (57)

“[Bell] never indicates that God himself is rightly offended and wrathful toward our rebellion.” (88)

Of grace:

“Jesus’ death on the cross is an act of love only if it actually accomplishes something.” (95)

“[Bell] never mentions that we might need special, redemptive grace, either to choose what is right or to be saved.” (92)

Christ Alone is a terrific response to Love Wins. Mike Wittmer has carefully evaluated Bell’s interpretation of Scripture and has written a response that is full of pastoral wisdom and biblical insight.


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26 thoughts on “Christ Alone – Michael Wittmer's Response to "Love Wins"”

  1. I’m working my way through Wittmer’s book and I agree that the tone is much, much more generous than that of many critiques I’ve seen and for that reason I applaud him. Yet, I do sense a lack of generosity in certain avenues because Wittmer inaccurately portrays Bell’s position and not just at subtle points, but he makes some major mistakes in positing what Bell is saying and jumps to some conclusions not warranted by Bell’s material. For that reason, I can’t concur on calling it a tour-de-force, but I could call it the beginning of an adequate response.

    I do agree too that the view of God one hold’s affects every other point in a theological framework and it should..that’s why systematic theology is called “systematic.” I don’t find Wittmer’s arguments against Bell’s view of God all that cogent actually, but simply a recounting of traditional views held by his strand of thought.

    I have argued elsewhere that my main contention with the responses to Bell (besides the lack of generosity befitting a Christian) is that Bell is a straw man in the universalist argument. Bell’s exegesis and theological argumentation are weak and suspect, and thus easily refuted. I would love to see Wittmer, et al. constructively engage Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry), Nik Ansell, and Thomas Talbott’s works. These works present a much more powerful argument against the traditional eternal conscious torment view of Hell, yet they have not been interacted with on a deeper level by many evangelicals. Why? Because they are less well known! However, I still think it would benefit us greatly to see some interaction on these works because people that have sympathy to Bell’s thesis will search deeper and find that there are much more significant exegetical, traditional, and theological resources for espousing postmortem salvation and a non-eternal version of Hell.

  2. mike wittmer says:

    Randy:

    I would be interested in hearing exactly where and how you think I misread the message of “Love Wins.” It’s probably true that you and I believe that the book is saying different things–which may in part lie with the rhetorical style of “Love Wins.” I think Bell tips his hand in a big way on p. 130-37, especially p. 130-31–where his interpretation of the cross is an existentialist version of what H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich said in the middle of the last century. At any rate, I would like to hear how you interpret these pages in an orthodox manner.

    As Trevin noted in his review, I think that the redefinition of the gospel in Love Wins is much more serious than even its statements about hell and universalism. While you are right that interacting with other, more scholarly universalists would be a worthy project, I believe that would be a distraction from the goal of “Christ Alone.” I don’t want to focus on merely the symptoms of Bell’s problem. Rather I want to examine the problem itself.

  3. Justin B. says:

    “If there is no looming threat of wrath and hell, then there is little for God to do except be generally kind to everyone. That may be nice, but the Bible wouldn’t say that this God is love.” (146)

    -I have a hard time getting behind this statement. Are we to believe God won’t have anything to do in the world to come, when He has fully redeemed His children and the world? I’m pretty sure the threat of hell will have passed by that point.

  4. mike wittmer says:

    Justin:

    This is a perceptive question. It’s impossible for you to see without the larger context of that sentence, but my emphasis in the quote isn’t on how busy God is but on the fact that in Scripture God’s love is seen in the cross (1 John 3:16). A big problem in “Love Wins” is that it has no compelling reason for the cross–it isn’t actually necessary for our salvation–and so the God of “Love Wins” is not loving in the biblical sense. He is generally nice, but not heroically loving as Scripture says.

  5. Dr. Witmmer-

    I have written a response to you that is way to long to include in Trevin’s comment sections, so I ask that we move this conversation over to my blog. I will repost a link to Trevin’s orignal post, your comment, and then my response. Those interested can follow the conversation there if this is okay with you. And no, I’m not trying to advertise my blog or anything like that (I could care less how many views I get! I just want to discuss these matters on a deep level and Dr. Wittmer’s book has provided a context for this), but I am trying to be respectful of Trevin and not monopolize his blog. You can simply click my name to check out what I’ve written.

  6. Kyle says:

    It is kind of scary that Rob Bell’s heresies run so deep that a whole book can be written. I guess some ears love being tickled!

  7. T. C. Moore says:

    Mike,

    Derek suggested I direct one of my Facebook comments to you in the form of a question. So here it is:

    In Trevin’s review, you are quoted in the book as saying,

    “The traditional, evangelical story about God and salvation is the only story in which God truly loves…”

    From this quote, it sounds as if you are pitting Rob Bell’s concept of God’s love, as it is described in _Love Wins_, against what you’re describing as “the traditional” concept of God’s love.

    Since Rob Bell’s central critique in _Love Wins_ appears to be the duration and/or extent to which people are thought to be tormented in hell (Derek agrees with me that this certainly seems to be Bell’s major complaint), and since “the traditional” view you espouse would no doubt include eternal conscious torment, aren’t you actually saying in effect that for God to torture people eternally in hell is “truly loving” while not torturing them eternally would be something less than truly loving?

  8. mike wittmer says:

    T.C.:

    My point about “the only story in which God truly loves” has to do with the evangelical understanding of the cross. Since LW removes the reason for the cross, it prevents God from being truly loving in the biblical sense.

    The question of hell, because it comes out of the Fall, is not supposed to make sense. So I would prefer not to speculate on what a loving God must or should do about hell, but rather limit myself to what Scripture teaches. The Bible says that God is fully loving and just when he punishes people in hell forever, and that is enough for me. I think a person could argue that everlasting punishment shows that God respects our choices all the way to the end–which is an expression of love–but again, I don’t see why we need to solve a “problem” that Scripture leaves open.

    I would also add that hell is not the real issue here, but the gospel itself. I argue in Christ Alone that LW is not merely critiquing our view of hell, but the entire evangelical understanding of sin, the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and what the gospel actually is.

  9. Dr. Wittmer,

    I want to push a little more on T.C.’s question. In your response you are begging the question and assuming that there is ONE evangelical story of God and the Cross (you say the evangelical understanding of the cross), when in actuality, there are many different foci and emphases all within what is called evangelicalism per David Bebbington’s classic definition. These different emphases and stories are ways of emphasizing the various atonement metaphors in Scripture and in some cases the various attributes of God.

    Calvinist “stories” of God tend to start with God’s holiness, while Arminian stories start with the love of God as their primary foci. I would say that both of these attempt to hold together these attributes in different ways and with varying degrees of success, but they are both based on Scripture, yet yield vastly different “stories” of God. The same could be said of the atonement theories; various thinkers emphasize various aspects of the atonement which paint varying stories.

    To posit that there is ONE evangelical story of the cross and God is to implicitly say that your story is the right one and assumes as such without any argument whatsoever. There is diversity within evangelicalism and Christianity for a reason, so we must take this into account and nuance the way we frame our statements in totalitarian ways. Your statement should say something like “The only story in which I believe God truly loves is this…” It is not enough to simply assume at this juncture.

    I am not attempting to be a thorn in your side, but simply drive the conclusions of your statements where they go and hope that you become more generous in your critique of Bell and read him on his own terms. By putting yourself out there with a book length critique of his work, you have invited this and invited the same level and depth of criticism that you have offered Bell.

    Know that I am trying to be respectful and loving in doing so, even if this means I deeply, deeply disagree with the way you’ve gone about your task. I think you have been more generous in tone than most critiques, but I can’t say the same for your reading of Bell. Grace and peace to you!

  10. mike wittmer says:

    Randy:

    No offense taken. I think that we simply disagree about the content and meaning of LW, and the more we talk the further apart we seem to get. We both think the other doesn’t read carefully enough, and we’ll probably have to leave it at that.

  11. T. C. Moore says:

    Mike,

    Several of the statements your response are very confusing to me. Perhaps you could clarify just this one for starters:

    You say, “LW removes the reason for the cross.” I scratched my head for a while after reading this. ‘How on earth did he arrive at that conclusion?’ I thought. Then I remembered that Bell critiques the penal substitution theory of the atonement in his chapter called “Dying to Live.” Yet even then, he does not discount it entirely. He does call us to communicate the atonement in terms that are relevant to our culture, and suggests that since most Westerners don’t regularly sacrifice animals, it may not be the most relevant way to communicate the reason for the atonement. But certainly you’re not saying penal substitution is the one and only reason for the cross. That would be insane.

    There are many reasons for the cross. Rescuing humanity from sin is one of them. Triumphing over the powers is another. Still another is reconciling the cosmos to God. But ultimately, I’d say if I had to choose one “reason” for the cross I’d probably appeal to Romans 5.8:

    “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

    The cross was a demonstration of God’s love for sinners—the righteous for the unrighteous. Bell does not remove this reason for the cross. In fact, I would say _Love Wins_ goes a long way toward making this reason for the cross more clear.

    You seem to be committing the same error as The Gospel Coalition. That is, you seem to be saying that since Bell isn’t teaching Reformed theology, he isn’t teaching Christian theology. You demonstrate this attitude by saying that since he critiques penal substitution, he “removes the reason for the cross.” But Reformed theology is not the only valid expression of Christian theology. And there is more than one “reason” for the cross. Therefore at least this critique of Bell fails to obtain.

  12. mike wittmer says:

    T. C.:

    I don’t find your tone very helpful, so I will respond just this once more.

    You say: “There are many reasons for the cross. Rescuing humanity from sin is one of them. Triumphing over the powers is another. Still another is reconciling the cosmos to God.”

    I agree with this statement, but would add that none of these reasons obtain without penal substitution. That may seem “insane” to you, but so be it. We seem to disagree on some fundamental doctrines, which undoubtedly influences how we read LW.

  13. T.C.,

    Bravo! There is a totalitarian reading of the text going on here and from TGC I would say. Dr. Wittmer doesn’t seem to be reading Bell’s text as teaching atonement theory at all (in the face of the evidence of chapter five, he denies Bell teaches the Gospel!) and I think you’ve hit the head of the nerve here by painting it as due to his Reformed preconceptions. I hope more people continue to push this point until people realize that for all the issues there are in Bell’s book, teaching the Gospel and a orthodox view of atonement is NOT one of them.

    At this point thought, Dr. Wittmer can’t back down on the fact that Bell teaches the Gospel because his entire project based on the notion that Bell denies the evangelical story of the cross and sin!

  14. T. C. Moore says:

    It’s clear from the preponderance of the critiques that Bell’s crime is not being Neo-Reformed.

  15. Derek says:

    Randy,

    Let’s not be too quick to get into a holy-huddle and pat ourselves on our backs. I think Mike’s been fair and even-handed even in these discussions and it’s not becoming of us to become cheerleaders. It’s belittling and mocking.

    T.C., while tempted to agree with your last statement (I’m no fan of the “neo-Reformed” movement), are you sure that Mike is a neo-Reformed preponderant? It’s hardly only the neo-reformed who believe the Penal theory should be dominant. (I don’t share that view, just saying…)

    I’d like to suggest something if I may. Throughout the dialogue (both here and over at Randy’s site) Mike makes statements like, “We seem to disagree on some fundamental doctrines”. While we can take that to mean, “we’ve routed the enemy, Bravo!” I think it’s more accurate to acknowledge that Mike is saying, “look, to continue on in this discussion we need to work out other fundamental issues which involves getting into other debates and discussions and this can go on forever”. I think it’s a fair point we shouldn’t pass too much judgment on.

    In the end, what I gathered from Trevin’s review is that the goal in Mike’s book is to help the reader understand the biblical and theological issues at stake. I know this cannot be answered in a comment thread (to the satisfaction of Randy, T.C. or myself) because it took 176 pages to explore that question. And in the end, Mike titled it “Christ Alone”.

    I’ve got the book on order (thanks Trevin for bringing it to my attention), and will review it first chance I get (as someone who’s traditionally been sympathetic toward Bell).

    Mike, thanks for willingly engaging comments.

  16. Derrick-

    I said bravo to agree with what T.C. has said above and not to cheerlead or extol an attitude of victory. I am simply glad someone is offering push back on these matters because I sense that the neo-Reformed movement often failnto critique their own critiques and thus less than exemplary scholarship passes unabated.

    If, you follow my discussion closely at my site, you will see two or three primary issues I have with Dr. Wittmer’s critique and they predominantly deal with his ignorning significant swaths of the text that others have seen (mostly his claims on Bell teaching a less than evangelical notion of Gospel). Other scholars such as Scot McKnight and Steven Holmes have correctly and astutely noticed that there is a multiple metaphor view of the atonement in Bell’s book and they are from different perspectives on the theological specturm from one another; one is an Ariminian of Anabaptist persuasion from the States and one is a British Reformed Baptist.

    T.C. Has very astutely noted that it is only the neo-Reformed critiques that have claimed Bell is teaching a false Gospel. The problem is that Bell is teaching the Cross and the atonement in biblical and traditional ways (even PST) with a brief metaphorical expansion contoured to fit scriptural lines of thought. It is one thing for Dr. Wittmer to malign Bell as teaching a false gospel because he believes Bell incorrectly lays out the Gospel and to substantiae this through quoting Bell and a variegated hosts of thinkers from variant perspectives. He doesn’t doesn’t do this in dialogue with me but simply repeats his tired accusation that Bell is failing to teach an evangelical atonement. It is quite another thing for Dr. Wittmer to be presented with contrary evidence from various quotes in the book and to still accuse Bell wrongly of teaching falsely; this is why I think T.C wonders if it is only because Bell is not focusing on PST that Dr. W is accusing Bell of non-evangelical doctrine. If Bell teaches orthodox atonement theory and he does, an inordinate focus by Dr. W on PST can be the best theory as to why he and other neo-Reformed thinkers continue to denigrate Bell wrongly.

    Yes as Dr. W says some of the book is confusing, but not the atonement part. Only some attempting to read the text from an ungenerous and totalizing position can accuse Bell of not teaching orthodox atonement theory. The more I dwell on this the more I realize that this is not only indicative of Dr W’s presuppositions, but maybe indicative of a hurried attempt to respond with a book length response. Dr. W would have better served us to take more time to release the book and secondly, not to have built his entire critique on a vast misreading of the text. There is enough in the book to critique without saying he isn’t teaching the atonement; focus on the inclusivism or postmortem salvation instead. Now, without retracting an entire book Dr. W cannot retreat on hijs position or the undergirding thesis of the work collapses. Even, so there is much in the book I appreciate, even if it’s in underlying thesis is terribly flawed. So, the dominant issue is scholarship and not doctrinal difference.

  17. DEREK, sorry for the misspelling above of your name and my errors I just noticed, but I was trying to type on an ipad and its not so easy.

    I don’t want to continue commenting on this issue, but I do want to point folks here to two more reviews of Bell’s work that point out his orthodoxy on the atonement, while at the same time critiquing elements of it and even wishing for more. The importance is that they don’t malign him with teaching a false gospel; wanting more is different from unorthodox. I’m not alone in seeing him as orthodox. and these critics are far from adoring fans.

    First, I want to point you to Dr. Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed (http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/04/15/exploring-love-wins-7/#more-15742) and his post on Bell and atonement:

    “The big theme of this chapter is that the Bible speaks of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection through a variety of images, each designed in different ways to speak to humans/Israel/church. In other words, this chp enters into atonement theory. Bell then proposes looking at the cross through the lens of elemental features of the universe. Here are the atonement images in the Bible: Sacrifice, reconciliation, justification, victory, redemption. Which is the correct one? His answer, “Yes.” Which is to say, each is true.”

    “And let’s not forget something, regardless if you would have liked more attention to it: at the end of his sketch of atoning words and images and metaphors (and saving, etc), he said Which is right? And his answer. “Yes.” Well, if we give him a charitable reading, he’s saying each of those is true about Jesus’ death. Yes, we might like more attentiveness to their significance in other pages of the book (at least I would), but he doesn’t deny any of these and affirms each. True?”

    From the blog Shored Fragments (http://shoredfragments.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/rob-bell-insert-stupidly-large-number-here/) by Dr. Stephen Holmes of the renowned St. Andrews University in Scotland:

    “Bell explores a `multiple metaphors’ view of the atonement, where different stories are told, which each hint at a part of the truth. It’s no secret that I think this is just the right way to approach atonement theology (see any of several publications on the theme); having tried to write a popular-level book on this theme it is humbling and irritating in equal parts to see someone who can really communicate have a go…(And notice that penal substitution stands first in Bell’s list. He really is an old fashioned evangelical if you just scratch a little below the surface!).”

  18. Nathan says:

    Whatever you think about Rob Bell, one thing is for sure: he gets Evangelicals to read their Bibles. And as someone in ministry, I applaud that!

  19. Peter says:

    It is not hard to realize that the universalistic views of the Bell/emerging crowd are born out of distain for the eternal BBQ theology fundamentalist Christianity. And the picture of sinners being punished forever and ever has always been depicted as the Biblical standard. But is that a legitimate view? A few years ago, I asked myself, “I wonder how many scriptures conclusively say that eternal punishment is biblically true?” I could come up with very few. Even the “punished with eternal destruction” from 2 Thessalonians could be taken to mean that the punishment is forever – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the punishing is forever. After all, we put on immortality – we are not immortal now. Therefore if we just perish (as John 3:16 seems to indicate) it does not take away from the integrity of scripture and it also does fit better with the character of God. Anyhow, its a good challenge for anyone: how many scriptures can you find to unequivocally support punishment that does not end?”

  20. Peter says:

    I’ll just blog with myself for a bit: to continue in the same vein from 2Thess, or one could likewise say that “punished with eternal destruction” is not the same as “punished with eternal destructing”. My point is that “eternal destruction” means that the destruction is final – its done, meaning that there will be no post mortem salvation. No second chance. Some will argue that this is annihilationism and object because that is what the JW’s believe. I could argue back that the Mormons believe in eternal torture…

    It is a worthwhile exercize to google “conditional immortality” – there are some good reads out there.

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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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