Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective

The big question on the minds of Rob Bell fans and foes alike prior to the release of “Love Wins” was whether or not Rob Bell promoted Universalism (the doctrine that all people are eventually redeemed). Some even condemned him before the book made it to store shelves (bad form fellas). In response to many accusations, Bell denounced the charge and encouraged his critics to reserve judgment until they had actually read the book. No doubt, Bell played a part in kicking up the controversy as part of the book’s promotional scheme (no fault there) and sure enough on the fateful release day even Amazon could not keep enough copies in stock to satisfy the hungry mobs.

At first I was not interested in reading the book. I have a low “hype threshold” and get turned off easily when the hype rises. However, as time went on more and more people began asking me what the Eastern Orthodox response to the book would be (Orthodoxy is not exactly huge where I’m from). So I took up the challenge, borrowed the book (I am NOT going to spend $23 on a book one can read in a single sitting), and here’s my thoughts.

Bell begins his book with a truth: “Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” No complaints there. But what follows from that point on is a defining of God’s love based on Bell’s idea of a “safe” God. God is only safe, Bell reasons, if He not only desires all to be saved (which is Scriptural) but actually saves all people (not Scriptural). Again and again Bell asks the question: “will God not get what God wants?” (p. 98).

I guess that depends. Does God want children molested?

Simply asserting that God’s will automatically comes to pass unwittingly makes God the cause of every morally evil act ever committed. This is not a point that Bell chooses to address.

Anyway, Bell decides that a story where, “everyone enjoys God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (p. 111). “Better story” than what exactly? Well, all the other one’s he doesn’t like, and he assures his readers that he will “reclaim” the correct Jesus story from those who have “hijacked” it by telling other stories which “Jesus isn’t interested in telling” (preface vii).

Unfortunately, Bell, like all those individuals who have made a similar bold declaration to single handedly tell the world everything Jesus meant, begins by boxing God into a prefabricated logical necessity. In Bell’s case God must necessarily save all mankind or He cannot be a God of love. Of course, by “love” Bell means whatever Bell determines love to be according to Bell’s own inner disposition and rationality. He, like many Universalists before him, suggests that it is sacrilege to conceive of a God who fails to save all mankind, for if He fails on this mission then He misses the goal and becomes Himself a wicked being. This twisted logic is based on an arrogant assumption that one knows God’s ultimate determination to save all people by divine fiat; or as Bell affectionately calls it – divine “melting” of hearts. The truth is, God’s nature is not determined by anything human. God is love regardless of human existence because God is eternally Trinity. But that’s another blog.

I will need to condense this review as much as possible as it would be more fitting to write an entire book reviewing all the historical and Scriptural mishaps and half-truths presented in “Love Wins.” So, here are some highlights as they pertain to Orthodoxy:

Imagine that you believe in such a thing as an Apostolic Tradition (as taught in Scripture) and in the Holy Spirit’s work among the Church Fathers, saints, and martyrs to deliver the faith down through the ages – one faith, undivided, via Christ and His Apostles – faithfully guarded by the Ecumenical Councils and Creeds of the Church, defending it from the corruption of heresy. Then you pick up “Love Wins” and read about Jesus’ supposed refusal to be “co-opted,” which, “includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system,” saying, “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he is anyone else’s” (p. 151-152). Never mind for a moment that much of this book, like the quote above, is charged with false inferences which Bell wrestles into his various one-line conclusions. What is the Church to do with, say, the heresy of Arianism, i.e. the doctrine that Jesus is a created being, non-eternal, and operates as a sort of demigod? This was a serious threat to the Church of the 4th century and was squelched by the Church Fathers in favor of the Trinitarian dogma. If the Church had followed Bell’s lead where would the faith be today? What are we to do with the countless heretical versions of God’s nature, Christ, the Church, etc?

He continues, asserting that Jesus, “leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (p. 155). Jesus is, “very clear that destructive, violent understandings of God can easily be institutionalized – in churches, systems, and ideas” (p. 183).

What is the reader suppose to conclude from the actual words and the basic tenor of Bell’s doctrine? The message is clear: anything resembling an orthodox, steadfast, unshakable foundation of Apostolic doctrine is wholly out of court for the true Christ follower. With so many “possibilities,” and with such a “wide” gate, with the ineptitude of any one church or theological rendering of the faith to get it right, one is, no doubt, free to have whatever faith they want about Christ; to make it up as they go. This is the legacy of independent, Evangelical, Protestantism, and unfortunately Bell has only reinforced it for all his followers.

In contrast St. Paul instructs believers to “keep the traditions delivered to you” (1 Cor 11:2), “withdrawl from a brother who does not walk according to the traditions which he received from us” (2 Thess 3:6), and to understand that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). Peter warned that “untaught and unstable people twist Scripture to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). Along these lines Proverbs teach that a man who isolates himself seeks his own desires (Pro 18:1). And what was that bit in Matt 7:13 where Jesus calls the broad way the road to destruction and the narrow gate the path to everlasting life? One could spend hours quoting Scripture and Tradition that debunks this book, but in short, Christ and the Apostles taught a Christianity totally foreign to Bell’s deconstructed, potpourri, broad way Christianity.

One will argue that I’m being unfair and taking Bell out of context. Let me say that Bell is right in a limited sense – in the sense that there is no boundary, no set people group, for whom the gospel is intended. There is now no Greek or Hebrew, male or female, etc, everyone knows the verse. But Bell means much more than this. Listen to how he handles the name of Jesus in matters of unity with Him:

“Sometimes people use his name other times they don’t … none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will” (p. 150). Earlier in the book he says, “The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle vast a range of perspectives” (p. 110). What perspective does Bell have of Christ (since all are admissible)? Jesus is, “a life giving energy” (p. 146) who is already known by everyone but under different aliases (p. 152).

Wow.

Time hardly permits to discuss Bell’s concept of the devil (he is viewed as a redemptive tool, chapter 3), or of hell (a place created by man, not God, existing only in one’s experiences and conditions of life), but I must correct two critical points he makes before finishing this article.

One is his use of the Greek term “aion,” which is used in the English Bible versions as the word “eternal.” Bell claims that this word is never used in the New Testament to describe the concept of “forever” or eternal, but rather denotes a specific range of time, or age; a necessary doctrine needed to make universal redemption plausible in Scripture. This is a claim routinely made by every stripe of Universalism but it is simply incorrect. There are many examples but take for instance Matthew 25:46. The same word in the Greek (aionion) is used for both eternal punishment and eternal life. So, is ‘eternal life’ the same as ‘eternal punishment’ – temporary? The word is also used to describe God’s eternal presence (Rev 1:18) and His abiding Spirit (Heb 9:14), etc. If Bell was consistent on this point he would need to believe that God’s very being is temporary.

Further, Bell argues that if a person resists Jesus in this “age” that he/she can receive Him in the next, since punishment or correction expires with time. But this idea is refuted by Christ as well. For example, Jesus tells those who speak against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age (aioni) or in the age to come (Matt 12:32).

And one note about Bells claim that there is a tradition within Christianity that affirms universal redemption found on page 107. He lists four individuals: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius as supposed likeminded Universalists. For starters, Clement is a highly controversial figure in terms of whether or not he had leanings towards Universalism. He appears to have supported a form of universal redemption, but only of a particular group of people (I’ll save you the details). Origen is the foremost figure in Church history for having a pronounced theology of universal restoration. However, his speculation (which is what he claimed it was) was based on his Platonic ideals of the pre-existence of the soul prior to being born. This is wholly different then the type of Universalism we encounter with Bell. Gregory of Nyssa followed Origen’s thoughts on the issue. And Eusebius, as far as I have been able to determine, never claimed allegiance with Origen’s doctrine though he was a student of his school.

In short, universal redemption has been roundly refuted within the Eastern Orthodox Church historically though one can find strains of it in some circles. Since the doctrine was never formally condemned as heretical it is somewhat “tolerated” as a heterodox belief (it should be noted that Origen’s form of the doctrine was deemed heretical in the 5th Ecumenical Council).

I’ll end with a wonderful quote from St. Augustine who wrote against Origen’s belief that God’s love necessitates the redemption of all. Thanks for reading.

“Very different, however, is the error, promoted by tenderness of heart and human compassion, of those who suppose that the miseries of those condemned by that judgement will be temporal, whereas the felicity of all men, who are released after a shorter or longer period, will be everlasting. Now if this opinion is good and true, just because it is compassionate, then it will be the better and the truer the more compassionate it is. Then let the fountain of compassion be deepened and enlarged until it extends as far as the evil angels, who must be set free, although, of course, after many ages, and ages of any length that can be imagined! …For all that, his error would manifestly surpass all errors in its perversity, its wrong-headed contradiction of the express words of God, by the same margin as, in his own estimation, his belief surpasses all other opinions in its clemency.”

— St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 21.17

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26 thoughts on “Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective

  1. Eric,

    Thanks for taking the time to write on this subject. I haven’t read Bell’s book, but I’m always skeptical when a philosophy resembling universalism crops up in Christian circles. As a lay reader of the Bible, my constant impression is that the walk of a true follower of Christ tends to be on the more difficult side rather than the “everyone wins” side.

  2. An Orthodox Christian appealing to Saint Augustine to settle a theological argument. Now I have seen everything.

  3. The Bible warns Christians to beware of false prophets and teachers… and those telling what we want to hear versus what GOD SAYS. God Followers must get into the Bible and learn to decipher truth from fiction for ourselves or we’ll be deceived by the good sounding, smoother talkers; who are ‘partly right’. Rob sure is smart! Selling so many books… wonder what he’ll do with his stash – further God’s kingdom or his own?

  4. Bell definitely has a secure financial future, but I’m not convinced he is just after a buck, like many other high profile ministers. He would be much more apt to spend his money helping others, for instance in funding water well projects in developing nations. I think he is a guy who is sincerely ticked off with independent, my-way-or-the-highway, know it all Christianity. But, unfortunately, he’s become the monster he’s trying to slay.

  5. Universalism, at least in my part of the world, is a belief that many burnt out Evangelicals are prone to. Augustine carries a lot of weight in the West and is perfect for this article. Besides, Bell notes Augustine in the book saying that he spoke of “many” people of his time believing in universal redemption. I saw this as Bell’s quasi attempt to validate it. But in Bell’s historical cherry-picking fashion, which he does throughout the book, he fails to mention Augustine’s actual thoughts on the issue.

  6. Great review Eric. My dad read it first and told me about it, and he told me that you are an absolutely excellent writer. I must agree. Well done sir. Blessings.

  7. First, to the commentor: the notion that Augustine is largely “un-Orthodox” is plain wrong. As Patrick Reardon notes, there is not a sliver of light between Augustine and the Cappadocians on Salvation.

    Second, it is incorrect to state the Gregory of Nyssa simply followed Origen on universalism – radically incorrect. His universalism (and that is the accurate term) comes from his assumptions about the nature of God and his anthropology. Many of the eastern saints in the Syriac tradition due indeed teach some form of universalism and its clear that various theories were popular among monastics from time to time.

    Third, universalism in the eastern Church is more pronounced at times and certainly also has impacted the liturgical texts. For a survey of both the early Christian writings, the Fathers, the liturgical texts, and poetry, see Hilarion Alfeyev’s Christ the Conquerer of Hell.

    Christians are called to be co-workers with God – in that sense to be co-redeemers with Christ. How or what they means in terms of the ultimate restoration of all things is something we cannot fully answer. I’m very hard pressed to see how it is particularly helpful for Orthodox to take sides in what is essentially an argument amongst various schismatics and heretics.

  8. Anon, thanks for your reply. Good to have more Orthodox participation here 🙂

    You said: “I’m very hard pressed to see how it is particularly helpful for Orthodox to take sides in what is essentially an argument amongst various schismatics and heretics.”

    But to link the doctrine of universalism with heresy is already taking a side on the argument, is it not? And you yourself can only makes such a judgement because the Church has already wrestled with it in the past and has made its own judgement that such teaching is heterodoxy and/or heresy (depending on the particular case).

    Further, if one is to be consistent with your judgement then the Orthodox would need to remain silent on all theological issues among those believers whom we consider “schismatic”. We must simply be indifferent to all schismatic teachings. But does “taking sides” somehow endanger the Orthodox way and teaching? Taking sides on particular issues doesn’t buttress any particular sect among Protestants, but rather allows Protestants to discover where they have common theological ground with the Church (or where they differ, which is just as important). The idea is to draw those in search of Christ and His Body to the Church – to be the city on a hill – and not to withdraw into caves and keep it for ourselves.

  9. I humbly suggest that this is far too bold a post for a person who is new to Orthodoxy.

    Love Wins is an exploration of the love of God from an evangelical perspective, and apart from a few statements here and there, is within the bounds of Confessional “Eastern” Orthodoxy.

    And Anon is right. You need to spend some time in Metropolitan Hilarion’s book. Our hymnography is clear. And it is our worship that defines our beliefs far more than it is propositional statements extracted from scripture or other books.

    Love Wins is an excellent book, in my judgment. But it’s sandbox child’s play, and the arguments around it are more like throwing sand. Come into the classroom, and learn from His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion and the history of the Church.

  10. Jamey, its a pleasure to have you on.

    I appreciate you and Anon advising me to spend some time leaning from Hilarion. I will as soon as I’m finished with Chrysostom (my newest theological project).

    In the meantime, could you clear up something for me. It seems that you have posed a contradiction and I’m having trouble maneuvering around it in order to see your broader perspective.

    If I were new to theology in general and had just read your post I would first be impressed that one must be careful to fall “within the bounds of Confessional Eastern Orthodoxy.” But then reading your next line I would be impressed that “propositional statements” are far less important than one’s worship in defining his/her faith.

    Which is it: is confessional Orthodoxy important or not?

    (By “confessional” I’m assuming that you mean “creedal,” as Eastern Orthodoxy is not a confessional Church.)

    In addition, I would be interested to know when you believe it is proper for the Orthodox to respond to popular Christian theology. Was it only necessary for us to get involved for the first 800 years (give or take) of the Church or are we to still have a voice in such things? Rob Bell did not write a book on his particular worship, but rather on his idea of a “safe” God, hence one cannot address the former but only the latter.

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  14. My two cents.

    Rob Bell is not a universalist. In fact, from my reading, Bell comes out repudiating the idea the God gets what God wants but rather gives into human wishes.

    Continuing along the line of thought, he hopes that God will save everyone but never comes out explicitly defending the position that this will happen.

    He doesn’t believe it to be literal and a universalist only in the sense that Jesus didn’t die strictly only for Christians.

  15. Page 98 my friend. Also, there’s much more to Bell’s book that is reprehensible from an Orthodox position than just his version of universalism.

  16. On page 98, Rob Bell poses the question to begin his argument. His question focuses on 1 Timothy 2:4 where it says that God desires all to be saved.

    That sets up his argument. He concludes on page 118-119 that we get what we want and if we want Hell, that’s what we get.

    Rob Bell is not a universalist and his teachings are perfectly in-line with Catholic, if not Orthodox theology. I would recommend re-reading page 118-119 my friend.

  17. The entire book is laced with universalism. Bell himself denies that he is a universalist, yet believes that God’s love will eventually melt all hearts – if not in this life then in the afterlife. That is said repeatedly throughout the book. But this is not the only point in which Bell constructs his gospel, there are many, many point which stray from Orthodoxy, not the least of which is Bell’s insistence that there is no one way to Christ; for Bell the road is broad that leads to heaven, not narrow, and nearly any path will do. As I said in the article, I borrowed the book and gave it back as quickly as possible so I cannot give chapter and verse, but just read his other books as well. His whole belief that Christian doctrines are “bricks” and “springs” is ridiculously anti-orthodoxy. For example, he believes that the virgin birth is a non-essential belief. One can take it or leave it and the faith is not affected whatsoever. Bell is willing to go with whatever doctrine feels right to modern spirit of the age. He’ll literally jump on board with almost any new teaching so long as it doesn’t offend hipsters and “affirms” his loose definition of love.

    I love this interview. It really exposes just how confusing Bell, seemingly on purpose, makes his teaching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg-qgmJ7nzA this one’s pretty revealing as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q0iDaW6BnE

    To say Bell is perfectly in line with the ancient Orthodox faith is something totally incomprehensible to me. I don’t know why people want to defend this person, but whatever. Their free to do what they will I suppose.

  18. Have you ever read St. Isaac the Syrian?

    Or maybe double-check what Pope Francis I said recently about non-Christians going to Heaven.

    He’s not holding to such positions that which you accuse him of and I don’t think you actually read his book intently.

    He is correct that we shouldn’t build doctrines or dogmas on speculation. The Catholic Church forbids such speculation on who’s in Hell and allows speculation on what exactly Hell is (other than a place/state of torment for the damned).

  19. Newenglandsun,

    Yes, but you’ve taken the safe route with your last response. Of course one should not speculate as to the nature of hell or who is in it. What Bell does speculate on is that God’s love will eventually melt every heart and “get what He wants,” i.e. that all would be saved from hell. That is clearly violating your position of not speculating on who is in hell (i.e. nobody).

    Let’s go this route: since is it clear that you and I come to different conclusions regarding Bell’s universalism, I’m curious if you will stand by him on these other things which he explicitly states elsewhere: (1)the virgin birth is not a necessary Christian belief, and (2) gay clergy should be affirmed. Both the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church have pretty clear stances on these, what say you?

  20. People with deep-seated homosexual tendencies, no. Openly gay clergy, no. You don’t want to put them into a place or situation where they will remain tempted unto the death or retirement. Even heterosexual clergy shouldn’t be allowed (being married to one spouse isn’t “heterosexual” as the medical dictionary defines it as being “Sexually oriented to persons of the opposite sex”).

    With respect to the virgin birth, I don’t know if Bell actually says that or not but if he does reject it, he certainly hasn’t read the Apostles’ Creed which even Unitarians (Jehovah’s “Witnesses”, “Christ”adelphians) accept!

  21. See, I have this feeling that if we went point for point down Bell’s espoused theology we would both agree that he is heterodox (at best). Bell’s Emergent church movement and the Orthodox faith cannot be reconciled. That’s my overarching point.

    (I should note that Bell says this bit about the virgin birth either in his books or in a Youtube video I saw, and I can’t remember which. He himself claims to believe it, but he says that if it turned out that it was proven false (whatever that means) he did not think the faith would be altered in any significant way. In other words, ‘take it or leave it.’ It doesn’t really matter one way or the other. That’s terrible theology, and certainly not Orthodox.)

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