There have been a plethora of reviews about this book, and so I will not spend much time on the review. To preface an in depth chapter by chapter review I recommend Michael Horton's review. That being said, here we go!
Rob Bell is not a heretic, he is an idiot. I have been skeptical of the man since Velvet Elvis and Love Wins lived up to my expectations. I found a book that was very emotionally charged, and very intellectually empty. I found a book that was very poertically robust, and very scripturally shallow. The book was a quick read but I chose to read it in small doses of 15-20 minute increments because I got easily frustrated with Bell's haphazard and contextually questionable approach to scripture. Most of the scripture he "referenced" is found in quick paraphrased summaries or peppered quotations giving no regard for context. I'll comment on a few scripture references I found most frustrating but I'm done beating this horse.
I do have some praise for the book. Like many people, I did grow up with a view of hell that he portrays as the religious default for our culture. I will stand next to Bell with his rejection fairy tale versions of heaven and hell. I have dealt with my ideas on hell elsewhere, so I will not get into much detail on that. In short, bravo to Bell and his rejection of some dream scape version of heaven on white clouds and hell that is an actually lake of fire. Bravo to challenging the shallow fictional notions that many people in our culture cling to. I also agree that there is no real problem with the notion of one eternal location (eternal of course being measured in time but rather in intensity...forever is not in the bible after all!).
Another of the things that I could resonate with in the book was his rejection of the idea that a churches theology is the litmus for "who's in" and "whos out". Many people do indeed seem to have a zero tolerance for deviation from their theology. It is tragic because we all have varying degrees of difference in our theology, and theres a lot of serious differences that might necessarily divide us in worship, but we should very very careful of what actually use as a standard for considering someone a brother in Christ. The emphasis on "getting in" to heaven is another problematic symptom of our culture. Fire insurance salvation is a problem and the focus of the believer is never to be getting into heaven. The focus of all of God's dealings are for His own namesake, and such should be our lives. Salvation is not about us, it is about God. (If only Bell developed THAT more...)
The most memorable portion of the book was his spin on the Lazarus parable. The rich man is in hell because he "wants Lazarus to serve him." Really? The entire story is about being served? Let me look up the text...I did not see one single reference to service, at all. The fact that the rich man yells to Abraham "have mercy on me" is clear proof that he esteems himself, higher than Lazarus. The fact that he is begging to have Lazarus "dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue" is a clear esteem of himself and his superiority. Oh, wait. No it is not. It's actually quite the opposite from a natural reading. He is begging for reprieve and more probably humbled. I don't see a hint of pride in the story of the rich man, i see humiliation. He wants mercy, and he is getting none. That is actually IN the text. I don't need to spin the story to show how its about pride and service, the text speaks for itself.
Another spectacular use of scripture is found in his treatment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Christ is commissioning the twelve for an evangelistic trip the the "lost sheep of the house of Israel". Bell takes makes reference to this text: "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town" Matt 10.14-15. What he does with that text is amazing. He takes the words of Christ and his declaration that rejecting the Son of God in the flesh is worse than rejecting the God unknown, and he draws this conclusion. "There's still hope?" That's the conclusion he makes?
Do you get that
Another one of the problems that I have with bell is his removal of distinction of people made all through the scriptures. There's contrasts all through scripture of the circumcision and the uncircumcision, those in light and those in darkness, those born again and those not, those in the Spirit and those in the flesh, salves of righteousness and slaves of sin. On a number of occasions he takes the word "you" in a verse he wants to use and applies to in the most general sense to prove his all encompassing view of salvation without checking the context to find out who the audience of the text, or the recipient of the word "you", actually is. He drives home again and again the idea that love is the summation of God. What does that love mean, if that is the case? He glosses over any emphasis on God's holiness, God's righteousness and God forbid any mention of wrath. He seems to ignore the clear command to repent given by John the Baptist when he talks about the axe being at the roots of a tree, or the chaff being separated from wheat and being burned...after he insulted them by calling them a brood of vipers. No reconciliation. A tree cut off at the roots does not bring forth life again. It's not pruning, its destroying.
Sheep and the goats. Enough said.
For lack of time and desire for brevity, I'll just quote Mark 16.16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." If one dies in unbelief, they are condemned. Offer a scripture of post-mortem repentance. Going back to Lazarus, why didn't Abraham evangelize the rich man? Why didn't he call him to repentance. Why is there no evidence of a fallen angel repenting. Why for all of eternity since the fall of Lucifer did he plot and scheme to destroy the Christ, the man of God, if it would mean a restoration to paradise? If you say sin then you are right. But there is no evidence that people repent after they die. There is plenty of evidence that God does things that he, in one sense, does not desire (like the turning away from his own Son on the cross, just as an example). There is no reason other than sheer desire to believe that all of creation that has fallen will be restored to paradise. Paradise will be restored, after Hades is thrown into the second death, that much is true. But at least the demons expect to tormented by Christ (though in Bell's defense, demons are liars so maybe they were lying to Christ about their fear of him tormenting them...)
My last complaint is totally economic. The book's list price is 22.99. 23 american dollars, plus tax, for this book. The book could be condensed into 10-15 pages of single spaced size 12 font standard size paper. It took a slow reader 2 1/2 hours to read. And it costs more than the majority of actually weighty, thoughtful, biblically saturated theological books sitting on my shelf. I'm glad I got it for almost half price on Amazon because I would have been pissed if I paid full price for this.
In closing, while he opens up the door for universalism, hes slippery enough not to actually endorse the position, though the reader can very honestly conclude he wants it to be true. What type of caring person doesn't WANT it to be true. But does the bible actually teach it is the question. He would suggest it might, and I would say absolutely no. A pastor's job is the feed the sheep, not confuse the sheep by asking questions left unanswered, offering hope that might be false. A pastor should be an expositor of the word, not a poet, not a helpless romantic. I hope that his congregation is more thoughtful and serious a student of the bible than Mr. Bell is. I hope for their sake that exactly what Rob Bell means comes true when he says Love Wins.