Rob Bell, Love Wins 2

The ‘Preface,’ entitled ‘Millions of Us’ contains one of the passages that has already become notorious – entirely wrongly, in my view. I’ll get to that.

Bell begins with the comment ‘I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.’ (p. vii) I struggle to have a problem with that. He rapidly moves on to the claim that ‘…Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories…’ (p. vii) and states that the book is written ‘for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”‘ (p. viii). OK again – most of us have heard presentations of the gospel that were so distorted as to be offensive. The blue touch paper gets lit in the next assertion, offering an example of one of these distorted gospels. In Bell’s own, already endlessly-quoted, words:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better … This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message (p. viii)

This is a full-frontal attack on historic orthodoxy, isn’t it? Bell must be opposed, denounced, corrected, and bid farewell, because he has ceased to believe the gospel found in Scripture and taught by the church down the ages, and this paragraph is sufficient proof of that, surely? This proves that Bell is a heretic, right?


This is going to be a long discussion, because some historical detail is necessary. So let me state a conclusion as briefly and bluntly as I can: in saying this, Bell is saying nothing that has not been held by the vast majority of Christian theologians down the ages, taught explicitly by many of them, and repeatedly defended as Biblical by the most conservative scholars.

What is Bell actually saying, first? If we read the passage carefully, the core claim is about proportion: the offence is in the ‘select few’ who are saved – not the nature of heaven, nor the nature of hell, but in their relative populations. The message of God’s love demands that we hold that God saves many, or most, or all – that the gift of grace is not given parsimoniously. And this is not about the nature of hell, but about who God is – the claim of the book is that love wins.

The question of the relative populations of heaven and hell come the eschaton was asked quite frequently in the Reformed tradition. B.B. Warfield published an essay under the title ‘Are they few that be Saved?’ His argument was exegetical; his answer a resounding negative. In closing, he paused to point to others who held that the number of the saved would far outnumber the lost: R.L. Dabney; Charles Hodge; W.G.T. Shedd. I could add A.A. Hodge and Jonathan Edwards.

This is not a catalogue of woolly-minded liberals.

This was the united witness of Old Princeton, a position taken by at least two of the writers of The Fundamentals. These names are the very definition of Calvinist orthodoxy. These are the people whose respect for Scripture was such that they developed and defined the doctrine of inerrancy. These are the people with whom Bell is agreeing.

And when you burrow in to what they actually said, the point becomes more striking still. Charles Hodge calls the number of the lost ‘very inconsiderable’ on the last page of his Systematic Theology. Shedd actually suggests that the error of believing that only a few are saved is equal and opposite to the error of universalism. That’s Shedd, the Calvinist’s Calvinist, asserting that the point Bell writes to oppose is a grave heresy – albeit one that seems presently to be being vigorously defended by all manner of men (they do all seem to be men…) whose zeal, unfortunately, apparently far outweighs their knowledge.

(Warfield does point to one Reformed writer who holds that the number of the saved will be few, Johann Heidegger. Remember that name; I’ll come back to him in the next post. He also mentions a couple of Lutherans, including Quenstedt, so the doctrine was held by at least one theologian whose fame and intellect are both of the first order. I have done a quick search through those Reformed sources I have available, and through my memory of others. I cannot extend the list of Reformed writers who believed that the majority of the human race would be lost beyond Heidegger – nor could Warfield, who knew the tradition quite well.)

This is not an argument that Bell is right to reject a ‘gospel’ that asserts that few will be saved – although I think he is (hence the tendentious scare-quotes…) – it is an argument that, on one of the two points, so far, on which he has been endlessly castigated and criticised, he is in line with the most impeccable Reformed orthodoxy. If you want to call Bell a heretic or a liberal on the basis of this quotation, you must apply the same terms to Warfield, Hodge, and Edwards.

Now, of course, there is a question of how a writer defends the idea of near-universal salvation. The older Reformed tradition played two cards. On the one hand, in pre-antibiotic days, they generally held that those dying as infants (a significant proportion of the human race) would all be saved; on the other, they tended to assume a postmillennial eschatology under which the last age of the world would be marked by unimaginable prosperity, and so population growth, and by near-universal Christian commitment. The vast preponderance of believers in this millennium so far outweighed the numbers of unbelievers in all earlier ages that salvation was the general norm for humanity.

Rob Bell does not think this.

Instead he posits a post-mortem gospel offer, held endlessly open. I’ll say more about this later, but for now, let me note that it is a well-attested position in recent theology – C.S. Lewis held it, for instance – and that it is a position that I find simply unconvincing.

I suppose that Bell does not even know that the position he is defending is traditional Reformed theology – surely, he would have mentioned it if he did know this? It remains the case, however, that on this point, on the question of the relative proportion of the saved to the lost, it happens that Bell is on the side of historic orthodoxy and his many zealous detractors are not.

This is profoundly important, it seems to me. This is about who God is. A God who saves only a few is niggardly and ungracious – that is why Shedd regards it as a grave error to believe that only a few are saved; it necessarily posits an unbiblical doctrine of God. Warfield’s essay is fascinating on this point. He notes that the argument that few will be saved has apparent exegetical support; Heidegger reached that view by reflecting on texts such as Mt. 7:13-14. Warfield thus sets himself to find alternative readings to the apparently-natural ones because the straightforward reading of these texts would be theologically impossible. The broad witness of Scripture is overwhelmingly to the generosity of God in salvation, or so Warfield, Hodge, and most others thought.

The preface ends with some comments on methodology, but that is for another post.


  1. Jon Coutts
    Mar 20, 2011

    I think you are right to pull out the ‘select few’ as the important part of that quote which is all to often being disregarded for its centrality. However, to my mind the ‘select’ is maybe the bigger issue than the ‘few’, or the proportionality. Then again, I haven’t read the book yet, so maybe the latter is for Bell the bigger deal. Thanks for this, I hope you keep up the series.

    • Steve H
      Mar 21, 2011

      Thanks for stopping by, Jon. I think Bell is worried about both – the fewness, and how they are selected. You are right to say that they are different points (suppose it was salvifically necessary for one human person to end up in hell; how to decide fairly?) He’s going to solve the selectivity point by postulating that everyone gets the chance to respond to Jesus, after death if not before. I find this unconvincing.


  2. Fernando
    Mar 21, 2011

    Steve, thanks for your review. I’ve not read the book yet, but given the commentary I’ve seen, my suspicion was that some of Bell’s ideas are lot more well known than some seemed to imply. Aren’t we covering similar ground here to the ideas in the scientific theology crowd, like Polkingorne, Barbour et al., as well as the better end of open theism?

    • Steve H
      Mar 21, 2011

      Hi Fernando,
      I think Bell’s one somewhat original thought is on the nature of hell – he (more-or-less; see forthcoming post 6) takes everything Tom Wright did with heaven in Suprised by Hope and does it with hell. But actually, it’s all in CS Lewis. Post-mortem salvation; hell and heaven as different experiences of the same reality; the lot.

  3. Julie Roys
    Mar 21, 2011

    Would you tell me where I can read Lewis supporting the “post-mortem gospel offer” idea. I’ve read a lot of his works and never come across it. Thanks.

    • Steve H
      Mar 21, 2011

      Hi Julie, welcome. The Great Divorce would be the most obvious place.

  4. Julie Roys
    Mar 21, 2011

    I read the Great Divorce. First, it depicts a dream, right? So, it’s just Lewis’ speculation of what would happen IF we were given a second chance. He’s not postulating that we actually do. Second, every visitor from hell rejects heaven. So, what Lewis seems to be saying is that the trajectory we’re on in this life determines the trajectory in eternity. If we mistrust God in this life, we’ll mistrust him in the next. This is vastly different from what Bell is saying.

    • Steve H
      Mar 21, 2011

      Well, Lewis puts a rider in the preface to the effect that the book is just a speculation, but most of his interpreters seem to believe that that was just a reflection of the fact that he knew his view was unorthodox. My only point is that the view is fairly common recently. If you won’t give me Lewis, I’ll have Fackre, Lindbeck, lots of others, instead.

  5. Chris
    Mar 24, 2011

    You quoted from Love Wins:

    “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

    However, the actual quote is:

    “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and that to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

    So, per the full quote (with the missing portion italicized) it is the treatment of the doctrine of hell as if it were acceptance or rejection of Christ that he refers to as “misguided and toxic”, and not the doctrine, itself. This is a significant difference made by selective misquoting (that has been copied, incorrectly, on many blog posts about the book).

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      Welcome Chris.

      The task of a reviewer is always to try to communicate and to discuss the core message of the book s/he has to consider. I take your point that, if this quote were all we had, the ellipsis might be potentially misleading; but the message of the book as a whole is so clearly that Bell thinks that (what he regards as) traditional accounts of hell are toxic, that I think my interpretation stands.

  6. Tammy Taylor
    Mar 25, 2011

    God is not the one that selects who is saved. We decide if we are going to obey Him and live in His Word. Our destiany is given to us by God but we as free will humans must decide to accept this destiany. So “that select few” are chosen by God but God is chosen by us.


  1. Bell … seriously considered « All Things Considered - [...] excellent (and developing) series as he walks slowly through Bell’s Love Wins: part 1, part 2, part [...]
  2. Theopolitical » News and items of note (3/25/11) - [...] St. Andrews’ Steve Holmes asks the Reformed tradition: Are they few that be saved? [...]
  3. Steven Holmes on Bell’s Love Wins | Through a Glass Darkly - [...] at St. Andrews.  Here are the mulitple and ever-growing parts of Holmes’ review:  Part 1; Part 2; Part 3;…
  4. Best Online Resources on Rob Bell’s Love Wins « Reformed and Always Reforming - [...] Holmes blogs at Shored Fragments and the relevant posts are found here: Rob Bell Love Wins, Rob Bell Love…

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