Book review

Grumpy old man begrudgingly reads Love Wins

**  Published on Two Pints Later **

I teach theology, and because I’m likely to be asked on a daily basis over the next few months what I think of the book, I knew I could not avoid reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Now, I normally like what Bell as to say but I’m often disappointed when preachers put pen to paper. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a book written largely in point form, single sentence paragraphs, that could be finished in less than an hour (okay, slight exaggeration, let’s give it two hours). Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want a book of this type to be written like Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. But you might hope that a manuscript that will make as much money as this would have literary qualities at least equal to that of a daily newspaper. At a bare minimum you would think that the editor of a Christian book would know that the possessive, Jesus’, does not have an additional ‘s’ (Jesus’s). Okay, I’m being churlish. My jealousy stems from the fact that academic books normally take more than a few weeks to write and make far less money!

My real complaint is with the shallow nature of the argument set out in a book purporting to address some of the more complex questions of Christian faith. It is not that I disagree with much of what Bell has to say. The opposite is true. There are important concepts and ideas throughout that need to be addressed if the church hopes to be anything other then an outdated, irrelevant and fear mongering institution. Bell is arguing for a move away from fundamentalism and for the embracing of a gospel focused more on the love of God than on hellfire and damnation; on a church that cares more about redressing hell on earth in the here and now then preaching about a future heaven and hell. Sadly, however, little of this will be heard as critics justly attack the unsubstantiated biblical analysis that frames his case. The most obvious is his re-translation of the phrase, in Matthew 25, “eternal punishment” as “a time of trimming”, or his related suggestion that “forever is not really a category the biblical writers used”. He provides no reference to a scholarly source that might help substantiate such radical claims, and that is the problem throughout. Readers are left suspicious of his interpretation of the Bible and, since they are not given the opportunity to investigate the basis of his arguments, are given no reason to trust what he has to say. If he can’t be trusted in matters such as these why should he be believed in the broader case he is making?

Bell has the basis of a worthwhile book. He has some cracking one-liners, such as his advocacy of the word “hell”:

  • We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secret hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
  • And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it.

I agree wholeheartedly with the point. I just don’t think Bell’s argument supporting it was convincing.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • John
    June 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Short and precise but excellent review!! GBYAY

  • Greta
    June 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I really agree – his absence of footnotes or referencing irked me to no end and ultimately ruined this book for me. Though his writing style very much reflects his speaking style and would probably be good for most laypeople my age (I think he generally asks good questions), he really does grossly over-estimate the extent to which people will accept his ideas without wanting further investigation – especially the more open-minded early-20s tertiary educated person, who might not have a background in theology, but is still trained to think critically.

  • Dustin Risner
    June 9, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Good stuff Shane

  • Melanie Mullen
    June 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Best review of ‘Love Wins’ I’ve read! Won’t be long Shane and Rob Bell will read some of your works and be asking you to theologically back up his statements! ‘Love Wins – Revised’ by Rob Bell & Shane Clifton. Lol! Great job!

  • Kato
    June 9, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    So you read it! Good review Shane. I agree with Greta’s comment about Rob asking good questions but, as you both say, proper referencing and substantiating one’s claims is of chief importance. I found these aspects to be lacking in a number of Bell’s texts. He’s a GREAT presenter though.

  • Sandra Godde
    June 9, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Good review Shane and very fair. THANK YOU for reading the book and commenting on it! I asked another theology lecturer’s opinion on the book and he replied that he hadn’t read it and didn’t intend on doing so. I was shocked and disappointed because Bell has brought some significant and complex issues regarding the Christian faith to the table for dialogue, and I think they are worth exploring and talking about. But like you, in many respects, I was disappointed in the book (i.e. it’s alarming lack of scholarship + an unbalanced perception of ‘love’, neglecting the concept of ‘judgement’ as a thoroughly good part of God’s nature/character and a pronouncement against evil). Even so, Bell is an excellent communicator and is to be congratulated for putting the issues of heaven and hell back in the theological dialogue! So thank you for your insightful comments Shane.

    On another totally unrelated point, I listened to a fabulous lecture last night (here in London – that’s where I am at the moment) by Alastair Coles (Cambridge Uni) on “God and the Brain: What Neuroscience can teach us about People and God”. Alastair lectures in neuroimmunology at Cambridge Uni and consults in neurology at Addenbrooke and Hinchingbrooke Hospitals. He is also ordained in the Anglican Church. He showed snippets from the “Test of Faith” documentary (which I purchased) and brought some great resources from “The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion” – born out of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It is great stuff and I immediately thought of you and your great interest in the intersection of science and faith. If you are interested, have a look at

    Hope you are going well and greetings from London!


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