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Effigy or Elegy: C. S. Lewis and Rob Bell — A Review of LOVE WINS

March 28th, 2011 | Skip to comments

By Megan J. Robinson
Associate Editor, C. S. Lewis Review
Editor, Traveling the Far Country.

So, I’ve read Love Wins (LW). It’s an easy, quick read, and after finishing and thinking about it, my initial reaction is: We may as well burn C.S. Lewis in effigy, and deny the phenomenal impact he’s had on many people over the past 50 years or so, because much of what Bell has written is pretty similar to much of what Lewis wrote. In fact, at the end of LW, Bell suggests Lewis’ The Great Divorce for further reading on hell. I kept thinking as I read Bell: “Didn’t Lewis say that? This sounds familiar. . .” (Though Lewis crafted it much better, natch.)

Grow up in a church that taught “turn or burn”? Somebody tell you that the friend who was killed in an accident is now in hell, because they never made a public confession of faith? The idea of eternal torment just gives you the willies? Bell is talking to you. He feels your pain; perhaps a little too much. In his eagerness to show the “Good News that is better than that,” he reacts to the sub-stream of Christianity generally called evangelicalism, in a somewhat hyperbolic manner that evokes the negative/played-for-laughs Bible-thumping fundy stereotype that surfaces in American culture (with unfortunate regularity).

Here is my first critique: that Bell is not as careful with language as he could or should be. He is enthusiastic, passionate, and very creative in his writing, and rather poetic, actually. I have read that some readers find his use of line/paragraph breaks either amusing or frustrating, but, to me, it works; he is using form to reinforce his content, which is a large component of poetry, as any writing teacher will affirm. But poetic language does not mean ambiguity; it calls for more precision, not less, in choosing words, because if you have only a few on the page, they’d better be the right ones.

In the chapter, “There are Rocks Everywhere,” though he clarifies that what most of us think of as an impersonal force is really the personal God who gives life, the whole chapter flirts with the language of pantheism: ”He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation” (158). It can sometimes be difficult to describe how God is everywhere without saying He is in everything, but it’s an important distinction that ought to and should be done with what language we have.

Before addressing another (more serious) issue in LW, let’s look at some of the ways in which Bell follows Lewis theologically. Bell writes that “people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people bump into Jesus, they trip on the mystery, they stumble past the word, they drink from the rock, without knowing what or who it was. “ . . . . Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t” (158-59). He goes on to say that we (i.e., Christians) need to be ”extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgment about people’s eternal destinies” (160). Lewis made the same point at the end of The Last Battle. The Calormen, Emeth, a life-long and devoted worshipper of the god Tash, comes before Aslan, confessing that he made his oath to Tash in his pursuit of wisdom and understanding, and Aslan replies:

”Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek” (LB, 165).

Elsewhere, Lewis writes that it should ”be pointed out that, though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life” (God in the Dock, 102).

Bell and Lewis also see similar conditions to our salvation, in that we are already, as Lewis asserts, ”saved in ‘principle,’ and have only to ‘appropriate that salvation,’ not by climbing up’ into spiritual life by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race’ (157, Mere Christianity). Bell:

“The father has taken care of everything. It’s all there, ready, waiting. It’s always been there, ready, waiting. Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is. . . . Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it. . . . Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – God has already done it” (188-89).


Even though Bell doesn’t actually spend that much time on hell, instead focusing on the in-breaking shalom of God and the Kingdom Among Us NOW (which is the great strength of the book), his perspective on hell is probably the most obvious point of agreement with Lewis, because their views on this topic follow from their understanding of human free will. Both Bell and Lewis place a high premium on the fact that human beings have the ability and privilege of choice, and can, when presented with the Good News of Christ, choose to accept or reject that divine offer. This, in turn, is based on the understanding that love, by its very nature, is freedom. Bell writes:

”For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (103-04).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis reasons:

“If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no on can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’” (120).

So both Bell and Lewis recognize and affirm that there is a hell, and human beings can go there (both now and later); we can choose what kind of eternal life we want to have, starting with the life we now live in this world. What they both express is the speculation and hope (not the doctrine) that, even after ”shuffling off this mortal coil,” it is possible to yet choose life, not the death we have been choosing. Chapters 12 and 13 of The Great Divorce imagine this hope and possibility beautifully. Though, I have to ask, if one has habitually chosen death and hell in the earthly life, then why the expectation that someone could suddenly, miraculously choose differently?

There’s a long debate in Christianity over the tension between God’s sovereignty and human free will. Are the proportions equal? Do the scales tip more heavily in favor of one over the other? Is divine grace resistible? In committing to the foundational belief that human beings can freely choose God’s grace, and just as freely reject it, the stated arguments by both Lewis and Bell regarding entrance into heaven or hell logically follow. Bell points out, in support of his argument, that Revelation 21.25 testifies that the gates of heaven will never be shut, that ”people are free to come and go”(115). By which he takes to mean that those in hell can still enter into heaven.

Yet if grace is resistible, and we can so determine our eternal fate, then why aren’t people also choosing to leave heaven? I suppose the counter-argument would be ”Well, once you’re there, why would you leave?’ But then, that would appear to make grace rather irresistible, after all (the I in TULIP, for those in the know, wink wink, nudge nudge).

Many of the critiques of Bell’s argument come from those in the Reformed tradition. And I kinda think that’s a little like trying to judge a cricket match by the rules of baseball. There’s a wooden bat, and it’s used to hit a ball, and the players run around a field; but after that . . . not so much. If one believes that grace is resistible, that one can freely choose heaven or hell, then Bell’s argument will follow a very specific path, based on his foundational assumptions, and likewise with Reformed responses. In some respects, these arguments are just whizzing past each other like so many ships in the night (if ships can be said to whiz). I would be curious to see reviews and critiques from other non-Reformed thinkers and theologians.

I was invited to write a short review of LW, and as I have failed miserably at that, allow me to take a little more space and time to address what I found to be a most puzzling and genuinely serious omission on Bell’s part. As evidenced by the title, the love of God is a major focus of the book, and rightly so. I John 4.7-12 tells us that the very nature of God is love, and if we have that nature, so ought we to love one another. Love is a message and a way of living that the world can use a lot more of. But the way Bell talks about God, love, heaven, and hell seriously flattens out the main tenet of the character and nature of God: His holiness. The only time Bell uses the word holy is near the end of the book, when he writes:

”Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God” (182).

My brain rather reels in shock. I’m not sure what Bell is saying here: is this another case of his ambiguous use of language? Has his eagerness to share the wonderful news of God’s love for us through Christ Jesus led him to separate what cannot and should not be separated? The love of God is inextricably bound to the holiness of God. As explained by scholar William Dyrness, the etymology of the Hebrew word ”holiness” is ”to cut off’ or “mark off,” to signify what is separated from regular everyday use for sacred, special service. Being holy, God delights in goodness and truth (Jer. 9.24), and hates that which is evil, what would profane his holy name (Lev. 20.3). The books of Isaiah and the Psalms resound with the proclamation of God’s holiness permeating His creation, and His interactions with Israel, and eventually, the rest of humanity.

The fact of the matter is, if we have God’s holiness, then we must have hell. Because God is, in every way, unique in nature (omni- attributes; infinite and immutable), in character (love, justice, patience, protection), and in function (creator and rescuer), we cannot be in relationship with Him unless we are also holy, and that is the whole point of Jesus as the Messiah coming in the flesh (I John 4.2), to bring human beings and the whole of creation into conformity with His holiness (Romans 8.18-23).

If a divine Being is incomprehensibly perfect (Is. 55.8), and we are not, then hell is not cruel, vindictive judgment, but the logical necessity of failing to be holy as we have been called to be. Bell gets much right in presenting the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, but in removing holiness from the equation, he takes away much of the reasons for and understanding of why participating in the Kingdom Among Us and To Come is so important and so vital. I think even Lewis would give Bell a little side-eye over this one.

There is much debate on ”teh interwebz” over Love Wins, and Bell is correct in pointing out that the questions and answers he proposes are not new. As I’ve tried to show above (however briefly or not), Bell has found precedence in C. S. Lewis for much of what he’s said, and probably Bell would admit Lewis’s profound influence. I don’t know if Lewis’s work raised such a hue and cry when he laid out his (admittedly “mere”) theology; if so, his British contemporaries may have just ever so politely turned their backs on him in society. Lewis probably would have just gotten a big laugh out of it, and gone for a pint. But, as John tells us in I John 4.1-3 (and I paraphrase): do not believe everything you hear, just because someone writes a really cool book that resonates with you. Anyone can do that. But if he is from God, he will say that Jesus Christ came in the flesh from God; false and evil people will deny this.

I love what C. H. Spurgeon said: ”The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.” Love, that great, unsafe, good Lion, will ever and always win.

Citations and Further Reading


  • Rob Bell, Love Wins
  • C. S. Lewis:
  • Mere Christianity
  • The Problem of Pain
  • God in the Dock: “Christian Apologetics”
  • The Last Battle
  • The Great Divorce
  • William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology
  • Kevin DeYoung, “God is Still Holy and What You Still Learned in Sunday School is True: A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell”
  • Greg Boyd, “Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I actually read Love Wins)
  • James Townsend, “C. S. Lewis’s Theology: Somewhere Between Ransom and Reepicheep”
  • And, because all this talk about hell makes me jumpy: watch this.

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