I truly enjoyed the book (in spite of the usual “Bell” issues, more on that below) and highly recommend it, though I must offer a disclaimer or two.
Disclaimer 1 – Rob Bell is not a scholar or a publishing theologian. This should be fairly obvious to anyone concerned with such things since his first book, “Velvet Elvis”. His lack of references, notes and downright cavalier exegesis can be maddening, I admit. However, his heart is in the right place and he is an awesome preacher in written form (a very rare thing for me to say). I have not heard him speak.
Disclaimer 2 – I am not a scholar or a theologian. However, I’ve spent enough time on the business end of exhaustive concordances, multiple parallel-translations of the Bible, Lexicons, church history books, etc. to know which end is up. And I can see that a lot of the negative reviews Bell is getting are unfair.
Bell is passionate and his emotional writing is truly inspired. I also think he’s also on the right theological track, though adequate expression of that is hampered by the aforementioned academic issues (e.g. no references, from-the-hip exegesis, etc). But if you want academically rigorous theological examination, why are you reading Rob Bell? Pick up some theology texts. That’s not a knock against Bell; it’s just he has his forte and others have theirs. I don’t read Stanley Grenz if I’m looking for something that stirs the soul on a visceral level.
Bell has always written in that style for good or ill. I’m curious if people who are hammering on him academically about “Love Wins” were doing the same when he wrote less controversial books like Velvet Elvis or Sex God. Those academic issues have always bugged me, but I’ve let them slide because I loved his honest, passionate spirit – and that is the point. That is why he writes. That is why we read his books.
I will now describe a simile that 1.) beautifully illustrates the futility of the academic criticism against Bell but 2.) only a handful of people in the world will ever fully understand and 3.) reveals what a hopeless nerd AND geek I am. Oh well.
Let us consider Bell to be Orson Scott Card. Now let the academics be people who have read and probably memorized West End Games’ Star Wars the Roleplaying Game’s reference texts “The Imperial Sourcebook”, “The Rebel Alliance Sourcebook” and “Creatures of the Galaxy”. The academics’ criticism of Bell now becomes:
“Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game fails to be a compelling piece of literature because there is no robust functional explanation given regarding the advanced human and Formic technologies (e.g. the Philotic Parallax Instantaneous Communicator) employed throughout the story.”
Now while this criticism may technically be correct, it entirely misses the point. In other words, this kind of criticism is a load of horse shit.
Read “Love Wins” to understand why Universalism theology exists and has existed in Christianity since the beginning. Read it to understand why it’s important such theology is carried forward and not lost. You don’t have to agree with it. If you are not a Universalist (and no one is saying you should be), you should at least want to be a “Universalist-sympathizer”. Bell’s book conveys these points beautifully and illustrates an inspired and hopeful, yet personally-convicting, eschatology.
Most of the academic criticisms of the book center around Bells use of Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. For a more academic treatment of those issues read “An Analytical Study of Words” by Louis Abbott published on Gary and Michelle Amirault’s Tentmaker site. It is available free online. All the linguistic criticisms I’ve seen leveled at Bell are rebutted by that book.
For those that level the charge of overt prooftexting – it’s a little hard to write a readily-accessible book for a layperson audience about anything theological and not appear to be prooftexting on some level. The only way to really avoid that is to write a detailed theological paper or text. But at that point you’ve probably lost the layperson audience. It’s up to the reader to decide to dig further whether they agree or disagree; to decide whether this is unsubstantiated prooftexting.
If a person does dig, they will find a long-standing history of Univeralism theology; present in Christendom since the earliest days. That doesn’t mean a person has to adopt such theology, but they can’t simply dismiss it as “un-Christian” or un-scholarly.
In summary: definitely read “Love Wins” if you want to understand the “whys” and importance of Universalism. It is inspiring! He writes in a way that stirs the soul and reminds even the most jaded church-goer that there is a reason to be excited about faith. But don’t read it expecting an academically-rigorous, theological work. That would be like listening to a Van Eyck: you’d have to be half-mad to do it, and if you did, you would only succeed in wasting of time.