Generally speaking, one tends to be suspicious of "instant books." These days it doesn't take long to rush a book into print, but the real concern should not be how quickly a publisher managed to knock out a finished product, but how much time the author spent actually writing the manuscript in the first place. In the spring of 2011 and in response to the media sensation of Rob Bell's book Love Wins, blogs and reviews popped up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Here and there, whole books also appeared in reply to Bell, some of which came out almost before Love Wins got into its second printing.
Mark Galli's rebuttal book, God Wins, did not appear as quickly as some. Still, it was published in finished form five months after Bell's volume appeared, meaning that it had been written most likely in a period of weeks. My hunch as I set out to read this book, therefore, was that it would bear the marks of having been prepared in a hurry.
Happily, however, Galli's effort feels much more finished than that. It's by no means a perfect or even comprehensive reply to Rob Bell's work, but for readers who wish to drill into the core issues—and who wish to be led to the key Bible passages—in play with conversations surrounding heaven, hell, and judgment, Galli's treatment will serve them well.
Mark Galli, a former pastor and a past editor of Leadership, Christian History, and Christianity Today, tries to be even-handed in his treatment. He makes clear, for instance, that he does not want to talk about Rob Bell as a person but wants to limit his focus to what Bell's book claims. Galli also tries to be fair in noting that there are things about Bell's book he appreciates (though in truth, those positive features seem few and far between for Galli).
One feature of Bell's overall project that this reviewer wishes Galli had singled out as positive is Bell's laudable attempt to open up the often pinched and harshly judgmental views that characterize altogether too many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. If Rob Bell succeeded in doing no more than giving pause to Christians who create placards breezily consigning to hell their every socio-political opponent, then I for one am grateful.
Galli, however, does not deal much with that aspect of Bell's larger work. What he does very well is uncover a pattern in Love Wins, a pattern that undergirds the main premises of the book. Ironically, the main flaw of the very book that sought to widen people's view of God's mercy was Bell's tendency to narrow various theological considerations so as to help him more easily make his point.
For instance, Galli points out that one main flaw in how God is portrayed in Love Wins is that God is mostly an Agent who does nice things for us. This, Galli writes, "inevitably makes the Christian life about us. It's about what God has done for us. What we experience as a result." This strategy, according to Galli, portrays God as a vaguely defined source of love whose main job is to beam that love toward us. Of course, there can be no denying that God is Love and that God does loving things. But Galli is savvy to note that this narrow characterization of God neatly helps Bell avoid a wider consideration of God as the font of all holiness, the giver of Law, and a Creator who sets boundaries. God can also be offended. God's holiness can be shoved aside by sinful people. If we narrow our view of God to his being someone mostly invested in doing nice things for us, we cut off our access to the more robust portrait of God as it emerges throughout the whole of Scripture.
Similarly, Galli takes on a core contention of Love Wins: Bell's reducing all matters of salvation to a rather simple syllogism:
God is all-powerful; he can get whatever he wants;
God wants all to be saved.
Therefore, God gets what he wants—right?
But as Galli points out, framing the matter this way is designed to keep readers from asking the question, "Is this all that God wants?" Doesn't a holy and righteous God desire so much more? Doesn't he desire justice? Doesn't he desire true repentance? Doesn't he desire that his Law—the very way in which the creation was designed to function for shalom—be followed? "I do not believe Love Wins reflects the thickness of biblical revelation nor of lived reality," concludes Galli.
Galli is also wise to cut through other rhetorical flourishes in Love Wins. Bell is more than a little averse, for instance, to allowing much room for judgment. He also seems to grant "hell" very little status as an eternal place, opting instead to focus on all the ways we can create hell on earth right now. But as Galli notes, when Bell points to Rwanda as an example of hell on earth, what he seems to forget is that such hellish suffering is frequently borne only by the victims of the genocide, not by those who carried it out. Plenty of the people who create various hells here on earth do just fine, thank you very much. So where is the justice, the due judgment, on them? If Bell wishes to reserve most of his reflections on hell to those kinds of scenarios, rather than a more traditional portrait of hell as the place where perpetrators are judged, then there seems to be little left to say regarding those who for now—and on a grimly routine basis—get away with it all.
Overall, Galli's book does a good job of making thick what Love Wins rendered thin, of deepening what Love Wins treated only on the shallow surfaces, of making complex the biblical portrait of God, holiness, and sin that Love Wins made too simple. If it is true that Love Wins asked scores of questions which Bell made no attempt to answer, God Wins asks some questions that Galli is honest enough to admit cannot be easily answered (and that may not be fully answerable this side of the Kingdom's fully coming). That makes Galli's book less tidy. But then, few people who have ever honestly and fully engaged the range of Holy Scripture regard that sacred revelation as easy to grasp, either. As Neal Plantinga once observed, why is it that in the Bible, God's act of creation seemed so much easier to accomplish than God's act of redemption? In creation God spoke and it was. In redemption God's work was only fully accomplished when the very Son of God did not simply speak "Let it be" as in Genesis 1 but fairly shrieked from atop a garbage heap "My God, my God, why?!"
We enter deep mysteries when we encounter questions of God's nature, a sinful world, judgment, and how things are made right again. Mark Galli's book reminds us of mystery and of the need to have holy awe in the face of such deep matters. And that's a good reminder for mere creatures such as us human beings to receive. And oh yes, Galli also tells us that in all such complex matters, our God can be fully trusted to do right. What's more, this God wins.
Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a former editor of Perspectives.