One of the surprising points in Rob Bell’s Love Wins is that Martin Luther is cited as being open to second-chance salvation after death. Bell writes:
And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 he considered the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?”
Again, a good question.
And so space is created in this “who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” perspective for all kinds of people—fifteen-year-old atheists, people from other religions, and people who rejected Jesus because the only Jesus they ever saw was an oppressive figure who did anything but show God’s love.
This is a good illustration of the difficulty that will face reviewers of this book. It’s easy to make a claim, but it takes time and effort to explain why the claim is wrong and to demonstrate the actual truth of the matter. To be sure, Bell’s misuse of Luther is relatively minor compared with, say, his handing of Scripture (which is among the worst I have ever seen in a published book). But it’s still instructive to work through even an offhand claim like this.
So let me point you to Carl Trueman’s careful analysis that shows Luther did not believe what Bell implies. Even if you are not interested in Bell’s book, it’s still a helpful post on basic historical methodology and integrity.
Here is Trueman’s conclusion, which focuses on why Bell’s method of argument is actually bad for having a constructive conversation, and also on the perils of using theological soundbites:
Popular books written for popular consumption are vital in the church; and Bell is to be commended for seeing that need. Further, when such books simply put forth an unexceptionable position, there is no real necessity for any scholarly apparatus; but when they self-consciously present themselves as arguing for significant or controversial paradigm shifts, the author really does need to cite sources. This is crucial because such citation allows the reader to engage in a conversation with the matter at hand. Indeed, the failure to do so actually prevents the reader from checking such for herself. In short, such an author does theology by fiat, adopting a dictatorial and high-handed approach which precludes constructive dialogue, whatever “conversational” rhetoric the author may use to describe his intentions. The message is not one of dialogue; it is rather ‘Trust me: everyone else is wrong, though I am not going to give you the means to judge their arguments for yourselves.’ That kind of approach lacks any real critical or dialogical integrity.
Building arguments on theological soundbites, especially from the works of prolific and sophisticated theologians such as Luther, is surely very tempting in today’s instant internet age. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame but none of us want to spend any more than fifteen seconds doing the grunt work necessary to achieve it. Yet, like a lady of easy virtue, such an approach may have immediately seductive charms but ultimately proves a rather cruel mistress for the would-be historian. It also says much (and none of it flattering) about the competence of the editors at Harper, that they did not seize on this elementary error and correct it. Checking sources, especially when they seem to say something unexpected, is surely the most basic task of both author and editor.
The book will, of course, sell many copies, far more than anything I will ever write, I am sure. But then so did Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code; and that was a book with which, from the safely controversial content to the sloppy historiography, Rob Bell’s latest offering would appear to have much in common.