Altar to an Unknown Love: Reviews

Reverend Iain Murray (Banner of Truth Magazine)-

The last year has seen major controversy in the United States over Rob Bell's Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived.  Interest in that book is now passing, but before it does so Michael Beasley believes there is a wider issue that ought to be addressed. Bell's thinking, he notes, has been condemned by evangelicals who are, at the same time, professed admirers of authors from whom Bell has drawn, namely, George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis. Beasley challenges the consistency of this procedure, and if his book is taken seriously – as it deserves to be – it must promote more controversy, for MacDonald and Lewis are widely respected figures. Lewis is virtually an icon of American evangelicalism; on one occasion the readers of Christianity Today rated him as the most influential writer in their lives. But the only dependable foundation for Christian belief is missing in Lewis. He does not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, with the result that his conclusions are a conglomerate of Bible, imagination and philosophy.

Does the absence of that foundation matter when it comes to understanding the love of God -- the subject with which Beasley's book is primarily concerned? From Acts 17, the Athenians' worship 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD', Beasley shows that the saving knowledge of God is only known by divine revelation. Lost man is as ignorant of that knowledge as were the Athenians. Yet, instead of starting with Scripture, Lewis believed that considering love in man can help us to understand love in God. A major part of Altar to an Unknown Love is a refutation of this error. The love to be found in unregenerate man is self-love – love centering around the pursuit of pleasure and identified by the Greeks (and by Lewis) as eros. But the love of God (never called eros in the New Testament) is altogether different, and is unknown until a person is born of God (1 John 4:7-10). 'Those who do not know God cannot know His love' (p.52). 'Without understanding the nature of His love ...we are left with nothing but our own shifting sands of human affection' (p.39).

A reconstructed presentation of the love of God – to be found in all the authors Beasley is critiquing –produces teaching which carries no offence to the natural man.  What is more offensive to the natural man than truth concerning the justice of God and his wrath against sin? But that offence is eliminated by the subjective, man-centered teaching here reviewed. The love of God is such, it is said, that it requires him to respect human freedom, and that freedom should control how we think of heaven and hell. 'The damned,' wrote Lewis' publisher of The Great Divorce (Macmillan Publishing, 1976), 'are under no obligation to return to hell. They can stay on in heaven if they wish – if they are willing to forego their most precious sins' (p.86). Or as Lewis said, 'The doors of hell are locked on the inside' (pp.89n). 'We get what we want,' says Bell. 'God is that loving. If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option' .... God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins' (pp.85, 122). So it is not justice but love that takes anyone to hell. The divine love, which is claimed to be subordinate to human freedom, leads to men being given what they want. Heaven and Hell, revolves around man, not God (p.81).

This thinking does not simply take away the offence of biblical truth, ultimately it takes away the gospel itself. For if God's determination to judge and punish sin is no part of his character, then a substitutionary atonement ceases to be a part of the Christian message. It is not accidental that none of the authors Beasley is examining believed that in the shedding of his blood Christ was bearing the penalty of sin.

The author points out correctly that C.S.Lewis did not belong to evangelical circles in Britain in his lifetime. To our mind he proves the case that Lewis is now so widely acceptable in American evangelicalism because non-biblical ideas are not being recognized for what they are. Artistry in writing, effective story-telling, with a mixture of 'disconnected scriptural references and thoughts', are able to achieve wide success in a day when discrimination has given way to popular appeal. These are all characteristics of the writings of Bell, Lewis and MacDonald. This is not to say that all they wrote is equally deserving of condemnation. Beasley's strictures on Bell's Love Wins are rightly the most severe (pp.114-15). Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, now produced on film by Disney for the millions, is not in the same category, but when 'more and more preachers are eager to cite Lewis in support of their theological positions' the warning contained in this book is not unfounded. It raises issues of fundamental importance.

Michael Beasley, a science graduate of California State University, and of the Master's Seminary, has served in pastoral ministry since 1994. We are impressed and thankful for the character of his writings. His valuable book, Indeed, has Paul Really Said, A Critique of the N.T.Wright's Teaching on Justification, has already been reviewed in these columns.

Pastor Gary Gilley (Southern View Chapel)  

In this volume Beasley concurs with the criticism heaped on Rob Bell and his heretical book Love Wins.  But he is justly confused as to why others, particularly C.S. Lewis who taught essentially many of Bell's errors, receives accolades from the critics of Bell.  This is a valid point.  Lewis, who never claimed to be an evangelical (pp. 11-12), is quoted and followed by evangelicals almost without question. For example, Beasley points out that John Piper builds upon Lewis for his concept of hedonistic Christianity and Timothy Keller draws much of his apologetics from Lewis as well (see my review of Keller's Reason for God). 

Lewis gets a bye from many evangelicals because he is creative, eminently quotable and seldom directly enters the realm of theology.  Yet a careful reading of his works, both polemical and fictional, reveals serious false views: He rejects penal substitution, minimizes justification by faith, accepts baptismal regeneration, has a noninerrantent view of inspiration, believes in purgatory and salvation after death and promotes inclusivism—the view that people from other religions will be saved (pp. 11-17, 46, 116).  Lewis admittedly developed his theology from the writings of his "master" George MacDonald (pp. 25-26).  Why is it, Beasley wonders, that Bell receives harsh criticism for his heresies, while C.S. Lewis's same teachings are ignored? 

A more fundamental and widespread problem is exposed in an Altar to an Unknown Love: "The frailty and tendency of all men to herald their own thoughts above God's divine revelation" (p. 27).  This is in truth one of the most serious issues facing the evangelical community today.  Experience, musings, secular philosophies, and pop-psychology are all elevated to a status equal to, and often above, the Word of God.   "Bible studies" turn into book studies of human authors; mass appeal can be found for good communicators who feign preaching the Word but in truth are relating their own stories.  Bell, Lewis, MacDonald and a host of modern evangelical writers fall into this disturbing category.

One key area which is often abused by evangelicals is the issue of love.  Taking their cue from Lewis rather than Scripture, they muddy the meaning of love by confusing agape love with eros love.  Beasley not only demonstrates this problem but also offers an exceptional section on the distinction between the agape and eros in the understanding of first century Greeks and Romans (pp. 37-84).  For me this was the most insightful and valuable portion of the book.

Beasley is sounding an important warning.  Bell and his theology did not occur in a vacuum.  He is the product of not only the false teachings of others, but also of the acceptance by evangelicals of those false teachers.  Even more—Beasley calls on his readers to sharpen their focus and look to the Scriptures for truth rather than to the ideas of man (see p. 15).

Brief Excerpts - Other Reviews:

"...few seem to realize that most of what Bell teaches comes almost directly from C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis, as it was my shock to discover through reading this book, is guilty of teaching several false doctrines. I had always been a huge fan of Lewis, but now I have to admit I didn't really know his teachings as thoroughly as I once thought I did." Jonathan Cousar, FreedomTorch

"Beasley has not cut corners with respect to his research, leaving no stone unturned. His arguments are detailed and biblically sound. Without question this is one of those books sure to be a lightning rod for criticism and controversy." Keith Heapes, Racine WI.

"[Altar to an Unknow Love] is something of a wake-up call thereby for evangelicals to critically examine what C.S. Lewis was actually writing in respect of the Love of God...C.S. Lewis is not necessarily all that he seems to be." Philip Venables, Evangelical Times