This is part 2 in a series of blogs regarding Bell’s recent book, Love Wins, where I summarize his view in the book and evaluate whether he advocates universalism.
What is Bell’s View in Love Wins?
Bell begins the book claiming that many have hijacked the story of Jesus and that is now time to reclaim it (p. vii-viii). It is later clear that he means those who hold to the traditional, historical view of hell. He also claims that the historic, orthodox Christian faith is a wide diverse stream which he later asserts includes divergent views of hell. He continues his dialogue casting doubt on what it means to be “saved” or how one is “saved” (p.1-19) – even claiming that it can’t be “belief,” because even demons believe and shudder (while making no distinction between assensus (assent) and fiducia (trust) in regards to truth propositions).
Bell then continues with a chapter about heaven, emphasizing the “already, but not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God (heaven). He does, however, equivocate between heaven and the Kingdom of God, which allows him to make a case for “eternal life” available here and now, but also something to continue in the afterlife. He makes an important foundational claim that the Greek word aion which is usually translated as “eternal” is not about some time in the future, but is more about a quality and vitality of life lived now and continues after death (p. 58-9). I believe if Bell had just written a book about heaven, or stopped at this chapter, the book would have been worth reading (and recommending).[i]
Bell proceeds with hell in the next chapter (p. 63-93) by first surveying the Scriptures for the doctrine of hell. He briefly explains the Old Testament passages about Sheol and the realm of the dead, which I would agree (with Bell) are more vague about hell or the afterlife. Next, Bell claims that the word “hell” is only use twelve times in the New Testament (exclusively by Jesus), without adequately addressing the concept of hell which I will argue later in this paper is used by other New Testament writers. He also mentions “Hades” as being used in Revelation, Acts and also by Jesus. Bell then claims belief in a literal “hell,” but redefines it in the process. On Bell’s view, hell is both here and now, just like “eternal life” is here and now. Hell refers to a state of rejection of God’s goodness and love and is the reason for our present day sufferings (which we call “hell”). Bell dismisses any New Testament references to “judgment” as reflective of the political environment directed exclusively at religious leaders, rather than the fate of unbelievers. Instead, he insists that since God is a God of restoration, this punishment is not meant to be eternal. He continues with an assertion that Jesus isn’t talking about forever in the same sense that we normally understand this word.
Bell’s next chapter attempts to show a logical problem with either the attributes of God or our concept of hell. If God is all-powerful (in control) and he desires that all be saved (I Tim 2), then does God get what he wants? Bell offers two options – either all people will be saved, or God doesn’t get what he wants (thus is not all powerful). Bell asks – since God is a restorative God, why would his offer to us end just because our life ends? Bell then claims that there are many who believe that we get a “second chance” after death – not only in our current age, but also in our Christian heritage that we have inherited, such as Luther, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Bell then throws out some additional names such as Jerome, Basil and Augustine who recognized that some/many believed this (without providing any historical references or revealing to the reader that these same authors wrote against this view and considered it heresy). Bell believes this “second chance” view is at the center of the Christian tradition since the beginning (p. 109). Bell finishes the chapter by quickly dismissing Revelation as a letter not meant to be referring to the future, but to current times of the writer John (i.e. preterest eschatology). Bell maintains that since God honors free will, we get what we want (heaven or hell), but God also gets what he wants, so that all will eventually choose heaven (in this life or the next).
In Bell’s fifth chapter, he proceeds to explain the cross as God “reconciling all things to himself” although he explains that many different images are used to describe this event. The metaphor of “sin, guilt and atonement” would only be understandable to primitive cultures that still used the sacrificial system and so is not applicable today (except in small pockets of civilization). Bell believes that the main story is God rescuing all of creation, and includes all people. The message that some people are “in” and others are “out” is too small of a gospel and cannot be true when the real story is God restoring “all things and people on earth”.
Bell’s last chapter is titled, “There are Rocks Everywhere” and is his attempt to reconcile the exclusivity of Christ with his inclusivity of God reconciling all things. He claims there is “a force, an energy, a being calling out to us, in many languages, using a variety of methods and events” (p. 141) and uses I Corinthians 10 as his proof text, as he believes Paul claims Jesus was in the rock that accompanied Moses. Thus Paul believes Christ is found everywhere and can be found in what the Greeks called zoe or what Obi-Wan called “the Force.” It is unclear to me as the reader, if he is making God so amorphous that it becomes pantheistic or if he is saying something more modest like Don Richardson (Peace Child) finding cultural keys that help the Gospel to be spread. Bell continues to explain that those who come to the Father may not know they are coming exclusively through him. It isn’t apparent if he is advocating pluralism – that all religions lead to God. Bell mentions Colossians 1 (without the verse number 23) as supporting the fact that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (thus supporting his previous assertion that Jesus can be found everywhere). It is ambiguous to the reader where this leaves missionaries – are they wasting their time?
Bell finishes the chapter with an attempt to distance himself from pluralism, by explaining two types of views. Exclusivity, he explains, is the idea that only those who believe in Jesus in the “precise” way will get to heaven otherwise you go to hell. Inclusivity is the idea that all religions lead to God (like a mountain with multiple paths). Bell advocates instead the idea that there is exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (p. 155). This is accomplished by the fact that Jesus is the only way, but yet Jesus is found in all places at all time – since the gospel has been announced to every creature under heaven. Sometimes people use his name, other times they do not (p. 159). This seems to be a nuanced form of inclusivism – one where the individual may be practicing some other religion (or not), recognize Christ there (maybe in the rocks), but not know his name, and ultimately be saved through Him.
As a summary of Bell’s view, heaven and hell are basically the same place. Hell is the byproduct of rejecting God’s love (in this life and the next). What we call “hell” in this life is the direct result of our unwillingness to follow God’s ways. Hell is both a present reality and a future reality for those who are not ready for God’s mercy. But hell is not eternal, since God will have his way. God’s purposes cannot be thwarted and eventually everyone will realize they have been reconciled to God. The orthodox understanding of hell as “eternal conscious torment” is inaccurate. God does not pour out his wrath (because we bring about this suffering upon ourselves) nor does he punish for eternity. As the title of his book states, love wins.
Is Bell a Universalist?
Universalism is the idea that ultimately all people will be reconciled or made right before God. There are many different forms of Christian universalism, as to whether this reconciliation is done exclusively through Jesus or other means, as well as whether there is a second chance (after death) for this reconciliation to occur. For John Hick, for instance, he believes that ultimately all religions teach the same thing and are responding to the “Real.” Salvation comes by becoming less self-centered and more “Real”-centered. For others, it is exclusively through Jesus, but can come in the afterlife. Each form uses different grounds or reasoning for its view, but the common thread is the denial of endless punishment in hell, and consensus that all will enjoy the everlasting salvation with God.
Just one day before the release of this book, Bell denied that he is a Universalist. He then redefined universalism with his response, “No, if by universalist we mean there’s a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not.”[ii] I believe from an honest reading of the book, it is clear that Bell’s view fits under the general heading of Universalism, in that all eventually will be reconciled to God whether in this life and the next. Eventually “love wins” is Bell’s assertion. A more apt description of his view might be called “post-mortem nuanced purgatorial inclusivist” but it is universalism none-the-less.
Is Bell Just Asking a Bunch of Questions?
One objection to taking Bell’s book seriously (as his view) is the claim that Bell is just asking a bunch of questions and looking to start a dialogue about hell. This is typically conjoined with an assumption that Bell is just playing devil’s advocate by asking these “tough” questions. Bell certainly does ask a lot of questions (86 in the first chapter and 350 in the entire book by one count), but himself admits that “this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions.”[iii] Bell is obviously telling the reader what he thinks and means to persuade a different way at looking at heaven and hell. He also makes no attempt to provide a case for the traditional view of hell.
Interestingly enough, Bell actually mollifies any further conversation (or questions) by lamenting about close-minded traditionalists who are unwilling to have “honest inquiry.”[iv]
[i] I owe this observation to discussions I had with my own pastor, Ken Van Vliet.
[ii] Christian Post – http://www.christianpost.com/news/rob-bell-denies-being-a-universalist-49417/ accessed 10/9/11.
[iii] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 19.
[iv] Ibid. ix.