Chapter 4 of Love Wins is entitled “Does God Get What God Wants?” It is the most bizarre chapter of the book.
As usual, Bell begins with an anecdote, this time offering quotes from doctrinal statements on church websites that he has encountered:
This is from an actual church website: “The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.”
This is from another: “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.”
And this is from another: “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.”
Although they express a horrifying truth, these statements are standard expressions of Christian orthodoxy. Once again, Bell reveals, not mere disagreement, but utter loathing for such expressions when he flippantly and arrogantly describes them this way:
So in the first statement, the “unsaved” won’t be with God.
In the second, not only will they not be with God, but they’ll be sent somewhere else to be punished.
And in the third, we’re told that not only will these “unsaved” be punished forever, but they will be fully aware of it–in case we were concerned they might down an Ambien or two when God wasn’t looking…
This is simply more evidence of the fact that Bell cannot stand a traditional doctrine of Hell, even to the point that he can be flippant about the horror of it.
Bell goes on to note that these same churches rightly confess belief in the greatness and power of God. He appeals to 1 Timothy 2:4 as evidence that God wants all people to be saved. These two observations prompt him to ask the following questions:
How great is God?
Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do,
or kind of great,
great most of the time,
but in this,
the fate of billions of people,
not totally great.
Sort of great.
A little great.
If I take Bell at his word here, I cannot escape the implication toward which he is pushing: if anyone ends up in Hell, God does not get what God wants, and thus God is not great. He does not explicitly affirm universalism here, but he pushes so hard toward it that it is difficult to imagine how he could not be a universalist.
That is, until he shifts gears completely. That is what makes this chapter so bizarre. After maintaining that God, who is great enough to get what he wants, will never give up in his pursuit of us (even, presumably, after death and on and on into eternity), Bell admits ultimate agnosticism on the question of whether everyone will be saved in the end. He does not know if God will get what God wants, but he is quite certain that we will get what we want. This is part of what he means when he says, “Love wins.” God’s love is defined by his allowing us the freedom to choose or to reject him. He will allow us to reject him forever if we want to. If we want Hell, he will let us have it (at one point Bell even says God “graciously” gives it to us). This is the essence of the chapter.
Now, for some of my reflections:
(1) Obviously, at the heart of this chapter is a contradiction. God is not great, we are led to believe, if he does not get what he wants. He wants all people to be saved. So will all be saved? Bell does not know, because he remains committed to a radical understanding of human freedom.
(2) Bell’s definition of love has no biblical basis whatsoever. Where did he come up with the idea that the essence of love is to allow the other radical freedom to choose? I can think of many occasions when I have taken away freedom from my sons precisely because I love them. I have compelled them to do what I wanted them to do, or to refrain from doing what they wanted to do, because I love them.
I am not saying that God’s modus operandi with us is compulsion (though I wouldn’t say he never compels), but I just want to introduce into this discussion the fact that there is more complexity in the Creator-creature relationship than Bell allows. If God circumcises our hearts to make us obey him, has he violated our freedom and acted in an unloving manner toward us (Deuteronomy 30:6)? Or has he given us real freedom? Bell apparently worships at the altar of human autonomy, carrying the idea well beyond this life and into eternity, cutting against the grain of what Scripture teaches us about how God relates to us.
(3) The question about God’s greatness is tied up with a simplistic appeal to 1 Timothy 2:4. Bell quotes the verse and indicates no awareness of the complexity involved, not only in the interpretation of the verse, but also in the relationship of the verse’s teaching the rest of what Scripture teaches about God. On this question, I highly recommend John Piper’s article “Are There Two Wills in God?” in the book Still Sovereign, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware.
(4) I was especially irked by this statement:
Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.
In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.
It is as though Bell walked up to William Shakespeare and said, “What would you do with Hamlet if I gave you another chance?”
Or maybe we can channel J. R. R. Tolkien and ask him why he had to have all of that death and suffering in The Lord of the Rings. It would have been so much better if Saruman, Wormtongue, the orcs, and even Sauron himself had been able to experience redemption rather than elimination. It would have been such a better story if everyone could have been happy in the end.
Or would it? I’m not convinced that it would. The price of death that is paid by those given to evil has the feel of realism about it. If all stories ended with everyone happy, we would say they were contrived, artificial, and unnatural. It is as though we have an intuitive sense that happy endings for all are simply not true to reality.
But as long as we’re suggesting ways to improve the biblical storyline, why don’t we go the whole nine yards and get rid of everything that makes for a bad story, according to Bell’s criteria? Let’s start with that Christian fundamental known as original sin. Why do we have to be born sinners anyway? We would all be much happier if we could get rid of that. Pelagius was really on to something.
Let’s keep it going. That whole business about the cross is very bloody and messy, which is, if you ask me, not conducive to a good story in the Bellian tradition. So let’s nix it.
And if human beings all have to be redeemed in the end to make this a good story, then I guess fallen angels do too (Hebrews 2:16 notwithstanding). Let’s go ahead and declare now that, if this story is really going to be good, Satan has to be there with us in Heaven at the end.
Obviously, I am not saying that Bell denies original sin, despises the cross, or affirms that Satan will be saved (though he may at least be open to the third option). I am saying that once we start arguing according to subjective criteria about what makes a good story, there is no end to how much we will rearrange the truth to make it fit our preferences.
Not to mention that I don’t think universalism is a particularly good story anyway. It doesn’t strike me as true to reality.