Bell in the Dock, Part 4

[Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

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,

medium 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.

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7 Responses to Bell in the Dock, Part 4

  1. Bill says:

    I think you’ve officially undone yourself with this one Aaron. You sound about as charitable as your hero John Piper did when he made his famous tweet. Is there anyone else reading this blog who finds this treatment off-putting?

    I agree with you that Bell’s concept of human freedom is naive, but my basis for this is probably more on socio-historical grounds than theological or philosophical ones – another reason not to be an exclusivist, mind you (i.e., we don’t get to choose where we’re born – sucks to be a native american in the indies around 1492 . . . according to your theology, they got rape, dismemberment, plague, genocide AND hell).

    As a side note, I like Rachel Evans’ response to Bell’s book here that she just posted:

    Like me, she’s not a big fan of the book, but she thinks people need to calm down.

    I’m wondering if in your studies you’ve spent much time with Patristic authors before Augustine (I say this because he was one of the first to be very noticeably influenced by pagan thought in writing about hell).

    This chapter does not present a contradiction anymore than the hypostatic union or the Trinity does. It’s a paradox – God wants all to be saved, but human freedom makes love genuine, so God doesn’t force it – the answer is yes AND no I realize things are more complicated than that in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean what Bell is saying is “bizarre” – seriously, bizarre? There is not basis for that description (this alleged contradiction in your view is no more contradictory than Calvin’s idea of human volition. I was required to read that Piper piece you mentioned for a class by the way).

    You say that Bell’s idea of love has no biblical basis “whatsoever” – seriously, whatsoever? He gives the example of the prodigal son, and his source is Tim Keller’s interpretation. There are examples of both kinds of love in the Bible – where God is coercive, and where God is not. Bell’s is somewhat of a one-sided story, but that doesn’t mean lacks legitimate biblical ground. He’s actually describing a less sophisticated version of St. Thomas’ account of love, which is a magnificent work – since you ask where he’s getting it.

    And why do you keep bringing up universalism as your straw man? Bell is not saying that the story will end that way. He’s saying that the story where people who haven’t heard the gospel are in hell is worse than the one that allows for the possibility of their still being saved. Are you really disagreeing with that?

    Lastly, you accused Bell of a “simplistic” understanding of 1 Tim 2:4. I would accuse you of doing the same thing with Rom 10:15. Since you claimed you’ve never read anyone else give a legitimate alternative rendering of this passage, I’ll mention that I wrote a very brief commentary on this passage that you can read here. I think the difficulty with your hermeneutical lens is that you haven’t considered a very wide variety of biblical interpreters on this passage. A mild investigation would show the majority opinion in NT scholarship strongly favors a different reading from someone like Schreiner for instance, or yourself:

    On other hand, if you don’t like Thomas Aquinas’ love story, you could at least go with Barth’s. I’d say that’s the only option for a Calvinist who still wants the notion of God’s love to mean anything consistent with the love Jesus shows people like those who crucified him (“forgive them, for they know not what they do” – i recommend meditating on that), the adulteress, the thief on the cross, etc.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Just two things in response for now:

    (1) If all he is saying is that God wants everyone to be saved and yet he allows human freedom so not all necessarily will be saved, then that is not a contradiction. That has been said for centuries, and it is clearly internally coherent.

    But you left out the middle premise: God is not great if he does not get what he wants. That is the new element that creates a contradiction.

    (2) I never said that I had never read alternative interpretations of Romans 10. What I said was that I have never read any that I found remotely credible. I am aware of what John Sanders and others do with that passage. It just doesn’t work.

    Yes, Sanders et al. are correct that the statement “faith comes by hearing” does not logically entail that faith comes only by hearing. But we are not dealing only with an isolated statement but with an entire argument that begins this way:

    “How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? [implied answer: they won’t] And how shall they believe in the one of whom they have never heard? [implied answer: they won’t] And how shall they hear without a preacher? [implied answer: they won’t]”

    It is almost as though Paul foresaw what Sanders et al would argue and explicitly chose to refute it with this string of questions. It is not often that I find interpretations of Scripture that are this diametrically opposed to the way that the text reads.

  3. Bill says:

    I don’t rely on Sanders at all. Check out the post. That is not my argument. I’m talking about evangelical new testament scholars, not open theists.

    As for Bells argument, God being great (by which he also means loving or good) is not contingent upon universalism but rather the possibility of more being saved than just those who have heard and believed the right thing. This is a string argument. Gods sovereignty, however, is not at stake. And with love, Jesus is the criteria as I mentioned above.

  4. Bill,

    Thanks for drawing attention to the article. I have Cranfield’s commentary, but it has been a while since I read him on that passage, so I was not as familiar with what he said on it. I am not surprised, however, to find him going in a Barthian direction with it (as he does on most everything).

    Unfortunately, the author of that blog post appears to have little understanding of what Cranfield is actually saying in the portion that he quotes. Let me give the full context:

    “The use of ou indicates that in the second and third questions the thought is of their hearing Christ speaking in the message of the preachers. (To explain ou ouk ekousan as meaning ‘about whom they have not heard’ is not really feasible; for the use of akouein with the simple genitive of the person meaning ‘to hear about (someone)’ would be very unusual.”

    What Cranfield means is that the phrase should be translated, “How shall they believe in the whom FROM WHOM they have never heard?” That is, how shall they believe in Christ unless he himself calls to them. But the means through which he calls to them is the preaching of the gospel by those he himself sends to them.

    As for the larger context of Romans 10, I follow N. T. Wright’s understanding of the flow of Paul’s argument:

    Although Paul has been addressing the problem of Israel’s unbelief in the section 9:30-10:10, he expands his horizon to encompass the Gentiles beginning in verse 11 and running until v. 18:

    “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”

    [The universal thrust of these verses is apparent, which strongly suggests that Paul has in view not just Israel but the Gentiles as well.]

    “How then will they [i.e., the Gentiles] call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ 17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

    But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for

    ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
    and their words to the ends of the world.'”

    The quote from Psalm 19 indicates that, just as God’s revelation in nature is universal, so now is his revelation in the Word of Christ, which has gone out to all the nations primarily through Paul’s own ministry. Obviously, Paul does not mean that every single person (or even every single tribe of people) has heard the gospel. But what he says here is on par with he says elsewhere in Colossians 1:23.

    Then he returns to Israel in verses 19-21:

    “But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,

    ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
    with a(AD) foolish nation I will make you angry.’

    Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,

    ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me;
    I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’

    But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.'”

    Many commentators understand the question in v. 19 to be parallel to the one in v. 18, so that both are asking whether or not Israel understands the gospel. But that doesn’t fit the context. Verse 18 is asking whether or not the Gentiles have heard the gospel (answer: they have). Then verse 19 asks whether Israel should have understand that this was the way God was going to work, namely, by making the Gentiles his people (answer: they should have, because it is written all over the Scriptures). The quotations that follow the question in v. 19 all make that point about the Gentiles becoming the people of God.

    Therefore, I believe the earlier chain of questions that begin in v. 14 have reference to the Gentiles, not merely to Israel. This is the reading that makes the best sense of the flow of Paul’s argument.

  5. Ali says:

    Bill, you asked, “Is there anyone else reading this blog who finds this treatment off-putting?” No, not really. Both this present review and my experience of Aaron’s argumentation in the past (including times when we were on opposite sides) consistently shows, to my mind, a person who is trying to be fair and at the same time not denying he has prior presuppositions in place. Aaron is also willing to re-examine his own findings where he finds a compelling reason.

    For these reasons, when Aaron gives his reasons for his opinion on something, I listen.

  6. Thanks, Ali. I could say the same thing about you. It’s always edifying to read your thoughts on any subject.


    I made reference earlier to Cranfield having Barthian tendencies. They show up in his comments on Romans 9 and, to some degree, on Romans 11. But as far as Romans 10 is concerned, he offers an argument that all exclusivists could embrace. I don’t agree with him that vv. 14-18 are about Israel (see my comment above). Nevertheless, he offers an interpretation that is quite consistent with exclusivism:

    “The chain of questions does not put the essential question directly but rather indicates the impossibility of the Jews’ calling upon Christ unless certain pre-conditions have been fulfilled. Its substance may be summed up in four statements thus: They can only call upon Christ in the sense of vv. 12 and 13, if (iv) they have already believed on Him; they can only believe on Him, if (iii) they have heard Him (speaking to them through the message about Him); they can only hear Him, if (ii) someone proclaims the message; the message can only be proclaimed, if (i) God commissions someone to proclaim it.”

    I like Cranfield’s argument that v. 14 refers, not to hearing about Christ, but to hearing Christ directly. Cranfield is clear that hearing his voice comes through those who are sent to proclaim him (human messengers of the gospel). The logic of exclusivism still stands, according to Cranfield’s interpretation.

  7. Craig says:

    Today I was wondering if Bill and Aaron have been duking it out over (farewell) Rob Bell. I’m glad to see that you have found each other. 🙂

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