Let me first say: I was impressed by Bell in Love Wins. Having no knowledge of Bell’s previous works, I expected him to defend some pluralistic vision of universalism that was afraid of declaring that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.
Nothing could be farther than the truth. Bell is not defending some feel-good notion that everyone will get to heaven. He even thinks that many will suffer in hell. Yet the purpose of hell is not eternal punishment for sin, but rather allowing humans to see the natural consequences of their sin and eventually come to repentance. He argues that God wants all men to be saved, and that God will make this happen with time.
Bell does not give sin a free pass, but issues a call for Christians to live as Christ taught, with the understanding that this is the way for Christians to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. This is not a pluralistic vision in which all religions are the same, seeking the same goals, but rather a radical understanding of how sin has no place in God’s kingdom. In Chapter 2, Bell writes:
“God has shown you how to live. Live that way. The more you become a person of peace and justice and worship and generosity, the more actively you participate now in ordering and working to bring about God’s kind of world, the more ready you will be to assume an even greater role in the age to come.”
But our status in this age to come is not determined by this life alone; death is not the point at which our ultimate fate is set. Instead, in an understanding reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, people can choose to remain in hell. We see people choose hell on this earth – when they murder, rape, and plunder, when they are consumed by greed and pride and lust. It should be no surprise then, that some will choose hell in the age to come. But after an examination of Gehenna and the meaning of the word aion – which Bell translates as age instead of eternity – Bell concludes that hell is a place of refinement that prepares people to ultimately choose and be capable of enjoying heaven.
Love Wins is a piece of popular theology; Bell does not thoroughly address his opponent’s objections. He does not review the extensive debate over the word aion, nor does he undermine opposite interpretations of various texts, which is important considering his many unorthodox readings of Scripture. For this reason, I’m not sure that I can fully buy Bell’s argument; I am not an expert in Greek to know whether Bell’s arguments are sound, nor do I know the position of commentators on a great number of verses about hell. But I can say that Bell is asking all the right questions:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?…Why them? Why you? Why me? Why not him or her or them? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family, or country? Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to the kids?’ What kind of faith is that? What kind of God is that?” (Chapter 1)
As he answers these questions, he doesn’t fall into a liberal wish-washy position in which sin doesn’t matter, nor does he offer what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.” His vision of heaven and hell still demand that people repent and learn to live by the fruits of the spirit. I have heard Bell called “satanic” and “heretical,” but I must disagree. His universalism does not undermine the need to spread the gospel nor does it reduce the importance of Jesus in salvation. His universalism is not a “get out of jail free card.” Instead, his universalism is a challenge of radical repentance for American Christians who have gotten used to the idea that saying the sinner’s prayer is sufficient to save.
I know a great number of non-Christians who like the teachings of Jesus, who work to right injustice in this world, who would love to be part of a church community, but who just can’t buy the notion that a loving God would condemn billions to hell. I know a great number of Christians who are ashamed to spread the gospel, not because they are ashamed of Jesus but because they cannot go to their loved ones and say “you will be condemned to hell for all eternity, unless you say this prayer.” If sharing Bell’s beliefs can bring non-Christians into churches, and make Christians more willing to share a gospel of a loving God, then I welcome having more Christian universalists of Rob Bell’s variety.