Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. I’d like to write today on my thoughts on “Love Wins.” I finally got around to reading this book that has created a firestorm of controversy and I have listened to a debate Bell did on the Unbelievable radio program.
This book is very readable. I happen to enjoy Bell’s writing style and I have heard him speak through some of his NOOMA programs and I did enjoy a lot of what he said. Bell however is more pastoral than theological and there were times that I believed in the book that the pastor’s heart was overruling the theologian’s mind. I believe the two should work in tandem, but it seems that Bell wants one to overrule the other and if it’s the head or heart, it’s going to be the heart. What you prefer to be true is what is true.
On a practical level, Bell does have some good points. Bell writes of how we can make Heaven or Hell here on Earth right now. Some Christians can be so focused on the future life that they miss the reality that is going on now. If we are cutting ourselves off from the things of God, we are creating our own private Hell. If we are getting closer to the goodness of God, we are preparing ourselves for Heaven.
Bell is also right when he talks about how most Christians view Heaven as if it was another dimension or a physical realm somewhere else out there. I am of the belief that Heaven is physical, but it’s defined by being the place where God’s presence is made manifest. A new Heaven and a new Earth mean that creation will be reborn and filled with the manifest presence of God. Bell writes in one point of how some pastors have said Heaven would be like a church service that never ends, to which I do agree, that could often sound like Hell to most of us.
What got Bell started on this work also is important. It was a presentation at church about what it means to be a peacemaker and a woman included a note from Gandhi to which someone had put on there in reply, “Reality check: He’s in Hell.”
Now when I heard that I wondered what on Earth would make someone think they needed to write that. What does that have to do with the truth of Gandhi’s principles? Would we want to reject the theory of relativity if we said “Reality check: Einstein’s in Hell” or would we want to reject the Declaration of Independence if we were told “Reality check: Jefferson’s in Hell.”?
Bell asks how we know that Gandhi is. I say it’s completely irrelevant to the truth of what he’s saying, but I understand the kind of attitude Bell is writing against. He is opposed to the turn and burn message people usually give. I oppose the way it’s often used today as well. However, before commenting on that, I’d like to state other points I agree with Bell on.
Bell does say that to many Christians, all that matters is if you’re going to Heaven. This is a common attitude and it is one we need to stop. What matters is if one is becoming like Christ. In our day and age, we have too many cases of signing on the bottom line to become a Christian and then that’s it. There’s conversion without discipling.
It’s also relieving to hear Bell write about how many people say that the most important aspect is to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Bell says that the problem is that this does not show up in the Bible. In our modern age this kind of thinking is everywhere and I was pleased to hear someone else say it.
Bell is also correct when he criticizes people who say they can’t believe in a God who judges. Bell contends that we all want a God who judges, particularly when someone does something evil to us. We want God to give them what they deserve. We want God to make things right again.
In speaking about how we live, Bell I think makes some good points. He brings out how we need to change our attitudes. For instance, in speaking about a racist, Bell says that a racist would be miserable in Heaven since he would be up there in Heaven with all of “those people.” There are attitudes we need to remove from each of us to be ready for the presence of God.
A great line on page 46 is that Bell says “our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live.” Now eschatology is not about morality, but it does influence morality. If you believe that you will live in the presence of God, you will live accordingly. If you believe there’s no Heaven to gain or Hell to shun, you will also behave accordingly.
Now on to points I disagree with.
To begin with, Bell is a pastor and he does not interact with those who disagree. You do not find the classical defenses of the doctrine of Hell in this book. There are no references to Christian apologetics where the doctrine of Hell is defended. It could be Bell for the sake of argument is entirely right in what he says, but he needs to show it by interaction with the other side.
Second, Bell is not really clear where he falls. For instance, at the end of the chapter “Does God get what God wants?” Bell says that if we want Heaven, we will get Heaven, and if we want Hell, we will get Hell. He says that love can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. We will get what we want because love wins.
However, at other places, he asks if God will really punish someone forever for sins committed in such a short lifetime. Bell states on page 175 that if God will do that, nothing will disguise that one true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, and awful reality. Bell asks if God becomes a God of wrath once someone dies while a God of love while they’re alive.
The answer is that he’s always both to us. Romans 1 tells us that the wrath of God is being revealed. The wrath of God is a present reality. However, the love of God is also present. It is not God that changes when we die, but rather we cement ourselves in the position we were in relation to Him before death.
If Bell wants to be a universalist, and there are definitely universalist tendencies in this book, I would prefer that he’d just come right out and say it. Bell seems to be unable to state a clear view on the matter. It is as if Bell wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be able to speak universalist without having the label.
While Bell has interesting looks at Luke 15 and 16, he too often leaves questions unanswered that could lead to doubt, such as how it is that we are saved. Is it by believing the right things or doing good? The answer is by believing the right things, we do good, thereby showing that we are saved. Bell often presents views as being against each other when they can really work together.
Bell also uses loaded language. Often when he writes about Hell, he talks about people being tortured. For Bell, there’s no distinction made between a literal fiery Hell and a Hell that is more of an eternal quarantine. There are no degrees of suffering in Hell. Bell would give the impression that it’s an all or nothing idea.
Bell also says the only verses relevant to Hell are those that specifically mention Hell. This is simply false. For instance, I recall no place where Bell really interacts with Revelation 14 where it talks about the smoke of the torment going up forever and ever for those who oppose the Lamb. Bell tells us that the Old Testament does not say much about Hell, but for that matter nor does it say much about Heaven. Most of the people then were concentrated enough on just making it by on day-to-day living.
Bell says Jesus did not use Hell to try to convert pagans and heathens. However, it’s important to note that Jesus also didn’t interact with pagans and heathens. He spent his time in Israel and in that area, he was interacting with Jews and was using ideas that the Jews would have already known.
Bell is also problematic about saying Jesus is bigger than one religion. Bell says Jesus will transcend any label put on him, especially the one called “Christianity.” Is Bell opening the door for pluralism here? His viewpoint is unclear as Bell seems to be continually riding the fence.
Having heard him on Unbelievable answering questions about the after-death with saying that he did not know, my thoughts were “If you do not know, you have no basis writing on the topic.” Bell does have some good points on how we live and interesting looks at Luke 15 and 16.
I also write wanting to understand seeing as my wife has been a fan of Bell in the past and how this controversy has been hard on her. No one is asking Bell to become a “turn or burn” preacher, but rather to be willing to admit the reality of what he believes. If he is a universalist, come out and say it. If he is not, come out and deny it. Be sure to define what you mean by those terms. If he believes some people will spend forever in Hell, come out and say it. If not, come out and say it.
Bell does have a good gift for speaking and writing and it is my hope that he can use it for good. It would start with affirming the reality of the conditions of the after-death, the way that Jesus did.