His book is called ‘Love Wins’, and is basically about what hell is like, who goes there, and for how long they will be there. A major theme in the book is that it seems to advocate the idea that all people will choose to love and worship God in the end.
I decided to read the book for myself in order to see if Bell actually makes such a claim. After reading the book, although he hasn’t made an explicit commitment to the view of universalism stated in book, he very strongly suggests that he is leaning to such a view, at least to the point that he has rejected the idea that hell – as an actual location or separate place from where the saints will be – exists (among other things).
Critique Of Major Patterns In ‘Love Wins’
I found that each chapter followed a similar pattern: first he expressed something that the church is not focusing on enough, or perhaps focusing on too much. Then, in order to ‘correct’ or answer this error, jumps to the complete opposite extreme of the spectrum to the point that he is basically jumping out of the bandwagon of orthodoxy at times.
For example, he says that the church incorrectly focuses on the idea that the gospel is about where someone ultimately goes – locationally speaking, either heaven or hell. Either ‘up there’ or ‘down there’. He says that Jesus came to bring heaven to earth – which is true, and I agree. Whenever Jesus speaks of heaven and hell he usually speaks of these ideas using qualitative terms – indicating the quality in rejecting or loving God.
Instead of saying that we should shift in our focus of what the purpose of the gospel is – ideally to the idea that lives are changed now and God can give us a changed being now – he argues that the church is not wrong in it’s focus, but wrong in the very idea that hell even exists at all! (Some of his arguments for this claim are addressed below)
Another example, before I critique a few of his arguments and comments in more detail, is that he says the church is very rigid in who they believe will go the heaven. A.k.a. – only those who confess Jesus as lord and say a special prayer are “let in”. Once again, I agree with Bell on this. We will be surprised as to who gets into heaven because it’s primarily a matter of one’s heart and inner relation to God, not necessarily outward deeds and such. But then Bell, once again, instead of saying that there’s more to salvation than that, and that everyone will be judged according to the revelation which God has provided, comes extremely close to endorsing a sort of pluralism – of which Jesus was fairly clear about in that He is the way, the truth, the life and the door.
There have been many hundreds of Muslims of which have had visions or encounters with Jesus – despite never hearing about Christ at all! If God knows of someone who has never heard the gospel yet is open and honest in their search, God is just and willing to reveal Himself to them – whether that’s in direct encounters, or by natural revelation, etc. But to say that a Muslim – who would believe that the ultimate blaspheme is that God has a son and is multi-personal – can be accepting of God’s son after death is, I think, ignoring the differences in other religious systems.
Specific Points Of Disagreement
Besides that overarching pattern, I’d like to address a few specific points. Most of these arguments which Bell makes are in support of the universalism that is dealt with in this book – perhaps the most pertinent issue due to it’s implications and centrality in the book. Keep in mind that these are only a sampling of issues addressed in the book, and there are other places where he simply takes passages out of context or applies poor biblical exegetical methods (I don’t mean that disrespectfully – but as a simple matter of fact).
1. Bell refers to Matthew 25 and the parable of the sheep and the goats. He essentially says that the term translated as eternal in the New Testament (and in Matthew 25) only means a period of time. Although this is correct, the same word – when used in a certain form – does mean eternal.
Without getting into the Greek to look at how it should be translated, all we need to do is to take a look at this parable in English and see that the same term – eternal – is used for both the sheep and the goats. Bell believes that those who choose God obtain everlasting life with God. Yet, the passage here clearly indicates that those who reject God (the goats) face separation from God for the same length of time!
2. Bell makes a similar claim about the Hebrew word, olam, usually translated as eternal. The claim, once again, is that olam simply means a period of time. He’s right. But it can be translated as eternal as well.
Take, for example, Daniel 12:2. The same word – olam – is used to refer to those who go to eternal life and for those who go to everlasting contempt. It’s the same case as in Matthew 25 – those who go to eternal life – Bell would believe – go there forever! Well, those who go to the place of contempt clearly face the same period of time!
3. On pg. 106 Bell asks whether God could give us more than one chance – maybe a 2nd…3rd….4th…chance in the afterlife. He asks, “What would limit God’s ability to do that?”
I suppose one could answer that question by answering, “His holiness”. In other words, God will put up with sin for a while – but at some point it simply needs to be dealt with in a final manner. All throughout the Bible God speaks of his patience in withholding His coming wrath – especially within the Old Testament when Israel and particular kings would live immorally.
God is a God of second chances – even third and fourth chances! But the scriptures are clear that those chances are the very moments of our current lives on earth, and once we die we are judged for eternity (2nd Peter 3:9 and Hebrews 9:27).
The idea that God would give people a continuous “open door” would be like a person who keeps committing crimes – over and over and over again – and the judge simply keeps placing the person on parole! Speaking of open doors, see Matthew 22:1-14.
4. On pg. 108 Bell says, “Suffering and eternal torment don’t bring glory to God.”
Firstly, God’s glory isn’t contingent upon whether people worship Him or not. Secondly, in God’s respecting a person’s choice to reject Him and to live in complete autonomy – I suppose we could say that this brings glory to God as he treats a person’s freedom to choose – part of the image of God – as an essential part of a person’s being. A person is thus tormented (an internal phenomenon) because they’ve detached themselves from the ultimate and only source of all that is good and pleasing – by their own choice. Heaven would be hell for those who do not love God.
As 2nd Peter 3:9 indicates, God isn’t pleased in the idea that people reject Him and that we are separated from Him – but He must respect a person’s choice – otherwise He would be destroying that which makes a person what he is.
Another point. God doesn’t seek worship for His own benefit – it’s all for the benefit of us. God created people so that they would worship and enjoy Him – all for the sake of our benefit. God doesn’t need finite creatures to worship Him.
5. Throughout the book Bell keeps comparing two views of hell. On page 110 it really comes out clearly when he creates a false dilemma: Either hell is real and and the majority of all people are trapped there forever, or all enjoy God, the good creation, no more shame, justice is served, all wrongs are made right, etc. (under a type of universalism)
I’d suggest reading this page and seeing this section where he compares the two. It’s clearly a false dilemma because hell could be real and yet that would still include all of the particulars of his 2nd option.
6. Chapter 7 is basically founded and predicated upon a complete misuse and poor biblical exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son. Anyone who has studied how to study parables will know that they are not meant to be literal stories but are rabbinical conventions used to prove one or two clear points. Parables usually involve extreme hyperbole in order to make these points.
So what did Bell do wrong? Well, he interprets this story as a picture of the afterlife. Since both sons are home with the father during the celebration, as Bell argues, it indicates that both those who love God and those who reject God will be at the “father’s house.”
I think a clear-headed look at this parable makes it understood that this parable is not about that at all. The point is that the father loves the wayward son unconditionally. Even to the point that it seems unfair to the other son. Anything beyond this is in danger of going beyond the means of the parable’s usage and teaching.
One other note of biblical importance: context. Look at the context of this parable (Luke 15). Just before this parable is the story of the woman who finds her lost coin. Why does Jesus tell this story? Because the religious leaders are complaining that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” The issue – within context – is about Jesus loving sinners too much! Thus, the parable is teaching that God will accept the vilest of sinners. In the parable of the prodigal son, the son who thinks that the father was unfair is being compared with the religious leaders who think that God’s unconditional love is disgusting! The “father’s house” is not heaven – but Israel.
7. On pg. 182 Bell says, “We do not need to be rescued from God.” Bell is trying to clear up what he thinks is a misconception. Is it?
Let’s see what the Bible has to say: 1 Thess. 1:10 says, “…and to wait for His Son from Heaven (whom He raised from the dead), Jesus, who delivered us from the wrath to come. “
Romans 2:8-9 says, “But to those who even disobey the truth out of self-interest, but obey unrighteousness, it will be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man who has worked out evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Greek.”
Romans 5:9 says, “Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”
Those are three of many verses which clearly identify that Christ’s death relieves us from having to face God’s wrath! Thus, Jesus does need to rescue us from God.
8. My last point of contention. On pg. 182 he says, “Your deepest, darkest sin(s)…are simply irrelevant when it comes to…the gospel… So are your goodness, your rightness…”
Now I understand that he may simply mean that your sins or goodness isn’t what determines whether you are forgiven. But to say that they are irrelevant and not qualify what he means is very dangerous. Jesus clearly taught that there are different levels of punishment and different levels of rewards in heaven (Matt. 23:14, James 3:1, Matt. 16:27 and Rev 20:10).
So I would agree that God’s grace overrides the gravity of our sins, but our sins and goodness still have a relevance to the gospel. The Bible repeatedly says that God will judge according to our deeds and works – whether good or bad, although the entrance into either God’s presence or separation is dictated by what we did in regards to God’s grace and forgiveness.
Finally – The End!
I wouldn’t really recommend this book to anyone other than those who want to see for themselves what the fuss about this book is all about. To that person, I would suggest making sure you check out his scripture references and make sure the context is taken into account (many times it isn’t) and also take note of the points made above.
The book is an interesting dialogue for one to see the struggle and wrestling of Bell’s thoughts on the subject, but it’s not by any means a substantiative and scholarly approach to the issue. So to those who read it, treat it as a view of his own struggle with the issue – but not as an expert explanation of the issue.