With a subtitle that sounds like a bit of marketing hyperbole, Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has garnered extensive attention with his most recent book. He explains that the purpose of the book is to introduce the reader “to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity” (p. xi). As the title and subtitle make clear, this book purports to present Bell’s view of heaven, hell, and the destiny of humanity.
The book begins with a series of questions about the gospel and how the Bible describes it and the response that is required. Bell demonstrates that many of the responses Christians have given require something in addition to belief in order to be saved. The purpose of this chapter, however, appears not to emphasize that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but that the Bible and Christians throughout history are characterized by a great deal of diversity, perhaps even to the point of inconsistency and contradiction. By pitting biblical language against other biblical language and using it to frame provocative questions, Bell raises many unanswered questions. But he reminds his readers, “This isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to those questions” (p. 19). Yet the reader who expects to find clear, concise, unambiguous answers to those questions will be disappointed. Instead the responses Bell gives throughout the book are often unclear and uncertain, and sometimes seem to be contradictory.
In the chapter called “Here Is the New There,” Bell addresses the common understanding of heaven as a place “somewhere else,” a place characterized by “harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes” (p. 24). Bell’s call to view the work of redemption culminating in a new creation is helpful as is his reminder that eternal life, or heaven, has present and future effects. The hope found in the Scriptures is “a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth” (p. 40). Bell writes, “Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one” (p. 46). Echoing the Lord’s Prayer, he explains, “A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven” (pp. 46–47). However, he then addresses “the who of heaven,” and he warns “against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (p. 54). Of course avoiding rash judgments is good advice, but missing in this chapter is any clear statement that the hope of eternal life is limited to those who believe, the necessity of faith to experience the bliss of heaven. Although he does say that heaven is forever, he then defines “forever” not “as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category we find in the Bible. This is why a lot of translators choose to translate aion as ‘eternal.’ By this they don’t mean the literal passage of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether” (p. 58). However, numerous examples in the Bible could be cited where the progress of time seems to be implied by “forever” (e.g., Luke 1:33). Bell seems to have created a false dichotomy and one that is decidedly unhelpful. One does not have to reject the unending character of eternality to embrace its present implications and its qualitative nature.
In answer to the question, “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he responds in chapter 3, “Of course. . . . I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane” (p. 71). He continues, “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free” (p. 72). From the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) Bell concludes, “What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (p. 79). In short, “there is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p. 79). But then he raises questions about the possibility of “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85). Bell interprets Jesus’ warning to the towns of the Gentiles, “I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town!” (Matt. 10:15, NET), as meaning that there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah. He asserts that this “isn’t the only place we find this movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85). Later he writes, “No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever” (p. 86, italics his). Although he does not say so explicitly, the implication seems to be that in Bell’s view, hell is not forever for everyone who goes there. “Eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46) is “a period of pruning” or an “intense experience of correction” (p. 91). In other words hell is not eternal separation from God. His reading of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 10 is problematic. That judgment will be more severe for the townspeople who rejected Jesus than for Sodom and Gomorrah in no way implies that there is still hope for the inhabitants of those ancient cities. Bell does not state explicitly that those who died in Sodom and Gomorrah might still be saved, but he seems to imply that possibility.
The fourth chapter, “Does God Get What God Wants?” is perhaps the heart of this book. Bell frames the question from Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:4, “He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (NET). He claims that throughout church history, “there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a ‘renewal of all things,’ Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will ‘restore everything,’ and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ ‘God was pleased to . . . reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’ ” (p. 107). Yet no documentation is given, no primary sources are cited, no footnotes or endnotes appear, and no engagement with the history of interpretation of relevant texts is included. He merely makes strong assertions as if the claims are common knowledge. If they were, there would be little reason to write the book. Bell’s lack of biblical, historical, and theological argumentation here is inexcusable. Such a controversial position demands some support. He even goes so far as to assert that this view has not simply been found in church history but it is central, a claim that is demonstrably false: “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (p. 109). But then he seems to back off from this and to return to a less bold assertion: “Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (p. 111).
Bell allows for the possibility that people will continue to choose hell eternally. “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (p. 113). Thus he does not explicitly affirm or defend a universalist position. Because of human freedom, some people might continue to rebel against God. Yet Bell also entertains the possibility that hell will be emptied. Of the open gates in Revelation 21:25 Bell wonders if this means that people are free to come and go and maybe everyone eventually will be reconciled to God. “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” (p. 115). But he does not answer these questions. Instead, he writes, “Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (p. 115).
Bell addresses the question of the exclusivity of Christ when he observes that Jesus’ claim in John 14:6 makes “as wide and expansive claim as a person can make” (p. 155). He explains that “what Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (p. 155). Bell summarizes, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (p. 154). Again he stops short of affirming universalism but he does affirm an inclusivist position when he writes that the “door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” (p. 155). He concludes, “The last thing we should do is discourage or disregard an honest, authentic encounter with the living Christ. He is the rock and there is water for the thirsty there, wherever there is” (p. 158). “Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t” (p. 159).
In chapter 8 Bell tells his own story of conversion when, as a young child, he knelt beside his bed with his parents and “told God that I believed that I was a sinner and that Jesus came to save me and I wanted to be a Christian” (p. 193). This is a touching story of childlike faith, a “defining moment” of his life (p. 194). He explains the reason for that story: “I tell that story because I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it. Whatever words you find helpful for describing this act of trust, Jesus invites us to say yes to this love of God again and again and again” (p. 194).
As in his earlier books Bell writes with a provocative and questioning tone. He raises questions that resonate with his audience, as is evidenced by the popularity of his message. At times he writes clearly and carefully. Yet at other times he is unclear and even confusing. He sometimes makes bold assertions without engaging the diversity of interpretations. His use of history and theology is simplistic and unsophisticated, and his claims are undocumented. He makes clear statements which he then seems to contradict by the questions he raises and the positions he entertains. He does not explicitly defend views that are heretical, but he does not clearly deny them either. Pastors and Christian leaders would be advised to read this book for themselves in order to engage with those who have read it or have heard about it. And as always, criticism must be “truth [given] in love” (Eph. 4:15).
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