It was AW Tozer who said ‘What comes into a person’s mind when they think about God is the most important thing about them.’ Nowhere is that statement more obviously true than in chapter 4 of Bell’s book ‘Love wins’. It is in this chapter that he is at his most controversial and it is his doctrine of God that enables him to consider the possibility that perhaps in the end all will be saved.
What comes into Bell’s mind when he thinks about God is that ‘God is love.’ For Bell that is God’s essential attribute and it shapes the discussion of the chapter.
There is no talk in the chapter for example of God’s holiness and Bell’s decision to single out one attribute to which all others must eventually give way (why else the title of the book) leads to his tentative conclusions that for God to be God almost requires the final salvation of all.
Does God define himself as love above all else?
The book of 1 John is so instructive for us on this matter for in it we find two statements from John about God’s very nature. God is love John tells us in chapter 4 but God is light we are reminded in chapter 1. God in the scripture reveals himself as a God of love but not a God of love only, also a God of holiness. God’s punishment of sin is an outworking of his holiness. If God’s holiness must give way to his love we find ourselves ever-closer to the position of Bell. The problem for Bell is that Jesus never does this and neither do the New Testament authors.
So what happens when one attribute of God is singled out in this way?
Well with his doctrine of God clear in his mind Bell turns to his doctrine of salvation.
Bell does not give us a lot of Bible in this chapter but he does choose to quote Paul and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
Given God is love and given what therefore God wants ‘will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?’
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?
And Bell is absolutely right to recognise that the God of the Bible does get what he wants. We are reminded time and again in scripture that God’s plans and purposes are unstoppable.
In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.
This God doesn’t give up. Ever.
What has the church taught?
So if we only get this life to choose heaven and hell in this life by the response we make to God. If it really is ‘One or the other, forever.’ Then Bell logically concludes ‘God in the end doesn’t get what God wants’
No wonder Bell leaves the door open to what is sometimes called post-mortem salvation. The idead that after death given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state?
Now Bell realises that this will sound heretical to many ears especially coming from a bible-believing evangelical. So it is important for him to establish that his view has a history. It has no such pedigree amongst evangelicals and his abuse of a Martin Luther text in his book to suggest it does is something that has been highlighted by a number of critics notably Carl Trueman. One can only hope that for the sake of integirity it is removed from any future editions.
So with no history of evangelicals adopting such a view Bell turns to the ancient church fathers
Beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who bleive that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.
Bell cites Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysaa and Eusebius in support of his views. It was certainly the case that a number of the fathers held that punishment in hell that was restorative.
Here is an extract from one scholar on the view of the early church on the doctrine of universal salvation:
Early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation.
What brings God glory?
But we find ourselves returning again to the major note of Bell’s book. If God is love then everlasting punishment cannot bring God glory.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.
God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts
If Bell is right on this point then one has to ask could it bring glory to God for Satan to be in hell. If eternal torment does not bring glory to God then how can the torment of angels, created by God as good creatures, bring God glory? Surely Satan given enough time will choose life and does not God’s own glory demand it.
Of course those of us who seek to affirm that God is love but God is also holy see God’s glory made manifest in the salvation of some but also the condemnation of others. Paul in Romans chapter 9 writes:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.
For Paul God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect justice as an expression of his holiness in the punishment of sinners. God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect love in the salvation of sinners. Both reveal God’s glory. One should not be set over the other. Heaven and hell together manifest God’s glory, wisdom and power.
What then do you have to believe to be a Christian?
For Bell ‘you don’t have to believe it [eternal hell] to be a Christian.’ Clearly he regards it as no heresy to believe in a hell in which punishment is finally restorative and he may be right. And if heresy is understood as a denial of the gospel on a par with a rejection of the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection or the trinity he I guess has a point.
But it’s crucial to remember that Bell is asking for a lot more than that. He is asking for this minority view to have an equal place at the table. To be considered a valid option alongside traditional interpretations despite the weight of Biblical evidence against him.
To shun, sensor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
But the tone of the book goes even further. Surely Bell, in presenting his own views in the way he does is not actually arguing that his view is one of a number of valid options but really the only view that presents a true picture of the God of the Bible and the view that alone brings glory to God!
God’s love means human freedom to choose heaven or hell
So will hell eventually be empty? Bell certainly is hopeful but he is not dogmatic. In a sense neither he nor God can decide. For it is the choice of every individual, even in hell, to choose.
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.
We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides the possibility.
So is Bell a Universalist?
If God is love but human beings have a real freedom then it’s a question he can’t answer. It’s a question no-one can answer.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? 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.
If Bell is not a universalist he should be
The more I’ve reflected on this chapter of the book the more I think that Bell ducks the question in his conclusion and the more unsatisfying I find his final position..
1) Bell has maintained that God wills the salvation of all and he rightly asks can God’s will fail. Surely his will cannot fail.
2) Bell has maintained that the torment of souls in hell cannot bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t
3) Bell believes in the sovereignty of God. Surely such a God knows the end from the beginning. Surely Bell believes, therefore, that God would only make a world in which his will could be finally done.
4) Bell, wisely, is unwilling to be counted as a dogmatic universalist. He cannot find definitive proof in the Scriptures for universal salvation nor can he work out how God will ensure his will is brought to pass. But his doctrine of God should make him an optimistic universalist.
How God’s will will be done he does not know that his will will be done he should be ready to affirm.
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