Rob Bell. Love Wins. A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011. 202 pages.
Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, raises and seeks to answer some tough questions about God’s intention and desire for all of his human creatures and earthly creation. As his title discloses, Bell proposes that because God desires all human beings to be saved, that this desire must in some way be realized. If it does not happen within history, then in some way it must happen beyond history, otherwise God is not the all-powerful, sovereign being that orthodox theology claims. The result is that theoretically all human beings eventually will participate in God’s restored earth.
On pages 102-111 he describes four perspectives that Christians have held through history about the destiny of unbelievers. Some believe we have one life in which to choose Jesus and if we do not, we spend eternity in hell. Or as Bell says, "God in the end doesn’t get what God wants" (103). But in Bell’s view God "doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever" (101). He speculates about a second perspective in which people who choose evil eventually extinguish the image of God within themselves and "given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state, one in which they were in essence ‘formerly human’ or ‘posthuman’ or even ‘ex-human’" (105-106). Bell does not give this perspective much attention. And then he mentions a third position that holds there are two destinations, but "insist(s) that there must be some kind of ‘second chance’ for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime" (106). And lastly, he mentions a view in which "there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words" (106-107). If there is enough time, surely everyone will "turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence" (107).1
Bell then cites biblical texts (e.g. Matthew 19; Acts 3; Colossians 1) which talk about God "renewing all things" or "restoring everything" or "reconciling all things." He follows this with reference to past theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius who affirmed the idea that "love wins." And then he reminds us that Jerome, Basil and Augustine noted that most or many people "believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God" (108). He concludes by asserting that "at the center (sic.) 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" (109). He insists that "serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways" (109). And also he asserts that "some [Gospel] stories are better than others" (110), particularly the one which is "everybody enjoys God’s good world" (111). Finally then he says that "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….To shun, censor, 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" (111).2
It seems then, from the title of his book and from the perspective he develops, Bell desires to be accepted as "orthodox," even though he believes and proclaims the story that says everybody will end up enjoying God’s good world. His brief comments on the last two chapters of Revelation (112-114) underscore his perspective when he asks "How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them – all of it theirs if they would simply leave behind the old ways and receive the new life of the new city in the new world?" He affirms that people do make that choice. But then he observes that the gates of the city in the new world are "never shut" and interprets this to mean that "if the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go" (115). "Keeping the gates open" for him seems to be a metaphor for God’s openness to reconciliation. Bell wants to keep the options open, i.e. "leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities" (116). We cannot be dogmatic on these issues according to Bell because "no one has been to and then returned with hard, empirical evidence" (116), although here he may be overlooking the unique situation of Jesus, the only one who has seen the Father, as John says, and can "declare him" (John 1:18) and the only one who has experienced resurrection from the dead.
Similarly with respect to the spiritual destiny of those involved in other religions Bell interprets John 14:6 as Jesus’ declaration 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" (155). Apart from his lack of clarity as to what this means and how this spiritual inclusivity works, Bell wants to interpret Jesus and his teaching in some rather unusual ways. While affirming baptism and communion (or eucharist), he says that these rituals are true for us, because they are true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody. These are signs, glimpses, and tastes of what is true for all people in all places at all times – we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven (157).
Again, I find Bell’s communication here rather opaque. How are these things true for "all people in all places at all times" if there is no conscious understanding of, acceptance of and participation in the very truth they represent? In what ways has the Gospel been announced to every creature under heaven such that they are now participating in the things expressed by baptism and communion? Sure "people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways" (158), but do they do this without knowing him personally, or without knowing his name (159)?
Bell’s last major chapter is entitled "The Good News is Better Than That." Building his ideas from the Parable of the Two Sons in Luke 15, he excoriates a "goat gospel" which describes God as "a cruel mean, vicious tormentor" (174), comparing him to an abusive parent. According to Bell this Gospel means that the God who consigns sinners to hell becomes "somebody totally different the moment you die" (174). Rather Bell argues for a Gospel that tells us that God in his very essence is love. "God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone" (177). It is our refusal of God’s love "which creates what we call hell" (177). He argues that "Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the center (sic) of the universe" (178), which is not the same, according to Bell, as "getting into heaven." So according to Bell "Life has never been about just ‘getting in.’ It’s about thriving in God’s good world" (179). For Bell God’s "forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – God has already done it" (189). This is true, but the Gospel also talks about our need for repentance and the appropriation of God’s gift of forgiveness. God has done what only God can do; but as Jesus says, we do need to "repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). Is it true as Bell says that "everyone is already at the party,.." (190)? Is this what Jesus meant in Luke 15?
In my opinion, Bell’s exegesis of key biblical texts fails to convince, his interpretation of terms (e.g. the word "age") incomplete, and his use of biblical data to support his viewpoint very selective.
First, let’s consider some texts that he interprets in support of his thesis that "love wins." Bell builds several of his chapters around the interpretation of stories about Jesus’ interactions with people or parables that he relates. In his second chapter "Here is the New There" Bell focuses upon the question of the rich man in Matthew 19:16 "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" (26). Bell notes that Jesus, only in Matthew’s account, responds by saying "if you want to enter life,3 keep the commandments." He notes that in this interchange important words such as "eternal life," "treasure," "heaven" were used, but they "weren’t used in the ways that many Christians use them" (29). We might say, of course not! Jesus was talking to a Jewish person somewhere in Galilee in the early first century before his death and resurrection. We have to understand these words first in that setting before we discern how the Gospel writer, composing his account of Jesus’ ministry, understood them from within a post-resurrection, Christian framework, while remaining true to the essence of Jesus’ message. This approach does not mean that the Christian framework distorts Jesus’ teaching, but it does mean that we have to negotiate carefully the meaning of Jesus’ language in its pre- and post-resurrection setting. Further, Bell ignores that Jesus’ response to the rich man ultimately is "follow me" (19:21; Mark 10:21; Lk. 18:22). The man’s "treasure in heaven" would be not due only to his obedience to the Ten Commandments, but rather primarily to his acceptance of Jesus as authoritative teacher and his willingness to obey him. The specific things Jesus asks him to do are not the most important point, but rather it is Jesus’ insistence that he recognize who he is and follow him. Jesus has not, as Bell proposes, blown "a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity" (29). Jesus in fact is expressing the good news if the rich man will hear it. Following Jesus, the only "Good One", i.e. God himself, is the key to "entering life," the kind of life that lasts eternally.
Another text that Bell refers to several times is the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. He affirms that Jesus taught the concept of hell, agreeing that human evil has to be defined in violent, over-the-top, hyperbolic language (73). He talks about "the surreal nature of the stories [Jesus] tells" (74). Now Bell urges his readers to understand the meaning of this story in terms of "whatever the meaning was for Jesus’ first listeners" (75). In the immediate context Jesus has criticized the Pharisees for justifying themselves before people, but ignoring the reality that God is one who "knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight" (Luke 16:15). According to Bell Jesus was warning the religious leaders about the serious consequences "for ignoring the Lazaruses outside their gates. To reject those Lazaruses was to reject God" (76). Bell concludes that this is a "brilliant, surreal, poignant, subversive loaded story" (76). True, but what does it mean? After several pages of comments Bell concludes that Jesus is affirming "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" (79). "There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously" (79).
Undoubtedly, Jesus emphasized the reality of human accountability and divine judgment, particularly in reference to the rejection of him and his mission. There would be a resurrection of one who would return to tell the tale, namely Jesus himself, but even so not all would respond in belief and submission. So behaviour in this life has consequences beyond the grave – this surely is a significant part of Jesus’ message to the religious leaders through this story. Did the rich man regard his human life as ‘hell’? We have no evidence in the story that this was the case. If any character in the story experienced human existence in this way, it was Lazarus, even though he had faith in God. These dimensions of the story are not reflected in Bell’s analysis, but they do contribute to our understanding of the relationship between human behaviour in this age and the nature of our existence in the life to come. The use of the expression "great chasm" (16:26) describes the inability of people in the age to come to move from one destination to another, i.e. from the place of agony and torture in Hades to "the side of Abraham" (16:22). In this story Jesus holds out no hope of changed destiny in the age to come. This perspective clashes with Bell’s more restricted reading that Jesus "talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love" (82). While such people may have considered themselves chosen, in fact their refusal to accept God’s covenant-reforming action represented in Jesus demonstrates that their father is the devil (John 8:44). Strong language but it indicates that even Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ view had no privileged status with God outside of a relationship with Jesus, even if they claimed to have Abraham as their father. In this regard Bell’s claim that "people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his [Jesus’] point" (82) is insufficient to describe Jesus’ concern. The only way such people could be transformed into "generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood" (83) is by responding to Jesus himself, not just carrying on in their normal religious practices.
Bell uses Jesus’ words about Sodom and Gomorrah to argue that "there is still hope" for these cities that experienced such devastating divine judgment. Jesus said that "it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you" (84). But is Jesus offering hope for those who died in the judgment described in Genesis 19? Is this what Ezekiel prophesied in Ezekiel 16 when he talked about the restoration of these cities?4 So here again we encounter the broader issues of hermeneutics. In Matthew 10 Jesus condemns the residents of Capernaum for refusing to acknowledge his Messianic status and mission. By rejecting him they are doing something more sinister than the sinful actions of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus used the classic device of irony to indicate that if they thought God’s judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was justified, as horrific as it was, this is nothing compared to God’s response to their rejection of his Messiah Jesus. Sodom and Gomorrah will experience God’s final judgment, but the people of Capernaum who reject the Messiah will experience it even more severely.
On page 87 Bell lists an impressive number of OT texts that speak of God’s promise to restore Israel. He interprets these to demonstrate that God’s goal is not judgment, but correction and reconciliation. What God does for Israel, he will do for all. Again, however, has Bell got it right? Such promises of restoration may be fulfilled in terms of the opportunity offered to Israel in the Messiah, both in his first and second comings. Paul seems to relate these kinds of promises to God’s actions as a result of the Messiah (Romans 11:25-32) and anticipates opportunity for Israel to respond and be forgiven at some future point before God concludes "this age." We have no warrant from these texts to consider these events happening in the "age to come."
Bell attempts to use Paul’s action of handing a person over to Satan for the purpose of spiritual recovery as another piece of evidence that in the end "love wins." How confident is Paul that when he orders churches to turn "over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature" (90, quoting 1 Corinthians 5:5, with reference to 1 Timothy 1:20) that good will result from this? In other words "Paul is convinced, that wrongdoers will become right doers" (91). We do have one case where that result occurs (at least this is how many commentators understand Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8). However, although Paul may have this intent in mind for all such cases, he cannot predict that in fact this will always be the outcome. If the Alexander of 1 Timothy 1:20 is the same Alexander mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:14, Paul indicates that God will hold him accountable for his opposition to the Gospel. Again the texts do not seem to bear the weight of Bell’s desired exegetical outcome.
In his seventh chapter entitled "The Good News is Better Than That" Bell derives some principles from his interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:12-32, one of the longest and most developed stories Jesus tells. Bell’s goal in this chapter is to establish a viable story of the Gospel. The point of this story, according to Bell, is that "people get what they don’t deserve" (168). Within this one story he identifies three different stories, one told by each brother and one by the father. The difference between the story the father tells and those recounted by the brothers is "the difference between heaven and hell" (169). Somehow "in this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other" (170). He claims that the older brother is "at the party" but refusing to participate. Because the older son refuses "to trust God’s retelling" of his story, he is experiencing hell (170). Bell concludes that the key message of the father figure in the story is that "we are all going to be fine. Of all of the conceptions of the divine, of all of the language Jesus could put on the lips of the God character in this story he tells, that’s what he has the father say" (172). However, as Bell himself says, the older brother refuses to accept the story his father is telling. We have no sense in the story that he changes his mind and as a result he does not participate in the party, even though it is happening within his father’s house.
How should we respond to such an interpretation of this parable? The insight that three different stories are being recounted in this parable is helpful. The father does function as the God character. But whom do the sons represent? The context of Luke 14-15 involves Jesus’ interactions with Jewish religious leaders, as he responds to their questions and criticisms. In particular Jesus has addressed the question of who will in fact "eat bread in the kingdom" and thus experience "the resurrection of the just." The religious leaders are critical of Jesus’ acceptance of tax-collectors and sinners into his Messianic movement (15:2-3). He tells the parable of the Great Banquet (14:15-24), concluding that "not one of those men invited will taste my banquet" (14:24). He makes it very personal. The nature of discipleship and its personal costs becomes the focus in 14:25-33, with concluding comments about the worthlessness of salt that no longer possesses the properties of salt (14:34-35). "It is thrown away!"
Then in Luke 15 the Pharisees articulate their complaint: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (15:2). Three parables follow, each focusing upon the fierce determination to find a lost coin, sheep and son and the great rejoicing that happens when the lost is found. So these three parables are a critique of the Pharisees’ evaluation of Jesus’ interaction with sinners and tax-collectors. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus compares the Pharisees and their attitude with that of the older son. They in fact become critics of God in criticizing Jesus, whose invitation is the expression of God’s love for lost people. Their refusal to accept Jesus and his mission means that they snub God and will not participate in the great Messianic banquet, despite their sense of self-assured chosen-ness. I do not think Bell builds his exegesis from Luke’s explicit gospel context.
Bell then moves into a more speculative question. He invites his readers to consider whether a Gospel that portrays God as on the one hand loving and inviting and on the other judging and tormenting is the true Gospel. He puts it this way: "Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?" (174). He claims that this kind of Gospel means that "many people, especially Christians…don’t love God" (174). Rather for Bell the Gospel story is that "God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone" (177). It is our refusal of God’s love that "moves us away from it…and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality" (177). Bell seems to be arguing that people create their own hell because of what they believe. The essence of the Gospel is God’s invitation into a relationship, not entrance into heaven. No one needs to be rescued from God because He is the rescuer (182).
While this speculation may be helpful, does it in fact relate to or derive from the story of the father and the two sons that Jesus has told? We noted that the primary issue Jesus addressed was the criticism by the Pharisees of his social interaction with sinners and tax-collectors, actions they deemed inconsistent with someone claiming to be Messiah. In the character of the father Jesus affirms God’s merciful inclusion of sinners and tax-collectors in his new kingdom action, if they repent and seek God by accepting Jesus’ claims. The oldest son, who represents the Jewish religious leaders, also receives the same invitation based upon the same terms. However, if they refuse the father’s invitation, it is unclear what their future situation will be, because Jesus did not address that in this parable, despite Bell’s speculation.
What generally did Jesus teach about those who refuse to accept God’s will in Jesus? The earlier story in Luke 14 about the person who hosts a banquet focuses upon the theme of invitation and rejection. Jesus stated clearly that "none of those men invited shall taste my banquet" (14:26). So we have an idea about the destiny of the older son, if he persists in rejecting the overtures of his father – he will have no place in the banquet. Now whether we hold the father responsible for this or the older son is perhaps a moot point. The father has set the rules for participating in the party and the older son has refused to accept them. God is rescuer, but he will not change the rules under which rescue is available. The older son could be rescued, but he refuses the invitation.
Secondly, Bell’s analysis of the meaning of specific terms leaves several questions unanswered. Bell argues that this term zōē aiōnios (translated as "eternal life" in the NIV) does not mean "eternal" in the sense of forever, but rather "life in the age to come" in contrast to the current age of space-time history. In Matthew 19 Jesus did not define what life in the age to come would be like or exactly where it would be. Bell argues that the normal Jewish perception of life in the age to come is a continuation of life as it is on the earth, but experienced under God’s righteous rule. This may be, but we read in some Second Temple Jewish documents other visions of what life in the age to come would entail. Some consider the messianic age to be an interim phase between this age and the age to come. Others portray the messianic age to be identified with the age to come. Although the means by which "this age" is destroyed and the transformation of the earth for the "age to come" occurs is not always discussed, a common expectation in Judaism was that it would be annihilation by fire.5 In other words there were various eschatological beliefs in Judaism during Jesus’ day. We cannot tell just from the phrase zōē aiōnios exactly what ideas the rich man held about this future period. Jesus goes on to add some clarification in the passage and elsewhere. We should not assume that Jesus merely adopted Jewish terminology or beliefs without modifying them. Jesus, for example, does not affirm explicitly where this future life will occur. Bell says that Jewish people in the first century "did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth" (40).
Bell insists that the rich man in Matthew 16 or Mark 10 "isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus" (30). Rather, he wants to be involved in God’s new day, the age to come. Now Bell is correct that the term "heaven" is not used for instance in Mark 10:19. However, as you read through Jesus’ comments and interactions with his disciples following his encounter with the rich man and his failure to respond positively, the disciples seem to understand the man’s concern in precisely those terms. They ask Jesus "who then can be saved" (Mark 10:25) if the rich can’t? Jesus assures them that in the "renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne….everyone who has left houses…for my sake…will inherit eternal life6" (vs.28-30). Note that Jesus used the same phrase as the rich man and refers by this to a future time when the Son of Man is victorious, and seems to understand this as "salvation." While this may not exactly be equivalent to our term heaven, it certainly points to a context very different from this current life and a context which usually is identified with the second coming of Jesus, after which all things are renewed.
Further there is the expression "unto the ages of the ages" used in the New Testament in 1 Peter 4:11 (cf. 1 Peter 5:11; 1 Timothy 1:17; Ephesians 3:21; perhaps Romans 16:27; Hebrews 13:21). Usually this expression occurs as a descriptor of God’s glory or power, emphasizing that these attributes are his possession "unto the ages of the ages." It would seem that this language, building upon the eternality of God’s existence, is expressing clearly the concept of eternity. It is not true that a concept of continuous existence, whether one calls this "eternity" or characterizes it as "eternal", is absent from the New Testament. Jesus promised in Matthew 25:31-46 that his followers will "inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world" (v.34) and this later is characterized as going away "into life eternal" (eis zōēn aiōnion). This is set in the context of end of the world, divine judgment. The use of the phrase "eternal life" in Matthew 25:46 should be understood in a way that is consistent with its occurrence in Matthew 18:16. If Jesus was at all consistent in his use of language, then "eternal life" in Matthew 18:16 cannot refer merely to transformed life in this era.
One strategy that Bell uses to avoid such conclusions is to argue that "Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now" (59). However, as I have sought to argue, Jesus did not do this, at least with respect to the expression zōē aiōnios.
So what was this "life" that Jesus promised this man if he responded and followed him? Bell is correct is saying that Jesus offered the man the possibility of "possessing" eternal life now and beginning to enjoy its blessings to some degree in this age, but fully in the age to come. However, even in John’s Gospel Jesus was not teaching a fully realized eschatology. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to enable us to experience life with God in the present. However, this cannot compare with what believers will yet experience, as Paul articulates in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.
Another phrase that Bell comments upon occurs in Matthew 25:46, usually translated as "eternal punishment" or "punishment without ending" (eis kolasin aiōnion) (91-92). Building upon his treatment of the term aiōnion Bell suggests that this refers to "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming," but does not stipulate something that is without end. However, if he argues this sense for its use in v.46, then he must also argue for a similar sense in v.41 where Jesus defines the destiny of "those on the left" of the Messiah’s throne as "the eternal fire (eis to pur to aiōnion) prepared for the devil and his angels." Is this fire similarly only for a period of time? Some consider Jesus’ comments here to reflect the sentiments in Daniel 12:2-3 (cf. John 5:29).
Bell asks whose version of the story, i.e. Gospel, we will believe and share, and he has asked the right question. However, his version of the Gospel story, I believe, unfortunately is deficient. I would rather seek to grasp and believe the whole of Jesus’ teaching and ground my life in that Gospel.
At the end of the day Bell wants to keep the word ‘hell’ but primarily to refer "to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way" (93). It is an eschatologically realized hell, not one that threatens a person with a destiny in the age to come that is truly horrific and to be avoided at all costs because of sinful rejection of Jesus in this earthly, human context.
The third issue where Bell’s perspective is deficient, in my view, occurs in his selective use of biblical data to support his position. He admits that he has not written a biblical or systematic theological treatment of these issues. However, to raise so many serious and challenging questions, but then not to attempt seriously to respond to them using the whole of the biblical resources available borders on the irresponsible. For example, I do not believe I once read about the concept of God’s righteousness, i.e. his faithful adherence to his covenant arrangements, in his book. Yet, as we know from key Old Testament texts such as Exodus 34:7-7, God in these covenant arrangements defines his response to those who are obedient adherents and those who act wickedly. The guilty he will not hold guiltless. Jesus in his teaching constantly warns Jews that refusal to accept him and his teaching will bring divine judgment, not only in this age but also in the age to come. What did Jesus mean when he said that "the Son of Man would be ashamed" of those who in this age are ashamed of him, "whenever he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38). Shame surely carries connotations of judgment and lack of acceptance. In John’s Gospel (3:18) the writer affirms that "the person who has not put faith in the name of the only begotten Son of God" already (ēdē) stands condemned or judged. Jesus’ words will be used to judge those who set aside his teachings (John 12:47-50), because his words are zōē aiōnios (eternal life). Jesus provides no suggestion that the judgment that will come will be limited or overturned in the age to come.
Bell on page 107 describes a church tradition that "God will ultimately restore everything and everybody" and he used texts such as Matthew 19:28 ("the renewal of all things"), Acts 3:21 ("the time for the restoring of all things") and Colossians 1:20 ("reconcile all things to himself") to support this contention. Bell then concludes that "restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t" (108). Those are dogmatic assertions. But are they true and is this the conclusion that Jesus, Peter and Paul wanted Christian disciples to reach based upon these expressions? For example, Jesus achieved glory by triumphing over Satan through the cross and resurrection, preparing for his ultimate judgment (Revelation 19-20). Throughout the Old Testament God’s glory emerges through the destruction of his enemies (cf. Exodus 15). While we may struggle to accept that idea today, it is embedded deeply in Scripture. When human beings identify themselves with Satan’s kingdom, they also become the focus of God’s powerful judgment. As Peter notes (1 Peter 3:10-11; 5:5-7) God resists the proud and his face is against those who do evil. He judges the living and the dead. Restoration and reconciliation are God’s desire, but the New Testament is consistent in its message that human participation in these divine movements are dependent upon our repentance of sin and acceptance of Jesus as Son of God and Saviour.
In the end "God wins," but God is not only characterized as love, but as truth, justice, and light. One of his names is "Jealous" and he will not tolerate sinful opposition. God’s desire is that all of humanity might be rescued, but this desire does not negate his commitment to justice, as Paul indicates clearly in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-8. Unless Bell excises such texts from the canon, we have to consider that God’s justice is not contrary to his love, as if he is a schizophrenic deity. Rather the perfection of God enables him to integrate his love and justice with complete integrity. Although Bell understands sin to be a terrible thing, in the end I do not think he is willing to perceive sin as God perceives it and thus does not consider that a human, sinful life deserves eternal punishment according to God’s standard of justice. Further the logic of his preferred position on these matters requires him to also abandon the concept of security in God’s promises. If evil people at some point in the age to come may be wooed by the wonder of God’s love into the heavenly city, then it must also be possible for those present in the heavenly city also to rebel against that love and find themselves in hell, just as Satan rebelled and was cast out of heaven. In the end then it is God who does win, but he wins in ways totally consistent with his justice, truth, love, and power.
Larry Perkins, Ph.D.
Professor in Biblical Studies
Northwest Baptist Seminary
April 19, 2011
- 1Bell does not consider the question of whether evil spirits and even Satan himself might eventually be rehabilitated.
- 2Concepts such as purgatory, saying mass for the dead, etc. are some of the ways that these ideas gain expression in some segments of contemporary Christianity.
- 3It is interesting that Bell on pages 180-182 will argue that the Gospel is not about entering, but participating, seeming to forget what Jesus has said here about “entering life.”
- 4In the case of Ezekiel’s prophecy (16:53-58) the point seems to be the humiliation of Jerusalem for its sinful condition. Yahweh “restores the fortunes of Sodom…and the fortunes of Samaria” (53) “in order that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done" (54). There is no hint that this restoration of Sodom or Samaria will occur in the age to come or represents their positive response to God’s kindness.
- 5E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Volume II, revised and edited by G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Black (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1979), 536-539.
- 6Mark’s Gospel says “in the coming age eternal life.”