Part 1 appears here.
Stepping down from the pulpit, the author bends over backwards to join the gallery of those who have been burned by the church. “Lots of people” with questions are just told “‘We don’t discuss those things here.’” What follows are lots of questions—actually rhetorical questions: implied answers disguised as questions. In fact, it’s more like cross-examination (“Where were you on the night of October 33rd?”) than wondering out loud. Good questioning leads you to evaluate the options. In this book, though, I get the impression that the questions—many of them caricatures—are more of a quick-and-easy way of dismissing rival views.
At the heart of these nearly rhetorical questions there seems to be a cluster of a priori dogmas. That is, a set of assumptions he already has decided determine the possible results in advance of examining the passages. Though Bell might not agree with my interpretation, I think these central dogmas can be summarized in the following syllogisms:
God: God’s attributes are reducible to love; Love requires the best outcome for the greatest number of people. Therefore, God’s nature requires universal salvation.
Examples of this argument abound: Will only some be saved, and the rest damned? “Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” (2) Yet the author alternates between contradictory assumptions: on one hand, an Arminian view of God’s universal saving intention, dependent for its realization on human choice, and on the other hand, a quasi-Calvinist emphasis on God’s grace winning out over human sin and unbelief. “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” (98). Of course, this is the question that Calvinists ask their Arminian friends. But Bell wants to have his cake and eat it too: “Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself” (103-4).
Us: Human beings are basically good, but some of us especially do terrible things and these acts combine to create terrible systematic injustices and evils in the world. We have autonomous free will and can either choose to make the world (and ourselves) better (heaven-like) or worse (hell-like). Therefore, with enough time, people will change.
Gospel: And how are the few saved in the traditional view? “Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family, or country? Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to the kids’? God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that? And whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed—and everybody else isn’t—why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that is ‘in’?” (3). Perhaps because most advocates for the gospel are themselves adherents? Just another “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” kind of question that promises more than it delivers. Bell relates overhearing a conversation in which some Christians were lamenting the fact that someone had died as an atheist to the end, without hope. “Is this is the sacred calling of Christians—to announce that there’s no hope?” (4). Again, dimiss views by caricaturing them—this seems to be Bell’s policy in this book. It may well be that someone in that number had been proclaiming the hope of the gospel to the dying man every day until the end.
For Bell, the nearly ubiquitous call to “live the gospel” is apparent. More than the unique redeemer of the world, Jesus becomes an instrument of God’s work of rebuilding society that we are called to complete. “God is doing a new work through Jesus, calling all people to human solidarity. Everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism. To reject this new social order was to reject Jesus, the very movement of God in flesh and blood” (75-6). So just as heaven is subjectivized as a state of social peace and justice, hell is an existential condition. Concerning the parable of rich man and Lazarus, Bell explains with regard to the rich man, “He’s dead, but he hasn’t died. He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (77). The chasm separating them is “a widening gap between the rich and the poor” (78). True: Some focus on systemic evils, others on individual sins (78). “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79). After this, though, there is no word about “hell later,” except to say that it doesn’t exist, at least as a place of everlasting judgment.
The author buries us in a barrage of questions, and asks them in such a way as to give the impression that (a) the answer he rejects is traditionally held or stated by most Christians and (b) there is no way to reach a conclusion other than his own given these options. There are so many worrying questions about whether salvation depends on the age of accountability, saying a prayer or having an emotional experience (5-6). “What about people who have never said the prayer and don’t claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?” (6). Again, his assumption seems to be that we are saved by our works, as if a “more Christlike life” trumps faith in Christ.
But then there’s the question of whether the gospel is something that has to be announced, as Romans 10 teaches. “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us—what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hands? Which raises another question: Is someone else’s eternity resting in your hands?” (9).
Nowhere does Bell entertain the possibility that God has chosen not only whom he will save but the means and that he will ensure that everyone he intends to save will in fact hear the gospel through messengers. That kind of God cannot exist, because it would violate his a priori assumptions about who God is in the first place.
Even if some say that we aren’t saved by works, “Accepting, confessing, believing—those are things we do. Does that mean, then, that heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace?” (11). Bell does not entertain the reply that faith itself is a gift of God and therefore of grace alone (Eph 2:8-9).
Then Bell turns to examples in the Gospels. The implication is that even Jesus is somewhat confusing in laying out the conditions of salvation. There is the Roman centurion to whom Jesus said in Luke 7, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (12). “Then in Luke 18,” the Pharisee and the tax-collector says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “And then in Luke 23, the man hanging on the cross next to Jesus says to him, ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ and Jesus assures him that they’ll be together in paradise” (12). “So is it what you say that saves you? But then in John 3 Jesus tells a man named Nicodemus that if he wants to see the ‘kingdom of God’ he must be ‘born again.’ And in Luke 20, when Jesus is asked about the afterlife, he refers in his response to ‘those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come.’ So is it about being born again or being considered worthy? Is it what you say or what you are that saves you?” Then in Matthew 6 it seems to be contingent on forgiving others (13). In Matthew 7 and 10, Jesus teaches that we must do the will of his Father and stand firm to the end to be saved. “Which is it? Is it what we say, or what we are, or who we forgive, or whether we do the will of God, or if we ‘stand firm’ or not?”
“Which of course raises the question: Is that the best God can do? Which leads to a far more disturbing question. So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things?” A gospel about going “somewhere else” instead of making a difference here (6).
“Then which Jesus?” He quotes a writer who was raped by her father while he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing hymns. “That Jesus?”, Bell asks (7). The Jesus of a group of Christians who rounded up Muslims and shot them? “Some Jesuses should be rejected” (9). Of course. I don’t know any Christian who would disagree with that ostensibly radical conclusion.
The drive-by citations continue, as Bell multiplies the list of conditions (or questions). “But this isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19). Actually, in every series of questions there are already implied answers. He’s not working inductively (from questions to particular passages to a conclusion), but deductively (from central a priori conclusions to passages that somehow have to fit with his system).
Of course, we all interpret the parts (specific passages) in the light of the whole (what we believe to be consistent with the rest of the Bible’s teaching). However, theology has to be attentive to the biblical text, corrected by it. You know you’re not just talking to yourself when you meet up with passages that confuse you, frustrate you, that you can’t fit into your system. Ironically, Bell seems to think that this is the sin that others commit, but there is remarkably little—indeed, no—wrestling with any passage that might prove challenging to his thesis. And most inclusivists I know would say that there are passages like that for them. These central dogmas make it impossible not to agree with Bell’s conclusions—unless you have a problem with the dogmas. And I do.
Part 3 appears here.