Yesterday I looked at what Bell has to say about Hell. Today I look at his hope for the salvation of all humanity.
I suppose that there are few people today who have not at one time or another questioned the teachings of the Bible and the church when it comes to the topic of salvation. Who has not wondered or asked about those who have not ever been exposed to the Christian faith and then die? What happens to them? Indeed, even some of the Apostle Paul’s earliest converts asked similar questions. Some in the Thessalonian church had died before the return of Jesus and the survivors wondered if this meant that they had missed the resurrection (1 Thess 4). Paul writes to comfort them and let them know that death cannot get in the way of God’s plan for salvation. In “Love Wins,” Bell tries to layout a case that nothing can get in the way of God’s plan of salvation.
A number of people have accused Bell of being a Universalist. This is not a fair charge since nowhere in the book does Bell spell this out. Those who charge Bell with being a Universalist need to read his book more carefully and do so with a theological primer lying next to them. Bell is an Inclusivist, not a Universalist. The differences are subtle, but important. A true Universalist, to be cliché, believes that all roads lead to God and accepts that all religions as valid. Inclusivism, however, holds that the work of Christ is the only means of salvation. But an Inclusivist allows that direct knowledge of Christ may not be required. It requires some sort of faith response to God that God in turn accepts.
Now, in fairness to Bell, he also does not label himself explicitly as an inclusivist and I am not sure that he fits a textbook description of one, if such a definition exists. In reality, I think what Bell has expressed in the book is a hope that all people will be saved. I am not sure from what he says, however, that he is completely convinced that this will happen. Thus, I think he has an inclusivist hope, which I don’t think is in and of itself heterodox. After all, is not the nature of hope our desiring and longing after something that may or may not happen?
Bell’s “inclusivist hopes” are based on his conviction the God’s love will eventually win over all. He supports his contention by appealing to New Testament passages (Matt 19; Acts 3; Col 1) that express “that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.” He also mentions that such a hope is found in church history when he indicates that such luminaries as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Basil and Augustine either believed in the reconciliation of all people or was aware that this was the belief among some (107-108). Like many others throughout church history he wonders how a loving God can send people away forever. His suggestion is that God does not and that this is a choice by the individual. God loves humans so much that he will give them exactly what they want. And if that is separation, then they will receive it (p. 116). Whether that separation is hell or not, he never really says.
Again, I like the question but not the answer or at least the way he arrives there. For instance, Bell uses Revelation 21:25 in which the New Jerusalem is described as a place where the gates are never shut. Bell concludes that this image suggests that people are free to come and go. The gates don’t keep people in or shut people out (p. 115). But this overlooks the end of chapter 20 (not to mention the rest of Revelation) where there seems to be a clear dividing line between who is in and who is not. Even more explicit is Revelation 22:14-15 that identifies who is in and who is out.
Later in the book Bell’s inclusivist hope is the clearest when he challenges the notion of narrow exclusivity. He references Jesus’ words in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Bell affirms this, but he also notes what Jesus doe not say. That is, Jesus does detail the “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” (154). Lest anyone wonder what my biggest problem is with Bell’s reading here, let me again quote Barth, “exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!”
While Bell does open the door to allowing anyone from any religion into heaven, at the same time he challenges those who would say it doesn’t matter what you believe (p. 155). He states that what you believe does matter, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation. But he doesn’t say how that is worked our practically. He allows for different ways that people talk about “Jesus” and identify “Jesus” even if they don’t necessarily mean the Jesus of Christianity. He points out that there are those among us who reflect the life and teachings of Jesus better than those who claim to be followers of Jesus (p. 159). And that we need to be careful about making decisive judgments about people’s eternal salvation.
I get what Bell is saying and identify with with him on many levels. But he is certainly not saying it clearly. Many of us have struggled with the idea that loved ones are in “hell” or “eternally lost.” We have a hard time reconciling a loving God who punishes eternally for a short life of sin and missteps. And we all wonder about the person who has never heard of Jesus. I am not willing to comment on the possible eternal destiny of anyone. I am more than open to the possibility that God will save those who have never heard the message. In fact, I am hopeful. I just wish that Bell would do the hard work and answer the questions based on that work.
Tomorrow I will wrap this series up with some concluding thoughts.