In the end, I return to where I began. I am glad that someone of Bell’s stature and impressive communication skills is taking the opportunity to broach these important questions. I am sure that many, many people think about these topics and ask these questions, at least quietly, on a daily basis.
I think that Bell has tapped into some ideas here that should be explored. How do we understand the nature of God’s plan for salvation/restoration of creation? What about those who never hear about Jesus? Are they, can they be saved? Or what about those whose only encounter with Jesus has been the abusive, power leveraging Jesus that shows up in so many of our churches? If people meet and reject the wrong Jesus, can they still be saved if they never find the real Jesus? I realize that there are a lot of assumptions to unpack in these questions. But that is where one begins, by asking questions.
What about what I call Bell’s inclusivist hope? I think there is some tension here for all of us. I am fairly convinced that the Bible is exclusive and not inclusive. But that does not mean I am not open to asking the questions. Is it possible that all of creation will be saved/restored? Of course it is possible. The belief in God as creator and sustainer of all things demands that I at least acknowledge it is possible. We do ourselves no favors when we create theological categories and definitions and then declare that God does and must act that way. I can almost hear a heavenly laugh when such arrogance is on display. The witness of the Bible, however, is of exclusivity. Consequently, I live in a tension with what the authors of the Bible say and what I hope will happen. I don’t think that makes me a Universalist or Inclusivist (I hate labels anyway). What it does make me is someone who lives in hope that everyone will see their life restored and healed. I think Jesus too was one who expressed much hope for creation.
But I wish that Bell had been much more responsible with his use of scripture. There doesn’t seem to be much point in raising the questions if you aren’t going to do the work to support your answers. If he truly thinks that scripture is the place to begin to sort out these questions, then he should do so judiciously.
I think Bell would have done himself and his readers a better service if he had written three or four books on the subject. Talk about a biblical view of heaven and hell and then bridge the gap between how the ancients thought and how we should apply it, but do it with sound exegesis. Challenge us to rethink about the nature of salvation and the degree to which it is inclusive or exclusive. But do it by bringing out the complexity of the idea within scripture.
I suppose that my biggest complaint about this book is not everything that I have listed above. It is that Bell has done a more than rather poor job at probing and answering the questions and he has left himself open to countless, needless, charges. The result, I fear, will be that for several years now those who ask these questions will be seen through the “Love Wins” paradigm and will not have their questions answered. Worse yet, they will be excluded because they asked them. That would be a tragedy indeed. On the flipside, perhaps this will be the beginning of a serious, sober conversation about these topics that brings about new ways of thinking and living. I hope it is the latter.