Love Wins — Through the Word
At its heart, Love Wins is a book about two Christian stories. As Bell says, Christians have been telling these stories for a long time (109). But Bell likes one story better than the other, and he works to convince readers that his favorite story is the better one.
According to Bell, the story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out because of a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people for not doing or saying or believing the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story (110).
In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. Bell believes that it is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes (111; emphasis mine).
The italicized portion of Bell’s “good” story emphasizes the fact that Bell does not think that he is giving readers competing fairy tales. (Who’d blog about that?) On the contrary, Bell believes he is giving us competing descriptions of reality, competing versions of the Truth. And he believes that his version gets us closer to the Truth than the stories that are currently dominant in Christianity. His love for those who have been turned off by stories that “even Jesus himself isn’t interested in telling” has compelled him to reclaim the plot from the hijackers (vii-viii).
So, Bell tells us in advance that he wants to wield his power over others (in the cause of love). That is to say, he wants to be the one to control the plot after wresting it from the “hijackers.” And he wants to be the one who gets to tell the story everyone listens to. (Why else would he write a book?)
Bell’s Basic Argument
Bell’s basic argument emerges in chapters 4-7. From the previous chapters, we already know where Bell stands on the question, “Will billions of people spend an eternity in hell?” But given that Scripture still seems to function as an authority for Bell (he quotes it liberally), and given that Christians throughout time have answered “yes” to this and similar questions on the basis of their reading of Scripture, Bell needs to show from the Bible how that answer could possibly be “no.”
He begins with the assumption (non-controversial among Christians) that God is mighty, powerful, loving, unchanging, sovereign, full of grace and mercy, and all knowing. This is the God who created the world and everything in it and the God for whom all things are possible (96-7).
If this is an accurate description of God, as Bell believes it is, it raises a pressing question. Bell identifies it for us:
I point out these parallel claims:
that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control”
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from
this God, who is their creator,
even though it’s written in the Bible that
“God wants all people to be saved and to come to a
knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2).
So does God get what God wants?
Put simply, Bell asks: “If God is so powerful, and this God wants all people to be saved, won’t all be saved?” The logic is inescapable. Either God gets what he wants or he doesn’t. But if he doesn’t get what he wants, then he is not the God Christians worship. So which is it? This passage from 1 Tim. 2 is the only passage Bell really needs to raise a significant problem for those who have been “hijacked” by the other story.
But if Bell is right, where does hell fit into his story? If it is true that the powerful, in-control God wants all people to be saved, how does Bell get around the possibility of eternal damnation that the Bible seems to raise—the threat that Bell hasn’t been able to completely erase in spite of his efforts in chapter 3? How does he reconcile the teaching that God wants all men to be saved (and so God will get his way) with the teaching of hell and damnation?
Bell provides the answer, and it is almost inevitable, given how he has been arguing: if people suffer hell, whether in this life or in the life to come (Bell rightfully points out in chapter 3 that there is more than one way to define hell), it is due to their own free choice. In Bell’s story, free choice is a major theme. Here is one example that echoes many others:
If we want hell,
If we want heaven,
they are ours.
That’s how love works. It can’t be forced manipulated, or
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins. (118-19)
That a person must be free to choose his/her destiny is so obvious to Bell that he doesn’t feel the need to quote the Bible in support. It is so encompassing that there is no talk of faith or the work of the Holy Spirit in Love Wins. It also seems just as obvious to Bell that if God is going to get what he wants, but if people in this life are going to persist in choosing hell for themselves, that choice will continue in the life hereafter (thus his understanding of the story of Lazarus [76-77]).
The key point, however, is Bell’s belief that even beyond this life God’s love will finally win out. Bell writes: “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” (107).
What are we to make of Bell’s basic argument? What are we to say to people who will wonder about passages such as 1 Tim. 2 and ask just that question: “Will God get what God wants, or will God fail?” Who won’t see the dilemma? If God doesn’t get what he wants, he is not really God. But if he gets what he wants, no one has to REALLY worry about hell for an eternity.”
Well, there are a number of things we can say.
First, as Luther reminded us, whenever there is a claim made for free will, that immediately confuses Law and Gospel and turns the Gospel into a human project. What Bell says, in effect, is: “If you want to escape hell, ‘all’ you need to do is exercise your freedom correctly. Make the right choice and eternal life is yours.” The way to God becomes a matter of taking the right fork in the road. At that point the “mighty” God is no longer “in control.” i.e., hell is your own fault, not God’s.
Second, if we are that free (and Bell insists we are) the Gospel of Jesus and the need for preaching Jesus is undercut. Indeed, chapter 4 of Love Wins implicitly undercuts his chapter 5, “Dying To Live,” Bell’s sometimes insightful description of what Jesus did on the cross. Readers will question how the system as Bell explains it in chapter 4 is related to the work of Christ he describes in chapter 5.
The best that Bell can offer is near the end of chapter 5: “When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’s living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires” (136). And also: “[the cross is] a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be a part of a new creation” (137).
It’s hard to know what that means.
By the end of chapter 5, readers will ask, “do we REALLY need Jesus?” The implicit answer is made explicit in chapter 6: Not really. Here Bell argues that “Jesus” can be found in many religions and cultures, that he is bigger than any one religion (150). As Bell talks his way through this chapter, Jesus becomes less a concrete historical person and a more abstract, all pervasive principal. (Though I doubt Bell would recognize this). Finally, he writes: “Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name ‘Jesus’ that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation—grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness—the last thing they are inclined to name it (sic) is ‘Jesus’” (159).
Third, Bell himself reveals what he can’t see in a startling admission on pp. 174-175. There, Bell dismisses the possibility that a loving father could suddenly turn into a cruel tormentor. That he could be loving one moment and vicious the next. He writes:
That kind of God is simply devastating.
We can’t bear it.
No one can.
He goes on to say that this God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.
Briefly, my question is this:
Isn’t this exactly the God Job experienced?
Isn’t this the God many psalmists feared when they say things like: “Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves” (88:7)?
Isn’t this the God who killed Uzzah for touching the ark (1 Sam 6)?
The God who hardened Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21)?
Didn’t Jesus say about the “tares” (to whom God seems very loving during the present age) that on the Last Day they will be cast into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:42)?
Same thing in Matt 13:49-50
and Matt 22:13-14.
And doesn’t Paul say that God will have mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens (Rom 9:18)?
And after Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch, doesn’t Luke observe: “And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48)”?
And on and on it goes . . .
These passages picture a God who controls all things and who isn’t always “loving.” A God who does threaten eternal judgment. And we have no choice in the matter. As Paul says, we are the clay and God is the potter. On this account, God does what he wants. (See Psalm 135 where what God wants includes killing Israel’s enemies.) Humans have no choice. God decides. Not his creatures.
We are not that free. We are not free at all.
Love Wins does not have room for a God who elects and judges as he pleases. Nor does it have room for people who actually experience this wrathful God in their lives. When people ask, “Why did God do this to me?” When they actually do suffer “like Job,” or when their conscience is burdened by guilt that they can’t shake, or when people can’t get rid of the fear (a real one!) that an angry God might meet them on the other side of the grave, saying that you have free choice isn’t going to help and will probably make matters worse. What do I have to do? What choices am I missing? Am I doing it right? Am I good enough?
They are crushing questions. And they are real.
Try invoking free choice to the little children from Rwanda that Bell describes on pg. 70–the ones whose hands and legs had been cut off by machetes. In that section Bell suggests that they are in “hell,” but he doesn’t reconcile this with his belief that hell is one’s own choice. His book doesn’t minister to ones such as these. Trying to make God “nice” doesn’t help the guilty conscience for long either. (All it takes is one verse or one unfortunate turn of events to ruin shaky confidence).
The only solution for people who are in despair over their sin and in fear of God (the beginning of wisdom, according to Proverbs)—those who have been touched by the threats of the Law–is the great news of what God has promised them in Christ.
Luther reminds us that passages such as 1 Tim 2 “God wants all men to be saved,” cannot be understood as abstract or general statements about God. It is not a “general truth” or an “idea” about God in the sense that we don’t even need to proclaim Christ because the desire of God will inevitably be realized. On the contrary, Paul’s words are the sweet voice of the Gospel, which are true of the God who has revealed himself in Christ—the Word we proclaim to troubled sinners. This is true of the revealed God and not the hidden God.
Faith is the ever renewed flight from the hidden God to God as he has revealed himself in Christ. It is through this Word that the Holy Spirit awakens faith that clings to God’s promises. It is the only Word that can ease guilty consciences and comfort with an eternal hope those suffering earthly hells. We do proclaim this Word universally. As G. Forde says so eloquently: “The preached God comes to do battle against sin and death precisely through such limitless proclamation. The preacher is authorized to say it—to do the election—to everyone within earshot.”
This gives pastors an important reminder. Rather than simply talking (or arguing) about God or about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, and rather than trying to remake God into one’s own image (Bell) or make God disappear (like an atheist), pastors ought to think about the word they preach as the instrument God uses to save the lost (like he uses Baptism and Communion to bring salvation). Pastors ought to consider what word they are going to speak and how they are going to speak to the people they serve. What do they want to accomplish in their speaking? It will be most helpful for pastors to think about how to use their word to minister to people. To see their task not as explaining God but as saving sinners through the word they preach. And in their preaching and teaching keep the faith that in their proclamation of God’s Word, the Spirit will work to actually kill the old in order to make alive the new creature to live before him for eternity.
 The other bible passages he interprets as variations of this one can easily be dismissed as not at all making the same point. For example, Ezekiel 36, Isaiah 52, Zephaniah 3 all talk of the salvation of his people Israel (or a remnant) in a context of judgment on the nations.
 See also his treatment of free will on pages 72, 113-14, 116-19 et.al.
 “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 that possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future” (114).
 Forde, G. Theology is for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. 34.
Dr. Timothy Saleska is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology, Director of the M.Div. program, and basketball coach at Concordia Seminary. He is currently writing a multi-volume commentary on the Psalms.
Editor’s Note: It is early on the first day of the week. Go and hear — and preach — this Love in Christ.