“God loves us. Here’s how the traditional story goes…God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell.
I was disappointed by Love Wins, but not for the reasons I expected to be. Bell’s notoriety is so strong that I braced myself for pages and pages riddled with heresy and blasphemy. My disappointment was that, for the most part, it is not there. Instead, one encounters a thought-provoking, meditative and inarguably intelligent work.
Love Wins is beautiful, and there is no getting around that. It is poetic and gorgeously written in its odd but endearing format. It bombards the reader with a sequence of rhetorical questions designed to provoke reflection. It consistently penetrates to the very root of its discussed problems. Apart from a couple of misplaced jokes, Bell writes smoothly, engagingly, humbly and gently throughout. He sketches a breath-taking, irresistible view of grace and of the love of God, and does so, dare I say it, biblically. Because of this, I love Jesus more as a result of reading this book. This cannot be trivialised.
For all this, however, Bell inevitably missteps. Love Wins is like the ontological argument; of course it goes wrong, but we cannot simply dismiss it on these grounds. The reader must point out where it goes wrong, and this requires meticulous care. Is it in his emotional railing against the orthodox interpretations of salvation? Is it his communication of heaven? Or of hell? His suggestion that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross takes a very wide scope? Charging Bell with universalism, for example, is grossly simplistic; it disregards the more nuanced view that he actually advocates here.
My view is that the source of Bell’s most serious error is getting sin and judgement the wrong way round. Instead of beginning in Scripture with passages that claim both hell as eternal punishment and the repulsiveness of sin to God, and inferring from this the severity of our sin, Bell appears to begin from our being good on the whole, and interpreting hell-mentioning passages in light of this fact. However, because this is not explicit in Love Wins, this could be unfair. Maybe the trouble with trying to pinpoint where Bell goes wrong is that it is not entirely clear that there is a specific view that he advocates. Maybe this is not what he is trying to do.
The emotional provocativeness of Love Wins is arguably what makes it so important to a conservative-evangelical readership. Since when did we harden our hearts to the distress that our views legitimately unearth? In the wrong hands, its compelling subtlety is a gateway drug to liberalism, but if we don a cautious approach to the book, we have much to learn. Do we really have a correct, thorough, systematic theology of hell? How much of Love Wins is wrong? Bell argues from Scripture. If we are to show how parts of Love Wins are wrong, so must we.