Bell wonders who will go to be with God when they die. Traditionally Christians say “people go to be with God if they have said or done or believed the 'right' things.” (4) Bell says this raises a number of questions – and he raises them all.
Talking about heaven, Bell says much of the confusion about heaven, “...comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people... But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings – those things take time.” (51) We are to be growing, progressing, “...so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now.” (51) “According to Jesus, then, heaven is as far away as that day when heaven and earth become one again and as close as a few hours.” (55) Heaven is present as well as the age to come.” (58-59)
It is almost like Bell is deliberately vague when he writes. For example, on pages 154-155, Bell first speaks to the exclusivity of Jesus, “Jesus is the only way.” “Then, there is inclusivity.” Bell concludes, I think (it is hard to tell if this is a conclusion or not, the way he writes),
“What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.
And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.”
Bell admits Jesus is the only way but then adds that Jesus is big and wide. (156)
Bell notes, “People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.” (158)
“Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don't.” (159)
On heaven and hell, Bell uses the story of the prodigal son. He concludes that, rather than thinking of heaven and hell as separate places, he says of this story,
“It's not an image of separation,
but one of integration.
In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.” (170)
“There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (79)
The word hell, Bell says, is a very good word “to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life God has for us. ...[T]he massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way.” (93)
He defines hell, “Hell is refusing to trust God's retelling of our story.” (170) (We are to believe God's version of our story.) Elsewhere he says rejecting and resisting the love God has for us “...creates what we call hell.” (177)
Bell notes that God wants all to be saved (1 Tim. 2) and asks, “Does God get what God wants?” He says the "writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we're all part of the same family.” (99) “The insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again.” (100) Bell says, “There is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody...” (107) The idea is, “Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn't.” (108)
“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.” (109)
That loving, fatherly God would “punish people forever in a conscious torment in hell,” means that God “would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter...” (173) That's why so many Christians do not love God, Bell says. “That kind of God is simply devastating.” (176)
After reading Bell's book, I am really confused as to what he is actually advocating. Sometimes he sounds so orthodox. Then his next statement is so unorthodox. And his writing style is so confusing. He makes a statement and then his next statement is practically the opposite. (I think much is tongue in cheek or sarcastic. It's hard to tell in print, however.)
And then there are all the questions. (There are 91 questions in the first chapter of 19 pages.) He does something like, Could a loving God do this? Is that kind of God the God we could believe in? On and on and pretty soon he's made his point by asking questions. No, he didn't actually make a statement, as such. He can always say, hey, I was just asking questions! But he has cleverly drawn the reader to make a conclusion, nonetheless.
And then there is this strange behavior of giving the biblical book and chapter only when quoting a verse, not the verse number. What is with this? Why give the book and chapter but not the verse?
So, does Bell believe that all will be saved? Does Bell teach that hell is only for a limited time and those temporarily in hell eventually are overwhelmed by God's love for them? Does Bell declare that heaven and hell are now? Is Bell convinced that we create our own hell? Does Bell believe that a loving God could not possibly eternally punish anyone?
Welcome to the writing style and non-theology of Rob Bell.
HarperOne, 198 pages.