OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff! In Chapter 3 Bell offers his Biblical interpretation of hell. A summary of (my interpretation of) his main points:
1. Whenever Jesus uses the word “hell,” he uses a word referring to the town garbage pile. The “gnashing of teeth” was the wild animals fighting over scraps of food. (This is interesting, though Bell curiously does not explain the “weeping”.)
2. The other references to “eternal” punishment use a word that could be translated as something more temporary.
3. The references to such punishment are also always in the context of redemption and correction – for example, in 1 Timothy when Paul hands people “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
In conclusion, “When we read ‘eternal punishment’ … Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of foreer. Jesus may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die…”
Enter Chapter 4, where Bell rattles off a bunch of Scriptures about how “all people will come” to God (Psalm 65), “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52), etc, etc. (This is also interesting, though I can’t help but notice that while Bell spent pages in ch.3 to assure us that “eternal” doesn’t mean “eternal” when it comes to hell, he doesn’t spend any time in ch.4 investigating whether or not “all” means “all” when it comes to heaven.)
Combined with passages about how “God wants all people to be saved” and the parables of searching for the lost coin or sheep until it is found, and the reference to the gates in that new city at the end of Revelation always being open, Bell suggests that perhaps God somehow continues to pursue people even after death until they are won over by his love. He also clarifies that this is not a new idea, referencing a few ancient church fathers who are said to have believed something similar.
However, Bell also agrees that “love demands freedom,” and that “if we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire… we are given a reality free from love.” That reminds me a little of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, thought I’m not sure if Bell is saying that “all” people don’t get reconciled after all if some don’t want to, or if they will eventually want to.
I suppose the apparent contradiction can be resolved in Bell’s actual willingness to not arrive at black-and-white answers on everything (that’s what I get for complaining about things in some chapters before reading later ones): “Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
So. The passages about “all people” coming to God are certainly interesting. Though I think I don’t really like Bell’s framing of the issue: since God “wants” all people to be saved, and he’s so loving and all, “Does God get what God wants” or does he “fail”? It feels a little too much like trying to box God into behaving like our limited understanding would expect him to behave. Surely you could use similar logic to say that surely God doesn’t “want” people to get raped in this life, but it still happens, so isn’t he failing now? And couldn’t any response involving the differences between the “perfect will” and “permissive will” of God, or whatever the theologians call it, also be used to explain what God allows for salvation?
It also feels like trying to circumvent Jesus’ death and resurrection, cuz, hey, man, even if Jesus hadn’t come, God is so loving that of course he would just save us all anyway somehow. But I peeked ahead to chapter 5 and it looks like it has something to do with that so maybe I’m right where Bell wants me and I should wait before commenting about that.
My only comment remaining is in ch. 3 when Bell was claiming to mention all the references to hell in the Bible and claiming to interpret them as not being as bad as we think they are. I noticed he completely glossed over the whole “lake of fire” thing in Revelation. In ch. 4 he briefly mentions it as being part of that weird Revelation book, but I noticed he completely avoided what the book actually says about it:
Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:7-8)
OK, that doesn’t exactly sound like “all” people eventually turning to God… does “all” not really mean “all,” or is there a way to explain it? Again, in Revelation 22:14-15:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.