Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?
[At the end of this post is my take on whether or not Bell is a universalist…hopefully you won’t just scroll down there and read that first.]
What does God desire? Bell starts off with mentioning a few verses:
- all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth – 1 Timothy 2
- everything in the world is God’s – Psalm 24
- God is the Father of all – Malachi 2
- We are all God’s offspring – Acts 17
- All the nations will see God’s salvation – Ezekiel 52
- Every knee will bow and tongue confess Jesus as Lord – Phil 2
- All the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations will bow down before him – Psalm 22
- God has compassion on all he has made – Psalm 145
- God’s anger is temporary but his love endures forever – Psalm 30
While some of these verses are stripped from their context (I hate to keep bringing that up. This is not a book intended to be a critical exegesis of these biblical passages it is still important that this study has taken place prior to putting these thoughts in print and I don’t see that happening in many instances) in many ways you have to agree with Bell on these points. God does desire for all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). God will save people from all over the world. God really does love everyone. God is the creator of all. If scripture is clear about what God wants, what would keep God from getting it done? It would not be for lack of love or lack of power. Would it be because God gave up trying (p.101)? We would agree that salvation would not be lacking due to any of those things.
Then Bell does what he does best. He lays out a series of either/or questions (false dichotomies with no room for a third option) starting on p. 102 that are leading you down the path to conclude that God will be all inclusive, that he will protect and provide, and that at the end of it all God will take care of everyone because we know that God wouldn’t be uncaring, leave people on their own or give up on us. If you take this to its logical conclusion he is opening the door to God saving everyone, no matter what because he is framing salvation as up to God and God’s love and power to save to the exclusion (at this point in the chapter) of our accepting of that relationship. By the end of the chapter he actually takes a step back from this point but at several places in this chapter that is pretty much what he is teaching (the universal salvation of all mankind/redemption of everything). Now that is confusing. Which is it?
Bell opens the door of possibility:
He does this in several ways starting on p.105:
- He lays out several views that people have had about when we are able to choose God, only this side of the grave or both before and after death (second chance).
- He appeals to Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenberg where Luther was humble enough to admit that God had the ability to do whatever he wanted to do in terms of salvation (Note what Witherington wrote about that here)
- He makes the case that a loving God would seek us out “as long as it takes” (p.107)
- He sums the view up like this – “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.” (p.107)
- Appeals to scripture and God’s promise to renew/restore “all things” (Mtt 19, Acts 3, Col 1)
- Appeals to church fathers
- Appeals to what really gives God glory – suffering sinners or redeemed/reconciled sinners?
- Appeals to “serious disciples” who have held this view…that given enough time all would be saved
- Says that this view is “at the center of the Christian tradition” (p.109)
- Appeals to which makes a “better story” – hell forever or heaven forever. Heaven is better if more people/all people are there. Because that is a better story, maybe it is so.
- Appeals to the final picture in Revelation and how everything is finally made right. He doesn’t mention the chapters that precede that which talk about judgment of Satan and the wicked and being thrown into a fiery lake forever (Rev 20:15)
After making the case that God may save all eventually he back peddles pretty rapidly starting on p.113 with statements like:
- “Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” (p.113)
- “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.” (p.114)
- He even lays out one of his primary questions again and then says we really don’t know – will God save all or will some perish forever? He says we can’t resolve that tension (p.115)
- Last, he lays out the BIG question – “will God get what he wants?” and implies we can’t answer that question but we can answer the question, “Do we get what we want?” (p.116) He says, yes we can.
Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
I think what Bell is doing in this chapter is to give us a peak in the door of “what if’s” and humble us enough to say maybe there is more to the story than what we thought. Then at the very last minute in the chapter he tempers his view and ends it with some statements that contradict much of what he has been teaching and, I think, gives us his real view that God will not save all in the end because some will continue to choose otherwise. Will it be for lack of God’s love or power? No. It will be because God’s love allows choice and that choice must be honored even if it results in choosing death (p.117).
So at the end of this chapter Bell is saying that we have to give God room to show his love and mercy and power and grace. Maybe it is more inclusive than we have thought. But we still have to choose God. Bell is willing to ask that if given more time (even beyond death?), maybe everyone will? But maybe they won’t – he never says that but he leaves the door open to it because his definition of love winning is that love allows freedom of choice and we can choose God or something else for as long as we like. That really surprised me. After all the talk about Bell and universalism, I am convinced that he doesn’t believe all will be saved.