The last chapter closes the book with a bit of irony. After all the questions he raised. After all the deconstruction that has gone on throughout this book he closes saying that when he prayed a prayer to became a Christian when he was young he could have known more or had better reasons or been more mature. He could tear that apart and invalidate his own experience but he says he won’t “deconstruct” that because although it wasn’t perfect it had validity. God could work through it all to do what God needed to do (p.194),
“Now I am well aware of how shaped I was by my environment, how young and naive I was, and how easy it is to discount emotional religious experiences. With very little effort a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one’s parents and the power of religion to shape a child. But however helpful that may be, it can easily miss the one thing that can’t be denied: What happened that night was real. It meant something significant then and it continues to have profound significance for me. That prayer was a defining moment in my life.”
It left me wondering, where has this approach been throughout the whole book? While the teachings on hell in the Bible may not be perfect and one might be able to cleverly think up all sorts of questions and create dozens of false dichotomies of God being either a ruthless abusive father or else a loving cuddly teddy bear God who is all hugs and kisses, the Bible and Jesus and Paul and the church fathers believed hell was real, that God had judgment in store for the wicked. It may not sound pleasant but that is because it isn’t pleasant.
Now, Bell does close the book with a call to urgently accept God’s love for us and to turn and trust Him. I do agree with Bell, love wins. But what exactly that means is what we seem to differ on.
To be fair, and I really have tried to be fair, I do think Bell believes hell is real but he is perfectly willing to be a theological magician, slowly taking perfectly good biblical concepts, waving his magic wand of words over them and seemingly make them disappear. Then a few pages later he comes back and faintly hints that maybe the object is still really there in some obscure way. I don’t think Jesus was that careful with his approach on hell and eternal punishment. I don’t think Jesus danced around about it or had to twist words or talk in riddles about it. He was direct about it because it is real.
What I believe Bell is doing in this book is to try and swing a pendulum. He believes some Christians don’t get it. They say God is love but their actions are hateful. So he wants to swing away from harsh, angry and judgmental Christians who want to stand on the street corner with a bullhorn and tell people they are going to hell. He wants to dismantle the idea that Satan is a little red man in little red tights running around in hell tormenting people. He wants to distance himself from many Christian stereotypes. Also, he wants to point out that God’s love is bigger than we can imagine so…what if? I also would want to distance myself from harsh, angry Christians who scream at people. But in the process of distancing I am not willing to twist and turn through scripture, set up a boat load of false dichotomies and ignore a bunch of perfectly good verses that seem to say the opposite of what I am presenting in order to get the point across. So I think many of us would agree more with Bell’s intention with this book than we might at first think. But many of us would disagree with his methods on how he works through the issues and some of his conclusions as well. At the end of the day I can’t say he is a universalist but I can say he sure doesn’t make it easy to figure that out through this book.