This chapter opens with Pastor Bell returning to a form of the question he opened the book with. He looks at the traditional Evangelical view of Hell and asks “is this the best that God can do?” Specifically he does so in the question “does God get what God wants?” How is it that God designed a world where the most he can do is save a minority of the humans while countless millions are eternally punished.
Bell is asking if that is really the best of all possible worlds?
Bell uses this question along with multiple verses in the Old and New Testament that describes God’s compassion on all of humanity and his desire to see all saved to shake the foundations of the prevalent view of Hell. “Is history tragic?” (p. 53).
After casting doubt on the traditional view of Hell and preparing the reader to affirm that God does “get what he wants” , Bell offers the surprising answer “no.’”
“God in the end doesn’t get what God wants, it’s declared, because some will turn, repent, and believe, and other’s won’t. To explain this perspective, it’s rightly pointed out that love, by it’s very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God as violated the fundamental essence of what love is.”
This definition of love bind God, both now and then, to all for human choice to love him back or not. To Bell, then, if God did not allow humans to repent in Hell (or hell as Pastor Bell conceives it), then it would not be love.
But the possibility of repentance in the afterlife doesn’t lead to the probability of repentance in the afterlife (at least not as far as Pastor Bell develops the idea by chapter 4):
“When we choose to reject our God-given humanity,we can easily find ourselves in a rut, wearing grooves in a familiar path that is easier and easier to take. One lie leads to another, one act of violence demands another, and on an one it goes, gaining momentum all the while. This is how addiction works: something gets its claws into us and, as it becomes more and more dominant in our life, it becomes harder and harder to imagine living without it.
“What makes us think that after a lifetime, let alone hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of years, somebody who has consciously chosen a particular path away from God suddenly wakes up one day and decides to head in the completely and opposite direction?
“And so a universal hugfest where everybody eventually ends up around the heavenly campfire singing “Kumbaya” with Jesus playing guitar, sounds a lot like fantasy to some poeple.”
So universalism– in the sense that all will come to accept Jesus and be in heaven– is not the answer for Bell. That conception of universalism violates love. If people are denuded of their capacity to reject God then God stops being love.
Bell acknowledges N.T. Wright’s solution to the afterlife– that people who reject Jesus eventually surrender the image of God in them and become posthuman in the afterlife. Wright offers a form of annihilationism: the soul is destroyed but the body continues.
But Bell spends most of his time exploring a third option: There is a heaven and a hell, but that God offers a second chance for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime.
And here’s where Bell’s scholarship becomes troublesome again.
He cites Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechberg in 1522 about the possibility of that people could turn to God post mortem. Luther writes “Who could doubt God’s ability to do that?” And with that Bell enlists Luther as a theological ally.
Pastor Bell leaves out the following lines,
“No one, however, can prove God does this. But whether he give faith or not is immaterial. It is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith, otherwise ever sermon would be in vain, and would be false and deceptive, because since the entire gospel makes faith necessary.”
This is bothersome. First, Luther clearly placed this question in the realm of the theologically speculative. Secondly, Luther asserts something that Bell denies– that somebody must express faith in Jesus to be saved. Pastor Bell appears to revealing and hiding information based on whether it supports his argument. It’s the theological equivalent of the hatchet job Sherrod was subjected to– edit away until you get the sound bite you require. What’s most disappointing to me is that Bell opens the chapter with “A Really Important Question.” However, the question becomes obscured with an new “A Really Important Question”: Is Bell a reliable guide to walk me through this issue? This historical selectiveness makes it fair to ask if Pastor Bell is being as equally selective in his survey of scripture.
Bell does point to four other early church theologians: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nicea, and Eusebius. Four theologians in a two hundred year span. It’s not a “great cloud of witnesses” but a confirmation that Pastor Bell’s ideas are not new. Bell correctly points out that there’s been disagreement on the issue of hell and judgment amongst Christians for centuries and believe in hell is not an essential doctrine that defines whether someone is a Christian or not. Bell also points out that even if Christian is unable to believe in an empty hell that he or she should long for it.
That’s a point I can’t contest.
 MSNBC correspondant Martin Bashir uncovered this “trimming” of the quote. Here’s a link to Martin being interviewed about his research. I find him to be harsh at time and don’t appreciate some of the motives he attaches to Bell. But, he did catch this issue.