Love Wins: Part 5, Who Would Doubt God's Ability to Do That?

First, let me point you to Ben Myers' wonderful review of Love Wins--Will Hell Be Empty?--which puts Bell's book into conversation with church history and theology. It's a great read.

Chapter Four of Love Wins is entitled Does God Get what God wants? In this chapter Bell tackles a bunch of issues, most of which swirl around questions regarding God's sovereignty. Can history end up any other way than how God wants it to end up? If God desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2.4) will God get what God wants? Will God be victorious or oversee a defeat of epic proportions? Will the grand story of God's Creation, started in hope and love, end in tearful and torturous tragedy?

Will God fail?

As I've said repeatedly, the belief in universal reconciliation is really just the endorsement of two very biblical and uncontroversial beliefs:

1. God desires to save every person who has ever lived (omnibenevolence).
2. God gets what God wants (omnipotence).
If a person struggles with how God can pull this off, in the face of death and human rebellion, we can throw in a third adjective: omniscience.

God's a pretty smart cookie. God can figure it out.

(Let me pause here to say that I'm not wholly comfortable trotting out the Greek "omnis" to describe God. I have doubts about all three of them. Along with my friend Matt, the only one I'm about 100% confident on is that God is love. I use the omnis here because most Christians play with these three cards. In light of that, playing the omnibenevolence and omnipotence cards is often the quickest way to get someone to see that universal reconciliation is both biblical and orthodox.)

Here's how Bell describes all this at the start of Chapter Four. Prior to the quote below he's been contrasting the faith claims many churches make on their websites. How, on the one hand, these churches claim that billions of non-Christians will spend eternity in hell and how, on the other hand, God is loving, sovereign, mighty and powerful. As Bell points out, those two claims don't go together very well:
This is the God for whom
"all things are possible."

I point out these parallel claims:
that God is mighty, powerful, and "in control"
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from
this God, who is their creator,
even though it's written in the Bible that
"God wants all people to be saved and to come to a
knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2).

So does God get what God wants?

How great is God?
Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do,
or kind of great,
medium great,
great most of the time,
but in this,
the fate of billions of people,
not totally great.
Sort of great.
A little great...

Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?
Obviously, not everyone "gets saved" this side of death. Thus, for God to accomplish God's sovereign purposes we have to confess that God is both Lord of Time and of Death. This is why, as I've contended over and over, that the defeat of death is so central to an understanding of God's love. We confess that God is the widow, the shepherd and the father in Luke 15, relentless in pursuit and eternally open to our returning home. And if people doubt that God can reach us after death--people who think that Death is greater than God--Bell quotes Martin Luther on this point. In a letter written in 1522 to Hans von Rechenberg discussing God's power to reach us after death Luther asks:
Who would doubt God's ability to do that?
Who indeed?

It's really a simple question: Is God more powerful than Death?

Christians sort themselves into two groups depending upon their answers.

The No group. And the Yes group.

I'm in the Yes group. I think love is stronger than Death.
The Song of Songs 8.6
Set me like seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is strong as Death,
passion as relentless as Sheol.
The flash of it is a flash of fire,
a flame of Yahweh himself.
Here, in human love, we find a mirror of God's own love. I believe that God's love for us is stronger than Death. That God's passion for us is more relentless than Sheol.

That the fire of love, in this life and the next, is the flame of Yahweh himself.

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41 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 5, Who Would Doubt God's Ability to Do That?”

  1. If it's about adequate power, then if God is powerful enough to 'win' in the end, then shouldn't we think He's powerful enough to 'win' in the beginning and the human race not to have fallen in the first place?  Shouldn't we think He's powerful enough to 'win' everyone this side of death?  If not, then there is a sense in which death is more powerful.

    i think this kind of defense is going to create more problems than it solves.  And more to the point, to whose objection does it respond?  Is anyone saying that universalism is false *because God lacks sufficient power to achieve it*?  i've never personally encountered that rationale.

    At the end of the day i think the rub is difference understandings of goodness, justice, and the presence (or perhaps purpose) of evil in the world.


  2. “I
    believe that God's love for us is stronger than Death.”

    but, what does that even mean? Clearly, people still die after the
    cross. Yet somehow you seem to believe it means that after they have
    died physically, they can still 'decide' or 'change their minds.'
    And, this has to be inferred, since it is clearly not stated in
    Scripture. This inference rests to a large extent on a particular
    understanding of God's love and a verse in 1 Timothy 2 which happens
    to be vague enough that nobody should build their 'ism' on it.

    about 1 Timothy 1:16. It's in the same letter and it seems to
    indicate that there are two groups of people, no? You seem to hold
    that there is only one type, all of humanity who will be saved. Does
    the believer vs. non-believer distinction of Scripture not give you
    any pause?

  3. There is a sort of hope with this view you have laid out above. I mean, if I truly believe that there is a God, and he truly wants me saved (righteous) then I should expect that God will use every avenue of my life to get my attention and prompt me to seek him, I can expect things to come into my attention, or experience that will cause me to think about God. He is Sovereign... and I am not. There is great comfort in believing that at any given time and all the time God is working and planning to make me more like His Son and thus more of his son. And that his effort is not deterred by my periodic blindness or lack of motivation. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts, Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

  4. I agree with absolutely everything you say. Thank you. The Internet needs blogs like these. I have only one issue. When you say that God is a smart cookie, do you imagine him as chocolate chip or oatmeal? I have always thought that God must taste like really really old cheese. Are you sure God isn't more like a cracker, seeing cheese and crackers are absolutely divine.
    Your enlightening answers shall be much appreciated.

  5. --(Let me pause here to say that I'm not wholly comfortable trotting out
    the Greek "omnis" to describe God. I have doubts about all three of
    them. Along with my friend Matt, the only one I'm about 100% confident
    on is that God is love. I use the omnis here because most Christians
    play with these three cards. In light of that, playing the
    omnibenevolence and omnipotence cards is often the quickest way to get
    someone to see that universal reconciliation is both biblical and

    Isn't that like arguing if the moon is made of green cheese then...? If your promise is false (the omnis you are not sure you believe in) then your conclusion is in question. I know it is easier to argue that way and it seems to make sense on the surface. Your truer view that the omnis might not be true (I am not sold on tying God to ancient Greek philosophy either) then your conclusion is not necessarily valid. The view of "not omni" give more room for God sending/encouraging/letting/unable to stop people form going to hell.

  6. I have adopted children. " make me more like His Son and thus more of his son"

    The adopted son is nothing like my bio child though the daughter is getting closer. That does not change the fact that they are my children. They can't be more of my child. Can you help me understand what you meant there? Thanks.

  7. Validity, as I understand it, goes to the structural relations among the premises. Thus, an argument can be valid, structurally, even if the premises are false or suspect or in some doubt. So as best I can tell, my circumspection about the premises (which is just good ol' fashioned epistemic humility) doesn't affect the validity of the argument at all.

  8. For my part, it's not an either/or. My favorite cookie in the whole world is chocolate chip oatmeal. 

  9. This is the chapter of the book that caused people in my church the most "angst", that caused them to say, "he's gone too far! irreverent! heresy!" and lots of other accusations.  What fascinated me about that is the fact that this is the chapter that most dealt with the crux of the issue - at least theologically.  There are plenty of other "ology" lenses with which to approach the question but this chapter was all about the root theological issues.  So, it both troubled and tickled me that my church friends were completed appalled by it. Maybe it hit too close to home?  

    I'm so glad you are doing this series.  This book and its effects live on far past the 15 minutes of fame & CNN interviews.  I am no longer a "leader" in my church because I spoke up when people were a buzz about it.  It gave me the chance to proclaim what I *do* believe and what I *don't* believe.  I'm grateful for that, even though there's been a lot of pain & flack from it.  I'm glad there was a "reason" for me to "say so".  The resulting freedom is glorious!

    Even though my heart still belongs to George MacDonald. But he won't be on the Today show, so only us book nerds will get to enjoy him. :)

  10. Thus, my circumspection about the omnis. These are questions I wrestle with all the time. I guess I'd summarize my position like this: IF God exists as classic Christian theology depicts God, THEN God will bring about universal reconciliation. But that's a big IF. So I move a lot between unfaith (in various guises) and universalism. Does that make any sense?

  11. Well, right.  i'm much less convinced of the omni's than i used to be as well. 


    (1) Wasn't this a tactical argument?  As in, it's meant to convince someone who does accept the omni's?  But that's why i asked, who's making the kind of objection that this argument answers?  Who thinks universalism is false *because God isn't powerful enough*?  My point is, i don't think this argument really directly addresses anyone actually sitting at the debating table.  Thus, just how efficiently tactical is it?

    (2) i know you and i have different sensibilities about things, but i get what you're saying.  i really do.  For some of the same reasons you hold on to universalism, i have similar motivations to hold on to a literal hell.  So i relate to you more than i let on.  But i wanna ask you something in all sincerity. 

    Do you really *have* to understand it in order to maintain faith?  i mean, do you really expect that the whole matter *must* conform with your own capacity to understand?  Or that it *must* conform to your own sense of fairness or justice?  At the end of the day, this is what i just don't see.  Why think that?  If the answers were really understandable by us, wouldn't God have just told Job (so to speak)?  i guess i don't see why i should think God's understanding of the deep issues of the world and His plan of action about such things will be comprehensible to me, let alone conform to my own sense of justice.  Isn't it just more reasonable to think that there's something wrong with *me*?  That it's more likely that there is some inadequacy on *my* part that God and the world don't always make moral sense to me?  In fact, isn't the fallen-ness of humanity a good reason to think it's really a problem with *me* rather than God and His goodness/justice?

    i mean, i have trouble letting go of a literal, everlasting hell because letting go of it feels like a splinter in my sense of justice.  But if universalism turns out to be true, i will take that as proof that *i'm* unfair, not God.  Suppose you found out conclusively that the doctrine of a literal, everlasting hell were true.  How would you respond?


  12. God can't lie (Heb 6:18; Tit 1:2) and can't deny Himself (2Tim 2:13).

    i don't even really know what the second one means.  But i think the first one introduces a lot of implications about things God likely can't do.

  13. I don't think anyone has to understand it this particular way. As I've said before, I tend to think of theology as a form of sense-making. And, given the diversity of human experiences, we all make sense in different ways.

    Regarding your last question, how would I respond if I was conclusively convinced there was a literal, everlasting hell?

    The answer depends upon this: Who is in hell? If it's full of the Jews and the gays, people like that, then my answer is this: Send me to hell. Number me, per Isaiah 53, among the transgressors.

    But if it was full of Hilters, serial killers, rapists etc.? Here my answer becomes more abstract and theological. Which is to say, I don't know how I'd feel about that. My best guess is that, for a million years I might be okay with that. But I think I'd start growing uneasy as time passed. But I'd wait to take my cue from the victims. I'd follow their lead.

  14. i think i was asking something more existential.  i'm not concerned about whether other people understand it a certain way.  But at the end of the day, how much of my faith is contingent on my level of peace or 'approval' of the God i have faith in?

    Could i find out something about God that would make me choose to dis-acknowledge Him as God? 

    i don't know.  My gut reaction is to say no.  At the end of the day, He's God and i'm not.  He's still Who He is whether i like everything about Him or not.  Why think my moral sense is somehow better or above or in a position to evaluate God's acts? 

    But i admit, i haven't found out anything yet that has really challenged me on that question.  Perhaps the day is coming when i will face an existential crisis over who God is. 

    But for the moment, i take my rationale from Job. (Though i fully admit this may be a poor reading of Job; i haven't revisited the book carefully in several years.)  i take God's response to Job to amount to 2 things:  (1) No, Job, I don't owe you an answer or a hearing; remember Who you're addressing.  (2) If I were to give you answers to your questions, what makes you think you could understand them anyway?

    If i pressed God with questions at least similar to Job (for instance, how could you possibly send people to hell that i think are good?), why would i expect His response to me to be any different than His response to Job?

    My guess is, you think that there is some sense of goodness or justice that is logically prior to God Himself, and to which even He is amenable (one horn of the Euthyphro dilemma).  Is that right?


  15. I think you and I have pondered this question before. But if God ever comes to me like God did with with Job and disconfirms something I think, yes, I reckon I'd likely change my view. But until then I'm not sure how else we are to proceed.

  16. Richard, how do you reconcile the post-mortem work of God entailed in universalism with your skepticism of the traditional notion of a soul? I ask as someone with universalistic leanings.

  17. Yea... I really liked that clip as well.  I've never heard of Rollins before watching that, so maybe I'm really out of the loop, but is he a well-known guy within certain circles?  I read a bit about him, and I'm loving his background.  Do you have any more info on him and/or what he's up to?


  18. Perhaps I'm thinking too abstractly (which I am wont to do), but I still think the very idea of "lying" and "denying himself" are always defined on human terms - that is, they are finite ways of understanding the world, and God has chosen to relate himself to us in ways that we can understand.  However, this does not contain or exhaustively describe him.  Such things as lying and denying oneself in ways that we understand them are only possible within the realm of human possibilities and relationality.  God may have chosen to reveal himself in ways that we can understand Him, but these ways are also limiting to a being that is wholly transcendent.

    Thus, while I can acknowledge the authority of the Bible's testament to the nature of God, I can also call it limiting simply because if God truly does transcend all of finite and human reality, then human any conception the human mind could possibly begin to wrestle with is necessarily limiting, and this extends to all the glorious metaphors and statements the Bible makes about God.  They are all conditioned by human realities, and as such they only point to something ineffable beyond the possibilities of understanding.

    This is, at least, how I have come to think about the whole situation about how to even begin talking about God. I recognize the necessary paradox, and I know I'm risking lies by prating on.

  19. He's a pretty big deal in the Emergent circles. My favorite books of his are How (Not) to Speak of God and The Orthodox Heretic.

  20. I did see the titles of what he's written, and by title alone I thought them intriguing.  Have you read others of his that you found not-so-good or are those the only two you've read?

  21. Other than those two the only one I've read is the Fidelity of Betrayal, but it didn't leave much of an impression. Others might want to weight in. But I thought How (Not) to Speak of God was really good.

  22. He has quite a few clips on vimeo and youtube. I hadn't heard of him either - this clip was played at my church a couple of weeks ago during the sermon.

  23. He takes quite a fun little jab at Driscoll (not by name) in this one (at 4m25).

  24. First, I really appreciated your response to Brad regarding some of your differences with reformed thinking.  I'd love to discuss each of them with you in depth; but, . . .

    As to Philippians 2:10, I admit that it does show a degree of 'willfulness' on the part of both the living and the dead.  Change of mind?  Not so much.

    I am sure that you see the significant 'figurativeness' in the verse.  Physically dead people don't have 'knees' nor 'tongues' that are very useful.  But, the verse does indicate their ability to 'bow' and 'proclaim' in some sense, a knowledge of who Jesus is.  On the other hand, the demons do likewise.  This acknowledgement is far from sufficient to obtain salvation (either immediately or in time, as you prefer.)  Faith is never in view in any of the verses quoted to support universalism and without that, no salvation.  So, I am still left looking for Scripture that supports God giving dead people saving faith.  For as you well know, without that it is impossible to please God.

  25. I think that's a fine way to read the passage. However, I don't read it that way.

    So we are back to our typical impasse: Same bible, different conclusions, each conclusion biblical.

  26. Last comment:

    "Same bible, different conclusions, each conclusion biblical."

    Two out of three ain't bad!

    I love you but I just can't agree that we are both biblical.  That is unless God had two or more messages to give humanity.  One of us is simply wrong!  Now if only I could figure out which one of us that was???

  27. Yeah. Logically, one or both of us is wrong.

    My money is on both of us.

    But what can you do? We'll all get to heaven, the billions of saints
    who differed from each other--the Catholics, the Orthodox, the Church
    of Christ, the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Mennonites, the
    Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, and on and on and on
    and on---with the same refrain: "I did the best I could, I was but
    dust. Have mercy on me, a sinner."

  28. "Obviously, not everyone 'gets saved' this side of death."

    Is this really that obvious? It seems to follow if salvation is a consequence of justification by faith, and faith is defined as a species of belief which is explicitly Christian with no exception for invulnerable ignorance. But that's not the only possible soteriology consonant with scripture and tradition. I'd think it would be more fruitful to question whether accepting grace must necessarily have explicitly Christian belief as its consequence in all instances.

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