Chapter 7 of Love Wins is entitled "The Good News is Better Than That."
A big theme in this chapter, and the part I like the best, has to do with our image of God. What is God like?
I think Bell is right. This is the question beneath all the other questions. This debate isn't really about heaven or hell. This debate isn't really about limited or universal reconciliation. No, at the end of the day, when we finally get down to the bottom of the barrel, there's a single question underneath them all.
What is God like?
I've seen this play out in so many different forums. As have you. We like to think we are talking about the bible or doctrine or tradition but what we're really debating is rival visions of God.
And, according to Bell, a toxic vision of God is why many ultimately reject Christianity. A view of God who, on the one hand, "loves" you but who, on the other hand, will torture you for all eternity in hell. Bell on this point:
Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?Here's my take on this. And this might offend some people. But this is what I think. I think if you've really thought about hell--and I mean really thought about it--you have some serious reservations about attributing that vision to God. I'm not saying you are a universalist, just that you'll get where universalism is coming from. You might be an annihilationist, or a conditionalist, or a hopeful universalist, or simply a traditionalist who has some doubts. But at the end of the day we are all wrestling with the same thing. We are all struggling with a vision of eternal torture and the confession that God is love. And the two don't fit.
That kind of God is simply devastating.
We can't bear it.
No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.
And so there are conferences about how churches can be more "relevant" and "missional" and "welcoming," and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to "reach out" and "connect" and "build relationships" with people who aren't part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?
Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if you God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
And if you don't get this, aren't at least sympathetic to the impulse behind a book like Love Wins, then I don't know what to say. There isn't much to say. Our sensibilities are too different. Worlds apart in my experience. And while that might sound defeatist, believe me, I've been around this block a few times.
When I think of hell, in all its glory, I have an experience of such overwhelming grief, horror and sadness that theological conversation is just halted. Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with you. I've stopped. I can't continue. And if you ask what's wrong, all I can do is walk you back to edge of the abyss. To have you look again. To look harder. To look again at all that pain. To hear those screams. And to know, with icy dread, that it will never, never, never end.
At the edge of that abyss I fail. My heart stops. And I have nothing else to say.