Was ever a book so eagerly awaited? Well, yes, actually, quite a few. And most of the problem with this one is there was not much awaiting visible before people formed, and published, their views of it. So much easier to judge – in either direction – if you don’t have any facts to get in the way, after all.
My copy arrived yesterday. I’ve read it all, now, and intend to re-read it, slowly, and post some reflections here. It is powerfully and winsomely written, but you knew that. (‘Why can’t I communicate like Rob Bell?’ The book’s acknowledgments contain a revealing reference to the multitudinous drafts an editor worked through; perhaps with sufficient work, you could…)
No book is wholly good, save those contained in the canon of Scripture, or wholly bad. This one is no exception. It contains some good ideas; some arresting images; some interesting speculations; it contains some ideas I judge to be poor; some unhelpful caricatures of opposing positions; and some speculations that are hackneyed. There are a few historical reflections in the book, some that are helpful, some that are misinformed. There are many references to Scripture, and some extended readings: some are penetrating; some rather forced. None of this is unusual; I could say the much the same about almost every book on my office shelves.
Is it a good book? That depends. How does one judge the worth of a book? It seems to me that there are two possible criteria: first, on the whole, is this worth reading? Second, despite the deficiencies, is there something so significant in this book that it needs to be read?
The first is easier: do the strengths outweigh the weaknesses? On the whole, despite misrepresentations or problems, does the reader come away with a better appreciation (perhaps emotionally as well as intellectually) of the issue(s) the book is intending to address? A good textbook is good on this level. It is generally authoritative; there may be mistakes, but they are few and minor. The books rarely break new ground, but almost always provide a useful and accurate map of the old ground.
For the second, within the theological tradition, consider Aulen’s Christus Victor. The book had huge flaws, which beset us to this day, 80 years after the publication. Aulen’s historical claims ranged from the tendentious to the absurd; his Biblical exegesis was generally at the top end of that scale, but rarely much better. Yet he opened a question that is still driving thoughtful and worthwhile work today. The book could have been so much better – but the world, the world of academic theology, at least – would be much worse off without the book.
If Bell’s book is good, and my initial – if somewhat hesitant – impression is that it is, it is good in the second sense. This is not a good guide to eschatology and atonement (the two topics focused on in most of the book), or even to theology proper (the real subject of the book). There are too many errors of interpretation, too many misrepresentations, to make it a good textbook. But it advances a thesis that is not new, and that may not even be right, but that is important and perceptive enough to be worth hearing. The thesis is something like this: our accounts of atonement and eschatology determine our theology proper, and some recently-popular accounts lead to an unacceptable – unbiblical – doctrine of God.
What about the big question? Well, here goes: I can reveal that it is true: the UK cover is much less attractive than the US one.
The other big question? First, the book is not primarily about the populatedness of hell, although the subject is addressed. Second, it seems clear to me from the text that Bell does not, in fact, espouse any form of dogmatic universalism. Bell asserts very clearly that every human being is presented with a choice, and that that choice is decisive for our final fate (pp.116-17). I imagine his position could be characterised as ‘hopeful universalism’: I suppose that he would be prepared to hope and pray that all human beings do in fact make the right choice, and to resist any assertion that this is not possible. He will, not, however, assert that all human beings will be saved.
This conclusion seems inescapable from the text to me, but I draw it hesitantly, since I am aware that others who have read the text have come to a different interpretation. Let me offer my evidence. Bell says:
…we get what we want.
God is that loving.
If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option … if we want nothing to do with light hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love. (pp. 116-17; see also p. 79)
That seems unambiguous to me. You might not like the descriptions of hell; you might not like the Arminian assumption that the decisive decision is ours; but I cannot find a way of reading these words that is dogmatically universalist. Bell believes at least in the possibility that some will finally reject God.
But the book isn’t about universalism. It’s about who God is. And that is a far more interesting question, and that is where Bell makes a useful contribution – one that could have been made much better, but one that is useful nonetheless. I’ll start on that in the next post.