Bell’s next chapter is entitled ‘Does God get what God wants?’ The title begs the question, of course: what does God want? As I said before, I take it that the real subject of the book is theology proper. Who is God? What does God want?
We begin with statements of faith from church websites, and the apparent disjunction between the claims about who God is – almighty, loving, and full of grace and mercy – with the assertions about the eschatological fate of the lost. Says Bell:
I point out these parallel claims:
that God is might, powerful, and ‘in control’
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God who is their creator,
even though it is 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? (97)
Bell rehearses many universalist texts from the Bible. Not all of them can be taken as teaching universal salvation, certainly, but that is not his point, I think: all point to a basic purpose on the part of God to extend his welcome wide, a divine desire to see salvation reach as far out as possible. Bell asserts a repeated Biblical teaching that God desires universal salvation, coupled with a confidence on the part of the Biblical writers that – in this very purpose – God will not fail. Every knee will bow. The ends of the earth will confess. God is not impotent. The parables of Lk 15 suggest that ‘[t]he God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.’ (101)
What about, then, confessions of faith that assert that many, many people will be lost? In stirring prose, Bell pushes his question to a point of urgency: does God’s salvific will succeed, or fail? Does God get what He wants?
He explores four answers on pp. 103-9. First, an Arminian exclusivism: God gives us the freedom to say no to His love. God’s purposes are frustrated by His gift of freedom to His creatures. Second, the same perspective, but with annihilation as the ultimate end of those who choose to reject. Third, a post-mortem offer of salvation, one final chance for those who never heard, or who heard the wrong gospel that was no gospel at all, or… Fourth, an endless series of post-mortem offers of salvation, with God not giving up until everything that was lost is found – a species of universalism, based on the offer to find forgiveness in a conscious embracing of Jesus Christ remaining endlessly open post-mortem. Bell points to the history of Christian universalism and, whilst his patristic knowledge is occasionally hazy, it is there to be pointed to.
Bell spends a long time exploring and defending the possibility of universalism (pp. 106-9); one gets the sense that he feels that it will be hard to convince his readers that this is a live option. I wonder who his intended readers, who find this so difficult to believe in, are? He does not, at this point, embrace universalism, however. He leaves it as one of four options, all of which he proposes to reflect on with ‘two observations and then a picture from the end of the Bible.’ (109)
The first observation is simply that there is a variety of possible answers to the eschatological question in the Christian tradition. If, Bell comments, ‘you’ don’t find Arminian exclusivism convincing [guess what? I don’t], then ‘you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian.’ (110). The second observation is that some stories are ‘better’ than others. In context, the criteria for ‘better’ are parsed as ‘bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring’ (111) – not, notice (and Bell is upfront about this), ‘more accurate’ or ‘truer’. We are in the aesthetic realm of the fairytale ending – Sachin Tendulkar scoring a century on his home ground in his last match to win the World Cup; Paula Radcliffe finally getting marathon gold in London in 2012; Ryan Giggs ending his career with a treble-winning hat-trick (OK, that one’s a nightmare, not a fairytale). We are in ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if…’ territory – and that’s an OK place to be, so long as we know that it is where we are.
Bell’s fairytale ending reads like this: ‘everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right’ (111). Bell acknowledges it as a wish, a dream, but suggests that to condemn someone for hoping it might turn out to be true is profoundly mean-spirited. Universalism is an outcome to be hoped for, if the problems (and Bell says ‘there are many,’ 111) can be overcome, and it is Christian to hope that they might be.
The picture is of the Holy City in the closing chapters of Revelation. Heaven come to earth. Bell points out that this is a kingdom of justice and righteousness: ‘there is no place in this new world for murder and destruction and deceit … it is free from those who would insist on continuing to perpetuate those evils.’ (113) For God’s love to triumph, God must exclude acts – which might mean excluding people who insist on doing those acts – from the City. It is a matter of present experience that people turn their backs on God and choose hell. God gives them, and must, eschatologically, in Bell’s view, continue to give them, that freedom. But in the picture, the gates of the City remain always open. People are free to come – and to go. Bell refuses to speculate on the question of whether everyone will eventually enter through the ever-open gates (‘those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.’ (115)). Love entails freedom, and so the tension remains. We cannot be universalists, but we can and must affirm that ‘love wins’.
What to say about this? Bell’s unspoken ‘red lines’ that govern his accounts of possible eschatologies are interesting: achieved divine generosity; an Arminian account of human freedom to resist divine grace; divine justice; and an explicit human response to Christ necessary for salvation. The insistence on justice is characteristic of the book: Bell really believes that God takes sin seriously. The freedom and response lines are unsurprising, I suppose, given the context Bell comes from, but it is a shame he didn’t delve a little deeper into the tradition, and start to understand divine sovereignty a bit better – the answers given by an Aquinas or a Calvin to the question that forms the chapter title are just so much more convincing than anything Bell even considers.