My boss bought me this very controversial book as a gift and I read it yesterday.

That might sound impressive but I did have an hour spare in the evening while I waited for someone- by then half the book was gone. I reckon its about 55,000 words long, which makes it more of an essay double spaced and wrapped in a very attractive hard back cover.

By very controversial, I mean that the kind of Christians who could get offended at someone serving them their dinner on plates that hadn’t been warmed up got very offended. You see, Bell is meant to be a universalist.

Universalism is the idea that no one goes to hell. God makes some way to make it so that everyone gets into the great table tennis tournament in the sky.

I have no idea why people would find that idea objectionable,

offensive,

repugnant,

unattractive

or lame.

Sorry, I slipped into writing sentences like Bell there for a moment. But personally I am a big fan of people going to heaven and not going to hell and I suspect that if they get into heaven then God knows they’ll be good craic even if they talked loudly on their mobiles when travelling on the bus in this life.

I have read Bell’s other books and although I find the style to be infuriating at times and I think his points can be very flimsy, I enjoyed them all and appreciate his video series, Nooma. This one is really good:

Plus, I am not a big fan of bullying and some of the sillyness that Bell received before the book had even hit the shelves. So all in all I am inclined towards a positive bias.

I had not intended to write any reviews, even though people emailed me and asked for reviews because I didn’t want to be yet one more person adding their voice to the noise. I liked Regent College professor John Stackhouse’s view and I appreciate (but can’t keep reading!) St. Andrews Prof. Steven Holmes’ in depth discussion.

But I was really surprised by the book and Wife-Unit reckons I should let people know. So here goes.

This book is awful.

It is crappy. It is a flimsy and trivial discussion of the most profound questions that human beings can pose. It constantly posits false dichotomies:

Some people are primarily concerned with systemic evils – corporations, nations, and institutions that enslave people… [while] Some pass out pamphlets that explain how to have peace with God; some work in refugee camps in war zones…

In my experience, these are not sharply defined groupings. In fact, if you broadly categorise one as the “liberal” camp and the other “conservative”, my rule of thumb is that the only group you can really suspect have missed the Gospel is the group who do only the things that their category are meant to specialise in.

Or to put it another way, Bell’s whole argument drips with an exclusionary contempt for those other kinds of Christians.

I have serious problems with the beliefs driving the book that sometimes get revealed behind little cracks. For example, according to Bell, Jesus is “often not talking about ‘beliefs’ as we think of them- he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners’ hearts.” It is true that Jesus as a Jew in the 1st Century doesn’t have the belief/conduct split of late Modernity. And that means that beliefs are not abstract separate things for Jesus. But it follows that since they are not abstract they can’t be separated from conduct and hence, dogma really does matter. What you say you believe is a part of your conduct.

And in this book, Bell never actually says what he believes. If nothing else, this book fails because it is intentionally unclear. I sense Bell is aiming for a mystical ambiguity that prompts further thought. In reality, it comes off as a committee driven book intended to make millions for all concerned.

The use of the Bible is catastrophic. Genuinely, the hermeneutical method owes more to Christopher Hitchens than you would dare to believe. Nothing is discussed in context except for stuff that he rips off straight out of Tim Keller’s recent books. In his discussion of the Cross, I genuinely have reason to doubt his commitment to any of the specific atonement models that he claims are all so important. In the most shocking claim, the Resurrection was “not a new idea”. He’s just lying now because he has discussed NT Wright’s works in other books. He at least is familiar with the ways in which Resurrection is not an idea but is an innovation. I hate to write this but it seems to me that for the sake of making a claim you can read while also checking Twitter, he warps the heart of the Gospel.

The heart of the book is something I resonate with. For Bell, the Rich Man in Luke 16 is:

alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.

This is a really interesting idea. But the book doesn’t stick with any idea long enough to develop it. And there is no hope of the kind of rigour that would be required to make any kind of dogmatic claim. At one point he claims Augustine as being on his side. Well, he doesn’t quite claim Gus. Because he never actually makes any particular claims whatsoever. But he leaves a careless reader with the impression that since Gus “acknowledged that ‘very many’ believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God,” perhaps Gus did too.

He didn’t.

He developed double predestination 1000 years before Calvin aped him.

The conversation about God making heaven full at the cost of hell’s population is long and rich in the Christian tradition and deserves attention that is careful, gracious, aspiring to fullness while being clear and audacious in conclusion. This book is none of these things. Its attention to the Bible is a bit like my attention to Irish politics; I know grown ups don’t get taken seriously without being familiar with it but I’d prefer if someone could just give me a post-it note with the opinions I should hold on it at breakfast every morning. Its argument is ill-focused and actually comes to nothing. God is love? Wahey! Forgive me for reading Stanley Hauerwas too much but tell me what that means. Its writing style is divisive and irritating.

I must confess. I do not like this, Dr. Bell.

Your Correspondent, The instant he finished it, Harper One owned his soul

PS: I really am concerned to not tear down someone who must feel torn to pieces by now. But Barth put it well. “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Had “Love Wins” been a meditation on that, how happy we’d all be.

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