[Note: You might be thinking this topic is a little out of time, and you would be right. I wrote this response a few years ago and posted it on my Goodreads account. I recently remembered that I never shared it here, so I’m getting around to it now while getting my research ready for the next extended topic I’m going to be looking at.]
This is the first book I’ve read that I would only give one star to. Being a conservative evangelical, I think it is pretty obvious that I would take serious issues with a book that denies a literal hell and teaches universalism. However, I wanted to take the time to evaluate the book on its own rather than just stick with trusted sources who have already evaluated it. That being said, there were many times I wanted to just quit reading the book because it could get so frustrating.
Bell’s style of writing is annoying to read, he very rarely actually says anything. Most of his claims and teachings in this book are hidden behind illustrations, questions, anecdotes and other literary devices.
If I could boil down Bell’s biggest problems, it would have to be these: poor interpretation of key biblical passages, lazy systematic theology, and an extremely weak view of sin.
Rather than give a traditional review/critique of this work, I opted to just respond directly to passages I took issue with.
(numbers preceding the following statements indicate page numbers/chapter numbers)
18 – One of the first instances of Bell making a poor interpretation of a passage (and taking scripture out of context, as will happen throughout the book) is in reference to the demons believing in God in the book of James. Bell tries to use this passage and others about demons to show that the Bible does not teach that a certain kind of belief is what it takes to be saved. What Bell fails to realize here is that the belief the demons have is not enough to be saved, and that true saving faith requires something much more. If bell had just spent a little more in context this should be obvious.
68,71 – After arguing that Jesus’ references to Gehenna are references to the city dump rather than a literal hell, Bell makes one of his first indirect statements that he rejects the idea of a literal hell. He says that “the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere.'”
Bell then begins to explain that Hell is just gross sin and suffering here on earth.
74 – Here is the example of lazy theology. Bell discusses the differences between Sheol, Hades, Tartarus , and the lake of fire. The conclusion Bell makes is that since there are so many differences, these notions should be rejected as teachings on an actual subject. However, if Bell had done his research, he would have seen that there are fully formed doctrines delineating each of these areas. The task of the theologian is to figure out how passages of scripture work together, not throw out entire areas of doctrine just because there are surface level discrepancies.
84 – Perhaps one of the most blatant interpretive errors in the book comes with a look at the futures of Sodom and Egypt. The Bible does speak of these nations being restored and as being cities of faith in the world. The only conclusion that can be made is that Bell is interpreting these passages as saying the people who have died in the cities throughout history, God will restore them at a future time. However, I think it should be pretty obvious from the context of these passages that what will be restored are the geopolitical cities, not the people. The cities will be restored in the millennial kingdom, but the people who died in the judgements will not be restored.
Ch. 6 – The chapter entitled “There Are Rocks Everywhere” is the chapter that solidifies this book in the realm of Heresy. The title come from the story of Moses hitting the rock and causing water to come out. Paul would later explain that the rock was a picture of Christ.
In this chapter Bell argues that the message of the gospel has long since been proclaimed to every nation, even going so far as to say that every religion worships the one true God. Even the unoriginal line of “one mountain, many paths” is used.
At one point Bell even argues that John 14.6 is inclusive rather than exclusive. He says that since Jesus only said that He was the “way,” the means by which people can be saved is left open and unrestricted. This is just flat out false and one of the most clear examples of scripture being taken out of context I have ever seen. If bell had just read the NEXT FIVE WORDS after that verse the meaning would be much more clear. “If you really knew me.” If we know Christ. Salvation comes by faith. Faith comes by putting belief and trust in certain truth claims. This truth claim is that the death of Christ is sufficient to cover our sins and restore our relationship with God. Apart from acceptance of these claims, there is no salvation.
174 – Bell argues that eternal punishment goes against the character of God. He spends time talking about God’s love, patience, and other similar attributes. But not once in the entire book does Bell say anything about God’s justice or righteousness. It is at this point that it becomes obvious that bell has an extremely low view of sin. He doesn’t seem to understand that sin affects humanity to it’s core. That it leaves us completely separated from God, and the only thing that can change that is for our sins to be covered and to be indwelt by and changed by the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, Bell has written a book that not only rejects traditional notions of heaven and hell, but rejects the gospel itself. Because of this, I have to ask all of my friends to refrain from looking to him for teaching.