This, of course, is true; there are a number of biblical passages that reflect a universal, inclusive emphasis. A central component in an inclusive gospel that I affirm again and again in my book, A Living Faith: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, is that we are all children of God and God’s steadfast love toward all people is that of a Parent for a child. The way I like to put it: We are all the daughters and sons of God, but not all of us have claimed our identity or are living in light of that reality.
However, it is important to acknowledge the dualistic, exclusivistic passages as well. And given the apocalyptic milieu in which the Jesus movement was born, there are many such passages in the New Testament. What is needed (which Bell does not offer) is an adequate hermeneutic to account for and deal with the contradictions. John Dominic Crossan, in his book God and Empire observes that in the biblical tradition, sometimes in the same book, are two very different versions of how God will cleanup the world and usher in God’s kingdom (see pp. 78-95). The Bible has many dualistic, retributive, vengeful texts, as well as inclusive, gracious texts with a universal trajectory. On what basis will we choose which vision is best reflective of God’s will/plan for the world?
Bell rightly raises the question of human freedom in connection with God’s desire to save all. He writes, “God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (pp. 103-04). He points out that at the heart of the universal perspective “is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence” (p. 107).
That is my position, and as Bell points out, I am not alone; “there is a long tradition” of Christians who hold to this view. In interview after interview Bell denies that he is a universalist, because he cannot argue conclusively that all will eventually repent and turn to God, given the reality of human freedom. And that, of course, is true. However, his denial does not tell the rest of the story. He asks, “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” (p. 109). And he says that the story of God’s love reaching everyone “is a better story . . . bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” (p. 111).
We who are hopeful universalists have to allow for human freedom and the possibility that some may become so hardened and pervaded by evil that they would never choose the good, though we believe that God’s love will eventually bring everyone to repentance. And it seems that this is Bell’s hope too, if not his belief.
One of the reasons I believe that all persons will eventually be changed relates to the way numerous factors influence human freedom. Bell does not address this, but a multitude of biological, temporal, cultural, and social factors impact and restrict human freedom. My daughter who has Downs Syndrome has her freedom severely limited by genetics. The child subjected to acute neglect and abuse will be greatly restricted in his or her freedom to live an emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy life. The person who has made many evil choices and whose conscience is numb may be difficult to influence. But given enough time and different contexts and influences, it is reasonable to believe that even the most distorted, twisted, sadistic psyches can be redeemed and transformed by God’s love.
Toward the end of the chapter Bell turns the question around and asks, “Do we get what we want?” He answers yes. If we want evil, then we can have evil along with its consequences. If we want love, we can have that too, says Bell. The problem with this is that we do not always know what we want. Given the ways the Domination System can beat us down and the ways our freedom can be impeded, we can easily become deceived, deluded, and confused. God is always trying to lure us away from the evil into the good, even if evil is what we think we want.
So I cannot agree with Bell’s conclusion: “That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (p. 119).
It is true that love cannot be manipulated or forced, and it always allows for human freedom. But if we want evil and get evil, then love does not win, because it is not what love wants. God’s love wants/wills our good, our healing and transformation, and God’s love will do whatever God can do without violating human freedom to accomplish this. (This raises questions about whether God voluntarily or involuntarily self-limits in regard to human freedom or whether, as in process theology, God is not omnipotent; but these questions are beyond the scope of this review.)
God’s love does not win if God is not able to eventually, working with human freedom and all the ways that human freedom is impacted, limited, and influenced, bring all God’s children home safely. Only then does God get what God wants and only then is God’s love fully satisfied.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his book, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, has a good word: “In this Spirit of the resurrection I can here and now wholly live, wholly love and wholly die, for I know with certainty that I shall wholly rise again. In this hope I can love all created things, for I know that none of them will be lost” (p. 87). When love gathers all in and none is lost, love wins.
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