This book subverts the traditional Evangelical Christian book (and there are more of these 'traditional Evangelical Christian books' than there are 'unchurched' people in China) by using the same standard technique (strict Biblical exposition) but producing very 'different results'. Whether this subversion is 'inspired' or 'contrarian' (or a mixture of both) is a great question.
No doubt, this book is driving many Evangelical Christians 'nuts'. "What is the smart alec contrarian doing in our midst?". Evangelical Christians are well versed in 'fighting the enemy' of 'would-be theologians' that don't accept the Bible as divinely inspired and inerrant. But how do you fight this type of 'friendly fire'? Heck, the author even makes the traditional 'come to Jesus' 'altar call' at the end of this book. Well, I imagine one could Google all manner of detailed debunking of the author's Biblical interpretations. I understand that the dreaded 'H' word (heresy) is being used against the author.
Although I am familiar with just about all Bible passages and stories used by the author(Bell) in this book, I can't claim to be expert enough to debunk or support his Biblical exposition. And I am not going to do an exhaustive personal study on the 'validity' of Bell's interpretation of the Bible. But Bell's exposition (and interpretations) seem pretty valid to me. And I don't recall reading a book where I came away from the book so marvelled at the author's intelligence.
What are the abovementioned 'different results'? Bell is not always easy to pin down. He seems to be a Universalist (all people eventually end up in Heaven), but then he has refuted the idea that he is a Universalist (in interviews after publishing of this book). Also, Bell seems to be saying (but not directly) that one can be an 'unintential Christian' (i.e. not a self proclaimed Christian but a 'sort of honorary Christian' due to their good heart and/or their good works). This 'unintentional Christian' concept has to be disturbing many Evangelical Christians. What is the point of missionary work (a central concept of Evangelical Christianity) if the missionary might be 'less Christian' than the target of the mission work?
Bell is aware of his vagueness and even defends it (after all didn't Jesus very often offer vague answers to questions or, better yet, didn't Jesus sometimes answer a question with another question). And FWIW I am 'cool with it' with regards to Bell's use of vagueness. Do we have to have clear answers to every question?
But there is a thin line between vagueness and coyness. Bell crosses this line with regards to the title of the book. I think that the title implies a decisiveness on "the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived" (as if a human could be decisive about this), but Bell just discusses the subject and is coy about the answer with regards to "the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived". "Bait and switch" seems to be at work with regards to the title.
Correspondingly, I am disappointed that this book did not answer the most relevant spiritual question of our age: Because of his transformation at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
, is the Grinch going to go to Heaven?Disclosure: I am a 'struggling Christian' that can't escape the central message (and reality) of Jesus Christ, but I struggle to find inspiration or bliss within the Christian experience. And it would be correct to call me a 'Contrarian'. So this book is right in my wheelhouse.
Despite this book being right in my wheelhouse, I can't say that I really liked this book that much. I often read books in similar fashion to my watching of sporting events. I am looking for something to root for. I am not really rooting for Bell. He exhibits a 'cocksure strut' that constantly irritates me. As revolutionary as this book might be (in its production of 'different results' from strict Biblical exposition), Bell is not 'revolutionary' in any kind of display of humility. When examining the tough questions that this book examines, a 'humble attitude' seems to be the 'right and true attitude'. Bell is just so certain of all of his conclusions: a regular know-it-all. Bell logically realizes (and acknowledges) that he is 'standing on the shoulders of Giants', but that realization doesn't infuse itself throughout his writing.
I just read Lying Awake
by Mark Salzman
, which is a fictional account of a nun's search for God. Man, that is such a humble, gentle and warm book and the difference between the tone of that book and the tone of this book is jarring. It is the like difference between the natural sounds one might hear in a remote meadow and the sound of big city traffic.
Another book that I read recently is Head Trip
by Jeff Warren
. Warren wrote about states of consciousness and, as part of his book, he undertook experiments to go through each state of consciousness. Likewise, I think Bell should have injected more of his life into this book, instead of relying foremost just on his exposition to hand us 'words on tablets', so to speak. I think Bell should have found a way to make this more of a moving book (a book of 'the heart') and less of an intellectual exercise. Granted, this IMO is a pretty kick-a** intellectual exercise.
But here I am being critical of a pretty good book and its author. For all I know, Bell is the most loving and caring person ever. And here I am calling him an egomaniac. Shame on me.
For me, the best argument for Universalism in this book is the simplest. Let me paraphrase it: God wants all to be saved, God's loving is infinite and beyond our comprehension, God is all powerful, so what man could stop God from achieving what God wants. Obviously, the prerequisite to this argument is a basic acceptance of the Christian faith.
I understand that Bell says that he is not a universalist, so maybe I am missing something here (as I interpret this book to be advocating Universalism).
Let me offer my layman's prophecy: Bell's more tolerant and accepting interpretation of the Bible will make it 'big-time'. In the future (10 years perhaps), there will many Christian churches (with 'built-in' Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts and stuff) that subscribe to Bell's teaching. This movement (strict Biblical interpretation combined with acceptance and tolerance) is going to be a major movement within the overall Christian Church. I think that many current Evangelical Christians are going to find it irresistible that they can hold their biblical beliefs and still believe that their nice and thoughtful Atheist neighbor is going to Heaven. And the presence of a Dunkin' Donuts in the church will increase the irresistibility (and 'seal the deal') for these same Evangelical Christians. On a side note, I am aware that there is a small movement (within the Evangelical Christian Church) to remove donuts from the church experience. I prophesy that this movement will fail. Our bodies may indeed be temples of the Lord, but there is room in the temple for a delicious donut or two. And, of course, those donuts need to be washed down with coffee.