LONDON – Since its release last month, Love Wins has flown off the shelves, reaching No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and the top 10 on Amazon.
While it has clearly struck a chord with people looking for an alternative to the hellfire and brimstone concept of God, many critics have pounded the book and denounced Bell as a universalist or a heretic.
They accuse Bell of distorting biblical truths about judgment, wrath and hell, and diminishing the meaning of the blood and the cross in salvation, with potentially devastating consequences for the spiritual fate of those who embrace his perspective.
Love Wins was released in mid-March and yet the firestorm had erupted weeks earlier, when a short film announcing the book’s publication prompted a flurry of responses.
Speaking to journalists in London on Monday, Bell said it was “tough” being misunderstood, misread and “accused of all sorts of devious things.”
Asked if he found it hurtful that some people had criticized the book before it was published, he responded: “It hurts more than me.”
“Some of the things people say and the way that they act, this can’t be the way of Jesus. There’s got to be a little higher standard of civil discourse,” he said.
He added later, “My first thought is that [people] should read the book first. That was a phenomenon that I didn’t expect, that there would be that sort of level of discussion surrounding a book that nobody had read.
“So when people said [about] the controversy, I was like ‘has anyone even read the book?’ Because then there is something substantive to knock around.”
Despite the fierce criticism from some corners, Bell said others have been “extraordinarily supportive and appreciative,” and that some had been set free because they realized they could be a Christian and “ask that sort of question.”
“The Christian tradition’s quite diverse. It can handle the discussion. It can handle different perspectives. That’s part of its strength and its vibrancy.”
Regarding whether there was any moment in which he had regretted writing the book, he said: “Any moment like that has been immediately followed up with an email or phone call or someone telling me ‘hey, thanks.’
“So no. This was sort of in my bones and this is just part of the cost of capturing it and writing it down and putting it out there.”
Later in the evening, Bell got up on stage to talk about his book in front of some 3,000 people at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster.
He told them it had never been his intention to be controversial but that his book was rather about “recapturing the Gospel” and pointing out that Christianity has a “wide variety of perspectives” on judgment and reconciliation.
“I don’t think that trying to be controversial is a noble goal. I don’t know if God honors those sorts of intentions,” he said.
“I’m interested in what’s true, what can be trusted, the hunt, the discovery, the exploration, and if that turns out to be controversial, I’ll accept that, but that was never the intention.”
That exploration has led Bell to conclude that Christians should be open to the possibility that repentance can come later.
He described it as a “tension” between the “urgent, immediate call of Jesus to respond, repent, trust, believe and accept,” and the “possibilities of all things, the reconciliation of all things, the renewal of all things, [and] God’s desire for the restoration of all things.”
There is a hell, he stressed, and that hell is what people experience when they reject the love of God and choose to take a different path.
“The reason why I called the book Love Wins is that the very nature of love is freedom. You can choose, you can resist, you can reject, you can rebel against God,” he explained.
“Does God want everybody to be saved? Yes. Do we see right now people who resist this pursuing [love of God]? Yes,” he continued. “That’s why in the book I talk about hell and the reality of hell. I think we should leave room [for that] because the Bible leaves room for people to reject and resist God.”
Just like the drug addict who knows his behavior is destroying him and those he loves but chooses to carry on taking drugs instead of seeking help to overcome his addiction, he said.
“I don’t understand that. That’s why I leave room for hell as the reality of our freedom to say that I don’t want that (love of God),” the Grand Rapids, Mich., pastor said.
Although he denies being a universalist, Bell went on to say that he is also open to the possibility that repentance and, therefore salvation, could come at a point beyond this life.
Asked whether he believed in an eternal hell for people who do not respond in this lifetime to Christ, Bell said he could already see a “very living, breathing hell on earth” being lived by people right now in such forms as greed, rape, abuse, genocide and sex trafficking.
“My assumption is that people are still free to pursue such things when they die. I assume that people have that choice and that you can go on in this life and the next saying ‘no, I want nothing to do with the party, I want nothing to do with the invitation,’” he said.
Countering that, however, he said he could also read in the Scriptures of a God who wants everybody to be saved and admitted to a degree of speculation when it comes to considering what happens after we die.
“And so the question is: Does God endlessly pursue? Is there some point where God says ‘listen, you had your chance and now there is no more hope for redemption for you?’
“And I have no idea, I haven’t been there, and when I am there and see it, then I’ll tell you,” he quipped.
On a more serious note, Bell said it was important with questions like this to pause and consider where God’s heart was.
“We have justice and the reality of consequences. There are very real destructive choices and a momentum that develops. How exactly will it pan out? I don’t know I haven’t been there,” the author said. “What I do think is important is that God wants everybody to be saved and we should long for the things that God longs for.
“And when I do run into a Christian who says ‘they’re going to burn, we’re going to be ok,’ that doesn’t seem to reveal the heart of God for me, which is a longing for all people.
“And a sort of decisive, crisp ‘we’re in, they’re not, end of discussion,’ doesn’t seem to reveal the God that Jesus talks about that goes searching for the sheep and the coin and the son.”
He invited the audience to consider the writer of Revelation who described a wall around the city with a gate that isn’t locked.
“Can you at some time repent? Is that still a possibility or has God created a world where there is no hope, where he says the repentance thing doesn’t work for me anymore?” he posed.
“I’m going to assume that God creates the possibility that those [people] could actually turn and that’s all, of course, speculation, but I leave it open because it’s a beautiful picture and it’s justice.”
He continued: “That’s holding out to justice. It is crucially important that God decisively acts against all sorts of evil. Can that co-exist with all sorts of possibilities? That’s a tension I think should just be left in all humility, intact.”
Beyond all the controversy, discussion and debate, Bell was clear that the one thing he most wanted people to take away from his book was the understanding that God is love and that ideally love should be responded to “now.”
“My experience has been that just the idea of ‘maybe God loves everybody’ and truly will pursue everybody, my experience is: that unlocks,” he said.
“I have seen people just at that suggestion become alive and trust Christ out of the absolutely fantastic vision of 'God possibly has that kind of love? Well, I’m in.’”
“People are more interested in sharing their faith and telling the story because the story may actually be way better than we first realized,” he noted. “People go ‘oh, that’s a story I can tell and I can tell that story right now,’ because the God behind that story is good.”
Bell continues his book tour in Cheltenham on Tuesday. He will then head to Liverpool the following day and end his tour in Cambridge on Thursday.