The first chapter opens up with Bell expressing his doubt over the traditional Christian belief that those who do not know Christ will end up in Hell. On the first page, he writes, “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life” (1)? He goes on to show how such a belief can lead to a myriad of problems; doesn’t this mean our salvation is dependent upon others telling us about the Gospel, about being born in the right place at the right time, about accepting at the right time in life, and so on. Then he points out that there seems to be confusion amongst Christians on what it takes to go to Heaven; whether or not one needs to say a prayer, depending upon someone going to church or not, and other aspects all end up in the mix of what it means to “be saved.”
He then points out that such beliefs generally make Christians seem cold to the world. After all, Christianity becomes nothing more than a club where someone is either “in” or “out.” But in becoming cold, he argues we can oftentimes send a negative message to others, to the point that they reject Jesus because of our actions. They equate our flaws with Jesus and therefore reject Jesus, not because they hate Him, but because they hate us. In concluding the first chapter, Bell asks if people go to Hell even if they’ve never really seen Jesus in action.
Without answering any of the questions, Bell moves onto the second chapter to describe what Heaven is like. Using examples from Scripture, he seeks to demonstrate that Heaven is really a different age, not a different place. He argues that Christians are focused on “going there” when Heaven is here. Earth and Heaven will someday mix and all that is good will remain. Thus, we’ll have trades, we’ll work the fields, we’ll grow in knowledge, and we’ll live our lives, albeit without sin and without evil, and in the presence of God.
But in believing that Heaven will one day be on this earth, Bell concludes that we should act to bring Heaven to earth now. We should act as if this is a reality in the present tense rather than waiting for it to arrive. He states, “If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? (46)” Essentially, what Bell calls “Heaven” is what most Christians call the “New Earth” and the “resurrection,” though he never uses these terms. Still, he makes the point that “eternity starts now” (62).
From Heaven, Bell moves to discuss hell in chapter three. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that he does believe in Hell, though he doesn’t believe it is a literal place of fire and torture (he alludes to this on page 67 where he points out that Jesus was referring to the Jerusalem dump). Regardless, Bell believes that Hell is a place of mental anguish because we’ve rejected the love of God and must live without it. So for all the criticisms saying that Bell denies the existence of Hell, there’s no actual substance to said criticisms. While his description of Hell is one of a psychological existence, it is still a sort of existence. He believes that those who live in rebellion to God’s love will certainly experience Hell.
Bell makes the point that those who are in Hell in the stories of Jesus aren’t there because of what they believed, but because of what they did (this is an important point to remember). Thus, whether or not one believed that Jesus was God in human flesh is seemingly irrelevant, but whether one feeds the poor seems to be of the utmost relevance (82). Now, perhaps he would add some more nuance to this point in person, but in the book that is how it comes across; what we believe doesn’t matter, but how we act matters immensely.
For all his talk about Hell, however, he does believe it’s quite temporary. He points out on page 84 that even the judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah is a temporary judgment according to Ezekiel 16. He goes on to quote other passages alluding to a temple being in Egypt (a place that, at the time, was decidedly anti-God), to Israel being restored, and so on. He explains that in all the instances of His judgment, He never closes anyone off permanently. He always opens the door to reconciliation.
The flow of the book takes us to chapter four, which asks, “Does God Get What God Wants?” To Bell the answer is easy: Yes, God gets what God wants. He quotes chapters from Isaiah and Jeremiah to show that God gets what He wants, that He does whatever He pleases. From this, Bell points out that God wants all people to be redeemed and saved. Bell concludes that this means that because God gets what He wants, all people will eventually be saved. Bell writes,
“At the heart of this 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. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (106)
In other words, it’s quite inevitable that we will turn to God. We can sit and pout in Hell as long as we want, God will be standing there with arms wide open displaying His love until we give in. Why? Because God gets what God wants.
In chapter five Bell makes the leap to deal with what Christ accomplished on the cross. He points out that we abuse the image of the cross, which can lead to a misunderstanding of the cross (121). He discusses the different theories of atonement and says that each theory is basically built on a metaphor about the cross, saying that the “cross is like…” and then describes it. Thus, all the theories are true in metaphorical ways, but not in real ways (127-128).
But if the cross matters, how can people be saved without knowing about the cross? Bell makes an inadvertent attempt to answer that question with chapter six, where he basically says there have been instances where Jesus was present without people knowing it (143). He states, “The Greeks called it zoe, the mystics call it ‘Spirit,’ and Obi-Wan called it ‘the Force.’ (144)” He writes that the energy that gives life to everything is called the Word of God (145) in order to show that this ‘force’ or ‘energy’ isn’t impersonal, but quite personal. He argues that this energy is in all of creation and that when Jesus said “I am the way” in John 14:6, He meant this universally:
“What he [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” (154)
Bell makes it quite clear that Jesus is still the only way to Heaven. The proclamations that Bell is a pluralist fall short as Bell states quite emphatically that salvation comes through Christ; but that salvation will occur for everyone. As Bell writes, “People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. (158)”
After explaining that everyone eventually is saved, Bell points out in chapter seven that to argue otherwise is to miss the entire point of the Gospel. He uses the parable of the “Prodigal Son” as an example of how both the older son and younger son are saved. He points out that the older son views his sonship as slavery, as something he has to earn, and that since the younger son didn’t earn it the younger son doesn’t deserve to be called a son. This leads to bitterness. Bell points out that many Christians view salvation this way; that because someone believed one thing and not another, such a person doesn’t deserve salvation. Bell then makes a shockingly condemning statement about those who believe in a permanent Hell. He writes,
“Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (174)”
Bell’s essential argument in chapter seven is that if God sends people to Hell, then we can’t love God because that God is unlovable. He believes such a God to be bi-polar and incapable of true love.
Chapter eight concludes the book with Bell imploring his readers not to become bitter about formerly believing in Hell or become bitter towards those that still do. He argues that all of this is a learning process, but ultimately we’re supposed to stop judging people so we don’t miss out on rewards and opportunities to relate to other people (196). Thus, the purpose of being a Christian is to fully experience God’s love and share it amongst others, though everyone ultimately will.