One may be tempted to simply close the book at this point and be satisfied that Bell has clearly departed from orthodoxy. I almost did. Actually, had I not already declared my intentions to review this book, I may have done so. But I did, so I pushed forward. This chapter is entitled, Does God Get What God Wants? It is a trick question, because the answer is yes. The deeper question that actually answers the question is, “What does God want?” The answer to this question will fundamentally change the way you understand God. Here, Rob Bell offers his answer that question.
Before we dive into Bell’s answer, ponder that question yourself. Does God get what God wants? It’s actually a question worthy of considerable thought. With everything that happens in this world – tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, drought, disease, starvation, war – and with everything that happens to us personally – lies, broken relationships, distrust, slander, gossip, abuse – the question actually begins to take on some hefty weight. If they were able to answer, how would the roughly six million Jews who died in the Holocaust answer that question? How do the Japanese families who have lost loved ones in the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown answer that question? Let me bring it closer to home. How do victims of abuse answer that question? How do victims of our economy answer that question? This is supremely important because if these people do not understand what God actually wants, then they may conclude, with reason, that God wants them to suffer enormously and seemingly arbitrarily.
I am reminded of the scene from Bruce Almighty where Bruce’s bad day culminates with him standing on a bridge, daring God to smite him: “Smite me, almighty smiter!” Bruce had just been denied a job, for which he had worked hard and believed would be the ultimate satisfaction in his life. Ravi Zacharias said in one of his lectures that the lowest moment in life is when you achieve that which you believed would be the ultimate, and it lets you down. When that moment comes, how you answer the question dictates how you respond to the present crisis or tragedy: Does God get what God wants?
As I mentioned earlier, there is a deeper question beneath Bell’s question: What does God want? Let me be clear that I have neither the space nor the time to plumb the depths of that question. What I can offer you is a heading to guide your thoughts. Psalm 115:3 is an excellent starting place for finding our answer. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (ESV). So first off, God does whatever He is pleased to do. The next question that follows is, “What pleases God?” Isaiah 53:10 (NASB) says that it pleased the Father to crush his Son. So if God’s pleasure is found in the death of His Son, we must ask why something so horrible brings him pleasure. Do not mistake God’s pleasure in killing Jesus for a sadistic enjoyment from the actual infliction of His wounds. Rather, God’s pleasure from the death of Jesus is derived from the glory He will receive by justifying sinners through His Son. The lifting of His curse upon those who accept Jesus’ death as the final atonement for their sins, even though they continue to sin, glorifies God because at once He reveals his mercy to sinners and his justice toward sin through Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners on the cross. Mercy and justice do indeed embrace one another at the cross. That is what God wants; that is what brings Him the greatest pleasure. Does God get what He wants? Absolutely.
Enter Rob Bell. His answer to the question centers around Matthew 19:28, Acts 3:21, and Colossians 1:20. Each of these verses speak of God renewing all things, depending on what translation you use. Of course, you can predict by now where Bell is heading with his argument. Throughout the chapter, he insists that all things will include everyone who ever lived. Does God get what God wants? According to Rob, if all things includes every person that ever lived, then God will also restore them when the time for restoration arrives. End of story.
Bell inadvertently defeats his own point. There is one glaring problem with Bell’s usage of Matthew 19:28. To suit his point of view, he zooms in the phrase, “at the renewal of all things” (NIV). However, taking the entire verse into consideration more food for thought comes into view.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel” (NIV).
Judgment? If all things, including every person who ever lived, are redeemed, what need is there for judgment? By Bell’s own logic, when God restores all things, every person who ever lived will be redeemed to a state of sinless perfection, just like Christ. If no sin remains, then there is no need for further judgment. The truth is that in that day, just as Daniel prophesied, some will resurrect to eternal life and some to everlasting shame and contempt (Daniel 12:2). For the latter, it is eternal, and according to John’s prophecy, it is lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).
However, lest Bell be guilty of actually answering a question with a pointed, solid answer, he seems to backpedal somewhat as the end of the chapter nears:
“Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.” (p. 115)
After reading that statement, after everything else he said prior in this book, I was somewhat flabbergasted. I found myself feeling somewhat angry. I mean, really, if you’re going to say one thing, stick with it to the end and do not waver. After some thought, though, it made sense for Bell to say this; after all, his entire persona is built on questions and uncertainty about those things most would consider to be unquestionable. That is Postmodern-thinking 101: nothing is certain, except the fact that nothing is certain.
The one good thing about this chapter is that it does raise an important question. Does God get what God wants? This question raises an opportunity for a good, albeit deep, discussion about God’s character, his love, his mercy, his justice, and his plan for his creation. What is the purpose of our suffering? Does God desire for us to suffer? Those are incredible questions that deserve an answer. Because if God gets what God wants, who is to say that my suffering is not what he wanted? If God is all-powerful, and he does all that he pleases, how do I know that my pain is not the joy ride of a malevolent deity? People need answers to the questions their pain brings to the surface. Bell’s question, even though he asks it for a different purpose, opens a door for Christ to step into the middle of pain and declare exactly what He really wants. He wants to forgive, redeem, restore, ransom, and heal in the midst of your suffering.
One thought occurs to me as I close the review of this chapter. Have you ever heard of Pascal’s Wager? Blaise Pascal famously argued that even though God’s existence cannot be proven through reason, rational people should wager that God does exist. If God is a lie, then a life lived for him would not be wasted because essentially it is a good life. If God is real, then a life not lived for him will lose everything. This sounds rational, but it is not Biblical. Paul says that if Jesus is not raised from the dead that we are to be pitied above all men (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). So a life lived for a God that does not exist is a pitiful life. This really is the crux of the matter for a universal salvation. If there is indeed a chance for sinners to repent after death, then a person who lives for God in this life is truly pitiful. I stand with Paul on this one.