‘Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to get to heaven’ or ‘what happens when you switch off before the end of the story Jesus is telling.’
We don’t spend enough time thinking about heaven so any book that devotes 40 pages to the subject is a good thing, or at least should be. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a book that wants to take a fresh look at the Church’s understanding of heaven and hell. The promotional video that kicked off a huge debate did so by raising a variety of questions that Bell sets out to answer in the book.
Bell’s claim is that the church has got heaven and hell wrong and that it is time to set straight the story Jesus came to tell and to reclaim it.
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
I’ve decided to start my review with the chapter on Heaven. Why? Well it’s the longest in the book, easily the best chapter in the book.and also the least controversial. There are still serious problems with even this chapter 3 of which are highlighted below.
How should we think about heaven?
Bell starts by questioning the evangelical understanding that he inherited as heaven as somewhere else; as somewhere other-worldly, disconnected and unrelated to our present lives. In the chapter he challenges two big assumptions evangelicals carry around with them.
Heaven as somewhere else.
Heaven as something else. Something unreal. ‘harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.’ Heaven as a never-ending church service!
Bell turns to Jesus and his encounter with a rich young man in Matthew 19 . The man asks Jesus a great question ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
Bell is curious as to why Jesus doesn’t simply tell this man the ‘gospel’. Why doesn’t he call on him to repent and believe in Jesus but rather say ‘if you want to enter life, obey the commandments’
He suggests that maybe Jesus bottled it and ‘blew a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity? (p.29)
But here is Bell’s surprising conclusion:
When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t’ asking about how to get to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do. (p,30)
Jesus, Bell suggests, is not interested in heaven as much as he is concerned to teach about ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’
We might call them ‘eras’ or ‘periods of time’; the age – the one we’re living in – and the age to come.
And if we are to understand Jesus’s teaching on heaven Bell says we need to rediscover the connection between these two ages.
1) Heaven-on-earth…Life in the age to come will be life on this earth
The first connection is that we will not spend this age and the next in different places. Heaven is not someplace else. We will spend the next age in the same place as this – a renewed creation. As the prophets of the Old Testament confirmed life in the age to come will be life in a perfected, glorified world. This world but this world free from evil and suffering eg. ‘rape. Greed. Injustice.’
But in restoring this world and renewing it the prophets conclusion ‘is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time’.
Bell recognises that in order to renew this creation God will bring justice. God says. ‘Enough’.
As those who share in the responsibility for making the world the mess that it is we need not only God’s word of judgement for us to have hope but ‘promises about mercy and grace.’
So here is the conclusion to the question of Is Heaven somewhere else?
When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife – any of that- it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’ first-century Jewish world. They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.
No why is this so important to Bell?
Because eschatology drives ethics.
‘How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.’ When we realise that it is in this world that we will spend eternity we will give ourselves, in our actions, to anticipating the future. You might say even begin to realise it or bring it into being now.
So ‘taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now.’
Bell’s agenda for social action is driven by this understanding.
People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.
Bell recognises that the consequence of seeing heaven as someplace else is to have no concern for the world in which we live now.
A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven.
If we are to work in this world inanticipation of the next why should that line of continuity not work the other way too? Bell answers the question ‘what will we do in heaven?’ in an intriguing way when he suggests ‘one possible answer is to simply ask: “What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?’ Perhaps then the very things that God has made us able to do now we will put to use then!
It seems to me that Bell is on to something here and certainly heaven is more real and more tangible in Bell’s description than it is if we only think of heaven as harps and clouds.
His definition of heaven-on-earth on is well worth quoting in full
‘Heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place – that state in which nothing is required, needed, or missing – and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world.’
So far it’s quite hard not to like what Bell is saying. Certainly it has echo’s of CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce and NT Wright’s Surprised by hope. There is a clear overlap with good Reformed theology too in the concern to demonstrate the continuity between this world and the next and the call to transform culture as part of the on-going cultural mandate.
As I said at the beginning it’s the best chapter in the book. It’s good in the way CS Lewis is good at describing the life of the world to come in ways that are meaningful. All of that said the chapter is not without some significant problems.
Three theological concerns
1) The flames of heaven?
Bell not only wants to bring heaven to earth in the future but in some sense he wants to bring heaven and hell together.
In the section that begins ‘Heaven comforts, but it also confronts’ Bell describes heaven will be a place of on-going transformation.
He argues that we will not be the finished article when the new age comes. He certainly has in mind a ‘growing up into maturity’ idea in which we will have to grasp new realities of living in a renewed world as new people. We will need to discover and learn what it is to live in a new and unspoilt creation in relationship with God.
But Bell goes further. Along with the words ‘heaven comforts, but it also confronts’ he describes how ‘heaven has teeth, flames, edges.’ Heaven, in Bell’s theology, is a place where our character flaws and defects are confronted and we are changed. There will be ‘Flames in heaven’
By way of example he considers how a racist in heaven will find his racist attitude altered because heaven is a place where they cannot survive.
But in what way is it biblical to say, as Bell does
‘Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes.’
This is followed by a second even more disturbing paragraph that needs quoting in full
Much of the speculation about heaven – and, more important, the confusion – comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who “know” everything. But our very common to hear talk about heaven framed in terms of who ‘gets in’ or how to ‘get in.’ What we find in Jesus teaching, over and over and over again, is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven.
2) The surprise of heaven… is salvation by works?
The second major concern is when he introduces a theme that has led some critics to label him a universalist, when he argues ‘Heaven will be full of the unexpected’.
Taking a few sample parables of Jesus and then a large dollop of artistic license his claim is that there will be some who after death will be surprised at their welcome into heaven. But for Bell this surprise is after death!
In fact so surprising might heaven turn out to be that it might be populated with people who had no faith in God AT ALL.
Think about the single mom, trying to raise kids, work multiple jobs, and wrangle child support out of the kids’ father, who used to beat her. She’s faithful, true, and utterly devoted to her children. In spite of the circumstances, she never loses hope that they can be raised in love and go on to break the cycle of dysfunction and abuse. She never goes out, never takes a vacation, never has enough money to buy anything for herself. She gets a few hours of sleep and then repeats the cycle of cooking, work, laundry, bills, more work, until she falls into bed late at night, exhausted.
Bell concludes ‘With what she has been given she has been faithful‘ because ’she is a woman of character and substance. She never gives up. She is kind and loving even when she’s exhausted.
She can be trusted. Is she the last who Jesus says will be first?‘
Now no one would disagree with Bell that this women loves and serves her children. But ask this question ‘Does this women love and serve God?’ and Jesus’s answer is a sad ‘No.’ She does act towards her children in a way that if done for God would be commendable. In her relationship with her children she is a remarkable example. But Bell never asks ‘What is her attitude to God?’ That does not feature.
She may love her kids but she is living in God’s world without reference to him, independent of him, without giving thanks to him.
How then can Bell describe her as ‘being faithful’ to WHOM has she been faithful? To the God she has ignored? Hardly.
What it is that God is looking for. Is God looking for hard workers or repentent worshippers! Is he looking for people who have tried their hardest and done their best to love their family or is he looking for those who recognise that their greatest moral failure has been an unwillingness to love the Lord their God. Is God really OK with an atheist who rejects his love by refusing his Son even if he loves his own children?
The criteria for entrance into heaven, Jesus reiterates time and again, is our response to him not our love of our fellow men (exemplary as that might be).
3) When exactly is heaven?
‘The surprise isn’t just regarding the who; it’s also about the when of heaven.’
For Bell heaven doesn’t await us only on the final judgement day, nor even at the moment we die, but it begins now.
Sometimes ‘when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.’
Bell then returns to the story of Jesus’s encounter with the rich man that has been woven through the chapter. But he does so in a truly extraordinary way – by changing the meaning of the passage by stopping the story half-way through.
Many of the mistakes in this book come simply from taking Bible passages out of their contexts.
So Bell wants to suggest that Jesus is much more concerned about our lives now than our lives to come when he writes;
‘Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now.’
‘When Jesus talks with the rich man, he has one thing in mind: he wants the man to experience the life of heaven, eternal life, “aeonian” life, now.’
But look at the passage and it’s simply impossible to come to such a conclusion from the text. Eternal Life, as it almost always is in Jesus’s words, in this passage is clearly about the world to come.
Jesus tells the man if he gives away his possessions he will have ‘treasures in heaven.’
The disciples ask the very question that Bell says we’re not to ‘who then can be saved?’ ie they are deeply concerned to know who is in and how? That of course is the whole purpose of the story. Bell asks at the beginning of the chapter why Jesus doesn’t just explain the gospel? The answer is that Jesus is showing that the law will not take you to glory. By his questions and then his challenge to give up all in order to follow Jesus, Jesus shows how only God can bring a change of heart that will turn to Christ ahead of all this world has to offer.
Jesus reply ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.’ Notice the tense ‘will’ receive.
Bell has some good things to say on the where of heaven. He is on much shaker ground on the who of heaven and whilst not wrong his focus is misplaced on the when of heaven.
The glaring omission?
But having said all of this what is most surprising about a chapter on heaven is how little is said of heaven as the place where we shall be with Christ, where we shall see him face to face, where we shall be like him.
Heaven is not just a grand community project that God will be pleased with. Heaven is an opportunity to worship and enjoy our God forever.
Heaven is to be with Jesus. Why is that not the centre of a book by a Christian pastor on heaven?
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