Does Love Win? – Part 2
A Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins – Heaven
Disclaimer: Over the next several posts I will be posting my thoughts on Love Wins. I want to issue a disclaimer that I have nothing but respect for Rob Bell as a writer and student of Scripture. I may not agree with all of his thoughts on this blog, but I hope to communicate my disagreement with respect and with the love of Christ. If you need to catch up, here are my pervious thoughts in this series: Part One
Chapter 2 of Love Wins deals primarily with the concept of heaven and shall be the subject of my post today. Right away, Rob Bell digs into commonly accepted views of heaven. He uses a famous painting of a cross bridging the gap between “here” (earth) and “there” (heaven). He explores the nebulous concepts of heaven that float around: images of people sitting on clouds, Peter at the Pearly Gates, and other such nonsense. I loved his response to one pastor’s assertion about heaven. Bell says,
“I’ve heard pastors answer, ‘It will be unlike anything we can comprehend, like a church services that goes on forever,’ causing some to think, ‘That sounds more like hell.’” (24)
I have to confess that I represent the “some” in that quote. I am a worship leader. I lead a student ministry. But if I’m being honest, an eternity-long worship service doesn’t exactly sound heavenly. I remember hearing eternity described this way when I was a teenager and thinking to myself, “but what about baseball, Sega Genesis, and hanging with friends?” I was buried in guilt feeling like Heaven didn’t sound all that interesting to me.
Bell goes on to bring up the incredibly complex and somewhat puzzling exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. The rich young ruler brings up a very common question that we hear today. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”. I really liked Rob Bell’s response. He said,
“The rich man’s question, then, is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to give a clear, straightforward answer to the only question that ultimately matters for many” (26).
If you read on, you see that Jesus does not do that. Instead He engages in a somewhat confusing dialog. He lists five of ten commandments that need to be followed (none of them, oddly, are the first four commandments dealing with relationship with God). Rob Bell raises a fascinating question that somewhat defies typical “evangelism” strategies:
“Shouldn’t Jesus have given a clear answer to the man’s obvious desire to know how to get to heaven when he dies? Is that why he walks away–because Jesus blew a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity? How does such a simple question–one Jesus could have answered so clearly from a Christian perspective–turn into such a convoluted dialogue involving commandments and treasures and wealth and ending with the man walking away?” (29)
He goes on to say,
“When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life’ he isn’t asking about how to go 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.
Heaven, for Jesus was deeply connected with what he called ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.’” (30)
This final statement is a central argument in Bell’s view of heaven, the mysterious concept of “heaven on earth”. Bell then goes into a lengthy history of Jewish thought on Heaven that was actually not new to me. Last year I took a grad class called, “Christological Foundations of Youth Ministry” in which we studied the 1st century views of heaven. Bell somewhat sums up this historical view when he says,
“What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one. The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven. The day when earth and heaven will be the same place.” (42)
In Bell’s words, heaven in a future sense is earth restored to God’s original plan. Today and “someday” are integrally related. Bell asserts that Jesus’ urging of the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor was that in doing so he could free himself from his bondage to “stuff” and go about bringing heaven on earth NOW.
I really liked Bell’s challenge of how we view possessions.
“But a crown, much like a mansion or a car, is a possession. There’s nothing wrong with possessions; it’s just that they have value to us only when we use them, engage them, and enjoy them. They’re nouns that mean something only in conjunction with verbs.
Thats why wealth is so dangerous; if you’re not careful you can easily end up with a garage full of nouns.” (44)
Now matters, not just “someday”. In this, I couldn’t agree with Bell more. His belief that heaven is not a “someday only” or a “somewhere” concept pushed him to believe that our focus should be on working towards “on earth as it is in heaven” now. This means caring about the poor, the sick, the hurting, the environment, not just the “lost” who don’t have an “eternal life ticket.” This means acting as Christ did; reaching out to the marginalized with love, hope, and joy.
All this brings us to what I believe is the crux of Bell’s argument. We need to stop focusing on “someday” at the expense of today. He sums this up by saying,
“Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.” (45)
He goes on to say,
“It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jeus taught us to pray: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die.” (45)
Ok, so this is basically my summary on Bell’s view of heaven. It is not a “somewhere” in the clouds; it is earth being restored to and by God. It is what we are working to advance while on earth (i.e. advance the kingdom of God). I can’t encourage you enough to read this chapter for yourself and wrestle with his implications.
I was a little frustrated that Bell seemed to dance around the subject of what actually happen when we die. I found myself confused as to what his stance was. Are we “beamed” to the a future where heaven on earth is a reality? Is there a magical “holding room” or “waiting lounge” so to speak? If I had to make a guess, Rob Bell didn’t elaborate on this because, well, he isn’t all that concerned about “someday”. His opinion is that we need to be concerned about right now. To an extent, I agree with him on this. Earth is not somewhere we are looking to “escape”. If it is, then are we saying that it is not good enough for us? God is present here, now. Jesus desires a meaningful, life-altering relationship with us here, now. Jesus is found in jail needing a visit, hungry needing food, naked needing clothes right here, right now. Today matters.
In closing, I didn’t find Rob Bell’s views on heaven to be all that controversial. His views are commonly held by many theologians that I have studied, and I think his desire to focus on the “now” to be refreshing and Christ-honoring. His views were well-researched and described much better than my recap. I look forward to hearing some more discussion on this subject from others who have read his book.
What are your thoughts on Rob Bell’s view of heaven? Do you agree? Disagree?
previous posts in this series: