This is the first installment of my review of and reflection on the views articulated in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. My plan is to review one or two chapters in each blog entry over the next several weeks. This week I am discussing chapter 2, “Here Is the New There,” which is his discussion of heaven.
Bell begins by calling into question “the fundamental story” of heaven that pervades evangelical Christianity, namely, that it is somewhere else, some other-worldly place. Bell points out that in the Gospels “eternal life” is more about quality of life than duration of life, and that it primarily relates to the kingdom of God that is both now and later, both present and future.
Much of Bell’s discussion about heaven occurs around his exposition of a conversation Jesus has with a rich man who asks Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30). My intention here is not to critique Bell’s interpretation of all the angles and aspects of that story, but to reflect on what Bell says about heaven.
Bell is careful to point out that the promises of the Hebrew prophets anticipated a time when this world “would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth” (p. 40). Bell rightly emphasizes that “Jesus’ first century Jewish world” understood these promises of a new world to be connected to this world, not a future life somewhere else.
Bell also rightly points out that in Matthew’s Gospel, “the kingdom of heaven” is the equivalent to the phrase “kingdom of God.” Matthew substitutes the word “heaven” for “God” in keeping with the Jewish custom of avoiding the common use of God’s name. But Matthew is speaking of the same earthly reality, not some other world.
In other words, Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God, which by the way, was the central theme of his preaching and teaching, is about the transformation of this world, not some other world. And this process of transformation began with Jesus. Bell makes clear in a way and style that is unique to Bell that it’s all about transformation—personal, communal, and global— now and in the age to come.
This is all good stuff, but I would like to have seen a more nuanced discussion on the subject of the kingdom of God, which subject is central and critical to Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 2 of my book, A Faith Worth Living, titled “God’s Dream for the World,” I develop this in more detail.
While Jesus announced the kingdom of God against the backdrop of the promises of the Hebrew prophets, he infused the concept with a more expansive, flexible, and dynamic meaning. In some passages the phrase “kingdom of God” functions as an intensive symbol for the healing, transforming power of God. There are deep inner, spiritual, and personal dimensions to the good news of God reigning in the world, which is why Jesus spoke of dying to the ego, being born again, being pure in heart, hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice, loving one’s enemies, and the necessity of repentance.
Bell gets at this toward the end of the chapter. He says that the kingdom of God relates to “an all pervasive dimension of being, a bit like oxygen for us or water for a fish.” He writes, “Jesus lived and spoke as if the whole world was a thin place for him, with endless dimensions of the divine infinitesimally close, with every moment and every location simply another experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time” (p. 60-61). This is excellent, but there could have been more clarity and it could have been all tied together better. For those interested in exploring what it means to live in this divine reality I recommend the writings of Richard Rohr, especially Everything Belongs and The Naked Now.
Bell emphasizes that our calling/task is to partner with God to make this world “a new and better world.” Bell may be at his best when his writing reflects his pastoral concerns. He writes, “Jesus calls disciples in order to teach us how to be and what to be; his intention is for us to be growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility, so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now” (p. 51).
Bell offers some discussion of the intermediate state—between the time when we die and the time of resurrection, when heaven and earth becomes one. Referencing Jesus’ words to the dying thief about the promise of Paradise and Paul’s words to the Philippians that dying meant being with Christ, Bell acknowledges that there are those “in heaven” with God now, but without a body. Bell argues that "Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now" (p. 59).
I felt that Bell needed a more carefully nuanced articulation of this aspect of heaven. Of course, it is difficult to be clear on a subject that Scripture is somewhat unclear about. My discussion of this in A Faith Worth Living may be helpful here:
“Heaven has a rather diverse and ambiguous history of interpretation among the Jews. In a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, heaven (or heavens, in Hebrew it is always plural) refers to the canopy covering the earth. In other texts it encompasses all that is above the earth. An ancient worldview that is sometimes reflected in the Scriptures imagined heaven as a dimension of reality corresponding to earthly reality . . . During the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in a plurality of heavens or levels of heavenly reality, equating the last level (the third level in some systems, the seventh in others) with Paradise, a holding place for the righteous dead. In Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth, he refers to a visionary experience or revelation he had, where he was caught up to “the third heaven,” which he calls “Paradise,” where he heard things that he was not permitted to repeat (2 Cor 12:1–4). This is undoubtedly the meaning of Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel to the dying thief who was crucified beside him. The thief asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, and Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43). “Paradise” is not to be equated with the kingdom, but it is one aspect or dimension of it. This may be what John’s Gospel is referring to when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I will come again and will take you to myself” (John 14:1–3). This reality—referred to as the “third heaven,” “paradise,” and the “Father’s house”—was not the hope or destiny imagined by Jesus when he announced that the kingdom of God/heaven had come near. Yet this seems to be the dominant expectation of most Christians” (pp. 29-30).
While this aspect of heaven is not completely clear, what is clear, as Bell points out, is that the redemptive goal anticipated by the prophets, proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, claimed and expected by Jesus’ early followers, and should be our dream, hope, and calling today, is a world of restorative justice and peace, renewed, redeemed, and made whole.
I am grateful that a pastor of a mega-church in the evangelical tradition is finally calling evangelicals to pay attention to the gospel that Jesus proclaimed, taught, embodied, and died for.