'For whom the Bell Tolls…' Part Two for Heaven's Sake

Note: See also Part 1 of this chapter-by-chapter review of “Love Wins.”

Chapter Two of Rob Bell’s new book is about Heaven, and it is a much longer chapter than chapter one (pp. 21-62).  And almost from the outset, we have a category mistake.  Rob is right that there is not a lot of discussion in the NT about ‘dying and going to heaven’.  It is a mistake however to equate heaven with everlasting life, which does indeed begin here and now.  It is important to say from the outset that I am not critiquing this work as a work of systematic theology or even unsystematic theology.  I am dealing with the theological and ethical underpinnings and presuppositions which appear to be driving the poetic presentation.

Heaven, by definition is the dwelling place of God, from which God created the universe.  Heaven is not a part of the material universe, nor can you see it from here.  Heaven is not merely the top level of the sky.   Now it is true that the Hebrew term shammayim ‘heavens’ plural  are a part of material creation,  are something God made.    But that is a different matter, a material matter, not to be confused with ‘Heaven’ with a capital H.  ‘Heaven’  does not begin here and now for anyone, including Christians.  Heaven can wait.  Everlasting life does begin in the here and now.  Heaven is the place where God’s kingdom, his divine saving rule is already completely in force and real.  Here on earth, we are still praying for God’s full reign to fully come as it already exists in Heaven.  It is not theologically helpful to jumble up Heaven, the heavens, and everlasting life.

This chapter begins with a personal story of Rob’s about a painting in his granny’s house — a painting of the saved walking across a Walmart sized cross into heaven and over the Abyss below.  In his interview with Martin Bashir last week Rob said that he totally owned up to the fact that some, at least, of this book, is about his reacting to his rather conservative Christian upbringing.  Perhaps Rob Bell and Bart Ehrman could share stories and commiserate.  But whenever you do theology as psychotherapy to exorcise the ghosts of the past, theology ends up getting shafted.  You don’t exegete the Bible out of your own past — troubled or otherwise.  If you make this mistake (and we all make it to one extent or another), anthropology and psychology take the place of theology, and in the end Jesus or God ends up looking strangely like your own reflection when you looked in a well full of beautiful clear water.  It has been rightly said that one of the problems with the scholarly quests for the historical Jesus is that in many cases our biography becomes His history.  Not good.  I worry about this when it comes to Rob as well.

The ‘Heaven’ chapter is in many ways a good chapter.  It rightly reminds us: 1) that the real focus of the NT is not on dying and going to heaven; 2) that the focus is on the future coming merger between heaven and earth, and our final destiny is not somewhere out there without a body, but somewhere down here in a resurrected body in the new Jerusalem; 3) Rob is right that we have foretastes of glory divine now — we do experience everlasting life, peace, joy, love etc. from God now.  All this is quite true;  4) He is also right that the Greek term aion can refer to an age in time, and yes, Jesus and others talked about ‘this age and the age to come’ and the Gospel writers used that word to describe.  However aionian and aion are not the same word, though they share the same root.  Aionian would appear to refer to an age or something infinitely extended, or extended without limit—hence the translation ‘everlasting’.

It is of course true that sometimes the term ‘heaven’ in the NT is a circumlocution for God, so a pious Jew would not mispronounce the word or name of God.  This however is not of much relevance to answering the questions of what is heaven, and where is heaven, and when in heaven’s name is heaven showing up on earth.  Rob does affirm a ‘heaven’ out there,  and a coming ‘heaven’ down here.  But where the confusion comes is jumbling together heaven and everlasting life.  Yes, we can experience some of the characteristics of heaven here and now — like love, joy, and peace.  But those characteristics are not heaven itself any more than everlasting life is heaven itself.  Everlasting life is something we will need to dwell in heaven on earth forever, but it is not that new creation, that final heaven on earth reality itself.  In other words,  for heaven’s sakes, let’s sort out our theological thesaurus.

For further discussion of the Rob Bell book at Patheos, see:

Part 1 of this series at Bible and Culture.

Jesus Creed, “Tony Jones and Greg Boyd Respond to Rob Bell

Timothy Dalrymple, “A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy

Jeff Cook, “Rob Bell and CS Lewis

Thomas F. Kidd, “For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Audacity of Love Wins

The “Love Wins” book feature at the Patheos’ Book Club

  • http://www.indybikehiker.com John Hay, Jr.

    I keep wondering why theologians and so-called religious leaders feel a need to make some profound and/or critical response to Rob Bell’s book. Self-justification? Self-protection? Too bad they have not thought creatively enough to be aware of nuances in the current American mindset to be able to offer anything compelling, inviting, or noticeable themselves. Instead, they take armchair potshots and verbose surmises at a guy who’s in the trenches offering grace in context.

  • http://theocentrist.wordpress.com Paul Bishop

    I look forward to this series. I’m finding disconnect in all the rhetoric between Bell/Bell’s supporters and Bell’s critics, so fairly reviewing each chapter of his actual book is helpful.

  • Craig

    John Hay Jr.,

    “in context”?

    Whether or not Bell is using scripture in its proper context is what is in question. Why are you opposed to critical analysis? Self-justification? Self-protection? And what does the “current American mindset” have to do with good biblical exegesis and theology? I don’t mean to be harsh here, but your post seems to be an “armchair potshot” at Dr. Witherington.

  • http://www.indybikehiker.com John Hay, Jr.

    God forbid that Ben and the myriad theologians (and their disciples) who have undertaken to critique and criticize and analyze and diminish and dismiss Rob Bell’s relatively benign offering should ever be questioned regarding either the “why” of their critiques (if they don’t think Rob Bell should be taken seriously, why bother?) or manner in which they are criticizing. Ben’s is one of the more gracious responses, it seems to me, but, still, it feels reactive and overblown. Pardon me for intruding on the closed circle here.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    John you are not intruding in any way, but you should have thought of the fact that it is precisely because I value and take seriously Rob’s ministry that I take the time and pains to do this. If you would have read my reviews of his other books and the Nooma videos, you would know this. And on top of this, you don’t know me. I have pastored six churches and am definitely no armchair theologian taking potshots from afar. It is precisely because I think Rob has a good deal of potential and needs to grow in various ways that I am offering these studies of his work, and also because he has a large audience, and they need something to help them evaluate what Rob is and isn’t doing from a Biblical point of view. If you know Rob I would suggest you tell him he would do well to read these posts from someone who like to see him serve the world well.



  • Craig

    So because you don’t like responses from some other critics, you take it out on Ben (whom you admit is offering a “more gracious response”)? If you don’t like responses that are “reactive and overblown,” then perhaps you could lead by example and make sure your own responses aren’t reactive and overblown.


  • Tony

    Dr Witherington,

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say about his “Dying to Live” chapter. I just finished reading it and his treatment of the Resurrection is awful…

    I’d say that it’s way worse than the hypothetical universalism that everyone is so worked up about.

  • http://defeatingdefeaters.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Deundian

    Excellent, bravo, very good, Doc!

  • Britt

    I for one am very thankful for Ben’s reply to all this and so much more.

    I believe we need a real scholar to speak up on this,because of all the bad press it and He has gotten.

    I like Rob and what he is trying to do.
    The fact is we are all trying to live for God and reach the world.This is” learning journey” we are on and none of us are 100% right all the time.
    So it’s good that we walk together and learn from one another.

    I also am thankful for scholars to speak up and in hope silence some pastors who come off as experts when they really are not.

  • Johnathan Pritchett

    Rob Bell certainly wants to be taken seriously, and if he didn’t, he should have just written pamphlets for his church.

    I personally think this “expressive poetry” or “its introspective art” or other nonsense like that doesn’t wash either. I also don’t think it is benign, NOR did Bell intend it to be. His own hype machine, with his face, and his words, to promote his book, brought this about. If it were indeed benign, then no one would take it seriously.

    And unlike Dr. Witherington, I see no need to be overly gracious or slack in regards to his book, which Bell wants to have theological influence (after all, among other things, Bell wants “bullhorn guy” to shut-up, remember? Though I personally want a “bullhorn guy” to preach at the Mars Hill parking lot on Sunday mornings…seriously Rob (and fans)…”I’m tired of it…we’re tired of it…God’s tired of it”…LOL).

    He wants to make a point, and a theological one at that. That means people get to decide whether or not he has a valid, Biblical one.

    I shall endeavor to translate Dr. Witherington’s graciousness into something less palatable, and probably not intended by the good Dr. himself”:

    “If you make this mistake, and we all make it to one extent or another, anthropology and psychology take the place of theology, and in the end Jesus or God ends up looking strangely like your own reflection when you looked in a well full of beautiful clear water.”

    Translation: people can come dangerously close to creating an idol (and calling it God or Jesus or whatever…), if not doing exactly that. Even the lovable, overly gracious N.T. Wright made this very point last year at the Wheaton conference held in his honor.

    Jesus himself made both the Kingdom of Heaven and Hell central to His message. Blame Him…He’s the one who made it “toxic”…not the guys with the bullhorns, nor the theologians taking “armchair potshots”.

  • aaron

    “Rob Bell’s relatively benign offering”

    There is nothing relatively benign about it. The doctrine of Hell and consequences of sin are foundational to a good christian life. Any analysis or critique on this subject (which is what the book is doing) is a very serious matter.

    Heb. 6:1-2

    Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (emphasis mine)

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Ben, this series so far is superb. Thank you so much for your time in serving us!

  • http://www.nobusiness.org Jeremiah

    Great post, and lively conversation! I love it! Glad to see other view points come into play. Even if in all fairness I don’t agree with them.
    Ben, thanks again for taking the time and effort to lay this all out from a Biblical and very knowledgeable view point!



  • http://heirs.wordpress.com/ Gem

    thy Kingdom Come ON EARTH as it is in heaven

    “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:27

    “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 11:20

    “nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”” Luke 17:21

    “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16 (note the present tense “belongs”, not “bye and bye pie in the sky”)

    “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Luke 22:16 (Jesus ate again following the “fulfillment” of His crucifixion and resurrection which rent the curtain and brought the Kingdom of God/heaven into our midst)

    “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3 (again, present tense)

    “Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” John 3:5 (not “bye and bye pie in the sky”! You can experience this TODAY!)

    “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” Acts 28:31

    “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” Romans 14:7

    “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” 1 Cor 4:20

    “Blessed are the __________, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matt 5 (PRESENT TENSE)

    “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. ” 2 Cor 12

    “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” 1 Cor 14:26

    “thy Kingdom Come ON EARTH as it is in heaven”

  • http://heirs.wordpress.com/ Gem

    Don’t have the book yet, but I have to agree with Rob that the Bible does not teach “the Kingdom of Heaven/God” as just “bye and bye pie in the sky”.

  • Matthew Y.


    I, like you, appreciate Rob greatly and have a great deal of respect for much of his work and ministry. I couldn’t help though, as I was reading the book, having an unsettled spirit but I wasn’t necessarily able to articulate it as much as I would have liked to people. As I’ve read your reviews it seems to me that as I look back, you’re articulating the very things I couldn’t quite put a finger on.

    Thanks a lot and I look forward reading the next couple of chapters.

  • http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com Edwin

    Dr. Witherington,

    The distinction between heaven and eternal life is a very helpful one–thanks! I got the impression that in this chapter Bell was largely following N. T. Wright but wasn’t being entirely consistent.

    Mr. Hay,

    Why shouldn’t Christian scholars offer critiques of a powerful and popular presentation of important theological themes? I don’t hear Witherington suggesting that Bell shouldn’t be taken seriously–quite the reverse. And Witherington is one of the last scholars who should be accused of not responding creatively to the needs of the times.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I agree that our communication should be gracious at all times (which Dr. Witherington’s is in this case and in all of the times I have read his work), but when you put forward a work for the general public, you have to be prepared for people to examine that work and question it.

    I don’t know Rob Bell at all (other than from his public works) but I don’t think he would object at all from someone such as Dr. Witherington examining his work closely and providing constructive criticism and affirmation wherever appropriate.

  • http://www.ps.edu Chip Moody

    For those that chafe at Dr. Witherington’s critique of Bell’s book, it is worth mentioning that the process of publication and peer-review is what the exploration of ideas is all about. Rob Bell knows full well that when one puts forth ideas in print, one is entering the marketplace of ideas in which both criticism and affirmation is expected, even desired. The hope is that whatever criticism comes one’s way is informed, reflective, and substantive.

    Much of the early criticism of Bell’s new work was knee-jerk and caustic — all this before the book was even released. Dr. Witherington withheld his judgments until he could see the actual material. His words of critique are as gracious as anyone can expect in the rough-and-tumble world of academia. They are indeed informed, reflective and substantive. Thanks, Ben.

  • http://www.theonlytruegod.org Hana

    Thanks for the review, it serves as a good reference point in trying to think through the issues.

  • Robert

    This is really good stuff. I’m thankful the pastoral and theological communities are coming together to thoroughly investigate this text. I am particularly thankful that this blog will see both the positive and negative in Pastor Bell’s text.

    If Pastor Bell didn’t want his text reviewed and put through the refiners’ fire then he shouldn’t have marketed it the way he has or gone on so many talk shows to push it. As a pastor he is just as susceptible to reproof as the rest of us.

  • http://s1umc.org Greg Van Dussen

    Thanks for what you are doing here, Ben. You help us get beyond evaluating a book or video more on the basis of its emotive power within our own personal and/or cultural context, rather than its adequacy in conveying truth. Keep up the good work. What you’re doing matters greatly, and you do it well.

  • DC

    Rob bell is a heretic who has the unpardonably sinned and can’t repent and will roast forever in the fire that burns the wicked in everlasting torment and horror and the worms eat forever and ever and ever!!!!!

    There, does that fairly well sum it up DR?

  • rDA

    John 3:17 — For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

    Because He loves us, Jesus’ “mission” is to save the world — that is, everyone, 100%. However, most Christians would probably say that the majority of humanity is destined for hell (“Narrow is the path”). It would seem, then, that the Hate of Satan is much more powerful than the Love of Jesus when it comes to convincing people where they want to spend eternity. So, looking at the number of souls saved vs lost, it would appear that Jesus loses and Satan wins.

    Mission failed?

  • Britt

    I live in Long Beach,Ca
    around some of the most hardened gang members,drug dealers,drug users,street people,gays and hookers you could ever meet.
    I am around them everyday!

    One of the things i have seen from these people is they are totally cool and kind to you if you believe something different than they do.They are nice to you,and still want to know you.

    They don’t value their ideas above people.
    And yet these people live in “Darkness”.

    It is a true shame that some people seem to want to attack other believers all over a belief,that one would think it is “Godly” to value a belief over the people Jesus died for.Not even God does this.

    The fact that one would shot arrows at another person proves they themselves are not living the way Christ did.
    At lest Rob is trying….He may not be 100% right,but then who is?

  • Kyle A

    Britt, some disagreements matter more than others. If Bell were arguing about a periferal denominational distinctive, I would agree with you. However, he is talking about the eternal destiny of people’s souls. He is talking about cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. If he is wrong, then a lot is at stake. In fact, if he is wrong, then people could end up in hell while believe that they will not. I think it is worth arguing about.

    Also, he needs to be right–or at least he needs to try to be right. He is a pastor and a teacher, and people will listen to him. People will craft their spiritual journey according to what he tells them. That is an awesome responsbility.

  • http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com John Meunier


    I don’t know if you read all the comments on older posts, but someone posted this on my blog after I quoted something you wrote about chapter 1 and North Korea. I wonder if you have any reply.

    It’s interesting how we interpret what we read. I absolutely and utterly did not get that from the book at all. Bell even talks about how God judges injustice to the point that it will not be able to exist in the life to come. Bell writes:

    Central to their vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophets’ announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come.
    Like war. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace.

    Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive of damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day, the ‘day of the Lord’.

    The day when God says ‘ENOUGH!’ to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world.

    God says no to injustice. God says ‘Never again’ to the oppressors who prey on the weak and the vulnerable. God declares a ban on weapons.’ (pp. 36-37)

    I have no idea what is wishy-washy about injustice in that vision. Unless we demand that murder be met with even greater murder, violence with even greater violence, pain with even greater pain?

  • Dave

    Dr. Witherington

    I have been going back and forth in my Greek NT and trying to figure out this word, can you tell me why it would translate to everlasting as you say.

    “However aionian and aion are not the same word, though they share the same root. Aionian would appear to refer to an age or something infinitely extended, or extended without limit—hence the translation ‘everlasting’.”

    The conversation is very intriguing to me

    Thankyou for your thoughts


  • Ben Witherington

    Dave the answer is simple. It’s because this is the proper translation in the other occurences of the word in the LXX for example.

  • Keith

    Systematic theology; did Yeshua believe in it. He was vague on purpose. He was not systematic. The Bible is not easy. It is not clear. People don’t agree which books should be in it or out. Jesus could have said there will be 66 books they shall be called…but he did not do that. Fact: Yeshua did not say Gehenna is a place the soul of a person goes after they die? Fact: Jews had different beliefs about Gehenna. Which one did Jesus (Yeshua) subscribe to; the Southern Baptist one? The Anglican one? The one the Pope believes in now? Or the one the previous Pope believed in? Is Gehenna the lake of fire? Is the lake of fire literal. Is the lake of fire a place that souls go after they die…or bodies? Where does the Bible say the lake of fire is after death? Where does the Bible say that ant humans are tormented for ever? The closest thing is “smoke of their torment goes up unto the ages of the ages”. How do we know the term unto the ages of the ages means eternity? No one has ever answered me when I ask this question. Rob Bell is just a man writing an interesting book about his thoughts on Jesus and Heaven and Hell. I don’t know Rob. I am glad we live in a country where we are free to write books like his. There was a time in history when orthodox Christianity would have had Rob Bell put to death for writing this book. ORTHODOX. Wow. I am glad GOD has allowed the Church to lose the POWER of life and death over people. PRAISE GOD. Maybe Jesus should have written a systematic theology. Thanks to everyone for the thoughts on the Rob Bell book. LOVE to All.

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  • Accelerated

    Ben, It is increasingly difficult to engage with your constant judgment, not engaging with the author and simply making negative assertions that are not in dialogue with the author. Whether it is of Ben or Bell or me, judgments without dialogue are detrimental.

    Ben, you do well to affirm four points of Bell in this Chapter. I do not recall Bell “jumbling together heaven and everlasting life.” Most theologians are familiar with the concept of the Kingdom of God being both here and now, and coming in the future, which unfortunately, may seem jumbling to you.

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