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