…by the Bell, Chapter 2: Is Heaven Now or Later… or Both?

Read part 1 – Preliminary Discussion.
Read part 2 – Chapter 1 & Introduction.

Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.

Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 3: Heaven.

Kiel Hauck: “I think Rob Bell is right when he says that we’re missing out on enjoying eternity right here and right now.”

I haven’t always been a Christian but for as far back as I can remember I’ve had thoughts and ideas about heaven. It wasn’t even until a few years back that the idea of heaven being right here, not somewhere off in the clouds – somewhere else, even crossed my mind. This is weird considering how often Jesus spoke of it as such. How did we get this so messed up? Granted, we’ll never be able to paint an accurate picture of heaven in this life. We just can’t. But I think Rob Bell is right when he says that we’re missing out on enjoying eternity right here and right now.

“It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

I love the illustration he gives of the single mom – working multiple jobs, raising her kids, trying to get child support from the abusive father of her children, staying faithful and never losing hope that they can break the cycle of dysfunction and abuse. She’s been faithful, she can be trusted. “Is she the last who Jesus says will be first?” It seems like we talk a lot about those passages that say things like that, but I’m not too sure how serious we take them. Why does Jesus continually come back to that notion? I honestly can’t count how many times I’ve heard a pastor use one of those “being surprised about who we see in heaven” anecdotes. Yet we still seem pretty sure of ourselves when it comes to “who’s in” and “who’s out,” don’t we?

I also love how he talks about the reality of heaven currently existing. I’ve always wondered if when we die, we somehow exit this current timeline we’re on and immediately experience the new heaven and new earth – not like we’re transported to the future, but instead, we’re currently there now, but unable to experience its fullness. These things make my head hurt and I’m not eloquent enough to explain it. Luckily, Bell does a great job of it. People should read the book, it explains these things SO much better than I can.

Finally, I love the idea of bringing heaven to earth today. This idea, that we play a part in God’s plan to bring about a new heaven and new earth, completely shattered my understanding of missions when I first began to hear of it a few years back. He says “Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. 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.” Say what you will, but this notion is not one that should not be easily dismissed. I believe it is vital that we take our role in this seriously, and I’m personally ashamed at how often I don’t.

Trying to explain heaven is hard. But I’m always curious when I hear people try. We try because we have a longing for something better than this and I think that’s healthy. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who used to say “it’s better to shoot for the moon and miss than shoot for a cow pie and hit it.” He wasn’t talking about trying to explain heaven, but I think it applies here. When we dismiss heaven as nothing more than a place separate from where we are now and separate from the responsibility we have to live like we play a role in bringing it about, we’re simply taking aim at the cow pie. And that’s kind of gross.

Ben Bartlett: “Rob asks me to see the beauty of heaven in the world, and I do.  But these are but tastes of the joys he has prepared for those who submit, those who are faithful, those who make him their greatest joy and hope.”

Kiel,
Thinking about heaven is great.  Our hearts long for the sublime, but heaven can seem hard to grasp and we often substitute lesser things.  I’m happy for the opportunity to meditate on all that heaven means.

I want to start by saying Bell has some really beautiful ideas in this chapter about heaven, especially as an earthy reality rather than mere ethereal concept.  A few months after my mom died of cancer, my dad preached a sermon series on heaven, trying to reconcile the tangled but beautiful insights God gives throughout Scripture on the topic.  This exercise led him and the church to a beautiful experience thinking about a place MORE real, MORE beautiful, MORE fulfilling, and more of everything else good as well.

I have always been most struck by the picture C.S. Lewis paints in his novel, “The Last Battle.”  There, new bodies do amazing things and have richer experiences than anyone on earth ever could.  I long for that day in my own life.  My mom longed for that day, too, and it was in some sense a joyful thing when she was finally able to pass on from this life into one she trusted would be better than anything here.

My mom is key to my understanding of heaven.  It’s not just that I want her to be, “in a better place,” though of course that is true as well.  It’s that her experience of this world presents a serious challenge to how Rob Bell views heaven.

Like me, my mom was not an essentially happy person.  She struggled with fear, anger, doubt, and sometimes crushing depression.  She was never able to overcome the guilt she felt for her failings, never fully able to outstrip the notion that she owed God a debt that could not be repaid.

That part of her story is sad, but it also shaped her.  Her powerful intuition and relational boldness caused her to speak into the lives of others with force and strength that hurt, but were full of truth and gospel-centered hope.  She saw sin and named it, saw weakness and called it out, saw selfishness and laid it bare.  Though she did not see visions of the future, still she spoke with the dignity and pain of the prophetic voice.

Where, then, was God?  If God’s conception of heaven is finding joy in the performing of good works and participating in heaven right now, my mom’s life had a lot of failure.  She never really achieved a long-term, overarching happiness that Bell seems to promote. She seemed not to participate in heaven. What then was her role in the kingdom?

This question becomes especially problematic when you consider the various Biblical characters who according to Bell were thinking about heaven on earth and not after death.  Noah, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Habbakkuk, John the Baptist, Steven, Paul… these are all people whose names are great in the kingdom, but who never found some sort of mystical joy by kingdom participation now.  They knew for as long as sin is present, earth is not our home and heaven cannot be fully seen.  Instead, they found purpose and meaning by proclaiming the name and character of God, and by receiving the reward of that faithfulness later.

I like how Hebrews 11:13 puts it:  “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on this earth.”  That’s how my mom lived; a stranger and an exile, a person given a particular vision of God to help shape the church in its pursuit of God.  And I cannot believe that defines her role in heaven now.

I have two closing thoughts on this chapter.  The first is to say that I have tried very carefully to meet Rob Bell on his terms and in his way, because I want to show that I think he has made some mistakes even there.  But in regard to meeting the burdens of good scholarship, Rob is a complete disaster.  It does not take long to find many examples of his careless, poorly researched, on-the-edge-of-fabrication statements in this chapter and other places.  If he wants to be taken seriously, he has to have some good dialogue about healthy, God-centered interpretation rather than philosophical thought experiments without conclusions.

My other thought is a story/metaphor.  Each day, I walk three blocks from my office to the lot. Along the way I pass a large window that takes up one wall of the practice room for a ballet company.  Some days this room is empty.  Some days, dancers are standing around listening to their instructor.  And some days, I have the privilege of seeing them practice in full flight.

Ballet is beautiful, and so I look forward to those moments.  But those little bits of sweetness cannot compare to the sheer beauty of a fully realized ballet production; Swan Lake, Shen Yun, Cinderella, The Nutcracker, etc.  My jaunts past the practicing dancers are mere tastes of the power and precision and beauty of that great art.

Rob asks me to see the beauty of heaven in the world, and I do.  I see the beauty in silence and compassion and help and art and many other things.  But God has made clear in Scripture that these are but tastes of the joys he has prepared for those who submit, those who are faithful, those who make him their greatest joy and hope.  The real thing comes later, and I need to live in light of that now even if it means suffering, rather than trying to participate in it now while I still see in a glass darkly.

Rob wants to stop and focus on an entire practice of the Louisville Ballet Company.  I’d be happy to join him.  But I look forward with far greater anticipation to seeing Swan Lake with my mom.

Kiel Hauck: “I don’t see how Rob Bell disagrees with you.”

Ben,
I know I’ve said this before, but I honestly do feel like we’re reading two different books right now.  I want to begin by telling you how much admiration I have for your outlook towards your mother and the abundance she must be experiencing right now.  I think the picture you painted at the end of your last email is beautiful.  However, I do want to say that I don’t see how Rob Bell disagrees with you.

I feel what we’re experiencing right now is a misinterpretation of emphasis versus belief.  Yes, in his chapter on heaven, Rob Bell emphasizes the importance of experiencing a life now that brings about heaven on earth – but in no way does he deter from the fact that a life exists beyond this one, a beautiful experience of God in full, a glorious, joyous eternity.  In fact, he even closes the chapter by saying as much, even referencing the same 1Corinthians 13 passage as you, saying that now we say as “in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”  He says its as though we’re playing the piano with oven mitts on or trying to embrace a lover while wearing a hazmat suit.  Rob Bell fully believes in a beautiful life beyond this one and says so clearly and plainly throughout the chapter.

I believe the problem is that he spends much of his time emphasizing our current life and the opportunity we have right now.  This isn’t something a lot of people talk about (as I said in my opening email) but it’s something that’s vitally important to discuss.  Just because he emphasizes this point, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe in an eternity.  I would presume that Bell would assert that we ALL have failure in our lives and aren’t experiencing life as it was meant to be.  He’s said as much.  The single mother working the multiple jobs, getting little sleep, and never having enough money due to the horrible circumstances left to her by the children’s abusive father is not experiencing heaven right now.  That’s the life of most people in the world.  But there’s something better to come and those of us who have the chance should do what we can to share that with people now.

I also feel like I have to address your statement that “in regard to meeting the burdens of good scholarship, Rob Bell is a complete disaster.”  You go on to mention his “careless, poorly researched, on-the-edge-of-fabrication statements” as well.  This is twice now that you’ve expressed such a sentiment, but you have yet to show what these things are that you’re uncomfortable with.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a scholar of theology.  I would also assume that the majority of people reading this book and reading this website aren’t either.  Knowing that, I feel like your information in this regard would be extremely helpful.  Lots of people have expressed similar sentiment in the past, but in order to avoid the constant dog-piling of such comments, I think we really need to see the evidence.  As I told you in my voicemail earlier today, I honestly didn’t see anything “theologically” wrong or suspect in this chapter.  That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to the idea of something being wrong, I just haven’t seen anything that’s made me have anywhere close to the reaction you have.  I’m definitely all ears though.

I loved your illustration of the ballet company and the production of Swan Lake.  I agree that Rob Bell would probably be more than happy to enjoy the view of the dancers from the sidewalk, but it also seems clear to me from what we read in this chapter, that he would also be accompanying you to Swan Lake – and doing so with joy.

Ben Bartlett: I don’t think Rob Bell doesn’t believe in heaven. The problem is one of proportion.”

Kiel,
Thanks for always carefully pointing out mistakes and overstatements in the things I say… I need that.

I want to be clear about one big thing… I don’t think Rob Bell doesn’t believe in heaven. The problem is one of proportion. Rob calls us to live lives that are more and more heaven-like… he wants our experiences and endeavors to create and be a more heaven-like state here on earth. The story about my mom and about the prophets of Hebrews 11 contrasts this emphasis because their lives emphasized suffering now for the sake of God’s name, with the reward to come later and in another place. In other words, God has roles for people Christians that emphasize very different things than what Bell says Christ and the prophets put their emphasis on. How can that problem be reconciled? Bell can state that he believes in a future heaven, and I believe him. But I think the emphasis of his teaching has different proportions than Scripture has, and that’s where the real danger lies.

Here’s the question I am dancing around; if Rob had to choose between 5 people receiving the gospel or 200 people gaining access to clean water and free health care, which would he choose? At best, it would be a difficult decision for him. At worst, he’d choose the 200 (after all, he wants heaven on earth and doesn’t think anyone stays in hell permanently). My perspective is that a proportional view of Scripture should take the 5 every time, and hence my disagreement with how Rob structures his perspective. A Christian life is about proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. It is not primarily about having a life that is like life in heaven (though mirroring heaven is one key way we support our central mission of proclaiming the gospel).

Final point: in our talks, I’m trying to stay away from long, drawn-out debates about Greek words and proof-texts. But Rob has a way of saying huge things as if he’s discussing the weather. When he says, “The greek word actually means…” in this chapter, he gives interpretations that go against the entire stream of Christian history to fit his philosophical perspective. I would encourage people to read Greg Gilbert’s great comment on this problem in his blog post entitled Two Cents, and Not a Penny More (http://www.9marks.org/blog/two-cents-and-not-penny-more-love-wins). I’ll leave it there for now because I’m sure this will come up again.

In the meantime, I strongly ask people to read Hebrews 11 and the lives of the prophets and apostles, and to ask what they thought it meant to seek heaven.

About CAPC Writers
  • matt

    Ben’s point about proportion sums up my frustration with Bell’s “heaven-on-earth” topic.

    I feel the same frustration when I hear some people say that “the earth is perishing–God will make a new one–We don’t have to worry about taking care of the environment.” Yes, God does promise a new heaven and a new earth, but in the midst of our mission of spreading the Gospel, there is room for taking care of the planet.

    In the same way, yes, heaven is here already, but Bell seems to be pushing this point beyond its practical importance.

    So why does he do this? I hope it’s not for popular acceptance.

  • Kristi

    This is a great debate. When we enter into a state of grace through Christ and begin to follow Him, we do begin what will be our eternal role- glorifying the Father, as a part of His mission which has been the same since the beginning- to be glorified among the nations. This is the first and you could even say, the only concern we should have while here- what will bring God the most glory? Is it telling the nations of Christ, or providing a temporary fix?

    Because of sin, the role of glorifying God will look different and be a much different thing to experience while here. While on earth, our glorification of God comes at a cost. Some people pay with their lives or huge amounts of pain in torture, and others may just pay with smaller but still very real kinds of pain- the kind that come from being made holy…giving up your idols, your control, your freedom, things you may hold dear. These efforts do create for us an inheritance, I believe- a reward in heaven, and they are of eternal importance for the closeness they bring us with the Father.

    In heaven, we will be new creatures, and we will be in God’s presence with nothing competing for our attention, so our worship and glorification of Him will be fully realized. He will reign fully there, and our worship will be unimpeded. We will receive the rewards we were promised.

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