Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 2 of 6)

Chapter 2—Here is the New There
What is heaven? You begin by calling into question the understanding that it is “somewhere else,” commenting on a photo of a painting in your home growing up. The painting portrays people walking across a dark and hazy chasm bridged by a cross, presumably portraying crossing over from this life into heaven. You then speak of the importance you place on raising your children so that they do not have to unlearn many things from their upbringing. Then you make a most interesting observation: “One of the only violent images Jesus ever uses is when he speaks about those who cause children to stumble,” referring to Jesus’ indication that such a person should be cast to the bottom of the sea with a millstone hanging round his neck (22). Really? Haven’t you missed a ton of violent images? Gouge out your eye? Cut off your hand? An unmerciful servant delivered to be tortured? Casting people into Gehenna? Moreover, isn’t Jesus actually referring to his disciples, rather than to children in general?

You indicate that the painting is all about envisioning people going on a journey somewhere else. I wonder if you’ve missed some significant profundity in this particular work of art because of your familiarity with it (and disdain for it)? Why do you also diss some of the images that come from the Bible when talking about heaven, such as the white robe? Your dismissal is cute but be careful not to dismiss the profound imagery that the Bible offers for wearing white clothes.

You note how some pastors compare heaven to a church service that never ends. This is truly sad! Even though I quite enjoy the church services I am a part of! All of the portrayals you offer for contrast are not related to the Bible at all. Indeed, you are critiquing popular notions of heaven, which immediately makes me think we really need to work in our churches to portray heaven in more biblical categories and correct some of the mistaken cultural emphases that have crept in.

Your discussion of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is helpful to frame the discussion of what the NT writers refer to when they use the Greek term aion, often translated “age.” You are able to articulate fairly clearly that their conception of reality involved two ages, this age and the age to come. This is helpfully laid out by you and many other folks. However, when you actually begin discussing the Greek term aion, you lost me. You shift to speaking of how we use the term “age.” You write, “When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever” (31). What does the way we use “age” have to do with the meaning of the Greek term aion? Do you see places in the NT where the writers use the Greek term aion to indicate something like the phrase “They were gone for ages” in English? Then, you’ve brought in the concept of forever, which strictly speaking isn’t a part of the meaning of the word aion by itself. Rather, the NT writers convey the idea of “forever” with the phrase eis ton aiona. You finish this paragraph by stating, “The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end” (32). How did you determine this? The first definition I find when I look up the Greek word aion in the standard Greek lexicon says “a long period of time, without ref. to beginning or end” (BDAG 32, italics added). So, how can you assert that the word refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end? I agree that it can and does mean that on occasion, but on what basis can you say that this is its first (do you mean primary?) meaning? Also, do you intend to equate “the world to come” with “eternal life” (32)? Doesn’t Jesus portray “eternal life” in the Gospel of John as something that the believer possesses now, in this age?

Next, you begin to characterize life in the age to come based on the prophetic passages that describe certain aspects of the future. After highlighting the diversity that will be present in the age to come, you comment, “A racist would be miserable in the world to come” (34). Will any racists be present in the world to come? You also focus in on the earthiness of the prophetic vision of the world to come, and you write, “It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know—but rescued, transformed, and renewed” (34). Perhaps. But is it possible that they were simply using familiar imagery to convey an indescribable vision of a future reality? You also comment on things that simply won’t survive into the world to come, but what about the people who perpetrate these things? Let’s not simply talk about abstractions. What about rapists, greedy people, violent people, proud people, exploiters, etc.? Will these people “survive” into the world to come? If not, why not?

You highlight God’s justice and God’s wrath beautifully: “When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings?” (38) You speak of mercy and justice belonging together and kissing one another, and then you indicate that this will be “the day when earth and heaven will be the same place” (43). Isn’t the picture we’re given of a reality in which heaven and earth are united but remain distinct?

Then you come back to critique the escapist mentality that often accompanies viewing leaving this place to go to heaven as the end-goal of Christian faith. You write, “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 Jesus 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). Doesn’t this petition in the Lord’s Prayer encompass so much more than simply alleviation of suffering? Moreover, you rightly indicate that “our eschatology shapes our ethics” (39), which is partially true. There are surely other aspects of our lives that shape our ethics. Poor eschatology may have a negative effect on our ethics, but let’s not assume that proper eschatology alone necessarily results in proper ethics.

You raise the question as to what we will do in heaven. “One possible answer is to simply ask: ‘What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?’” (47) Well, what things can you say with any certainty “will go on in the world to come,” and on what basis would you have this certainty? Does your emphasis on everything being in its right place according to the created order in the world to come as a grounds for our endless joy displace the joy we ought to have in the Creator himself?

Next, you address a question I had earlier raised concerning the racist. You indicate that, indeed, he will be in heaven, but his racism would not survive the flames of heaven. So, the flames of heaven “purge” the racism from this fellow? How is this different than the Catholic doctrine of purgatory? Doesn’t the NT characterize this life as the time/place when/where our sins etc. are progressively purged, with the expectation that when Jesus returns, we will see him as he is, and this vision will transform us finally into his image (1 John 3:2)?

You criticize those who would use the language of “getting in” with regard to heaven (50). Doesn’t Jesus himself use this language? With the rich young ruler? “Enter life”? “Enter the kingdom of heaven”? Then, you criticize the idea that Christians will be transformed in the blink of an eye into totally different people who “know everything” (51). I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of what Christians typically mean when they use this language. Certainly, we envision still being the same people, but that there is a significant transformation when we see Jesus face to face, I think, is biblical teaching (see, again, 1 John 3:2).

You then turn your attention to the “who of heaven” (51-4). After mentioning the sinner who went home justified after his prayer for mercy (Lk. 18), the stragglers invited into the banquet (Lk. 14), and then a single mother with the world against her, you suggest that Jesus “warns us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (54). But doesn’t his teaching instead reorient the criteria by which we make judgments, even as he instructed people to judge a tree by its fruits? Ultimately, doesn’t he point the criteria toward himself and a person’s connection with him? Then, you discuss the criminal on the cross whom Jesus promises will be with him in Paradise later that same day. Do you press the immediacy of this pronouncement for a reason? Isn’t Jesus pointing to the reality that is coming after the criminal’s death? You then note, “Paul believed that there is a dimension of creation, a place, a space, a realm beyond the one we currently inhabit and yet near and connected with it. He writes of getting glimpses of it, being a citizen of it, and being there the moment he dies” (55-6). Doesn’t this acknowledge the somewhere-else-ness of heaven? At least right now?

You return to aion by introducing Jesus’ understanding that “heaven is more real than what we experience now” (57). You suggest, then, that aion “refers to a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (57).You go on to illustrate how we might speak of an experience that has either an intense positive effect on us or an intense negative effect on us as going on forever. Again, just because we may speak in these terms doesn’t mean in any way that the NT writers had to speak this way when using the Greek term aion. How do you come to this understanding of the term? Again, the basic standard lexicon entry for aion doesn’t mention a category of meaning that speaks of the intensity of an experience. Now, this begins the really confusing section. To give you the benefit of the doubt, I can assume that you accidentally didn’t shift to the adjective aionios, which is the Greek word that gets translated “eternal” in our English Bibles. It is related to aion, of course, but it is a different word, and doesn’t contain the simple reference to any general period of time. So, are you trying to indicate that aionios is an adjective that means “intense,” or are you trying to indicate that aion is a noun that means an “intense experience”? Here is how you clarify your point: “Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible” (58). This is a huge claim! And I’m not convinced you have provided any evidence at all for why we should believe this claim. You go on to write, “This is why a lot of translators choose to translate aion as ‘eternal.’ By this they don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether” (58). If we grant that translators mean to indicate “transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether,” then does this actually imply anything at all about the intensity of the experience? And what about Matt. 1:33; Rom. 16:26; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:8-12, which all seem to be clearly referring to a period of time without end? You then apply your definition to Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler: “when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real, experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn’t just ‘someday’; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now” (58-9). I can grant most of this statement, but does that mean that Jesus didn’t envision this present reality to endure forever? Your next statement is one with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts 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.” But, the big question that this chapter did not answer remains: Do we go to heaven when we die?

The gospel is certainly not all about going to heaven when we die. But isn’t that a truth we need to hang onto, with the recognition that heaven is not our final home? Let us affirm that the Bible announces a New Heaven and a New Earth and seems to indicate that Christians’ final destiny is to reign with Jesus on the New Earth. But let us also affirm that, should we die before Jesus returns to consummate the new creation, we will go to be with Jesus and it will be far better than the realities of this present age.

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