The last chapter closes the book with a bit of irony. After all the questions he raised. After all the deconstruction that has gone on throughout this book Rob closes saying that when he prayed a prayer to became a Christian when he was young he could have known more or had better reasons or been more mature. He could tear that apart and invalidate his own experience but he says he won’t “deconstruct” that because although it wasn’t perfect it had validity. God could work through it all to do what God needed to do (p.194):
“Now I am well aware of how shaped I was by my environment, how young and naive I was, and how easy it is to discount emotional religious experiences. With very little effort a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one’s parents and the power of religion to shape a child. But however helpful that may be, it can easily miss the one thing that can’t be denied: What happened that night was real. It meant something significant then and it continues to have profound significance for me. That prayer was a defining moment in my life.”
In Rob’s defense, many of us come to Christ at a young age when we see our friends begin to do it and this begins a life long journey to discover what it means to be a Christian. I wonder if it would be better to spend a lifetime discovering Christ before becoming a Christian? Rob raises and poses a lot of questions that lead off down rabbit trails but you know what – they are worth considering and debating and wrestling with. The Christian faith should be a living, breathing thing and not some dusty set of rules and beliefs that we recite from memory. I would rather see us wrestle with these questions and struggle with the answers. While we are struggling and wrestling, the Christian is alive in us and we are open to new possibilities and dare I say it – open to God. In the end, it appears that Rob believes that heaven and hell are real and a reality for all of us – it just depends on where.
What I believe Rob is doing in this book is to try and swing a pendulum. He believes some Christians don’t get it. They say God is love but their actions are hateful. So he wants to swing away from harsh, angry and judgmental Christians who want to stand on the street corner with a bullhorn and tell people they are going to hell. He wants to dismantle the idea that Satan is a little red man in little red tights running around in hell tormenting people. He wants to distance himself from many Christian stereotypes. Also, he wants to point out that God’s love is bigger than we can imagine so…what if?
This chapter has everyone’s favorite parable – The Prodigal Son. Why is it everyone’s favorite? I think because no matter how bad we are, when we come back to God, God lavishes grace and mercy upon us. We all can relate to this story and we all have a version of this story in our heads.
Rob points out that each son had a story in their head about the Father. The younger son’s story that runs through his head about his Father says that once you lose your worth you are no longer a son. You might be taken back as a slave but never as a son. The older son’s story believes that he has to slave away through his obedience in order to earn what the Father has. In both cases the Father is telling them another story. He is redefining their story about who the Father is through his actions and words. He is not a task master. He is good and kind and loving and mercifully unfair. The question is, whose story are they going to believe…the one in their head or the one the Father shows them and tells them?
So the question comes to each of us…will we trust our version of the story we have in our minds about God or will we trust God’s version? For example, if you grew up in legalism, will you accept that even if God shows you it is a false narrative? Or will you trust God enough to replace that broken story with one that is whole? Good stuff.
The only thing I thought was lacking about this chapter were a few of the implications about heaven and hell and God that Rob drew from this text. His point is that the older brother was living in his own sort of hell even in the midst of a party for his brother. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party.” (p.176) As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t have that in mind (not that I am smart enough to figure that out…just giving my opinion) but Rob finds it there. He is trying to avoid the heaven is here and hell is there teaching (see middle of p.177). Instead he is saying that they can and do exist right in the middle of each other based on which narrative we choose to engage in and perpetuate. But then he goes right on to say that if you choose God and his love or refuse his love it will take people in two different directions. How can it be both ways? Am I missing something?
Now, about God, he paints the picture that God is either a radical and reactive guy who is loving of you one moment but if you don’t jump through certain hoops he will destroy you or that God is a God of love and mercy. Period. So God is either a father who would be arrested for abuse in our society or God doesn’t really ever have wrath and sin has no penalty, even though elsewhere he admits that is not really the case.
A question that has been asked throughout history is whether God loves everyone or is God inclusive of everyone? If we read scripture, it seems that God may not like certain groups of people (ie the Egyptians and all of the peoples in the Promise Land according to the OT). In this chapter, Rob is opening the door to a more inclusive God through several stories, questions and scriptures that seem to support his point. He starts the chapter with a friend of his who had a life changing encounter with Christ that got his life turned around. You have probably had a similar conversation with someone who told you about an encounter they had with Christ and it left you unsure if it was really real, if God would really do that or if they were actually mistaken. Maybe God is up to something. Maybe God is more inclusive than we thought? The door begins to open a crack.
Rob sets biblical precedent for his point that Jesus shows up in strange and often unfamiliar ways through the story of Moses striking the rock and water pouring out in Exodus 17. He mentions the connection Paul makes with this in 1 Corinthians 10, that Jesus was that rock. His point is that even though those Hebrews had no idea that rock was Christ he was present in their story anyway. The application he draws from that point is that Jesus is present in many ways and places and in the lives of people today in ways that we don’t even have a clue about.
I know some have leveled criticism towards Rob for this idea but I think it is true. I have encountered Christ many times only to look back on the experience and realize that it was an encounter with Christ (I didn’t realize it at the time). If I have those kinds of encounters, why wouldn’t others?
Rob appeals to the inclusivity of Christ in several ways:
- His work in creation – all things were created through Jesus Christ (p. 144-147)
- The teaching of the apostles (p.148-149) He quotes Colossians 1:27 “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery”. Here he leaves the mystery Paul is talking about here as Christ alone. That is not quite what Paul wrote. The verse finishes like this, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The mystery was not Christ alone but how Christ would work in us and through us and be present in our lives, as Christians, in a real and profound way. That part is left out. The verse when taken in part advances his point. Taken in context it doesn’t. It doesn’t work because Bell’s appeal here is to the inclusivity of God – Gentiles = all people. But here Paul is not writing to all people or saying Christ is actually in all people. He is writing to Christian Gentiles.
- The teaching of Jesus – Jesus died for the whole world…not just a small, select group of people (p.150ff). I think what Bell misses here is that he confuses the intention and mission of Jesus with the result of that intention and mission. Jesus intention was to die for and save all people. But the intention is not reflected 100% in the result of his ministry. Intentions never reflect the results 100%. Of course Jesus dies for the world but does the whole world accept that or have faith in Him? So his mission was for all but the result.
An interesting thing in the chapter is that Rob largely ignores (or at least overlooks) John 14:6 as he discusses whether God (and Jesus) are inclusive or exclusive. I have read that some people claim that Rob says there is more than way to come to God. I don’t see him doing that. Instead, I see him showing that Jesus was inclusive of all people who wanted to come to him. Jesus first came to reach the people of Israel but they largely ignored him so he reached out to Gentiles. I don’t see Rob implying that there is more than one way to God but rather that Jesus wants to reach all people. I do believe that there is more than one way to Jesus, however, and who is to say that there is not more than one way to God (okay, I can be a bit heretical from time to time).
Rob seems to imply that God can save anyone God wishes to save and this is another area of criticism. People take issue with this because of John 14:6 but I wonder if it is true – can God save anyone God desires? People would say no because of the Bible but then we are limiting God, aren’t we? When we say that God cannot do something, we are limiting what God can do. I am not saying it is right but I am saying it is worth thinking about. Bottom line in the book so far, I have been challenged in my thinking. It is sort of like going to seminary all over again. I have deeply held convictions and beliefs and the book is challenging some of them. Do I think Rob is a heretic? No. I am not sure we ever really get Rob’s opinion or beliefs – I think he is throwing things out there for people to think about and wrestle and if this is the case, then his critics have missed the point entirely.
So what about other religions? Are they equally valid with Christianity? Bell says the Jesus is still important, the cross is still relevant and that what you believe [in regard to Jesus?] is important. But still the door is wide, wide open to people of many faiths. This is the key part of this idea – the door is wide open and we play a role in reaching people of other faiths. Instead, what I see happening is Christians (in general) attack people of other faiths and say what they believe is wrong and we are right. We literally shove Jesus down people’s throats and then wonder why they reject us and attack us. I think Rob is opening the door for Christians to wrestle with our own beliefs in light of what others believe about Christianity and thus enter into a dialogue with not only others but with ourselves as well.
Rob ends the chapter with a great reminder. We are not the judge. We don’t call the shots. We don’t send people to heaven or hell. God does. I am glad for that because sometimes I need to be more graceful than I am. That is why I thought I would end this post on a positive note! If there is one strength in this chapter it is the reminder that God can and does work in unexpected ways and in the lives of people we might never pick. Let’s respect that and give thanks that God seeks the lost because at some point we were all in that position and God saw fit to lift us out of it and bring us life!
I think this is the best chapter in the book. No question. The middle of this chapter contains a very well stated and succinct take on God’s victory over sin and death and the implications that has on our lives. It is a chapter of hope. It is a chapter of love. Rob skillfully paints a picture of what sacrifice was about to the ancients and about the revolutionary movement Jesus Christ started. He lays out the importance of the cross and the end to the sacrificial system. He talks about the resurrection with skill and precision and makes some excellent connections back to Genesis and how the resurrection was really a new beginning for humanity. Good stuff. Rob writes about the injustice of the cross, not just the injustice to Jesus, but the injustice to us in a backwards sort of way…we didn’t deserve it but he did it anyway. This was all around a very well written and insightful chapter.
Rob goes into a discussion about how we view the cross and launches into this marvelous chapter. He talks about going to an Eminem concert and that has me thinking. There are not many people that would share going to an Eminem concert in a book on heaven and hell (unless he was talking about hell ). That didn’t bother me. It worked because Rob is talking about dying to live. Jesus talks about this when he shares that we have to turn our back on the things of this world so we can appreciate God’s life (eternal life). Eminem would be a good example of someone who has lived a worldly life and then turned his back to it and died to this world. Rob touches on this when he writes:
“Did Eminem stumble upon this truth? Did he, somewhere in his addiction and despair and pain, hit bottom hard enough that something died-the old, the hard, that which could never bring life in the first place? Did he stumble into that truth that’s as old as the universe – that life comes through death? Did he in some strange way die, and that’s why he is back? Is that why he wore the cross around his neck?” (p.136-137).
I willl admit that I am a bit troubled by this idea. Eminem continues to use vulgar and profane language in his music and he takes God’s name in vain often. Is this really a sign of someone who has died to live? I am not sure but it is worth thinking about.
In the end, the book is all about thinking and challenging our assumptions. I do not believe that thinking and wrestling with our understandings and beliefs is a bad thing. I think it makes our faith stronger and makes us better people. I am not sure I completely agree with Rob’s thoughts on Eminem but that doesn’t mean that I can’t wrestle with the idea behind the statements.
Just my thoughts.
How is this for a chapter title? At first thought, I would say the answer is “yes” because God is God and the creator of the entire universe. If God made everything, then God gets what God wants, right? Well, God gave us free will and to have true free will, God has to give up power or it isn’t really free will. If it is true free will, then God may not always get what God wants.
So with my initial thoughts out of the way, let’s go on to chapter 4. It is interesting that Rob begins this chapter with a brief look at what churches put out on their websites. He cites three different websites (thankfully the churches remain anonymous) that have specific belief statements laid out on the web for anyone to read.
- “The unsaved will be separated from God forever.”
- “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.”
- “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.”
Those are alarming statements but there is truth in each of them. As I stated in the previous chapter review, I do not know what hell is or whether hell is eternal but I do believe that eternal life will be in God’s presence. In some form or another, hell is not in God’s presence. That is a reality of God and one we must be aware of. However, Rob tackles these statements not to dispute them but to look at how they are perceived. It seems that churches (I am sure unintentionally) give off the impression that God intentionally sends people to hell. I do not believe that because we have choices to make and those choices are at times to reject God.
Rob lays out a series of either/or questions that could lead you down the path to conclude that God will be all inclusive, that God will protect and provide, and that at the end of it all God will take care of everyone because we know that God wouldn’t be uncaring, leave people on their own or give up on us. If you take this to its logical conclusion he is opening the door to God saving everyone, no matter what because he is framing salvation as up to God and God’s love and power to save to the exclusion (at this point in the chapter) of our accepting of that relationship. I understand the criticism that has been leveled at Rob about being a universalist. If you read the chapter to this point, it is easy to see that Rob is laying out a strong case that everyone will be saved in the end. It is a rosy picture but it also eliminates the just nature of God – if God is just than there has to be a consequence for belief or unbelief.
Before I go down that path, let’s get back to the case for everyone being saved. Rob does this in several ways starting on p.105:
- He lays out several views that people have had about when we are able to choose God, only this side of the grave or both before and after death (second chance).
- He appeals to Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenberg where Luther was humble enough to admit that God had the ability to do whatever he wanted to do in terms of salvation
- He makes the case that a loving God would seek us out “as long as it takes” (p.107). He sums the view up like this – “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (p.107)
- Appeals to scripture and God’s promise to renew/restore “all things” (Mtt 19, Acts 3, Col 1)
- Appeals to church fathers
- Appeals to what really gives God glory – suffering sinners or redeemed/reconciled sinners?
- Appeals to “serious disciples” who have held this view…that given enough time all would be saved
- Says that this view is “at the center of the Christian tradition” (p.109)
- Appeals to which makes a “better story” – hell forever or heaven forever. Heaven is better if more people/all people are there. Because that is a better story, maybe it is so.
- Appeals to the final picture in Revelation and how everything is finally made right. He doesn’t mention the chapters that precede that which talk about judgment of Satan and the wicked and being thrown into a fiery lake forever.
After making the case that God may save all eventually he back peddles pretty rapidly starting on p.113 with statements like:
- “Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” (p.113)
- “So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now and we can assume it will be taken in the future.” (p.114)
- He even lays out one of his primary questions again and then says we really don’t know – will God save all or will some perish forever? He says we can’t resolve that tension (p.115)
- Last, he lays out the BIG question – “will God get what he wants?” and implies we can’t answer that question but we can answer the question, “Do we get what we want?” (p.116) He says, yes we can.
I think what Bell is doing in this chapter is to give us a peak in the door of “what if’s” and humble us enough to say maybe there is more to the story than what we thought. I think too often we break down God and God’s nature into our understanding but then that is idolatry because we cannot begin to grasp the nature of God. We think we understand how salvation works but do we really? I think Rob lays out a case of the “what ifs” before giving a glimpse of his own position. At the very last minute in the chapter he tempers his view and ends it with some statements that contradict much of what he has been teaching and, I think, gives us his real view that God will not save all in the end because some will continue to choose otherwise. Will it be for lack of God’s love or power? No. It will be because God’s love allows choice and that choice must be honored even if it results in choosing death (p.117). After all, to be able to give true free will, God had to give up power or it would not be a real relationship. In giving up some power to allow us to have a choice, God risks that some people will reject God. It is sad but it is a reality.
I will admit that I was not looking forward to reading this chapter. I think it is an aspect of all of our personalities that we avoid talking about hell (except for some of the more fundamental folks who seem to focus heavily on hell). I have my own views on what hell is and I will share those thoughts a bit later. In the meantime, I want to share my impressions of this chapter and tackle a very heavy topic.
Before I dive into this chapter, I find it amusing that many of Rob’s critics actually approve of this chapter – well rather they seem to find less to criticize with this chapter than some of the others. I wonder why? You should note that I am making a broad assumption of a certain group of people whom I will label fundamentals. This is not to say that all people believe the same thing but there is a core group who fits this category that seem to use hell to the advantage of their message.
I will admit that my view of hell is a bit different than Rob’s view or impression of hell (though I did agree with him on his view of heaven and eternal life). However, to really get at an understanding of hell, we need to consider it from the perspective of the two halves of our Bible and Rob breaks down his view of hell into these categories. I will do the same for the purpose of my review of this chapter.
Old Testament Concept of Hell:
It would seem that the OT is quite vague when it comes to hell. Rob is also right that their conception for what took place after death was Sheol. That was believed to be a place all of the dead would go, not just the good or the bad. He is also right that the OT affirms the belief that God has power over life and death and is involved in what happens to people after they die. A criticism of this section that I have read involves an idea that Jews believed in a resurrection but Rob appears to avoid this idea. While it is correct that some Jews believed in a resurrection of dead (and a vindication of the righteous), this was a concept that developed over the course of centuries. A common Jewish understanding of righteousness and blessing was your reward for a good life happened in this world (read the book of Job to see this idea). There wasn’t a real concept of an afterlife beyond Sheol (read the Psalms).
I do not think this criticism is fair to Rob as some of the people are taking this out of context. There were Jews in Jesus’ day (the Sadduccees) who did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. To lump all Jews into a belief of an afterlife is not fair or in context. However, there were Jews who believed in a resurrection of the dead which would be life after life after death (N.T. Wright). It seems the concept of Sheol might have some validity after all (lay in bed and wonder what happens when we die since we will not experience resurrection until the end of this age).
With that being said, I do believe there are OT scriptures that do point to some form of eternal punishment that Rob does not address. Here is a small sampling of them:
- Isaiah 33:14: …who of us can dwell with everlasting fire.
- Isaiah 66:22-24:..look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched
- Daniel 12:2: …will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
So the above list is just a small sampling of passages that talk about fiery torment. They are also later additions to the OT as Jewish apocalyptic understanding developed (so the criticism that Jews believe in an afterlife is not valid because this concept developed over time). However, as Christians in general, we are a people who largely ignore the OT in favor of what Jesus says and the entire New Testament so let’s see how Rob views hell as described in the New Testament.
New Testament Concept of Hell:
Rob starts this discussion with the word “Gehenna” that is translated “hell” in the New Testament. He points out that this valley was used as a garbage dump in Jesus’ day. There is some controversy around this point. Some people see Rob saying that Jesus is talking about a literal Gehenna in this world outside of Jerusalem. I think Jesus was a great rabbi who would use the best visual images he could to get across his point. If people could look over and see a burning wasteland (one that was always burning) it would add some impact to Jesus’ words.
I could go through the NT and find passages that refer to judgment and hell – not surprisingly there are a few more passages that can be found in the OT but I am not going to do that. I think many of the passages are in a specific context so to take them out of that context and use them to describe hell would be wrong. Instead, I am going to summarize what Rob appears to believe about hell and go from there.
So what is Bell’s view of Hell?
- He believes we need strong words like hell for the strong emotions we feel in the face of anger. They are useful in our grief (p.72)
- He points to the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to say that even in torment the rich man hadn’t figured out that he still needed to die to himself and that he hadn’t got it because he was still requesting Lazarus to serve him. Somehow he missed the point that he really wanted water because he was in torment.
- Hell doesn’t begin after we die (p.78). I agree. We can be so evil or so selfish that we create our own hell right here and now. That doesn’t negate the fact that, like heaven, hell is pre-existent someplace else simultaneously. He doesn’t mind that point being made about heaven both here and now and its continuity into eternity. He does say, “There is hell now and there is hell later and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p.79).
To be fair, he does say on p.79 that he is going to deal with those passages that deal with hell but don’t use the word. What he does there is to point to a bunch of passages that seem to say God judged people but still offered them hope. But those passages are exilic verses about the return and restoration of God’s chosen people. He is trying to show that while it appeared bleak and God had judged them and punished them that God still had room for them. The problem is, these aren’t verses about eternal punishment. These are verses about temporal, here and now punishments. So while they make the point he is making if you strip them from their context, a careful exegesis of them doesn’t support Bell’s thesis in this chapter.
He says, “failure isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.” (p.88). That is true if you are lucky enough to have survived the exile long enough to make it home and see the restoration take place. It is not so true if you were one of the guys who died back in Babylon angry at God for sending you away from home to be tortured and brutalized. So I agree that in one sense failure isn’t final otherwise none of us would have a chance. But there can come a point in time when our failures are final. A second way he tries to make this point is through Paul’s handing people over to Satan for correction in Paul’s letters to Timothy and in 1 Corinthians (p.89-90),
“It’s as if Paul is saying, ‘We’ve tried everything to get his attention, and it isn’t working so turn him loose to experience the full consequences of his actions….’ The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention.” (p.90)
I think that is exactly what Paul is saying there. But Bell assumes that handing people over to Satan always results in something good because the intention behind it was good. I don’t think that is the case. It is possible to hand someone over to Satan and them never come back because that person still has a choice of which way they will choose to go…closer to God or closer to Satan. While we hope the discipline works there is no guarantee. So seeing even handing someone over to Satan as a positive thing doesn’t really work out, in my opinion. That is not a hopeful place to be with someone.
Tim’s Concept of Hell:
Well, I know I have rambled all over this chapter. Heaven is not easy to fathom and I think hell is even less so. So what do I believe about hell? The easiest answer I can give is “I don’t know.” I have read some great images that describe hell but the bottom line is we really do not know. In my mind, an everlasting hell goes against the nature of a loving God. I find myself wondering if hell is truly everlasting or if some point in eternity, the punishment will end. I mean eternal punishment for a short life span hardly seems just and loving.
I do believe that people can live in hell in this life and we all know people who are in a living hell because of addiction or other troubles. They are trapped in a hell that they cannot escape on their own and only with the grace of God can they be freed. We can hope (as Rob does) that this experience of hell will turn them to God.
Which brings me to another point, I do not preach about hell very much (this is to my grandmother’s disappointment) but to be fair, I don’t preach about heaven very much either. The main reason is I do not understand hell or heaven enough to describe so my words would be inadequate. Instead, I approach the idea from a loving God full of grace and mercy. I do not believe in scaring people to God but rather loving people to God. The whole idea of “if you died right now, where would you spend eternity?” is not a fair thing to do to people. To me, that almost points to a vindictive God.
With all of my theological training, reading, and studying, I still cannot fully grasp hell. As I said above, I cannot fathom an everlasting hell of any sort. Lately, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is everlasting life in heaven and those who reject God truly die at the end of this life and are no more. I know this is not biblical so it is something that I wrestle with on my own and wonder about.
In the end, the true tragedy of hell is it is our choice. We have been given a choice by a loving God to choose God or reject God. It is a tragedy because God could make us all love God if God chose but instead we have the choice. Some people choose to love God and some people choose to reject God – that is the tragedy. However, throwing hell in people’s faces is not the best way to show them the love of God – that comes from entering into life and showing love to all people.
If it was possible, I am more in agreement with Rob Bell during this chapter than I was in the Preface and Chapter 1. He emphasizes a key idea about heaven that Christians often overlook. It seems that Christians want to view heaven as a reward at the end of this life and that is the sole focus of living – to get our sweet reward in the by and by when we die. We all know people who believe this and live their lives like this – they are the ones who seem to be detached from this world because they are already anticipating the next one. It is all about heaven for them and so they miss the big point of living in this life and in this world.
Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?” I say yes, there are.
There is nothing to disagree with here. It is a great point and one worth considering as we look at what heaven means and what it is. The view of heaven I described above is not really the picture of heaven we find in scripture nor does it represent the purpose of heaven as outlined in scripture very well either. If you read N.T. Wright you will find that scripture seems to say that heaven (or eternal life) begins the moment we begin – that is heaven (and eternal life) are now.
I applaud Rob as he tackles the difficult task of looking at how mainstream Christianity interprets salvation and righteous living. At the beginning of the chapter, he offers this picture (well rather a similar one) that hung in his grandmother’s house:
This picture is used to sum up the Christian belief of salvation – without the cross, we could not enter into heaven. I will confess this troubles me because it brings us back to a vindictive God who sent Jesus to die as a sacrifice for our sins. When we view the world from this image, we forget that Jesus also lived a life and taught us how to live. Much of his ministry was spent trying to right the wrongs of the world – to spread justice, peace, and love. That he died for our sins is important but that he lived a life is equally important. Rob takes on that idea in this chapter – how to live and go to heaven.
Rob begins with eternal life and this is interesting. How do we define eternal life? Does it begin when we die or when we are born. I tend to think that I am already living eternal life as I will continue to live until I die and then I enter heaven. If we look at eternal life this way, then living in this world is equally as important as getting to heaven. We shouldn’t be so quick to rush through life and look forward to heaven – God made creation so creation is inherently good.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:1-5 (CEB)
So this is a bit of my interpretation based on what Rob said but I think it is worth considering. Recently I preached at a church that shall remain nameless (not Brenthaven CP Church) in which I overheard a conversation among church folks about someone who recently died. You know what was said but I will go ahead and repeat it: “He is in a better place than we are.” It seems that people are in a rush to die and go to heaven. Is that the way to live? It all comes down to how we interpret eternal life and Rob raises that question and idea. If accepting Jesus is enough, then why continue to live a good life or live at all? I am not suggesting that we need to do works to gain salvation but I think there is more to living than just waiting to die or looking forward to heaven.
So enough of my interpretation, let’s get back to the book. After looking at eternal life, Rob tackles heaven. He defines heaven as meaning one of three things: 1) a word used in place of God’s name for the Jews, 2) the “future coming together of heaven and earth” (p.58) or 3) our “present, eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.” (p.58-59).
All three are interesting ideas. In the Jewish tradition, God’s name was never spoken or written. The idea that heaven and God are one in the same is intriguing as it goes back to the Garden when humans lived as one with God. Incredible thought.Heaven and earth coming together is what Revelation shows happening (as I shared above). Ultimately, it is the place of God where God dwells with God’s people.
It is the third idea that seems to stir controversy. You probably won’t be surprised that I agree with Rob. I think eternal life has already started and I believe heaven can be experienced here and now. It is where God dwells and it is a place of joy, love, peace, where there is no pain or tears – I look forward to that but it comes back to this idea of this life. Jesus spent time teaching people how to live. Rob cites Luke 18 in which the rich young man is encouraged to sell his belongings and give to the poor. I have heard this sermon preached as what we are to do as Christians but I think a better interpretation is giving up things and learning to live. If this young man did not have the burden of keeping all of his things, he could begin to live fully in this world and experience heaven. That’s right, I agree that it is possible to experience glimpses of heaven in this life. When my daughter holds my hand unexpectedly; during a sunset; when my wife looks at me in a special way – all of these are moments when the line between heaven and earth are blurred.
It is interesting to note that in Matthew 19, Jesus tells the rich, young man that if he wants to enter into life (note it is not eternal life but life), he must sell his things. If you want to read it yourself, click here. That says something to me – life is more than we realize and we can have eternal life (ie “life”) now if we follow Jesus’ example and teachings.
NT Wright says that the Kingdom of God is “already not yet”. The Church is very good at showing that we are looking forward to the end when the Kingdom of God will be fully realized but the Church is lowsy about showing that the Kingdom of God is already happening (afterall the kingdom would happen when the dead were resurrected – ie Jesus).
The criticism leveled at Rob over this section is that people are reading that Rob suggests that heaven and eternal life are right now. While I think that my eternal life has already begun, I do not believe that I live in heaven. I think we can experience heaven to a degree in this life and I think this life is worth living. I will not agree with Rob all the way but I think the criticism is not warranted. Look at the recent events with Harold Camping in which his followers were so focused on the end that they were forgetting to live.
Okay, I have rambled all over this chapter so where does this leave us at this point. Good question. We have three things going on here if you boil it all down: You have eternal life that we aren’t waiting for because it begins when God renews and restores us as Christians and continues on after we die. We have talk about God’s kingdom and how it will break into this world and begin a new age. And we have heaven and how it fits into space and time. At the end of it all there were some good take away points about kingdom living and whether or not we are living lives that actually embrace God’s calling on us here and now. That is how I summarize this chapter. Controversial? Not really. Important? Absolutely.
So here we are at the first chapter. In the introduction, Rob Bell raised the purpose of his book and now he jumps right in. Through out this chapter, he raises some questions (and some are challenging). Among the questions are:
- How is one “saved”?
- Why some people and not others?
- Can a loving God send billions of people to hell?
- Is my salvation dependent on someone other than myself?
- What happens to someone who dies the day after they turn whatever age God has defined as the “age of accountability”? Would it have been different if they had died the day before?
- What happens to non-Christians who act more like Christians than some Christians?
- What if the Jesus someone gets presented does not accurately reflect the one we find in scripture? Is that their fault for not believing in Jesus if his followers don’t portray him properly?
- How is one saved…by faith or works or grace or a prayer or baptism?
As I said, they are challenging questions and not easily answered. The partial list above reflects questions I think we all ask from time to time. In my case, these are questions that I find my mind fixated on in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I appreciate that Rob is willing to raise the questions in the light because we often do not discuss for various reasons: we don’t want to look ignorant; we don’t want to seem silly; and we don’t want to appear to lack faith. So it is from these questions that Rob jumps into the first chapter.
On page 3 he tells the story about a young woman who was killed in an accident. A Christian asks if she was a Christian. When they learn she was an atheist the Christian’s response is, “So there’s no hope.” From that statement Bell responds, “No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?” (p.3-4). Bell’s point is that there should be hope for all. This young lady did have hope. She had Jesus dying for her sins. She had God pulling for her to put her faith in Him. She had all kinds of hope if she would just recognize it. I know some people believe that rejected this hope but what if it was never presented to her? What if she wasn’t raised in the right environment? It goes back to the question/idea about whether my salvation is dependent on others or not? It is intriguing and worth considering.
I know criticism has been leveled at Rob because he chooses his scripture and his stories to advance his ideas (but don’t we all?). I mean he has laid out his intentions and now he is going to use scripture to support them. People criticize this but I call this exegesis and preaching. In the case of the young lady who supposedly died “without hope” there is a factor that people seem to ignore – we have no idea what happens at the moment of death. We have no idea what happens when we leave this existence. Perhaps there is a final moment of hope and in the case of this young lady, perhaps she made a choice to accept God at the very last moment of her life. We simply don’t know but we cannot think there is no hope.
I have read some other thoughts on this chapter and others have quoted scripture and pointed out that Jesus has said clearly that there is hope until death. They use this argument to attack Rob and his idea. What I see is a God that we cannot begin to fathom – a God who loves us beyond our understanding and will do anything to reach us. We cannot fully grasp this idea of God’s love so I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that there is no hope for someone.
I will admit that Rob does get into some murky ideas in this chapter. He ventures off the tried and true path of the clear gospel stories that teach about life and death. Another criticism leveled at Rob (and I don’t see it) is that people clearly got Jesus and completely understood everything he was about. Several people have cited the Gospel of John as an example of people understanding Jesus but let’s go back and read that again. It is not the case – too often people assumed they knew Jesus completely (and still do by the way) and so they know what he is talking about. I think the murky areas of the Bible are important because it is those areas that contradict what we think we know about Jesus and what Jesus is talking about. It is those areas that lead us to think and pray and reflect on God’s word and wrestle with what Jesus means.
At the end of the first chapter, I understand the controversy surrounding the book. Rob is laying out radical ideas that go against the grain. Having said that, I am agreeing with Rob so far in his ideas. I am not ready to condemn the “unsaved” to hell just yet. I am curious to see where he goes from here but I am agreeing with his direction and ideas so far.
Still keeping that open mind.
I am beginning with the preface in which Bell begins Love Wins by laying out some common ground with some thoughts few would disagree with:
First, I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.
Next, he gives us the overarching problem the book will address:
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories that Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
He goes on to say that this book is written as a response to a false gospel that would make anyone with common sense respond with, “I would never want to be a part of that.”
Most of you have probably experienced what Bell is talking about here. You have heard people make mountains out of mole hills on either end of the liberal-conservative spectrum. We know this happens. We can all agree this happens. I recently encountered somebody who has had this experience in her church. She felt the minister was out of touch with the world and with Jesus. It was as if the gospel was hijacked by this minister. Fair enough and I would wager that so many other people have had similiar experiences – the gospel of Jesus preempted by someone’s personal beliefs (of course, we all have a mind of our own and thus can simply choose to accept what someone preaches or give it some thought and decide whether it fits into our understanding of God).
So where does this leave Rob Bell. In the preface, he explicitly gives two reasons for offering this book. His first reason is:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
I could maybe see the controversy in this reasoning. Heaven and hell are taught extensively in the church and from the pulpit. It is something that does need to be taught but sometimes I think there is an overemphasis on both heaven and hell that people forget to live in this world (also created by God!). Rob emphasizes that heaven is for a “select few” and hell is a place where people have no choice. This statement and idea troubles me because it goes against my understanding of God as a loving-God. When you look at this way, it is like God is vindictive (and not judging with mercy) and unfair. It is difficult to sort out this idea of a God who uses hell as punishment but Rob says he will use scripture to help sort this out so I look forward to seeing how he fleshes it out.
The second reason for writing the book as offered by the author is:
Second, I have written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.
Rob is right. We bring up heaven and hell and people walk away from us. They do not want to have this dialogue with anyone and it closes doors. Jesus did not avoid the tough discussions and tough topics and I am glad that Rob is not either. I see Rob opening the door to a dialogue (controversial or not) about a topic that many people avoid discussing openly. He offers this final caveat at the end of the preface:
And then, last of all, please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.
So there is my opening thoughts on the preface. I am not seeing the controversy yet (OMG – maybe I am a universalist!) but then I also try to keep an open mind and it is just the preface so how much controversy can you have this early on. Tomorrow I am going to delve into the first chapter and see where it takes me. I am looking forward to sharing more as I go.
I am reading it with an open mind – but one that is excited never the less - and I want to see what Rob has to say. I welcome debate and dialogue and hope you will tune in and offer your thoughts. My understanding is that the book has created controversy but I think we need to talk instead and discuss what we don’t agree with. Again, I welcome feed back on my take of the book and look forward to future discussions as they arise.
My plan is to break the book down chapter by chapter and share my thoughts and feelings.