Rob Bell opens Chapter Two, his chapter on heaven, with a discussion of some artwork that hung (or still hangs) in his grandmother's home for as long as Bell can remember. There is a picture of the painting in the book on page 20. (HarperOne has made every effort to obtain permission to use the creepy picture, but seems to be unable to find its creator). On the right side of the picture is a smoky, dirty, polluted world. Running through the picture is a huge chasm and spanning that chasm like a bridge is an enormous cross. People are walking on the cross to the other side where a very sunny, large, clean city is located. It gave Bell and his sister the creeps, although it's difficult to know what exactly caused the feeling in Ruth. She doesn't say (22). Bell however, seems to be disturbed that the picture suggests that people leave one place to go to another. Somewhere else. He writes, "From what we can see, the people in the painting are going somewhere, somewhere they've chosen to go, and they're leaving something behind so that they can go there" (23). This idea is Bell's launching point into his discussion about heaven.
Before reading Chapter Two, I got the sense that the picture is symbolic of the cross making a way for one world to be bridged to another, so people can go from a life destined for hell to a life in and among the Kingdom of Heaven. A chasm between a world of death and yuckiness was now bridged by Jesus' work on the cross to a world of life and beauty, free from such yuckiness. It would seem that people (who were originally on the yucky side) are able to go to the other side but the things of death's side will remain where they are, separated from the amazing city. These things might be "war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, and disgrace"-- things Bells says, "will not be able to survive in the world to come" (36). But I quickly learned that Bell did not see the same symbolism that I observed. He saw people escaping to someplace else. And he didn't like what he saw.
On the one hand, Bell attacks an immature, non-biblical view of heaven, one of winged people playing harps and bouncing from cloud to cloud. He takes some time to demonstrate that the new heaven and earth will be much like the physical world in which we live, only without rape, corporate greed, and oil spills. (It might be worth noting that he doesn't express his thoughts with words and idea such as sin or the temptation of sin.) It will be an earth like the one prior to Genesis 3. It's here, on earth, not somewhere else. (Regarding the new heaven and earth, I agree with Bell on this topic.) But for Bell, when we die, we don't go anywhere else, not at all, because heaven is right here--this seems to be the argument, at least the idea he's promoting. But I think he takes this a little too far. He seems to neglect passages of the Bible that suggest that Jesus was going somewhere to prepare a place for his people. (Bell discussed this somewhat in Chapter One so I discussed it and some Scriptures related to this idea in the post that looked at that chapter.) Even Bell himself can't get away from the idea of people going somewhere (maybe before they come back here). In making a later argument about the physical, earthy idea of heaven, Bell writes,
"Paul writes to the Corinthians about two kinds of bodies. The first is the kind we each inhabit now, the kind that gets old and weary and eventually gives out on us. The second kind is one he calls "imperishable" (1 Cor. 15), one immune to the ravages of time, one we'll receive when heaven and earth are one. Prior to that, then, after death we are without a body. In heaven, but without a body. A body is of the earth. Made of dust. Part of this creation, not that one. Those currently 'in heaven' are not, obviously, here. And so they are with God, but without a body" (56, italics added for emphases).But while he is making an argument about the present incompleteness of heaven and earth, Bell alludes to somewhere else. So is it possible that when people die, they go to this temporary place--where they have no body--to wait for a time when the yucky side of the world will be remade as it was before the fall in Genesis 3? Intentionally or not, Bell himself makes a good argument for this; and, this idea does seem to suggest that people do in fact go somewhere that's not here with all the bad things Bell lists, at least for a time. I think he's being too hard on that picture at his grandmother's house. And he's being hard on other Christians.
Bell also points out that some people think of heaven like a mansion, but he says that the word "mansion" appears nowhere in the Bible's descriptions of heaven (43). I found this statement rather interesting because I've always thought a mansion was a big house with lots of rooms. John 14:2 doesn't say the specific word, "mansion"; but Jesus says, "In my father's house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (ESV). It seems that place, someplace, where Jesus is going, has lots of rooms. Maybe like a mansion?
From here, Bell shifts to an attack on matters of when one enters the Kingdom of Heaven, and what one must do in order to be granted admittance. He looks at passages that deal with the Kingdom of Heaven now and argues against Christians that primarily see the Kingdom of Heaven as a future event. He also attacks the various ideas of how one is accepted or inaugurated into the Kingdom of Heaven. He's rather critical of a sinner's prayer, and he discusses the sinner on the cross. Although to me, the non-verbal story being told in that narrative seems to suggest a recognition of sin and a submission to King Jesus. Is scriptural approach seems selective. For a discussion of what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God, please visit this post.
Bell also paints a picture of a hardworking single mom trying her best to do good. He says she's faithful with what she as been given. "She's a woman of character and substance" (53). Then Bell asks, "Is she the last who Jesus says will be first?" (53). In contrast to this, Bell discusses the people on magazine covers who are "often beautiful, rich famous, talented people embroiled in endless variations of scandal and controversy" (54). Of these people, Bell asks, "Are we seeing the first who will be last that Jesus spoke of?" (54). But never is there a conversation about what these people think of Jesus. No discussion of the necessity of Christ or his atonement. (I'm not sure the words "atonement" or "resurrection" have appeared anywhere in the book thus far, and "repentance" and "surrender" appear nowhere in a positive light if they appear at all.) And I wonder, how is it okay to speculate about the status of these people but not the status of Mahatma Gandhi (1). Does this seem like a double-standard?
I feel that Bell's picture of a physical heaven is a biblical representation of the heaven in which believers will live out eternity, with dirt and plants and work, free of sin and temptation and the effects of the fall. But I also feel that Bell doesn't represent the Kingdom of God well. It has aspects of now and future but those aspects are not the same. It's complex. However, there is an indication in the Bible that not everybody is automatically a citizen of this Kingdom. And it's citizens are among the Kingdom now and after death. (For more on the Kingdom of Heaven, with lots of Scripture references worth further study, please look over this post on the topic.) Bell, however, seems to be on the far side, arguing the now against people on the far other side arguing the future. He really wants to make the Kingdom of God simple, so he can then take that simple thing that he's created, call it the standard Christian believe and then argue that it's actually more complex than we think.
And there is one glaring problem found on pages 57 and 58. Bell writes, "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 in to the future. That's not a category or concept we find in the Bible" (58, emphasis added for effect). To make his point Bell shares a word study that seems almost like an intentional misrepresentation. He examines the Greek word aion, which generally means age, a period of time, forever, or a world without end. It also appears as a form of negation which is often translated "never." But Bell says it's better to think of it only as a time, or rather as an "intense experience" (58). He then states, "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, belong to another realm altogether" (58). There are some serious problems here. First, there is no concept of an eternal time in the Bible? And the translators don't think this has anything to do with time? Really? And what about the Greek word aionios? This different word has the same root but it is an altogether different word. In its simplest form it means past, present, and future, eternal, everlasting, without end. Has Bell forgot this word in his word study? It's rather important as we examine this topic.
Here are the New Testament passages where the word aion appears (some are in the negated form often translated as 'never'): Matthew 12:32; 13:22, 39–40, 49; 24:3; 28:20; Mark 3:29; 4:19; 10:30; Luke 1:33, 55, 70; 16:8; 18:30; 20:34–35; John 4:14; 6:51, 58; 8:35, 51–52; 9:32; 10:28; 11:26; 12:34; 13:8; 14:16; Acts 3:21; 15:18; Rom 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 12:2; 16:27; 1 Corinthians 1:20; 2:6–8; 3:18; 8:13; 10:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 9:9; 11:31; Gal 1:4–5; Ephesians 1:21; 2:2, 7; 3:9, 11, 21; Philippians 4:20; Colossians 1:26; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:17; 2 Timothy 4:10, 18; Titus 2:12; Hebrews 1:2, 8; 5:6; 6:5, 20; 7:17, 21, 24, 28; 9:26; 11:3; 13:8, 21; 1 Peter 1:25; 4:11; 5:11; 2 Peter 3:18; 1 John 2:17; 2 John 1:2; Jude 1:13, 25; Revelation 1:6, 18; 4:9–10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 14:11; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; and 22:5. Look at these passages and note the context and translational use.
But wait, there's that other word that Bell completely neglects--aionios that has the eternal, forever, time marching on without end aspect. Look at where this word appears in the New Testament, and notice its context, usage, and English translation: Matthew 18:8; 19:16, 29; 25:41, 46; Mark 3:29; 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 16:9; 18:18, 30; John 3:15–16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2–3; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22–23; 16:25–26; 2 Corinthians 4:17–5:1; Galatians 6:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; 2:16; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:12, 16; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2:10; Titus 1:2; 3:7; Philemon 1:15; Hebrews 5:9; 6:2; 9:12, 14–15; 13:20; 1 Peter 5:10; 2 Peter 1:11; 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 1:7, 21; and Revelation 14:6. These are not the same word and they each carry their own meaning. Notice that these two different words appear in the same books by the same authors. Sometimes they appear in the same paragraphs, and in a couple cases, even in the same sentence! (See Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30 for example). Has Rob Bell intentionally neglected the word aionios in order to try to make his point?
Despite the word study problem, at the conclusion of the second chapter, I feel better about the book than I did at the conclusion of Chapter One. Bell is at least making an attempt to answer some (although not many) of his proposed questions. He is trying to describe what happens when we die and he's punching holes in a misguided, non-Christian view of heaven. However, an occasional swing is aimed at the wrong target. And sometimes, it's a little below the belt or misses the mark completely. There are discussions of Scripture that seem a little twisted in order to serve his purpose, especially in some of his word studies. I still get the feeling Bell is angry at some fringe Christian ideas that were popular in the 1980s; and rather than trying to tell a story of Christ's Good News as he suggested he was going to do, he's still reacting to ideas and practices of Christianity that he doesn't care much for.
Next up, "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 3)."
*I have no material connection to Rob Bell or his book.
** The photo of Rob Bell is the copyright of Mars Hill Bible Church and a color version appears on the back cover of Love Wins.