Chapter 2 of the book discusses heaven. As various people have pointed out, the approach is very reminiscent of that of my colleague Tom Wright. I think Tom is just right on most of these questions (I’d say that even if I wasn’t with him and Maggie for dinner this evening…), but let’s hear Bell out. He begins by criticising wrong understandings of heaven. Heaven is not ‘somewhere else’ (23-5); we deal with the subject badly if our core question is ‘who gets to go?’ (25-6).
‘Eternal life,’ Bell wants to insist, is not about endless duration, but about a new ‘era,’ a new age to come. He explores this by reference to the prophets, ending with the comment ‘if this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally.’ (33) The age to come is universalistic (in the OT sense of being for all nations…) and physical and earthy. And it excludes all injustice. This leads Bell to a brilliant apologetic move: ‘people say they can’t believe in a “God of judgement.” Yes they can.’ (37). And Bell points to the endless inchoate demand that this ought to be different, that someone ought to do something about that. ‘We crave judgment, we long for it, we thirst for it … as the prophet Amos says, “Let justice roll on like a river”.’ (38). He makes the same move with divine anger.
Yes, that’s right. Rob Bell defends the notion of divine wrath. Clearly, carefully, and convincingly.
It is true that he focuses here on injustice, sexual exploitation, and environmental destruction rather than on, say, idolatry, but that is because the point is apologetic: how do you convince someone that divine justice and wrath might be realities? You point them the places where they get angry and demand justice, and say ‘and God feels the same’. Then, having established the possibility, you can perhaps move on to a broader Biblical picture and hope to be heard.
Bell’s next move however is not to broaden his apologetic concerning sin, but to focus it. He points to our personal failure, in the terms used, ‘our role in corrupting the world,’ (39), and to the prophetic promise of mercy and grace. The reality of the world to come, on Bell’s telling? ‘Justice and mercy hold hands, they kiss, they belong together in … an age that is complex, earthy, participatory, and free from all death, destruction, and despair.’ (39).
From all of this Bell comes up with an ethic: ‘taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now … because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is … taking it somewhere.’ (45) Says Bell:
It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray … 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.
Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one. (45-6).
Then Bell turns again to judgement. ‘…heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points.’ (49). Judgement, for Bell, points to the need for transformation. We need to become people now who are able to cope with heaven; if we do not, heaven itself will burn us up. ‘Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies are prohibited and removed, for some there simply won’t be much left,’ (50)
Finally, Bell suggests that there is a regular Biblical theme concerning the surprise of heaven. The sheep in Mt 25 are astonished to discover they have served Jesus; the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector is about reversal; the parable of the great banquet about a remarkable guest list. From this, Bell deduces, we might be astonished when we discover who is in heaven. He offers speculation about the sort of people who look right to him; I suppose that he will be as surprised as the rest of us…
Finally, heaven as present reality, ‘a realm beyond the one we currently inhabit and yet near and connected with it. [Paul] writes of getting glimpses of it, being a citizen of it, and being there the moment he dies.’ (55-6).
The summary of the chapter is this:
There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.
As I say, there is little here that is not fairly standard. It draws on N.T. Wright a lot. It has, I think, to be understood as apologetic – images and examples to help the reader believe and understand. There’s much more that could be said, but when was that not true? The connection of eschatology with ethics that I noted in the previous chapter comes through again, as it will in the next. Bell wants us to believe that salvation and social justice are intimately related, and neither can be ignored.
Bell then turns to hell. And his treatment is much more interesting.