Love Wins, Part One
[[This is a long one, just letting you know. Sit in for the long haul.]]
Well, I made it. It has been quite the sojourn getting here, but I made it. I obtained Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, today. Let me tell you, getting a hold of this thing was the real trial. I had ordered the hardback on Amazon days ago, but woke up to a notification this morning that it was no longer coming on March 17th as expected, but that it was not going to ship until maybe the 20th if I was lucky. Downer. I was going to be off of spring break soon, so I needed to read it now. We also wouldn’t want to let the topic go stale, would we? So, I cancelled the order and got to looking around town. My local Barnes and Noble had only ordered four copies on release day and had sold out within the hour. No more expected soon. Our local Borders is going out of business, so no new shipments there. And, of course, LifeWay hadn’t gone anywhere near the text. They still had Jesus Wants to Save Christians, though, which is a phenomenal little book in its own right. After going by every place that still sold books (apparently the local mall here doesn’t, by the way), I finally consented to ordering a digital copy. This is one of those books I really wanted to write in … but, alas, it was not to be. So, I cracked open the digitized text and began to read.
Before you go any further, there will be spoilers here. I haven’t read most of the reviews yet because this was kind of like a Harry Potter of theology for me. I’ve shied away from the message boards and blogs so nobody would spoil the ending. However, I won’t be talking about the book in vague terms, so if you want to read it for yourself, don’t read this. I suggest getting a digital copy if you don’t have a hard copy already. No one is going to have a hard copy until the end of the month. Just download the Kindle Reader app for your desktop or mobile device (both free) and read it there. It’s on sale for like $11 on Amazon, which is a superb price for a new book.
So we begin.
Bell begins in the Preface with some things I think everyone should understand before progressing into his text. First, he has written this book for the discontent. It is not for you who are comfortable with your eschatologies (beliefs about “ends”). If you are fine with the Bible being your Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, you need not apply (by the way, that’s not what the Bible’s for). Second, he wants to ask these questions 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.” While some communities do not permit this kind of endeavor, his does and he claims that this kind of conversation is in itself “divine.” He’s not alone on this. In the Orthodox tradition, this is called theologoumena, or pious questioning. It’s old, trust me. He claims that “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue to dangerous.” Third, and finally, he correctly states that you should,
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.
Don’t dismiss him out of hand because it isn’t how your church thinks or how what you perceive as the majority thinks. That doesn’t mean you have to accept what he says, but it does mean that you have to take Bell seriously and engage him in a manner worthy of his vocation.
One Last Thing
Before pressing onward into his argument, Bell sets aside a chapter purely on Scripture. This is not the say that the rest of the book is not undergirded with Scripture (whatever you think about the interpretation), because it is. But this chapter is important. He outlines passages from Genesis to Revelation about heaven and the kingdom and all the diverse ways that Jesus and others talk about it. I won’t laundry list his references, but if you’d like them, I’d suggest you pick up the book or email me about it (see the Gmail button under the banner). Moving on …
As I read the chapter on heaven, I was gripped with the inescapable feeling of I’ve read this before. What he is proposing is something that N. T. Wright works so hard to say in lectures, speeches, articles, and even books like Surprised by Hope. What he is proposing is given flesh in the ethics of men like Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon and in its most concrete form in individuals like Shane Claiborne at Simple Way. Heaven is not something somewhere else, Bell says, but heaven is going to be here. “Thy will be done,” he quotes, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Bell is simply reiterating these fundamental ideas of the Christian faith that go back to St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (Nay! back to Christ himself!). Heaven is here. Don’t get ready, be ready. Jesus Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven and you’re jumping onto a moving train, as Hauerwas and Willimon point out in Resident Aliens. No surprises here — this is something that Bell has always emphasized. It’s a first century-guided, twenty-first century-directed look at living in the world, driven by eschatology. What’s unique in the chapter on heaven, I think, is how he talks about God’s judgment.
Bell talks about judgment in a way that will likely make many theological liberals cringe. He doesn’t shy away from the language of the Old Testament, especially the prophets in his pronouncement of God’s judgment. But wait — this is heaven, isn’t it? What’s God’s judgment doing here? Well, you understand, dear Christian, that there is no place in heaven for things like “War. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace.” Heaven is the Day of the Lord in which God finally comes into the world in full force and says “ENOUGH!” He says “‘ENOUGH!’ to anything that threatens the peace,” and says “‘Never again’ to the oppressors.” “It’s important to remember,” Bell says, “this the next time we hear people say they can’t believe in a ‘God of judgment.’” Maybe it’s just me, but I found that refreshing. This way of looking at heaven and God’s judgment means
taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.
Sorry, folks, but that’s a message I can believe in. This is the kind of kingdom that Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the kind of Kingdom I’m trying so hard to preach about in rural Alabama. This is the kind of Kingdom that Shane Claiborne calls the “Irresistible Revolution.” This is the Kingdom of Heaven, it starts now, and it is catapulting toward a collision with earth as we speak.
We can’t just automatically be a part of this fully unified kingdom of heaven and earth, though. No matter what prayer you’ve said, no matter what wafer you’ve eaten, or what wine you’ve consumed, this is something totally different than anything you’ve ever seen. Heaven works on different rules. He explains that, in heaven, “God’s will would be done on earth as it is done now in heaven.” What does that mean for you and me? It means that heaven will be a lot to get used to — it will require learning. Heaven has “the potential to be a kind of starting over.” We have to learn to be human all over again, because those choices like war, rape, greed, and injustice aren’t choices anymore. This kind of world where “loving your neighbor was the only option” would take some getting used to. We don’t know how to live this way. We don’t know how to interact with God this way. St. Paul talks about seeing God as face to face at this time, but do you know how to do that? Do you know how to see with those eyes?
Right now, we’re trying to embrace our lover, but we’re wearing a hazmat suit. We’re trying to have a detailed conversation about complex emotions, but we’re underwater. We’re trying to taste the thirty-two different spices in the curry, but our mouth is filled with gravel.
Don’t presume you’re ready for heaven. Heaven is going to be something so radically beyond your comprehension (literally, Bell hints) that you can’t handle it the way you are. And that’s what reshaping is all about, what sanctification (Bell doesn’t use that word in this chapter) is all about, and that’s what divine judgment is all about.
The facet of this chapter that I cannot let you get away from is this: heaven is not an escape. What we believe about heaven guides the way that we act, and we are in no way inclined to act like Jesus taught if heaven is some Platonic, “ethereal, intangible, esoteric, and immaterial” world. “Heaven,” Bell comments, “for Jesus, wasn’t less real, but more real.” Heaven is this already-but-not-yet thing. Jesus started it and he’s going to finish it, and that’s the second coming (Greek: parousia) that we hope for as Christians. And the Rapture-based escapist eschatology that says we’re leaving earth behind is not Biblical and has disastrous consequences. To conclude this section, I’ll let Bell make that point for me. If you believe that that is the way things are, it
leads to a far more disturbing question. So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. if this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possible end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived.
That would be tragic.
Is this the section you’ve been waiting for? There wasn’t anything heretical about heaven, but here’s where you’ll peg him, isn’t it? Here’s the place where Bell will trip up, say something, and you can really dig into him. Everyone could care less about the heaven chapter — they just want to get to hell (irony?). That’s the interesting portion isn’t it? You know you’re going to heaven and it’s going to be all nice, fluffy, and gold, but tell me about what I’m missing, right? Tell me all that pain I’m avoiding, all that suffering and torment. Well, that’s precisely the problem Bell is highlighting, I think. What’s with our fascination with eternal damnation? Sometimes it seems like we talk a whole lot more about hell than we do about heaven. That’s not the way it should be. I’ll have you know that the chapter on hell is shorter than the chapter on heaven.
Before he goes on to describe what he thinks, Bell acknowledges that many have an aversion to any sort of understanding of hell. He says he gets it, but it is nevertheless something Christians must wrestle with and understand. Now, I’m not going to tell you a whole lot, because it’s not really the point. Sorry if you’re disappointed (see above). Primarily, what Bell is doing when he talks about hell is the same as what he does when he talks about heaven. Through the Bible, he addresses both hells on earth and hell after death.
First, the Bible and hell explicitly. What does the Old Testament say? The Old Testament says that when you die, God is still in control and is still involved. The Old Testament looks at life and death a little differently than we do (it’s more like two ways of being alive). And the Old Testament is reacting against those beliefs which had you store up treasures to be buried with you for the afterlife. What does the New Testament say? In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell and he is talking about the city dump of Gehenna. James and Peter both reference hell, as well, but that’s about it. All of these references address both a hell that seems to take place after death, but they also seem to be getting at hell in this life.
Second, the Bible and hell implicitly, according to Bell’s interpretation. Like heaven, hell is right here right now as well as something to be dealt with later. Bell explicitly states that, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.” and “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” As for the hell on earth, he describes what happens when humans live in such a way that is contrary to the way God wants us to live our lives. Genocide. Molestation. Abuse. Affairs. War. Rape. Violence. Injustice. Hell is how we talk about suffering — suffering that we create.“God gives us what we want,” he says, “and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.” Hell is something created by our failure to live rightly, but that’s not the end of the story. He continues to list a litany of Scripture from the Old and New Testaments (a lot from the Prophets) about the judgment of God, yes, but also his redemptive purpose. He describes a relentless God who refuses to leave even Egypt, Sodom, and Gomorrah unredeemed. The basis for these claims are explicit in Scripture (e.g. Ezekiel) and give force to this assertion. However, he remains unclear at this point as to what sort of hell he is talking about. Clearly this addresses the temporality of the hell on earth made by man, but what does that say about the hell after death? That’s the question evangelicals are waiting for. But Bell’s first response might be this: “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” Second, shouldn’t we be talking a whole lot more about heaven and the kingdom anyway?
Well, I haven’t found anything remarkable heretical so far. I haven’t heard a mention of the dreaded “U” word either. What do you think? There is information and discussion material enough in these first two sections. I’ll address the remaining portions of the book tomorrow in which more of the controversial subject matter is addressed. For now, dwell on the above. Think about it. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Is it orthodox? Why or why not? Feel free to leave your comments below, but let’s not stray into the next section just yet.
All in all, I think he could have stopped there and I would have been satisfied, but we still have half the book to go. If you’re looking to take a break from reading this behemoth of a post, now is the time to take it. I’ll be back tomorrow with an examination of the second half of the book. So far, very interesting. Don’t want to wait until then? Go read it!
Update: In the meantime, this should brighten your day. :)
Posted on 16 March 2011, in Current Events, Theology and tagged A Book about Heaven Hell and the Fate of Every Person who Ever lived, Bible, Book, Corinth, Death, Discussion, Eschatology, God, Heaven, Hell, Irresistible Revolution, Jesus, Life, Love Wins, Mars Hill Bible Church, N. T. Wright, pious questioning, Prophets, Resident Aliens, Resurrection, Review, Rob Bell, salvation, Santification, Scripture, Shane Claiborne, Simple Way, St. Paul, Stanley Hauerwas, Surprised by Hope, theologoumena, Universalism, William Willimon. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.