In chapter two Pastor Bell unpacks his theology of Heaven.
Bell holds the theological position that Heaven is not a far off place where God dwells but the final condition of our planet. Heaven is what happens when Jesus Christ returns, judges everything, and purges the planet of the effects of sin. In N.T. Wright’s words, Heaven is what happens when God’s dimension is reunited with this world’s physical dimension.
Heaven is not just a place but a quality of existence. It’s what happens when Jesus’ followers live in a way that anticipates the coming order. Bell notes this is why we pray “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Bell points to the prophets and reminds us that this Heaven includes “all the nations.” He writes:
“That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating–
Bell then goes on to defend God’s wrath and judgment. He describe Heaven as something that Christ-followers will unable to achieve on there own that God will personally have to intervene to rid the world of everything that threatens “Shalom”:
“Central to their vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophets’ announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come.
Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things need to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the Lord.”
Bell also defends that idea that God is capable of anger:
“Same with the word “anger.” When we hear people who 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’s savings?”
Pastor Bell then makes a case for Christian living. We are to prepare for God’s future order now. The coming judgment should unnerve us because “we each know what lurks in our own heart– our role in corrupting the world, the litany of ways that our own sins have contributed to the heartbreak we’re surrounded by, all those times we hardened our hearts and kept right on walking, ignoring the cry of someone in need.” (p. 23)
It’s at this point that my discomfort with the chapter increased. Pastor Bell takes us to 1 Corinthians 3 and Paul’s description of “The Day” that the prophets foretold. The Apostle Paul write about how “everything will be brought to light” and how things will be “revealed with fire.” Pastor Bell describes this as “Flames in Heaven.” The imperfect is consumed. Paul writes, “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though as one escaping through the flames.”
And this next quote is where my discomfort level and disagreement grows:
“Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives. 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 jealousy are removed, for some there simply won’t be much left. “As some escaping through the flames” is how he put it. ”
Jesus might not have promised this instant change but Paul seems to have:
“… in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1 Corinthians 15:52
Now in fairness to Rob Bell, the Apostle Paul does not explicitly say that our resurrected selves will be sinless. But to borrow and modify a question from Pastor Bell, “Is resurrecting humans as sinful beings the best that God can do?”
Pastor Bell then makes a connection between this passage and the stories of Jesus regarding the surprising people we’ll meet in Heaven:
“The fames of heaven, it turns out, lead us to the surprise of heaven. Jesus tells a story in Matthew 25 about people invited into “the kingdom prepared for [them] since the creation of the world,” and their first reaction is… surprise.”
Pastor Bell goes on to note various passages in the Gospels where the morally marginalize are welcomed into the kingdom and while the spiritually self-assured are not.
Here’s where I break with Pastor Bell’s logic. First, I don’t see any connection between the 1 Corinthians 3 passage and those kingdom parables. Paul makes no literary allusions to any of Jesus’ teachings as I can see. Secondly, those kingdom parables are best seen as stories that illustrate Jesus’ ministry. He aligned himself with the sinners and socially marginalized because “it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick.” The “surprise of heaven” is that the very people the morally self-righteous labels as too wicked to enter Heaven are the ones who embraced the Messiah.
Bell however sees the kingdom being filled through a different set of criteria:
Think about the single mom, trying to raise kids, work multiple jobs, and wrangle child support out of the kids’ father, who used to beat her. She’s faithful, true, and utterly devoted to her children. In spite of the circumstances, she never loses hope that they can be raised in love an go on to break the cycle of dysfunction an abuse. She never goes out, never takes a vacation, never has enough money to buy anything for herself. She gets a few hours of sleep and then repeats the cycle of cooking, work, laundry, bills, more work, laundry, bills, more work, until she falls into bed late at night, exhausted.
With what she has been given she has been faithful. She is a woman of character and substance. She is kind and loving even when she’s exhausted.
She can be trusted.
Is she the last who Jesus says will be first?
Does God say to her, “You’re the kind of person I can run the world with?”
Pastor Bell seems to offer competency to co-reign in the kingdom come as better standard for entrance into heaven-on-earth. However, in chapter one, Bell rails against any kind of works contributing to salvation:
“Accepting, confessing, believing—those are things we do.
Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?
Perhaps I’m misreading Bell. Maybe he sees her struggles not as “works” but as evidence of Kingdom-worthy character. If so, I would suggest that belief in the resurrection and a confession of Jesus’ Lordship (Romans 10:9-10) could also be offered as similar evidence of such character. I struggle with seeing surrender to Christ and following his Lordship out of gratitude a form of “works.”
Again, another chapter in which I read many commendable truths but then found myself ending the chapter in sharp disagreement. The Chapter on Hell is next. I’m anticipating that “the flames of heaven” and “hell” will be identical and that he’ll view hell as a type of purgatory. But I could be wrong.
As an aside, I was curious as to how a Eugene Peterson came to be comfortable with endorsing a book that fell outside of his personal theology. I love his answer.
Again, if you are under the opinion that I’ve read Pastor Bell poorly and that I’m misrepresenting him, please make a comment. I’m not making any claims at infallibility.
Theology aside, Pastor Bell is a heckuva writer. I could learn from him.