One thing I am learning about Rob Bell’s book as well as from other reviews I’ve read, it that Bell is striving to be more of a Christian artist than theologian. That is to say that Bell is painting a picture with words using biblical citations, critical questions, experience, and theology but not necessarily. Whether that is a good or bad thing is another discussion since all talk about religion and faith is to do theology.
That’s important to know as you read chapter 2 “Here is the New There” which is about heaven. Those who hold what is now the traditional view on heaven (and salvation) will find this chapter frustrating because Bell is not trying to give full explanations for the claims he is making as he is paints the picture.
In short, the traditional view of heaven (and salvation) borrows from Greek philosophy. It therefore views the world and all that is physical as something we must escape from. Christ is the means of this escape. Therefore those in Christ go to heaven when they die which is a blissful place of mansions and streets paved with gold. This is a view that not only I no longer hold but has come under greater criticism as many believe it just cannot be sustained in the light of all the biblical evidence when read in it’s historical context.
Another view, which I happen to hold, is the view that heaven is a real place separate from the world at the present but is being reunited with world (actually the world is being redeemed to God). Thus heaven and earth will one day be joined together which is the picture we are given in Revelation 21. The new heaven and earth will not be a place where our souls simply fly away too as we often sing about in the popular Christian spiritual/hymn I’ll Fly Away. Rather the new heaven and earth will be a place of bodily existence which is affirmed in the passages that speak of bodily redemption (cf. Rom 8.23; 1 Cor 15). It will be an existence of God’s reign, where his will is done and all that is against his will is removed from the picture (cf. Rev 21.8). This seems to be the view Bell is painting which I have no qualms with. For a good thorough introduction to this view see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 2008.
What I really appreciate about this chapter is the way in which Bell weaves kingdom living to the eschatological goal of God’s redemption, where his will is perfectly done in the new heaven and earth. You see, Jesus called us to participate with him as his disciples in this kingdom life. Thus by doing God’s will here on earth as it is done in heaven, God brings the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) into present history through us. So Bell writes:
Taking heaven seriously, then, 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 (p. 45).
Notice that Bell keeps the work of bringing redemption upon the shoulders of God as it should be. Redemption is God’s work but it is work that God calls his people to join in through faithful obedience.
As I read this chapter, it did not strike me in any way that Bell was trying to suggest that heaven is something we bring about through our own volition. Thus is was a bit of a surprise to read one review that accuses him of such a view. Of course, I have not finished reading this book yet but I do not see such error in this chapter. By the way…the review I mentioned seems to be a fair, objective, and generous review…yes people can disagree with Bell and do so in a proper way.
For all the dogmatic critics of Bell, I will say that reading this chapter was encouraging and made me want to praise God all the more. It remains to be seen if that same sentiment will follow me through the rest of the book.