This chapter had a lot more going for it than chapter one. There were a lot more moments I was in total agreement with him than I had been in the preface and in chapter one. I really like the point he was making that heaven really isn’t about pie in the sky by and by when we die but has a lot more to it than that,
“Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?” I say yes, there are. (26)”
I agree. That is a vision of heaven worthy of deconstruction. It is not really the picture of heaven we find in scripture nor does it represent the purpose of heaven as outlined in scripture very well either. I particularly like the way he made the point that if we view eternal life correctly that it will improve our ethics. I needed that reminder. If you have kept up with N.T. Wright and others some of these points were really review but I thought he communicated that there is more to heaven than we have given credit in the past.
He starts the chapter with a smattering of things people think are important about heaven. He doesn’t offer any real commentary here other than make the point that what people are curious about heaven is varied. He talks about heaven from the perspective of where it is (p.23-24) to who will or won’t be there (again…no answer here yet, just saying this is what people are curious about – p.25), and from who to what do we have to do take part (p.28) and last from what to when does this take place (p.30). These are all narratives people have that give meaning to or take meaning away from what they think heaven or eternal life will be like. This book is about having the right narrative and the central narrative in this chapter is from Matthew 19/Luke 18 about the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to receive eternal life (aionios in Greek). Before he tackles that question with what Jesus did answer he takes a little potshot at the typical Christian response to that question by examining what we might expect Jesus to say, as Christians, but was not actually said by Jesus. But here he makes a category mistake. He writes,
“He’ll show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace. Then he’ll invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God. Like any good Christian would.” (p.27).
The difficult I have with this is you have Jesus, a Jew, teaching another Jew, who is under the Law, what living as God intended is all about. Rather than read it and interpret it in its historical, cultural or religious context he takes opportunity to blast what mainstream Christians believes the Bible teaches about salvation.
Now, I do agree with Bell’s assessment that what Jesus was doing was changing the man’s heart so he could embrace that kind of life. That is because we aren’t waiting to die to begin experiencing eternal life. The thing we are waiting for, as Christians, is for God’s kingdom to fully break in and God to redeem us but new life has already begun (2 Cor 5:17). Bell highlights the Greek word found in Luke 18:30 “Aion” that is often translated as “eternity.” He says it can mean one of two things: 1) a definitive period of time that has a beginning and an end (p. 32) or an “intensity of experience that transcends time” (p.57). It is possible to translate that word as an “age” which is a set period of time with a beginning and an end. That is not the primary definition but it is one possible definition. The primary definition according to BDAG (one of the best lexicons out there) is “a long period of time without reference to beginning or end” (BDAG, p.32).I cannot find any reference material that says anything close to his second definition. It appears to me that in an effort to swing the pendulum back to the fact that eternal life should really impact us here and now that Bell twists a few things here to fit his presuppositions (the old Procrustean bed approach). So he pushes for the second definition and leaves out what linguists and Greek scholars have deemed the primary definition of the word entirely to emphasize a point that may not really be in the text at all.
Also, he seems to confuse (or at least mix together carelessly) aion and aionios (a word that has to do with a long period of time, basically eternity and is often modified by the word zoe, which means life = eternal or everlasting life). The example he uses from Matt 19/Luke 18 to make his point about aion doesn’t use that word at all in 18:18. It only uses it in 18:30. 18:18 is the word aionios. So he is picking these things apart and is fine tuning definitions of words that aren’t really core to the verses he is choosing to illuminate those words. He would make a fine statistician but that doesn’t make for good theology. It is important that we get this right because eternity and eternal life are important concepts. Why else right a book about it. So we have to be accurate and fair with these things. I hope I am being fair with him on this. If someone sees this different who knows the languages better than I do feel free to correct me on this.
Next he tackles heaven. He defines heaven as meaning one of three things: 1) a word used in place of God’s name for the Jews, 2) the “future coming together of heaven and earth” (p.58) or 3) our “present, eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.” (p.58-59). I am not certain what verses he would cite in favor of #3. I think he is reading that into the text in Luke 18 that it is what Jesus is calling this man to. The man didn’t ask for what he needed to do to have more joy or peace or love…those things do characterize eternal life but they are not the definition of what heaven is.
The Bible and Bell are clear that there is an “already but not yet” component of eschatology (study of end times). I agree. I think Bell is trying to swing the pendulum here a bit. In the church we tend to give a ton of emphasis to the “not yet” part of eternal life – living with God, no more tears or death, etc. But we don’t always do a good job of connecting that to the “already” components of eternal life 0 “all spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3), God working all things out for the good, fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5), etc. We need both. I think he is trying to make a corrective here to help us understand eternal life is not just about waiting to die and go to heaven but that it should have a real impact here and now. I agree but I think in his corrective he overshoots a bit and it almost sounds like it is almost all about now and very little about later. I also agree with Bell that there is more continuity to eternal life than we often talk about. But there is still a separation that is very real. Why else would God’s kingdom need to break in here someday if there was 100% continuity between here and there and why would Jesus need to pray for God’s will to be done here as it is there if the two were basically the same? Why else have two aions? (p.32).
Last, I want to point out the difficulty this book has with keeping things in context. He makes a lot of points about how the prophets talked about God reigning on the earth and the earthly implications of the messianic reign.The point made in the prophets was that God was up to something and the big climax of history was going to be God making things right with the world or the “entire universe” (p.32). He goes on to quote from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos to show that God was interested in all people and that what God was ushering in was on the earth. As Rex has pointed out on his blog Bell is really good at pulling scripture from its context and pointing it any number of directions except where the author seemed to intend based on careful study and interpretation. I am not saying Bell hasn’t studied these things careful. It just feels like he is not presenting them with as much care (in my opinion).
For instance, on pages 32-33 he cites a bunch of verses from the prophets. He doesn’t mention much of these words had to do with the exile and returning (although I do get dual fulfillment and believe that is a possibility here). He also doesn’t tell you that in all these verses about God reigning and people being blessed here on the earth that at the same time there is judgment and destruction right there in the context. He is stressing the inclusivity of God’s reign as the prophets used phrases like “all people’s” and “everybody”. But on some people God says he will bring disaster (Isa 3:9-11), the wicked will be slain (Isa 11:2) and slay those who oppressed his people (Isa 10:10-16). In the same verses that talk about the salvation of people (Isa 25:7-9) are verses that talk about God crushing other people (vs. 10) but he stops a verse short. I am only including chapters that he cited in the book here and didn’t cite any verses way off somewhere else in these prophets. So which is it? Will all people, everywhere, be blessed? Sounds like some receive judgment and destruction. There are many other examples of this but I will stop here.
But that brings up the point of God’s judgment in scripture. Bell deals with that some on pages 37-39. Basically what he says is that God will not stand for injustice. He will bring judgment upon that. So judgment is real. He says, “God acts, Decisively. On behalf of everybody who’s ever been stepped on by the machine, exploited, abused, forgotten or mistreated. God puts an end to it. God says, “enough” (p.38-39). I agree but how often are we, ourselves, the one doing the stomping? How often do we take advantage of people? How often do we sin and rebel? Sin is not just about powerful organizations or evil systemic machines. It touches all of us. Some choose to partner with God in his redemptive acts (p.36) while others continue to destroy and rape and kill others. Is there room for both or is God’s wrath, destruction and slaying a slap on the wrist?
Last on context, he tells the story of the rich young man but doesn’t address Jesus concern for the ability of the rich to enter the kingdom (Matt 19:23-24). He alludes to the parable of the banquet and the surprising action of the host to invite those least expected to attend. But he doesn’t tell you about those the master got angry with and said they would never have room at the table for them (Luke 14:24). Why not tell the whole story? Instead, Bell is focused on everyone being at the table but the Bible is clear that the opposite is true (at least that is how I read this chapter…anyone disagree?).
So we have three things going on here if you boil it all down: You have eternal life that we aren’t waiting for because it begins when God renews and restores us as Christians and continues on after we die. We have talk about God’s kingdom and how it will break into this world and begin a new age. And we have heaven and how it fits into space and time. At the end of it all there were some good take away points about kingdom living and whether or not we are living lives that actually embrace God’s calling on us here and now. But in swinging the pendulum so hard it seems the pendulum knocked over several other biblical concepts and ignored many contexts, that seemed to be teaching the opposite of the points he made, along the way. It is hard to find balance when someone writes a book in reaction to theology/views they disagree with.