Saturday, April 16, 2011

Love Wins 4

I’m continuing to work my way through Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Livedand in this post I want to think about chapter two which is titled “Here is the New There”. The topic of the chapter is heaven.

It seems to me that the central issue in this chapter is the misconception that heaven is “somewhere else”. This misguided and unbiblical perspective, according to Rob, is captured graphically in the picture that used to hang in his grandmother’s home. He says the painting tells a story:
It’s a story of movement, from one place to the next, from one realm to another, from death to life, with the cross as the bridge, the way, the hope . . . But the story also tells us something else, something really, really important, something significant about the location. According to the painting, all of this is happening somewhere else . . . I show you this painting because, as surreal as it is, the fundamental story it tells about heaven—that it is somewhere else—is the story that many people know to be the Christian story (23).
Rob believes this story is an unbiblical story. And this unbiblical story has led to two errant consequences. First, because of the story of “heaven somewhere else”, questions related to heaven are generally otherworldly. For example, a question like “what will we do in heaven?” is characteristic of this kind of thinking. Second, the story creates an imbalanced emphasis on the question of who’s in heaven and who isn’t.

So, the dominant question of this chapter is: what is the correct biblical story of heaven? This question then provides a corrective for the two additionally related questions: Where is heaven and what kind of person will get there?

There are a number of points of detail that could be dealt with in this post. As you might expect this is one of the more length chapters in the book. I will make some brief comments about a few things at the end, but am going to focus more attention in this post on Rob’s reading of the story of the “Rich Young Ruler”, which for all intents and purposes, is the center piece of the chapter.

To correct this “mistaken notion” about heaven [I put this phrase in quotes because it’s a quote from Tom Wright’s Simply Christian—Tom’s been asserting for years and it is no doubt where Rob has gotten it--most comprehensively in Surprised by Hope], Rob turns to the gospel’s story of the “Rich Young Ruler” as told in Matthew 19:16-22 (see parallels in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23).

In the story, Rob finds the truth about heaven. When the young man asked Jesus the question, “What good thing must he do to have eternal life?”, he wasn’t asking about how he gets into heaven when he dies. According to Rob, neither this man nor Jesus ever thought about the future in terms of “going to heaven” when you die. Jesus did not come to make it possible for people to a heaven somewhere else.

To validate this contention, Rob springboards off the story of the Rich Young Ruler to teach a lesson on eschatological views (ideas of the end times) in first-century Judaism. He paints a unified picture of how Jews of Jesus’ day thought about the “end of the world”. Drawing on the Old Testament, Jesus’ Scriptures, Rob shows that ancient Jews thought of history in terms of two ages: the present (this) age and the age to come. He points out that the Greek word translated as “eternal” in the phrase “eternal life” (Matt 19:16) can mean more than one thing, but more significantly, he denies that the term can mean what we most often think it means: “forever” (see discussion below). Instead, Rob suggests that the first of these meanings is best captured with a term like “age”, which he defines as “a period of time with a beginning and ending” (32).

Rob’s point in all this discussion is to show more correctly what the young man was asking Jesus. He wasn’t asking to “go to heaven”; rather he was asking, “How do I participate in the New Age?” As Rob summarizes:
They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth (40).
For Rob the point is more a question of how the man participates in this new world God will bring about when he turns the eschatological calendar. Jesus’ answers the man in the way one would expect a Jewish rabbi would: “live the commandments”. “God has shown you how to live. Live that way” (40). The man responds that he does keep the Mosaic commands. As an aside, the man was not saying he was perfect, but that he was living a Torah-observant life within the Covenant God had established with Israel on Sinai. But as Jesus had already been teaching that this kind of obedience was not enough. Here I am alluding to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where Jesus intensifies the Mosaic commandments as the Messianic Teacher of the Torah. The so-called “antithesis” in Matthew 5, where Jesus discussed the commands of the Mosaic Torah with “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you”, could be given the title “Yes and More”. The man then was likely right to ask the “what else must I do” question and it was probably stimulated by Jesus’ own teaching.

Most importantly, however Rob seems to miss the main point of Jesus response which quite rightly is the last word: “follow me” (19:20). It was not a summons simply to sell all he had and give to the poor. Jesus wasn’t primarily going after his “greed” as Rob thinks. Jesus called him ultimately to “follow”. Obedience is ultimate yes, but it’s also Jesus oriented. The man had to follow Jesus and was unwilling to do so, bottom line.

Nevertheless, I think Rob's comment is insightful and profound: “Jesus takes the man’s question about his life then and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now” (41). This is a significant insight. If you don’t follow Jesus now (this presupposes a lifestyle of ultimate obedience), you won’t be with him then. Heaven isn't simply about someday; its a present reality. Jesus does "blur the lines"; he does merge "heaven and earth".

Now very briefly a few more things:

1) The discussion of “eternal”, aionios, has serious problems. Rob wants to deny that the word aionios ever means what we think of “forever”. This is both right and wrong. It is true that ancient Jews would not have had the same notion of forever as we do, but to say that they could not have thought in terms of forever and that they did not use this word to denote that conception is flat out wrong. Also, there is no evidence to support Rob’s idea that aionios means “intense” (see pg 57). No lexicon of the Greek language supports such an understanding.

2) Rob seems to assume in his retelling of the story of the Rich Young Ruler that the man will participate in the eternal life no matter what. The only question is: Of what will his participation consist? As Rob poses the question “How do you make sure you’ll be part of the new thing God is doing? How do you best become the kind of person whom God could entrust with significant responsibility in the age to come?” (40). This is perhaps the assumption behind his erroneous idea that in heaven fire will purify you and make you fit to “handle heaven” (50). Rob wants to argue that Jesus didn't teach about “getting into" heaven or the age to come. Instead Jesus taught about being “transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven”.

I have to say it, this is just nonsense. Jesus, in point of fact, primarily taught on what Rob says he didn’t. Reflecting on the young man’s refusal Jesus even states, “only with difficult will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven . . . it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (19:23-24). They’ll be no flames in heaven making you fit for it. Jesus does not assume that the young man will be there. Jesus makes the distinction between following Jesus in the here and its reward and “inheriting eternal life”, which is simply another way of saying enter, in the here after (19:29). There is a difference between the two. And being in one does not mean you’ll be in the other. But how you live in the one will determine your presence in the other. You'll enter the other by how you live in the present.

3) The discussion of “treasure” and whether treasure is static or dynamic (43-47) is baffling to me. What is ironic is while arguing for a view of heaven rooted in a first-century Jewish mindset, the topic of “treasures in heaven” is untethered from any such rootedness. It seems that Jesus himself promised “static” rewards (19:28).

4) Definition of “heaven”:
Sometimes when Jesus used the word “heaven” he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God. Second, sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called in the age to come. And then third—and this is where things get really interesting—when Jesus talked about heaven he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come (58-59).
Taking these points in turn. First, only Matthew has Jesus do such a thing; in other words in none of the other Gospels does Jesus replace “God” with the term “Heaven”. This may just have been Mathew’s preference and not much can be assumed than from this about Jesus’ usage. It is true that Matthew uses “heaven” this way. Second, while this is somewhat true. Ancient Jews and early Christians still maintained the distinction between heaven and earth. When saints died they went to heaven from where they will return with Jesus at the end of the age. Collapsing the distinction between heaven and earth to the extend Rob does is unbiblical. If Paul is right “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” then there is a heaven somewhere else at least until the time of Jesus second coming. Jesus did pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but that has yet to occur. Third, this category of heaven is an illusion. Neither Jesus nor any biblical writer defines heaven this way.

So what is the final word on Love Wins and heaven? I think it is right to critique the story that the portrait tells with which the chapter opened. I don’t think the picture truthfully represents the biblical story of salvation because the story the picture tells is truncated. I'll say only here that God’s ultimate place for humans is a renewed earth. God is going to make all things new (Rev 21) and the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to earth. As I make this point, I am surprised that Rob didn’t discuss Revelation 21-22 in the chapter. It’s absence startling.

Heaven is a complex biblical idea however. There is a heaven that is distinct from the earth. They are not the same place. Right now God is in heaven and at the time of his choosing he’ll turn the eschatological calendar sending Jesus to finish the work. Yet, in the meantime because of Jesus’ resurrection life and the gift of the Spirit in the church, heaven can be enacted in this time and in this place through the work of the church. Where the church steps, heaven’s footprint is left.

This finally brings us to the question of who is in heaven. First, it needs to be said that Jesus does call people to "enter heaven", although we need to define that term appropriately. The story of the Rich Young Ruler itself shows this. Second, the saints in both the Old and New Testament times are in heaven right now. When we die, if we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus [if we follow Jesus], we’ll be in heaven immediately. This however is not the last word and it might not have been what Jesus the the young man were discussing as Rob points out. Heaven will unite with a renewed earth and it’s this harmony that the Bible foresees as the final state, eternal life. Eternal life is both a quality of life (Rob’s point) and a quantity of life (forever).

For earlier posts for Love Wins see: Post When your wife . . ., 1, 2, 3.

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CrazyLoverWannabe said...

You said, "Jesus did pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but that has yet to occur." From your later mention of the work of the Church leaving heaven's footprints, I assume you would qualify the earlier statement by saying that it has yet to "fully" occur. God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven would fall into the "both now and not yet" category, wouldn't you say?

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