In my short time on earth, I have found that the best way to combat misinformation is with information. It is never beneficial to go into arguments or debates unless you are informed and somewhat knowledgeable about whatever is being argued or debated. Somewhere along the way, it seems that people within the Church have forgotten that. There’s the old, “The Bible tells me so…” argument that works when everybody is operating under the premise that the Bible is the authoritative word of God (under which I operate). The problem is, the Bible is not crystal clear on certain topics and when this is the case, people speculate on those things that are not explicitly laid out in the Bible.
Are there places in Scripture where we are told not to speed while driving? No. Does that mean that it’s all right? No. Does the Bible speak out against underage drinking? No, but there are clear laws within our country that prohibit it. These are two fairly innocuous examples of specifics that the Bible does not cover. Most of us who have spent any time within the church can name some of the specific examples that are much more volatile than these.
But my point is this, when we are not given specific information, we do the best that we can to put together all that God says within the context of Scripture to find answers. Sometimes those answers are sufficient and easily accepted, other times, they are not. On volatile issues, they are more often not.
In the mid 1980s there was a controversial film that came out called “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Many within the evangelical camp came out against the film for its depiction of Jesus falling in love with Mary Magdalene and eventually having children with her. The most unfortunate thing about the controversy around this film was that most critics of the film were completely ignorant of the film as they had not seen it. Knowing some who were adamantly opposed to even the idea of this film, I can almost assure you that had they been pressed on why they had not seen the film, they would have said, “I don’t need to taste manure to know that it’s manure, I can tell from the smell.” Not necessarily the argument that I would use.
Another argument might be, “I don’t decipher decoys by looking at other decoys, I know them because of how familiar I am with the real thing.” Legitimate argument? Yes. Relevant to this topic? Not sure. I think that it’s very difficult to make informed criticisms about something that you don’t fully understand or even worse, have not taken the time to really evaluate. While I am not recommending that everyone go and take in every controversial thing that comes down the pike, I think that there are times when it is important to educate yourself about something to gain a proper understanding and to make an informed criticism.
Heaven and hell have been topics of conversation within the church for centuries. During certain periods of church history, these topics have risen to the forefront and reared their heads in conversations and dialogues among the varying camps with differing beliefs regarding these issues. It seems that this may be one of those periods.
I began hearing of the controversy around Rob Bell’s latest book “Love Wins” a month or so ago. In my breezing through the internet information that I encountered, I gathered that people claimed that Rob Bell was saying that Gandhi was in heaven. Having read most of Bell’s books up to this point, it was not a given that I would read his latest, but after reading about the controversy, I decided that I would find out for myself.
Rob Bell is not shy about engaging with controversial topics. I will be so bold as to say that he actually embraces the idea. So, no one should be surprised by the fact that he has chosen to take on the subject of heaven and hell, their existence or lack of, and the residents of both. Bell says at the outset that nothing that he tackles in his book is new. In the preface, he writes, “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 being said, I would recommend that anyone who delves into Bell’s book would also look at C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and N.T. Wright’s “Surprised By Hope.” To be frank, Bell is not near the intellectual nor is he as theologically adept as either Lewis or Wright.
Bell asks a lot of questions. This is fairly typical of his writing style. He does his best to cause people to do self-reflection in hopes that they might challenge themselves to look beyond the norms of what they have been taught. I think that is a healthy and beneficial thing. The first chapter of the book is entitled “What about the flat tire?” The title comes from the question of whether someone living in a remote land should be held responsible for their unbelief if a missionary should get a flat tire on their way to preach the Gospel to them.
Bell begins the chapter by painting the many ways that one could interpret how to gain salvation based upon the biblical account. He writes, “Is it what we say, or what we are, or who we forgive, or whether we do the will of God, or if we “stand firm” or not?” He spins a web that I can only assume is his attempt at deconstructing the traditional belief structures which people have been taught. So he asks a lot of questions and then moves into the topics of heaven and hell.
Bell lays out in the first chapter the many ways that people have experienced a lopsided view of salvation. There have been many who have promoted the love and salvation of God while living a life that is contrary to that. I agree wholeheartedly that this has happened more times than I would like to admit. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1 that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The offensiveness of the Gospel needs to come because it is the Gospel, not because we have misrepresented it. We should make no apologies for the Gospel’s offensiveness, only for the offense that we might add when we present it with anything less than the love and grace with which it was given to us.
Bell begins the second chapter with a picture that his grandmother had in her house of a cross bridging heaven and earth. There is a fiery pit below the cross where people have fallen and heaven is a walled city. He talks about how creepy the picture was and goes on to talk about the many ways that Christians have distorted the biblical picture of heaven. Here I would highly recommend a reading of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” as his explanation is more exhaustive than Bell’s. People have made the Christian life about getting to heaven rather than about what happens to them on this side of eternity. They have made it an “us vs. them” and a “who is in and who is out” debate. The Bible gives some pretty clear pictures to us that heaven and earth will merge together to form the earth that God originally intended. The Kingdom of God is wherever God reigns and one day, he will reign supreme over all the earth.
Bell attempts to contextualize the messages of Scripture in a way that we can understand exactly how the original readers would have heard the various messages about God’s coming kingdom and the idea of heaven. He makes reference to the awe with which the Jewish people saw the name of God and how in reverence, they would often use “God” and “heaven” interchangeably. Bell writes on page 46, “Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live. What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.” I very much agree.
Bell says on page 59, “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.” I think that he's right. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who live for when that moment comes when they "enter the presence of Jesus" rather than realizing that if God is omnipresent, they are living in the presence of Jesus right now. They just need to allow that to start influencing the way they live their lives.
Much of what Bell does is focus people again on the fact that Christians should not be living as if things begin when they die. They need to live, bringing God’s kingdom to life, right now. I could not agree with him more. Creation care. Stewardship. Social justice. All of these things are ways that we can get on board and help Jesus’ prayer that God’s will be done on earth and in heaven happen right now.
When Bell gets into his discussion of Hell, he gets a little squirrely. He begins to talk about the words that are interpreted as "Hell" in the Bible. They are not as specific as one might think. Bell talks about people who God might look at as those with whom he could rule his kingdom. He begins to unpack the various Old Testament and New Testament words that are used for “forever” and “eternal.” He even makes a case for the fact that the two are different in that the idea of something being an “eternity” is more metaphoric than literal.
Bell goes through the words and their uses in Scripture, he talks about the many ways that people experience Hell on earth, and even talks about people choosing to live in their own versions of Hell. He just never gets to a place where he is willing to admit that Hell is a place where God would allow people to spend eternity. As of the first half of the book, he never mentions anything about Satan and the demons and whether or not they will ever come to repentance (what he claims will happen with many other people).
Bell believes that there are all kinds of hell "because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next." Bell claims that people's punishment will eventually lead them to see the error of their ways, but is this always the case? Are people given the opportunity after they die to still "change their ways?"
So, this post has gone on long enough. It will be continued in Part II, coming soon...