In this chapter, Bell continues with his (quite right) insistence that our popular understandings of heaven are far removed from the thought-world of the Bible, of first-century Judaism (of which Jesus and his first followers were a part).
Again, in doing this he is popularizing a similar line of work as that of NT Wright, massively prominent biblical scholar and Anglican bishop. (See here, and here.)
Again, I will list & briefly comment on the points Bell makes.
1. There is something wrong with the idea that the Christian life is about going to heaven when we die. Basically, this would imply that this world, my life, my family, my body, my work, simply does not matter, and that the “main point” is to “get the heck out of Dodge.” Even before we turn to the Bible, we can sense in our bones that this picture of bailing out, leaving the world behind, is just wrong.
2. Bell points out that Jesus, like all other first century Jews, had no concept of “eternity” as in “eternal life.” Bell does a good job of showing that this is not what the rich man meant in Matt 19 (see verse 16 and following) when he asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rather, this man and Jesus both would have been thinking of “the age to come” (Hebrew olam habah; Greek zoe aionion). That is, to the Hebrew mind (including in the Second Temple period) “eternal life” the way we think of it was not a big deal. “The age to come,” however, was a big deal. History is going somewhere. God is up to something. He is going to fix this broken world. He is going to do this, they would have thought, “in the age to come.” This is what the following Old Testament passages are about: Isa 2, Isa 11, Isa 25, Ezek 36, Amos 9.
3. These passages point to three realities w.r.t. this “age to come.” First, the age to come will include all nations; it will be inclusive and universal in scope. Second, the picture we get is very earthy: it consists of grain, crops, wine, people, feasts, homes, and buildings (p34). Third, we can see that this vision is something deeply rooted in the creation narratives of Gen 1 & 2. That is, this vision for the way creation is supposed to be was not new. God has always been looking for partners who will work with him (think of Tolien’s “subcreation” and “subcreators”) to extend the garden, and to cultivate the whole earth. I like this paragraph (35 – 36):
For there to be new wine, someone has to crush the grapes. For the city to be built, someone has to chop down the trees to make the beams to construct the houses. For there to be no more wars, someone has to take the sword and get it hot enough to melt it down into the shape of a plow.
That is, bringing about God’s creative purposes takes work.
4. When things don’t work the way God intended, he gets angry and he becomes full of hate. When modern western people say that they can’t believe in a god of hate or anger, remember this (37):
Yes, they can. Often, we can think of little else. Every oil spill; every report of another woman sexually assaulted; every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution; every we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong, we shake our fist and cry out, “Will someone please do something about this?”
5. What did Jesus mean by “heaven?” First, he meant “God.” Bell is correct here: Matthew’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is tantamount to Luke’s “Kingdom of God.”
6. Second, “Heaven” is where God’s will is being done, in real time and in real space. Again, Bell is correct here. The Kingdom of God “happens” wherever Jesus is worshipped and made Lord.
7. Third, Since our time & place is so often not where God’s will is done, what this means is that, right now, heaven and earth are not one. To gloss this in NT Wright language, “God’s dimension” and “man’s dimension” are not presently overlapping, but (as Bell points out on pp 43 ff) the whole story of the Bible (Old & New Testaments together) is the story of God’s dimension & man’s dimension beginning to overlap & to become one. (My note: this most fully happens in Jesus Christ & his body, the Church, but one day it – the union between God & world – will be “all in all.”)
8. If this is true, then “right now counts forever,” and digging wells for clean water now matters since in “heaven” there will be clean water for all. This is the future breaking into the present, getting dragged into the present. (Fancy word for this: eschatology.)
9. What Jesus’ encounter with the rich man in Matthew 19 shows us is that not only does heaven comfort, but it also confronts. That is, heaven
“has teeth, flames, edges, sharp points” and that “certain things simply will not survive in the age to come. Like greed. And coveting. The one thing people won’t be wanting in the perfect peace and presence of God is someone else’s life. The man is clearly attached to his wealth and possessions, so much so that when Jesus invites him to leave them behind, he can’t do it.” (p 49).
This meshes perfectly with what Paul says in I Cor 3:10ff: that certain deeds, practices, words and attitudes will on “the Day” (the prophets spoke of, see above) will be burned away, but that “the builder” (ie, the one with these attitudes) will be saved.
10. As CS Lewis points out, heaven is a place so real, solid, and good that it will take a lot to get used to. In a paragraph in which Bell (knowingly or not) is pretty much arguing for something like Purgatory, he points out that things like habits and character take time, so it is an unrealistic (if widespread) assumption that in “heaven” people will be changed in an instant. What this means is that a single mom who struggles to pay bills and squeeze child support out of her ex-husband who use to beat her and to keep her kids in school, and who does all this without giving up or despairing is likely “the first who will be last,” is likely the kind of person about (or to) whom God will say “You are the kind of person with whom I can partner to build my new world.”
Heaven is more real, not less, than this world, and so it is full of surprises.
Summary. For Rob Bell, heaven
a. is coterminous with “God.”
b. Wherever, in this world agreed with and served.
c. Aion, that is to say: the intensification of reality beyond our present, normal awareness of things (ie, “three dimensions”) which is charged with God and the reality of his new world, which begins here and now, and continues into the world to come.
Again, in my opinion, all of this is utterly biblical, and utterly orthodox, and utterly exciting!