Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rob Bell's Heaven

My doctoral project was in the area of biblical hermeneutics. The chicken or the egg dilemma is more readily apparent nowhere in theology than in the area of hermeneutics. The debate about what comes first, theology or hermeneutic method continues to this day. And nowhere is the consequence of getting the cart before the horse more compelling in contemporary times than it is in the emergent church movement. As I continue to work through chapters in Rob Bell's book, one thing is clear: his hermeneutic is vastly opposed to the grammatico-historical method. Rob Bell's worldview emerges more clearly in his questions about heaven more than anywhere else in his writing. It is here that we can see what Bell is really all about. We see clearly the influence of Moltmann's Theology of Hope. Bell uses polarizing language to attack the idea that heaven is somewhere else. The idea that heaven is somewhere else is antithetical to a theology of hope. You see, a theology of hope view is that we create a culture where the widow is cared for, the poor are extinguished, the orhan is protected, the oppressed are freed and the oppressor vanquished. And all of this is of course LIFE! This frees God to accomplish his work. You see, a theology of hope is not about spreading the Christian religion. It is about the great exodus. It is about the great liberation of all people who are down-trodden. These are God's people and they are not necessary subscribers of the Christian gospel. This is the jumping off point for men like Bell. Unless we understand this, we will never understand where the EC is coming from.

To repeat, Bell begins his attack on the evangelical view of heaven by making fun of the idea that heaven is someplace else as if it isn't. And then he asks some silly questions about heaven in his typical polarizing style. For instance, "Will there be dogs there?" "What will we do all day?" Bell makes the statement, "It's all about eternity, right? Because that's what the bumper sticker says." Such language is condescending, polarizing, and even inflamatory. It does not take 2000 years of teaching on the subject seriously. Bell then attempts to play with words, as he is apt to do, and he assigns "eternal life" as a mere description of a different age to come. This is a future age according to Bell, where the world will be restored, renewed, and redeemed. Bell confuses the coming reign of Christ for heaven. He rightly says that the Jewish people of Jesus' day anticipated a coming age when all things would be restored and Israel would be delivered. However, Bell fails to recognized that this misunderstanding of the coming Messianic period blinded them to the truth of Christ. It is one thing to put ourselves in the shoes of ancient audiences to understand what a text of Scripture is conveying and quite another to assume that the attitudes and views of that audience is to be emulated. That is a dangerous practice indeed. The Jews missed the Messiah for a reason. Heaven forbid that we should adopt the same views of a people who rejected their King.

Bell comments, "In the Genesis poem that begins the Bible, life is a pulsing, progressing, evolving, dynamic reality in which tomorrow will not be a repeat of today, because things are, at the most fundamental level of existence, going somewhere." [Love Wins, p. 44] Here we see strong implication that Bell does not believe in a literal creation account contained in Genesis. The genre in Genesis is mis-labeled as poetry when it is actually historical narrative. This position reveals more about Bell's agenda than he would probably care to admit. There is no good reason, exegetically or otherwise, to classify the creation account as poetry and those who are informed of that controversy fully understand why such actions take place. Bell again uses polarizing language when he says that those who talk most about heaven being someplace else talk the least about bringing heaven to earth. Bell goes on to to contend that to "reign" in Rev. 20 actually means "to actively participate in the ordering of creation." What is interesting is that Bell does not provide a source for where he came up with definition even though he places it in quotes. I must admit that my professors would not have accepted a paper written in the style of Rob Bell because he repeatedly fails to reference any sources of authority for much of what he says. He seems to think that all that is necessary is that he said it. Contrary Bell's definition of "reign," the word actually means "to exercise authority at a royal level" according to BDAG. Strong's says it means "to rule, be king, to have dominion over, etc." Louw Nida says, "to rule as king, with the imlication of complete authority and the possibility of being able to pass on the right to rule..."

There is much left to say, but there simply isn't enough space to say it all. One final assertion by Bell will suffice, in my opinion, as an excellent example of his view of how this heaven on earth will be accomplished. He interprets 1 Cor. 3 in a most unusual manner. He holds that the fire that tests every man's work in Paul's language in that chapter as the flames of heaven. And here, according to Bell is how it works: "Imagine being a racist in heaven-on-earth, sitting down at the great feast and realizing that you're sitting next to them. Those people. The one's you've despised for years. Your racist attitude would simply not survive. The flames in heaven would be hot." In other words it seems that peer pressure would force you to abandon your sinful attitudes. Something is very amiss with Bell's understanding of how sin is removed from our lives. But this is at least consistent with the theology of hope influence of Moltmann that Bell seems to have clearly adopted. Bell goes so far as to assert that people who are involved in social causes belong to Christ, even if they have never expressed faith in Christ and that these people will be surprised when Christ welcomes them in. He uses Matt. 25 where Jesus said when I was hungry you fed me, thirsty, you gave me drink, and when I was naked you clothed me. According to Bell, the shocker is not that when we do it to a believer we do it to Christ, but that when we do it to anybody, even outside of faith, we still do it to Christ and that gets us in. This is clearly the implication of Bell's use of this text contextually speaking.

Bell asks lots of questions in his chapter on heaven. He answers very few. But he asks the questions rhetorically and therefore one can easily deduce the meaning he intends to convey in the end. Bell's method is condescending and polarizing to say the least. Half the time he seems to write in a way that demonstrates he wishes to discredit the traditional view of heaven. The rest of the time he appears unprepared to make clear statements himself about what he really believes, perhaps thinking he is leaving himself enough wiggle room to escape when called on his implications. His views on the subject of heaven on earth are in accord with Moltmann's theology of hope. Clearly they are not biblically and as such are nowhere close to being evangelical in the slightest. The more one reads about the EC, the more one recognizes that this is nothing more than the twin brother of liberal theology taking his turn at the podium. The problem for the twin is that he isn't saying anything different from what his brother has already said. And in fact, he isn't even making as good an argument for why we should pay him any mind. This is not to say that we should not answer Bell. We certainly should. In fact, we must answer him. But we should not do so in a manner than lends crediblity to his position. Bell has discredited himself long before this book and the church should not be afraid to say so. In fact, if we love the Church of Jesus Christ, we must publicly recognize false teachers so that the body can be warned, protected, and not tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine that comes along claiming to be the true version of the Jesus story. The gospel has had competition since it's inception. I am glad to know that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ.

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