Love Wins Analysis: Chapter 2: Here Is the New There
[This is part III of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
“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.”
The painting above isn’t the black-and-white replica that Bell has in his book but it’s pretty close and retained the same ideas.
Bell’s point in Chapter 2 is to challenge the reader’s conceptions about heaven and all that they’ve heard or think (or know) to be true. He references the parable of the rich man who wants to know how to get eternal life. According to Bell:
“When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do.
Heaven, for Jesus, was deeply connected with what he called ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.'”
Bell’s references to “this age” and “the age to come” become foundational to Love Wins:
“We might call them ‘eras’ or ‘periods of time’:
this age—the one we’re living in—and the age to come.
Another way of saying ‘life in the age to come’ in Jesus’s day was to say ‘eternal life.’ In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah.
What must I do to inherit olam habah?
and the one to come,
the one after this one.”
Bell defines ‘age’ further:
“Now, the English word ‘age’ here is the word aion in New Testament Greek. Aion has multiple meanings… One meaning of aion refers to a period of time, as in ‘The spirit of the age’ or ‘They were gone for ages.’ When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever. When we say ‘forever,’ what we are generally referring to is something that will go on, 365-day year, never ceasing in the endless unfolding of segmented, measurable units of time, like a clock that never stops ticking. That’s not this word. The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end.
So according to Jesus there is this age, this aion—
the one they, and we, are living in—
and then a coming age,
also called ‘the world to come’
or simply ‘eternal life.'”
When Bell has paragraphs that meaty, they beg to be explored.
Let me reiterate again, though, that I really wish Bell had referenced where he got these English to Greek or Aramaic translations. As a layperson, I get the sense that my reading of an English Bible isn’t good enough to figure out what Jesus is saying in the text and that I need some kind of language Bible sitting beside me. I don’t like it when preachers do this in church so I’m not thrilled to see Bell doing that here.
Let’s go back to Bell’s definition of eternal life, olam habah, one that you and I are probably not familiar with because we’re not Jewish.
According to Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva (Jewish seminary, so to speak), Bell gets the understanding of olam habah correct. And based on the explanation given by the rabbi at the Ohr Somayach site, Bell’s eventual definition of hell in Love Wins closely mirrors the Jewish belief of olam habah:
“Western Society understands the “after-life” as two different places: “Heaven” and “Hell.” Heaven is where people are rewarded after life, and Hell is where they are punished. However, Judaism does not accept this idea of two different places. Rather, there is one Olam Haba. Its nature, however, depends on one’s manner of conduct in this world.”
So Bell is, in fact, probably correct in his interpretation of eternal life here. But since the Gospel of Matthew was written in the Greek, this phrase was likely translated from Hebrew into aionios zoi, or αιωνιος ζωη, which in English means…
Eternal or everlasting life.
Meanings can get lost in translation but Bell retains the basic idea from Hebrew to Greek to English: the life after this one aka the afterlife.
As for aion, here’s where I differ (and like I said, I’m no scholar so this is purely me trying to reason things the best I can). Aion (αιών) from the Greek is not best translated as “age” but as “eon.” Merriam-Webster defines eon and its variant aeon first as “an immeasurably or indefinitely long period of time,” the secondly, “a very large division of geologic time usually longer than an era.” In part b of the second definition, MW says an eon’s “equal to a billion years.”
That’s, like, forever.
I’m sort of arguing semantics, but I somewhat differ with Bell in how he views aion as a definite period of time (he later gives a second meaning on page 57 as “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time“) while I see the word as giving the idea of long, endless stretches of time. Although it may be a definite period of time, can you really fathom a billion years?
I can barely fathom two millennia. Jesus’ arrival feels so long ago.
Bell goes on to explain from Isaiah 2, Isaiah 25, Ezekiel 36, and Amos 9 what the “age (*cough*eon*cough*) to come will look like. He explains that it will “fully [embrace] staggering levels of diversity.”
He moves on to the idea that heaven comes down to earth and it’s not some otherworldly place that people travel to.
“It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know—but rescued, transformed, renewed.”
This statement I wholeheartedly agree with and believe is supported by scripture.
Bell continues on to say:
“For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so [the prophets] spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the ‘day of the LORD.’
The day when God says ‘ENOUGH!’ to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world.
God says no to injustice.
God says “Never again” to the oppressors who prey on the weak and vulnerable.
God declares a ban on weapons.
It’s important to remember this the next time we hear people say they can’t believe in a ‘God of judgment.'”
This is good preaching. Bell’s got me. He’s got me thinking, Yeah, God of judgment on all this horrible crap. I can dig it. Bell goes on to explain the interaction between the rich young man and Jesus in Matthew 19, and after he explains the young man walks away sorrowful because he’s challenged to give up his earthly possessions, Bell makes an insightful point:
“Jesus takes the man’s question about his life then and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now.”
A few pages later, Bell expounds on this idea:
“How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world.”
And I’m quoting the following paragraphs in their entirety because Bell’s points here are important, and I think, true:
“Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.
Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.
That’s what happens when the future is dragged into the present. …
Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one. …
What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.
If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it, all with the anticipating of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven.” [bold emphasis mine]
The above is not a Rob Bell of controversy. This is the Rob Bell of Velvet Elvis. He gets real, addressing the fallacious idea that there are too many Christians who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. Christians cannot sit back and do nothing because Jesus will come a second time to rapture his followers into heaven or return to restore all things. And Christians cannot also stand outside on a street corner in the cold, screaming angrily about hellfire and brimstone while ignoring the homeless man nearby who has no warm place to sleep and no food to eat. Bell coherently connects the idea that what the followers of Jesus do here on this earth and how they live now matter for the future.
So according to this chapter, does everyone go to heaven? No.
“Heaven comforts, but it also confronts.”
As Bell puts it, “a new world free from tears and pain and harm and disgrace and disease [is] comforting.” But it also confronts because “certain things simply will not survive (or be tolerated) in the age to come.”
Overall, Bell’s idea of heaven, or olam habah, is beautiful, and he goes on to explain how “heaven, it turns out, is full of the unexpected.” I’m thrilled; I’m getting some answers even if some of them are in the form of speculation. But these answers have a basis that I believe is scriptural through the example Jesus set while he was on this broken earth. (And I haven’t had 800 questions thrown at me in this chapter.)
As I move on to page 63, the first page of Chapter 3 about hell, I’m starting to think all these universalist claims against Bell are now unfair and unwarranted.