Is he or isn’t he? Yet another review of Love Wins (part 3)

A majority of evangelicals think we’ll spend eternity as disembodied, spiritual beings in an ethereal realm called heaven. The goal of salvation, then, is to escape this world.

That’s why we write hymns like “This World Is Not My Home,” in which we sing about treasure “laid up somewhere beyond the blue” and how we “can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

That’s why at funerals, pastors point to caskets and say things like, “That body is just an empty shell. It’s not the real person.”

There’s only one problem.

The Bible paints a very different picture. It anticipates a future where heaven comes crashing to earth. Where God is interested in a whole lot more than just “saving souls.” He’s out to restore the whole of creation — this world.

This is the view Rob Bell argues for in chapter 2 of Love Wins. According to Rob, “eternal life” isn’t something that begins when we die; it starts when we join up with God’s redemptive program, going on now in this world.

It’s not something with future implications only. After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come [to this world].”

And, “Your will be done, on earth [this world] as it is in heaven.”

Or as Rob Bell likes to say, “Jesus drags the future into the present” (p. 41).

This is precisely the picture John paints in Revelation 21-22, where he describes the New Jerusalem — God’s dwelling — coming down from heaven to earth. This world.

It’s consistent with 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul argues that because of Jesus’ bodily (and not metaphorical) resurrection, we can look forward to new, incorruptible bodies as part of our own resurrection. We will not be disembodied spirits floating around some other world.

And it’s consistent with Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels that his kingdom has, in one sense, already come to earth.

In fact, the alternative view — the one that says heaven is some future, far-off place for disembodied spirits — owes more to an ancient heresy called Gnosticism than it does to anything in the Bible.

Rob is hardly breaking new ground here. His view of heaven is not entirely different from the one found in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by conservative theologian Mike Wittmer. Though, to be fair, I’m sure Mike (my former thesis advisor) strongly disagrees with Rob on many points in Love Wins.

Many of Rob’s ideas have also found expression in Surprised by Hope and other books by N.T. Wright (who even John Piper concedes is one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world — and John Piper’s no fan of N.T. Wright or Rob Bell).

Incidentally, Rob also follows N.T. Wright in rejecting “progressivism,” the notion that humans will eventually create “heaven on earth” by their own power. Instead, Rob embraces an “already/not yet” view of the world: God’s kingdom is here, and it’s at work. But only God can bring about its ultimate fulfillment (see pages 45-47).

In any case, Rob’s main point in this chapter is that this world matters immensely to God (p. 34). Couldn’t agree more.

That’s not to say nothing bothered me in this chapter. Other bloggers — including both supporters and critics of Love Wins — have argued that Rob is sometimes careless or selective in his quoting of Scripture. See, for example, Kevin DeYoung, Jeremy Bouma, and this guy, who has one of the most insightful takes on Love Wins that I’ve come across so far.

Anyway, whether it’s careless or selective quoting (and I don’t think we should presume to judge motive, like I’ve said before), I do think some examples can be found in this chapter.

On pages 32-34, Rob highlights a number of texts from Isaiah which, read on their own, seem to paint a universalistic picture of the future. But in each case, the immediate context suggests something different.

So yes… Isaiah 11 says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” But it also says God “will slay the wicked” and will gather a “surviving remnant” from his people. Hardly the stuff of universalism.

And yes… Isaiah 25 talks about God preparing a banquet “for all peoples.” But in the immediate context, “peoples” appears to be a synonym for “nations.” (Note the parallelism in verse 7.) So while God’s banquet will transcend ethnic barriers (i.e. it’s not just a Jewish thing), this passage doesn’t speak to the eternal destiny of every human being.

In fact, Isaiah 25 emphasizes the significance of human choice in determining whether people experience God’s deliverance: “We trusted in him, and he saved us.”

In fairness to Rob, he doesn’t advocate for a universalism that tramples over human choice. Which is another way of saying that what we advocates for is something less than universalism.

And also, it’s worth pointing out that Rob offers what I think is one of the best explanations of Matthew 19 (the story of Jesus and the rich man, see pages 40-41) that I’ve ever come across. Just saying…if I’m going to point out where I think he got it wrong, I might as well point out where he got it right, too.

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