Because of how the first chapter is laid out, I’m combining the first and second chapters of “Love Wins”. Basically, the first chapter, entitled, ‘What about the flat tire?’ poses a series of questions which the book, as a whole, will answer, or attempt to answer. (Spoiler alert.)
They are good questions, they need to be asked, and, again, Rob Bell is doing a noble, martyr-like job in bringing them up to his community. (Have you seen his YouTube page’s comment section recently? His community hasn’t been so friendly.)
That being said, the questions are predicated again on assumptions that aren’t examined. Nearly all the situations Bell brings up are based around the idea of how you properly believe. What’s the ‘age of accountability’? How do you know when you’ve sincerely said the Jesus prayer, and how do you know it’s worked? How are you saved, “saved” meaning “going to heaven to be with God and Jesus after you die”?
All of these are specifically Protestant concerns– more than that, they are 20-21st century American evangelical Protestant concerns. (Fun experiment– ask any Eastern Orthodox Christian about any of what I just wrote. See? To make up for the fact that you just ran an experiment on them, in a gesture of ecumenical friendliness, promise to never again say the Filioque clause.).
In Bell’s defense, he makes the point that all of these things are, in face, problematic. Have to say a prayer to “be saved”? Ok, but what if you say it wrong? Or you didn’t understand it? And he’s right. His questions are good.
My problem with what he does is that he doesn’t really deconstruct the assumptions– he just pokes them a bit. He never asks what ‘being saved’ might mean, or, hey, how it probably means something really different for us today in middle-upper class suburban churches than it did for persecuted minority Christians in the Roman Empire. Or for a slave in the American South in 1860.
Which gets me into chapter 3: ‘Here is the New There”. Which is about specifically about heaven.
:: takes deep breath:: When I read this chapter through the first time, I read the whole thing, getting progressively more excited, got to the end, and got really annoyed and frustrated. Here’s why.
In Ch. 1, Bell poses all these questions about how someone gets saved, based on biblical quotes, wherein he conflates phrases like ‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘forgiveness of sins’, ‘age to come’ and ‘salvation’. Which all mean entirely different things in context. ‘Kingdom of heaven’, for example, means about 20 different things in Matthew, and that’s being conservative.
In Ch.2,entitled “Here is the New There,” Bell actually addresses that. (Hooray!) He points out that for a large part of the 1st century community, saying ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was another way of referring to God, and the reign of God on earth. So there’s that. (Hooray again.)
He also points out that it’s not like Jesus’s community had a clear concept of heaven-as-otherwordly-and-floaty-on-a-cloud. Heaven, for them, was the complete manifestation of God’s will. As he puts it. Heaven, then, is achieved not so much by dying and getting transported somewhere else, but by doing God’s will on earth, and by participating in God’s recreation of the earth.
He follows this up by talking about how there are tons of different dimensions that we simultaneously participate in (via string theory), and heaven can be more real to us (sort of like being in love) than our present reality.
Ok. It’s not that I disagree with Bell. I don’t. It’s just that I don’t think he goes quite far enough with some of the ideas he puts out there. He’s pulling his punches.
If you are going to start to deconstruct the biblical passages that undergird ‘salvation theology’ then do it. Tell me what exactly salvation means for Jesus. (Hint: Jesus never says–Have a personal relationship with me. We have jackets!) Bell starts by pointing out that for Jesus’ community, it’s not otherworldly, but that also means it was material and physical. It was in the here and now.
That is a huge statement to make, and it needs to be unpacked and explained, especially for an evangelical Protestant audience. (Trust me. I said that last night to a Lutheran college group reading this book and everyone stared at me. Fun times!) Bell never quite gets there. He opens the door, but never goes through.
Also, an aspect that Bell never addresses is the communal aspect of heaven. He brings up the story of the rich man and Jesus (Rich man asks Jesus how to enter heaven). Salvation, being physical and not otherworldly-on-a-cloud-someplace, is also not just between me and Jesus. When the rich man asks what he must do, Jesus responds by listing the commandments that have to do with our relationship to other people: (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc). Salvation depends on others in a real way. We are saved for each other, not from each other.