Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Getting it Wright: On Rob Bell & Heaven

NT Wright, possibly talking about "heaven"
As I’m preparing the lead my Wednesday night class on Rob Bell’s Love Wins, here’s what makes me thrilled and what makes me uncomfortable about Bell. (To your left is not Rob Bell, but N. T. Wright, who will appear again at the end of this post.)

The tough part first… 

Bell writes in The Love Wins Companion, that, "when Jesus talked about heaven, he mostly talked about a dimension, a way of living, the accessibility of the life of God, right here, right now, in this world."

To channel Bell (actually, his style, if you don’t know it, goes something like this):  A dimension? Which one? The Fifth Dimension? They stopped recording music decades ago. Is that the eleventh dimension in physicist Brian Greene’s string theory? I thought that was inaccessible to us four-dimensional creatures. (Sorry that was fun... Sometimes his style is just a bit grating.)

But, more seriously, how about “mostly”? Is that really so? Did Jesus really talk “mostly” about “right here, right now” with “heaven”? Let’s just take one example from the Sermon on the Mount. What about the words of judgment in Matthew 7:21, 
Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
And says in the next sentence, “On that day…” That day sure doesn’t sound like this day. It seems like something in the future.

OK, that’s eating broccoli before dessert, as it were…

But what about the good parts of Love Wins? And there are several. Yes, when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray “Thy will be done/on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking for what God wants here to become realized now. It is “the life of God, right here, right now, in this world.” We are doing what U2's Bono rightly says. "Our purpose is to bring heaven to earth in the micro as well as the macro"

Put another way, when Bell is right when he’s properly taking in Wright--by which I mean the insights of the New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, who wrote about the life of heaven in light of Easter: 
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
So heaven is both the now and the later. We can’t forget either side of that dialectic.
What do you think?

(And, if you want to see what I conclude about heaven and hell, see this blog post.)


M Fitzpatrick said...

I think the hard question is what to do when it at least seems like one or both sides of the dialectic have been forsaken. We can speak of heaven now, but one would have to be pretty bold to speak of heaven now in Dachau. Or what of heaven later? What does heaven later mean to the single mom who has $12 left and is trying to figure out how she can pay the bills without loaning her body out again. What does it mean to say to her, "At some undefined point in the future, all will be restored"?

My biggest struggle is with the very idea that future rewards make up for present injustices. When I got to the end of Job, I was quite annoyed, because getting a new family and favor with God would not "make it all better" for me if my original family had been slaughtered like that. So if my future hope is that I will colonize earth with God, how exactly does that make me consider 'the now' worth it? Why isn't 'the now' worth it for its own sake, come what may?

GCootsona said...

I only have a partial response to what you've written. In this post, I wasn't really thinking about heaven as a recompense for suffering, or in what way heaven counterbalances evil (whether now or later). That was in the last post.

So, in lieu of a full answer, what if I channeled Bell again: I think what he wants to emphasize is that evil is both present now and later and that evil (with its attendants of pain and suffering) is hell. The alleviation of hell remains the call for human beings now. And that call is bringing in the kingdom of heaven.

Do we do it? Do we bring heaven regular to earth? No. Is someone at Dachau or the Gulag experiencing human decision to bring hell here? Yes. Do I believe that even in the midst of the most profound hell on earth we can experience some modicum of heaven. Not for many, but for some who really seek it.