HERE IS THE NEW THERE
In this chapter Bell argues that heaven should not be understood as something we’re looking forward to, but rather something we can start experiencing here on earth. To support his argument he uses the story from Matthew 19 where a rich man asks Jesus: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Part of Jesus’s response is, “There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” And then Bell asks, “Enter life?”…This isn’t what Jesus was supposed to say…“Jesus then tells him, ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…”“Shouldn’t Jesus have given a clear answer to the man’s obvious question to know how to go to heaven when he dies?” (p. 26-28). Bell inquires mockingly, “Is that why he walks away – because Jesus blew a perfectly good “evangelistic” opportunity?…The answer, it turns out, is in the question. 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” (p. 29-30). But Jesus disagrees with Bell since in John 14:1-6 Jesus clearly says that He is going somewhere to prepare a place for His followers.
Bell’s treatment of the prophecies about judgment and restoration is commendable. He does recognize that even though the prophets preach against sin and warn that God’s judgment is to come, Bell recognizes the passages dealing with restoration. “And so in the midst of prophets’ announcements about God’s judgment we also find promises about mercy and grace” (p. 39). Unfortunately, his next statement fails to recognize the eschatological focus of the prophets. “They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth” (p. 40). The prophets do talk about what happens in the eschaton. Isaiah speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa 65:17). Through Jeremiah, God speaks of the end times. “Behold, days are coming,” says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:5-6).
A couple of times in the book he gets the genre of the Scripture Bell is quoting. Bell states that “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…going somewhere” (p. 44). Genesis 1 is not poetry but prose (See Robert D. Holmsted, “The Restrictive Syntax of Genesis i 1,” in Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008): 56-67). Also, his use of the word ‘evolving’ can be interpreted as suspect. Is Bell leaving the door open for the possibility of evolution?
Another question that Bell raises but does not answer is this. “Think about a single mom, trying to raise her kids…is she the last who Jesus says will be first? Does God say to her, ‘You’re the kind of person I can run the world with?” (p. 53). Is Rob Bell implying that this woman can be first in God’s Kingdom because she was faithful in raising her children, apart from a correct relationship with God through Jesus Christ? If so, he is contradicting the Scripture. Speaking about Jesus, Luke writes in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
From provocative questions he turns to forceful statements. “Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible” (p. 58). Unfortunately for Bell, the Bible is quite clear that “forever” means “forever.” “The Word of the LORD endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25). “Whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). “And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10).
After doing a brief word study on the Greek term aion, Bell concludes that “when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come” (p. 58-59). The truth is that a second-year Greek student would fail his/her assignment if he/she would come to that conclusion after doing an in-depth word study. A simple BibleWorks search reveals that the word aion and its derivativesare used almost two hundred times in the New Testament with the meaning of eternity (past or future), age/era, or world/material universe. Only one time in Ephesians 2:2 is the word used of a powerful evil spirit.
Bell concludes the chapter with a challenge that could be interpreted as arrogant. “So how do I answer questions about heaven? How would I summarize all that Jesus teaches? There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place. Try and paint that” (p. 62).