Imagine There’s No Heaven

As you read Pastor Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, it becomes apparent that as confused he is about the existence of  hell, he is just as muddled in his beliefs about heaven. He is quick to point out that in all the descriptions he finds of heaven in contemporary Christianity, “heaven is obviously, somewhere else”  (Love Wins, pg. 24).

Bell thinks he can make his point about “heaven being elsewhere” by using a nonsensical list of questions he must have pooled from his church’s kindergarden department: “When we get to heaven what will we do all day?  Will we recognize people we used to know? What will it be like? Will there be dogs there?” Because the Bible does not give us a full descriptive response to Bell’s questions, the assumption is that believing heaven is somewhere else is problematic.

The reader is blindsided by Bell when he brings up the fact not all people will be in heaven according to Christianity. Not all our uncles, aunts, grandparents, brothers and sisters . . .  nor even our parents will necessarily make it to heaven (pg. 25).

Behind Bell’s questioning is his underhanded aim to plant doubts in the reader’s mind whether heaven is a real place and whether God is cruel by not allowing everyone into heaven regardless of their relationship to Christ.

A big chunk of Bell’s chapter on heaven is devoted to  Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. There Jesus  engages a wealthy young man in a conversation about eternal life.

However, Jesus, according to Bell, blows a great opportunity to tell the man how to get to heaven. Instead, the Lord talks to the man about keeping the ten commandments and focuses on his relationships with other people rather than God. Since the ruler thinks he’s kept all the commandments dealing with treatment of others, Jesus tells him to go sell all his possessions and take care of the poor. Bells concludes from this encounter Jesus was not concerned with telling the man how to go to heaven.

Bell is hard pressed to use this encounter with the rich young man as proof that Jesus did not instruct people how to make it into heaven.  Rather than quoting other verses in which Jesus clearly told  people how to enter heaven, let’s stay with the context. After Jesus’ conversation with the young man was over, the disciples asked, “Who then can be be saved?” (Matthew 19:25).  Once Jesus challenged the man to sell his possessions, his refusal revealed the true condition of his heart – his true deity was not the God of Israel, but his riches. Jesus exposed the fact this man was not interested in eternal life or having “treasure in heaven.” His treasure is on earth.  Money is his God. So then, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus was not blowing an opportunity to tell someone the entrance requirements for heaven.  In verse 26 Jesus tells his disciples in response to their question,

“With man this [salvation] is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The Messiah Jesus clarifies that salvation is a supernatural act of God and that man cannot enter heaven by his own abilities as seen in the case of the rich young man whose materialism was more important than worshipping or obeying God.

in John 17:3 Jesus makes no mistake about the definition of eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Next, Bell launches into a long discussion on the terms “this age” and “age to come.” He uses passages from the prophets (Isaiah 2, 11, 25) to describe the age to come. He concludes, “Life in the age to come. If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is” (pg. 33).

Bell is overwhelmed with how “earthy”   is the coming kingdom.  In contrast, I am overwhelmed with how confused Bell is. Rob Bell lacks a clear understanding of the messianic kingdom on earth in which Jesus shall reign for 1000 years before we enter into the eternal heavenly order.

Since God is so focused on this earth, according to Love Wins, Bell makes his case on how important it is for Christians to care about this earth and to engage in loving relationships on earth.  The day is coming when justice will reign on earth and all rights will be made wrong.  The age Bell describes is “complex, earthy, participatory and free from all death, destruction and despair” (pg. 39).

On one level Bell correctly describes the coming earthly messianic kingdom after the tribulation (Revelation 20:1-6). On the other hand, the author is unclear on whether heaven is the same as the earthly kingdom. What happens if I die today?  Where will I go according to Bell’s theology?  I cannot really tell you because he does not tell the reader.

Bell is typical of an emergent church theologian who is more interested in a new way of believing rather than a biblical belief system.  Emergent theologians are more interested in “newness” than they are in biblical truth.

Let’s make this controversy as plain as possible:  Pastor Bell is confusing and blending the aspects of the earthly messianic kingdom with heaven.  He makes the ridiculous statement that people living in the Old Testament did not believe in a future world somewhere else, but they looked forward to a coming day when “the world would be restored, renewed and redeemed and there would be peace one earth” (Love Wins, pg. 40).

It’s hard to believe Bell has a formal Bible education from Wheaton College. How could he have missed the fact Jewish people in the Old Testament looked forward to heaven? (Psalm 16; Daniel 12:1-2).

According to Bell’s Love Wins theology, the people of Jesus’ day did not care about going to heaven, which may be true. Yet when He says Jesus didn’t care about it either, He makes no sense.  Bell sounds as though all NT references to eternal life refer to the “age to come” which is the earthly age.

In John 14:1-4 Jesus spoke to His followers about going to another place that is not on this earth. He even promised His disciples “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3). Over and over in John’s gospel Jesus speaks about originating from heaven and the day is coming when He will bring His followers into the presence of the Father in heaven (John 11:25-26; 17:24).

Here’s an example of Bell’s confusion:  “The more you become a person of peace and justice and worship and generosity, the more actively  you participate now in ordering and working to bring about God’s kind of world, the more ready you will be to assume an even greater role in the age to come” (Love Wins, pg. 40). Did you get that?  The key statement in this incoherent statement of Bell’s theology are the words “bring about.”

It sounds like Bell is teaching the believer in Jesus will earn a place in the earthly world to come. Yes, Bell is advocating a works-based righteousness that entitles a person in a place in the world to come where he will fit or not fit based on the kingdom worthy character they’ve been developing their whole life. Doesn’t that mean some people will be excluded from this earthly version of heaven?  Bell is trying hard to give everyone access to heaven but as he fleshes out his theology, he slams the door shut in the faces of those who cannot earn a place in the earthly heaven to come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m confused as to what Bell believes. If I was a new person sitting in a seat at at Mars Hills Bible Church in Michigan, and I heard a message called, “Here is the New There,” I would not know how I can find eternal life.  I would not know what is eternal life. I would not be sure if I die I would go to heaven or  what right thing I need to do to earn a place in an earthly age to come.

I am not dogmatically accusing Pastor Bell of not believing in heaven or eternal life.  If he does, I cannot find it in his theology. If it’s there, it’s hidden behind his basic refusal and fear of preaching the true Gospel which states in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” and John 5:24, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”

To sum up, Bell equates the millennial kingdom with the somewhere else heaven. Therein lies the reason why he cannot articulate a clear picture of the world to come in terms of the afterlife.

Unfortunately, as the reader progresses through Love Wins, he or she only becomes more confused about what the author believes and what the reader should believe.

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