Saturday, May 28, 2011

Heaven by Rob Bell

The first question Bell proposes is in relation to the staggering number of people who won't "make" (my emphasis) it to heaven.

I would say that is what we don't know. We don't know how God has been speaking to people and how they have responded. Whatever light he has given them can either be accepted or rejected. we don't know how many or how few will be in heaven. All we know is that the only way to the Father is through Christ, which Bell affirms. Like Bell I don't have a clue about where Ghandi is (or Martin Luther King Jr.).

He goes on to raise a multitude of questions in the first chapter. And some of those questions I do wonder about myself. Like the "personal relationship" one. What does that even mean? But I'm not going to dive into all the Christanese he exposes. I, too, think we should explain things better rather with the insider jargon.

Heaven. "It's somewhere else, or is it right here and now?" asks Bell. Bell begins with the story about the rich man who comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. Bell explains that Jesus' answers the man's concerns which is not "with how to go to heaven," but "how to have more responsibility in the age to come." I would agree with Bell in that the man is not asking how to go to heaven. I think the man is asking about eternal life and how to get it. I don't see the man asking for how to be a good citizen in the world to come. Bell suggest that this is what Jesus is getting at. Live to be a better person now earns you more responsibility later. "Jesus takes the man's questions about his life then and makes it about the kind of life he's living now" (p41). If anything Bell is at fault of being a postmillennialist. He equates the prophets' sayings with literally heaven on earth (p33). A premillennialist does not disregard the new heaven and the new earth imagery. I think most would agree how we live now is important.

Bell says that the man went away because he had not yet understood that greed could not enter into the age to come. But even still, the man went away. We don't know if he ever turned back to God. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. I think Jesus left open the possibility that he didn't.

In defining "heaven," Bell goes on to say that it is just simply a substitute for "God." (p42) I will say that I'm still undecided on this. Kingdom of heaven = kingdom of God. This will need some more thought. He adds, "Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be." (p42). The last one is easier for me than the first definition. The story of the Bible is when God's will will be done on earth as it currently is in heaven. Heaven then is "partnering with God to make a new and better world..." (p47) Well, as subversive as this image is of heaven, it certainly is not a new image. Therefore, many people who have held and are holding to this view, are considered orthodox. Why not Bell?

In reference to judgment, Bell states that heaven confronts us with our incompleteness and that we must have that "burned" off. I would agree. Some will be left with a lot, others a little. We have to be fitted for heaven. I would call this the judgment seat of Christ.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about how Bell defines "aion". He gives us two definitions. 1) an era of time with beginning and an end. 2) an intensity experienced that transcends time. I'll admit I've not looked at the word/concept in depth. But a quick glance at BDAG of "aion" states that the word means, "long period of time without reference to a beginning nor an end." Secondly, it means "eternal." Bell wants us to believe that eternal and forever are not the same thing. In my opinion this is the closest he comes to being a universalist. If eternity is just a period of intensity (in judgment, perhaps) then one goes through it and is then relieved from it. I don't think Bell ever goes quite that far. But I would say he comes close to advocating purgatory indirectly rather than universalism directly. And for that (i.e. advocating purgatory) we can blame him. If, in fact, he does advocate an intense judgment then release.

And I tried to ignore the Rob Bell hype

Rob Bell. A name associated with controversy. So, when people started the firestorm of blogging against him, i was curious what the fuss was all about.

Personally, I was turned off when I saw my first NOOMA video. It was the one where he is with his son and they get caught in a rain storm. I thought it was creative but just not for me. So, when I heard of Velvet Elvis I paid no attention to it.

But I did start to warm up to Bell when in Portugal. He had made more NOOMA videos, and I was invited to attend the launch of a Bible study among some pretty tough and rough athletes there. Through cursing and beer drinking, it was one of the liveliest Bible studies I've ever been apart of. These videos were excellent spiritual conversation starters. I still didn't like the videos themselves. But what I saw come from them surprised me. So from that point forward, I decided to let Rob Bell be. He was advancing the kingdom more than I was, and who was I to say anything against what God was doing. God was (is) using Bell.

He's had several other books come out of which none I've read. But when all the Reformers began denouncing him as a heretic for his latest views in Love Wins, I had to see what the fuss was about. If the Reformers didn't like him, he may be my new best friend. Well, I couldn't afford to buy the book. So, I thought I would just ignore all the fan fare. But just the other day it showed up at the local library.

It was an easy read although written like Bell was talking. When I finished I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Bell never does explicitly say what he believes exactly about heaven and hell and judgment. He comes close but never actually admits to being a universalist.

So, as I blog about the book I will try to keep in mind that he's just trying to get dialogue started about the issue. I could try to comb out Bell's personal view of universalism, but I don't think that would be beneficial. Instead I just want to talk about what he actually says.

Book blogging is for me the hardest. You have to assume the person has not read the book, and even if they have you have to put your comments in some sort of context. And this does not make for brevity.

This book is about "...some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story...[A lot of people] have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better...This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy..." So, now we know what we are about to read. He wants an open discussion on the topic.

Since this is already a long post. I will stop and continue as I work my way through the major stuff of the next 200 or so pages.

The true elder brother Jesus

Besides disagreeing over the emphasis shift from the younger brother to the older brother, I disagree with the interpretation of Jesus being the true elder brother. In chapter 5 Tim Keller put forth his argument as to why Jesus is the true elder brother.

Keller does admit that the father is the one who goes out to each brother. He goes out to the wayward son coming home, and he goes out to persuade the elder brother to come into the party. I do like this quote, "It shows that even the most religious and moral people need the initiating grace of God, that they are just as lost..."

Keller also shows us his cards in how he interprets the entire parable (as if we did not already know implicitly). Keller is interpreting the parable as a sinner finding repentance. As stated before, I believe this is a valid interpretation. But Keller adds, "This, however, only brings us to the brink of Jesus's message, not to its heart." It's what follows that I am not sure I accept.

Here is the argument. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who have accused him of eating with sinners (Lk 15:2). Thus, he told the 3 parables. Keller points out that in all three something is lost and then gotten again. But a big difference between the first two and the last one is that in the first two someone "goes out" to find what was lost. In the third one, no one goes out. This is the shock Keller attributes to the last parable. We are expecting someone to go out and no one does.

But wait. I thought the point was the elder brother. Didn't we say that the father went out to him to try to convince him to come into the party?

Next, Keller appeals to Cain's "Am I my brother's keeper?" It is assumed that Cain was supposed to be his brother's keeper and therefore every other elder brother has the responsibility of looking after his wild younger brother. The elder brother is to spend his money to bring back the younger brother. Keller's lesson is that it costs someone to bring about restoration. But sadly this younger brother doesn't get a responsible older brother.

"But we do..." Keller says.

Keller is forced to put Jesus in this speculative role. Since the main thrust of the parable is the wayward elder brother, we need the means of his salvation. His means of salvation is no different than anyone else; Jesus. Otherwise, we already have the salvation part, that of the younger brother being accepted back into the family by the father.

We don't need to make up an application from the Prodigal Son parable. The elder brother is angry because of how kind the father has treated his brother. As stated above, Jesus is telling the parable in defense of why he is eating with sinners. He's eating with sinners because they need saving. Salvation from the Heavenly Father comes to sinners who accept the grace of the Father. The reaction of the elder brother is exactly the same as the Pharisee's reaction. They can't believe lost people can be saved. Jesus is not the so called true elder brother. He's the father (not the Father, although they work together for salvation's sake). Just like he's the shepherd and the woman. This makes more sense since now we have harmony among the three parables. Something dear is lost and something dear is found.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I disagree with him

It seems I am always critical of the newest and latest trends of Christian writers. Just getting started with Prodigal God by Tim Keller. It's his interpretation of the what has been previously known as the Prodigal Son.

I don't want to give too much away, but unfortunately my comments here may. Nevertheless, he puts the emphasis of the story on the older brother, the one who stayed home rather than the one who went away and was welcomed back by the father. Keller is making the point that Jesus was preaching against the righteousness of the Pharisees.

For what it is worth, Keller does have some good points. I do think we often forget to compare the two brothers as they were meant to be compared. But I am not convinced that the point of the story is the older brother.

This parable can be taught in two ways. It could be either about the "lost" being "saved," or it could be about the "saved" loosing their way. The parable can't be interpreted in isolation though. Two others preceded it. The first was about the one lost sheep that the shepard goes to find leaving the 99 behind. The second was about the lost coin the woman finds and rejoices over finding it. The last parable is the one about the younger brother who leaves and comes back to the chagrin of the older brother.

In the first the one the lost sheep was still a sheep and a part of the shephard's flock. In the second the lost coin was still owned by the woman even though lost. And in the last one, the younger brother was still the father's son before and after his run away. So, in all three the wandering lost items were still a part of the unit. Therefore, I would lean more to say that these parables are about righteous people going away and God's grace accepting them back. if we were to take these parables to mean "soul salvation," then we would have to say one can "lose their salvation."

But this distinction of how to interpret this parable is not about splitting hairs. I've heard great sermons preached from this passage calling lost sinners to trust Christ as their Savior.

Again, the main problem I have is switching the emphasis from the younger brother to the older brother. I don't see it. While I agree the church-goer needs the salvation of Christ as much as the drunkard, I can't see that Jesus focused exclusively on that here. It's possible that he did elsewhere though. If we say that this parable is about the older brother, then we must also conclude the first parable is about the 99 sheep left behind, and the second parable is about the all the coins tucked away safely in the woman's purse. We would then have to conclude also that the main point of the Good Samaritan is the two men who passed by the man on the road. And every other parable spoken by Jesus would be flipped on it's head especially those that refer to the religious leaders of the day.

In conclusion, I like some of the points brought out by Keller. But I can't buy his main thesis. Jesus is not the "true" elder brother who has the responsibility to find the wayward sinful brother. This parable is still about a God who goes out of his way to bring back his backslidden children.