Chapter 2: Here Is The New There (Heaven)
In Chapter 2 Bell seeks to dispense with many of the popular notions of heaven that have crept into modern American Christianity, which is often hard to fully separate from the pop culture images of pearly gates and clouds and harps and whatnot. We read things like Revelation to remind ourselves that heaven is less about things like that and more about things like God’s throne and angels and not crying and yeah there’s some sort of feast in there somewhere but it’s still generally thought of as this vaguely fuzzy dream-like “other” place in some sort of alternate dimension that we get to by leaving Earth forever.
Does Heaven Come To Earth?
Bell challenges this view with Scriptures that talk about heaven coming to earth, both in “this age” and the “age to come.” He says the age to come sounds very “earthy,” from Isaiah’s “earth” being “filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” to Amos’s promises that “everything will be repaired and restored and rebuilt” and so on and so forth, and how it all suggests active participation by us. Bell says we should be concerned about bringing God’s kingdom to the earth now almost as a sort of preparation for the age to come:
making a home,
tending a garden –
they’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come.
(Wait.. medicine will go on in the age to come? OK, OK, I know what you mean.)
He says there’s confusion about heaven that “we will automatically become totally different people who ‘know’ everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longing – those things take time,” so we need to “be growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty… so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now.”
I could play Bell’s black-and-white-questions game from Chapter 1 with this idea… what if someone dies before they have time to “grow progressively” and they don’t have much “character” developed for the age to come? Is that fair to them? But now I’m being unfair.
Eventually either we make the earth enough like heaven that God comes, or we don’t make the earth enough like heaven, and “God acts. Decisively. On behalf of everybody who’s ever been stepped on by the machine, exploited, abused, forgotten, or mistreated. God puts an end to it. God says, ‘Enough.'” Tada, heaven fully comes to earth in the age to come.
Or Do We Leave Earth?
I do like Bell’s perspective on this. There is clearly an “earthy” part to the Biblical heaven that Christians tend to ignore, both in the future and in the “kingdom of heaven” that “is at hand.” This focus on making the Earth a better, happier, more just (a.k.a. more heavenly or more Christlike) place is also a much more attractive “gospel” to the sorts of “progressive” people who don’t often tend to associate with modern Christianity. I suspect they are closer to part of the Truth than many Christians think.
But what about the traditional Christians with the escapist eschatology, who believe, as Bell notes, “that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else,” so “why do anything about this world?” I don’t think that’s a Christlike conclusion even if the premise is true, but where did that premise come from, anyway? The idea that we all leave Earth to go to heaven somewhere didn’t come out of nowhere, or even from pop culture.
The end of Revelation talks about a new heaven and a new earth. 2 Peter 3 talks about the heavens passing away, the elements being destroyed by fire, and the earth being laid bare on the “day of the Lord.” Bell even talks about a similar fiery passage in 1 Corinthians 3 to test each man’s work on this “day of the Lord” that transitions us to the age to come, but Peter’s description sounds even more, uh, “earthy.” And of course you have the 1 Thessalonians 4 “rapture” passage about rising and being “caught up in the air” with Christ.
Put that all together with all the other stuff in Revelation and all the passages about being “not of this world” and “setting your mind on things above” and it’s not hard to see how Christians might come up with the idea that God takes us away from this earth and all of its sin and principalities to burn it all up and make us a new perfect one for a great big heavenly party (I think we’re supposed to “judge angels” in there somewhere too)
What Does It All Mean?
So… this is the point where I throw up my hands and say, hey, I can see how different people reading the same Bible can honestly come to different conclusions. It’s a big book with a lot of nuance and it’s hard to keep all the pieces in perspective especially when we have certain biases that predispose us to remembering certain parts of it. I could probably dig into the Greeks and the Hebrews and figure out a way to reconcile the dichotomous views described above into one cohesive fully Biblical worldview, and, indeed, that is what I will always strive for as I become more familiar with the text.
But there’s also a point at which I don’t really care too much about the specifics of whether “heaven” fully comes to this “earth” or not, because while I agree that our eschatologies do affect how we live our lives, I think we should be trying to make this earth a better place either way, because that’s what God has called each of us to do in so many different ways, and I’m busy enough figuring out what that looks like. But it is all interesting to think about.