All this talk and blogging on Love Wins, and the fact that the world is clearly going to end on May 21, has got me thinking about the end times. Or, to be more accurate, it’s got me thinking about the end of the Bible.

Revelation is a tricky book. It’s difficult to understand and interpret because of it’s apocalyptic nature. The images are extreme, the language is deeply biblical and often coded, and the timeline seems to skip around a bit. Some of it is clearly in the past, while other parts of it seem to be yet in the distant future. That’s what I want to write about today: the future parts.

Revelation 17-19 deal with the fall of Babylon, which is probably a code for Rome. You have to remember that the people to whom Revelation was first written (the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapters 2 and 3) were under severe persecution from Rome. Rome and her emperor stood against Christ, and often waged a violent war against the followers of Jesus. So, for those saints, the fall of Rome meant the destruction of God’s great enemy on earth.

In the middle of chapter 19, we get this wonderful song:

Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.

Babylon falls. People rejoice. And a wedding is coming. But we don’t have the actual wedding; we only have a song. The wedding is coming between the Lamb (hint: Jesus) and his bride. And as chapter 19 continues on into chapter 20, we see Jesus portrayed as this conquering King who throws Satan and his minions into the Abyss for a thousand years. And then his people rise from the dead and reign with him for that thousand years, after which the devil and his crew come out of the Abyss and wage war against Jesus again, only to be defeated again, and cast into this awful, horrible lake of burning sulfur to be tormented for ever and ever.

Thus the groom. The twice-conquering King. But do you know who hasn’t shown up yet? The bride. As in weddings today, the bride doesn’t show up until she’s ready. And in this wedding, she doesn’t show up until chapter 21.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. …One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Thus the bride. But what does this mean? Does Jesus marry a city? That can’t be right, can it? Maybe this is another one of those parts in Revelation where the language shouldn’t be taken literally. Maybe the New Jerusalem is something else—someone else. In fact, the bride is us, the Church, all who have called on the name of Jesus and overcome the world. You and I are the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, beautifully prepared for the wedding by God, and being escorted down the aisle, from Heaven to Earth, by God himself.

And this “Heavenly City”, the New Jerusalem, which is us, dwarves the “Eternal City”, Rome. By a lot. And not just in size, but in grandeur. There is no temple because God Almighty and the Conquering King-Groom are the temple. As Jesus declared from the throne,

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There is no need for the light of the sun or moon, because God himself will give us light. The gates will never be shut, not because it is all-inclusive, but because there is nothing to fear. The night and its terrors have fled away, and there is no reason to hide behind city walls and closed gates. And “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Why? Because God has already prepared the bride. He has already brought his people through tribulation and great trial, and they have overcome by the blood of the Lamb. God’s work of preparing the bride for the wedding is done. She is ready. She has gone down the aisle.

The Holy City, the New Jerusalem, is not heaven; it’s us. We are being made ready for a wedding, our wedding, where God walks us down the aisle and gives us over to his son, the Conquering King-Groom, the Lamb, Jesus Christ. We are far, far greater than Rome or any of God’s enemies, because we are being made suitable for the Son of God.

At the end of the book of the Revelation is an invitation—a wedding invitation. But it’s not simply an invitation to the ceremony; it’s a call to participate, to be the bride.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

This is how love wins.

What’s this? Another review of Love Wins? I suppose if there were one book that didn’t need another review, it’s Love Wins by Rob Bell. But, since I blogged about it all of last week, I thought I should go ahead and give it an official sometimespreacher book review.

The book is written in Rob Bell’s trademark style.

Full.

Of.

Questions.

And.

Whitespace.

(For somebody who’s so concerned about the environment, Rob Bell sure wastes a lot of paper in his books. Ba-zing!)

rob-bell-love-wins-1As I pointed out last week, it’s important to know why Rob Bell is writing this book, and what perspective he is challenging. There are eight beliefs that formulate this perspective, and Love Wins is meant to be a “wrecking ball” that destroys these beliefs. The eight beliefs are:

  1. Heaven is somewhere else.
  2. Hell is somewhere else.
  3. It’s all about eternity.
  4. God is angry with you.
  5. Turn or burn.
  6. The gospel is your “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
  7. God has predestined a select few for heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.
  8. Those who have never heard of Jesus will spend eternity in hell.

While Bell does a good job of deconstructing these beliefs, he fails, in my opinion, to reconstruct a convincingly biblical alternative. He uses some sloppy exegesis to get where he wants to go, and his scholarship does not hold up under inspection. What Bell is saying, however, is well worth saying; unfortunately his style far exceeds his substance. It’s going to be left up to others to flesh out what the Bible says about these matters.

What I appreciated most about the book (and if you’re familiar with Rob Bell, this is nothing new) was his emphasis on the continuity of heaven, hell, and earth. He has long preached that heaven is not simply somewhere you go when you die, but that eternal life starts in this life, and that one day heaven and earth will become one. I’ll Fly Away is his least favorite hymn, and I can only assume that he’s not a rapture guy, either.

What has earned Rob Bell the labels universalist and heretic (and John Piper’s now infamous tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”) is his chapter There are Rocks Everywhere. In this chapter, Bell asserts that “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” can all get into heaven. How? Through Jesus, but maybe not in ways that we are comfortable or familiar with. He affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but he leaves the door open for many ways to get to Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard stories of Muslims coming to faith in Christ through dreams and visions. This is the sort of thing Bell is talking about when he says that there are rocks everywhere. Jesus is drawing people to himself by whatever means necessary, and as King of Creation, he is free and able to use any tool in creation to accomplish his purposes. “Jesus is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.” The book ends with a fairly standard evangelical call to faith in Christ now.

While not exactly a wrecking ball, I would say Rob Bell has done a good job of deconstructing the standard, fundamentalist view of judgment and the afterlife. It’s a good book to read to begin a conversation, but it is insufficient to guide you through the Scriptures in an attempt to formulate answers. But perhaps that was Bell’s point all along; he’s always been more interested in questions than answers, and that’s exactly where Rob Bell leaves us with Love Wins: far more questions than answers, far more doubt than certainty.

The most controversial chapter of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, is probably chapter 6, There Are Rocks Everywhere. Bell opens the chapter with the story of water gushing from the rock during Exodus, and Paul’s surprising claim in 1 Corinthians 10 that the rock was Christ. If Jesus was the rock, Bell postulates, then what else might Jesus be? In what other strange ways might Jesus be revealing himself to the world? If he can be a rock, he can be anything, anywhere, anytime, right?

This is an important question, which leads Bell to conclude that “Jesus is bigger than any one religion.”

He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’

Fair enough. But how, then does one get to Jesus? That’s the question. Bell affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but that there are many ways to get to Jesus. Referring to Jesus’ famous statement in John 14:6, Bell writes,

What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.

This is what is getting Rob in trouble with the Reformed movement, I believe. While he affirms that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father, he leaves the door open for many ways to get to Jesus. Hence the title of the chapter, There Are Rocks Everywhere. It is, what he calls, “an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.”

This…insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.

And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.

In other words, Jesus can and does use every and any tool in creation to draw people to himself. Experientially, this is true. Many, many Muslims have haunting dreams of Jesus and actually come to Christ that way. Bell tells the story of a guy who came to Jesus when he had a drug-induced experience of God. This sort of stuff happens, and we should be open to it.

However, these experiences are the exception, not the rule. They are not normative. God has called his people to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the earth, and to make disciples of all nations. This is the primary means by which Jesus is drawing people to himself. Does he use other methods? Yes. But just because Jesus can and does use every tool in creation to bring people to faith in himself, doesn’t mean that the Church can take it’s mission of Gospel-proclamation and disciple-making less seriously. In fact, these unusual gosepl-experiences are the means by which Jesus is preparing the way for the Church to fulfill her mission.

Rob Bell believes that Jesus is bigger than Christianity. He’s right.

Rob Bell believes that Jesus can be seen drawing people to himself all over the world in nontraditional ways, like through dreams and drug-induced visions. He’s right.

Many people put these two beliefs together and say Rob Bell is a universalist. But he’s not. He affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father; but he also affirms that there are many ways to Jesus.

Jesus is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. If he can be a rock in the Exodus story, then couldn’t there be rocks everywhere?

It’s easy to be critical of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins. He creates strawman arguments by caricaturing fundamentalist Christians. He has poor, often misleading, exegesis of Scripture. He is far better at deconstruction than reconstruction. But there is much of value here.

What I appreciate most about Bell’s book is his insistence that heaven and hell are not merely places that are somewhere else. Heaven and hell are among us, breaking into our reality in the glorious and the obscene, in the great and small events of life on earth. I think this is right.

C.S. Lewis, and later Tim Keller, made the point that there is something inside each one of us that, if left unchecked, will become hell. If you’ve not read Lewis’s masterpiece The Great Divorce, what are you waiting for? In it, Lewis profoundly presents this hell-from-within, sin left unchecked and overindulged, and its tragic consequences. Heaven and hell are trajectories of our lives here on earth. Those who trust Jesus and seek to love and obey him while in the body will get what they want–Christ himself!–in the life to come. Those who reject Jesus and seek to indulge their wicked desires while in the body will also get what they want–life solely on their terms–in the life to come. (Never mind that that sort of life is what Jesus would call “death”.)

Bell gets it right when he says, “For Jesus, heaven is more real than what we experience now. This is true for the future, when earth and heaven become one, but also for today.” Eternal life starts in this life, when you trust Jesus, swearing allegiance to him as your King. Eternal life is not for somewhere else, it is for here, and then it will be for there when there and here become one. (Oh yeah, that’s right, I just Rob Belled you.)

On the other hand, hell is also here. It is the natural consequence of fallen humanity. People throw out phrases like “hell on earth” for a reason–it’s true. A doctor once told me that heroin is Satan; she was right, heroin is Satan. Sex trafficking is hell. Abortion is hell. Domestic abuse is hell. Slavery is hell. All of these are hell because they are the manifestation of extreme evil on earth.

But here’s the thing. Hell is inside of you. Your evil desires. Your lusts. Your pride. Your rage. The idols you worship. All the great evil of which you are capable.
Hell.
Inside.
You. (Oh man, I just Rob Belled you again! BAM!)

But there’s good news here, too. By faith in Christ, heaven, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is also within you. Heaven is inside you. The Holy Spirit is at the core of your being. Destroying your idols. Changing your desires. Growing your character. Humbling you.
Heaven.
God.
Inside you. (I can’t believe you just let me Rob Bell you for a third time.)

This is the tension of who we are. In our sinful nature, we are bringers of hell-on-earth. In the power of the Holy Spirit and through faith in Christ, we are bringers of heaven-on-earth, heralds of the new King, Jesus Christ. Heaven and hell are within you. In your body. On this earth.
You.
Here.
Where heaven, earth, and hell meet. (pwned! I Rob Belled you four times in this post. Four!)

As I continue the journey through Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, I’d like to examine what I consider to be the book’s greatest weakness. While there is a lot to like about the book, and I hope to get to that later this week, there are several points where Bell’s scholarship is suspect. Today I want to look at his treatment of the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, specifically focusing, as he does, on verse 46.

Bell makes the following exegetical claim:

The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience.

This statement is all kinds of messed up and misleading. First, let’s examine the grammar. Bell claims that the goats are sent to “an aion of kolazo“, implying that aion is used as a noun in this passage. It is not. The Greek phrase is κολασιν αιωνιον, and aion[ion] is an adjective. The -ion ending indicates that this is used adjectivally and tells us some other, less relevant information. It is not, therefore, “an aion of kolazo“, it is aionic kolazo, so to speak.

Now let’s look at how Bell defines the word aion. He rightly says it has several meanings. The Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon (which, to my knowledge, is the standard Greek Lexicon of New Testament scholarship) defines αιων this way:

I. lifetime, life

A. age, generation, posterity
B. one’s life, destiny, lot

II. long space of time, age, for ever

A. space of time clearly marked out, epoch

Nowhere in this entry do we find Bell’s alternative definition, “intensity of experience”. Unfortunately, Bell does not cite where he found this meaning, so in the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that he is wrong on this. The Greek word αιων simply does not mean “intensity of experience.”

Another point that Bell fails to mention is that, in Matthew 25:46, the phrase κολασιν αιωνιον is contrasted with the phrase ζωην αιωνιον. So, whatever αιωνιον means in the first instance, it must also mean in the second. If the punishment is only for an age, then the life must also only be for an age. If one is temporary, then so is the other.

So, the good news Bell hoped to be proclaiming turns out to be really, really bad news. What happens when that zoe is over? Are we up for judgment again? Do we disappear into the divine, subsumed by his goodness? Does God start over? Is anything eternal?

Or maybe αιωνιον means what the Bible translators say it means. Maybe Rob Bell doesn’t know Greek as well as the people chosen by the various Committees on Bible Translation, who have studied this ancient language their entire adult lives. Maybe, just maybe, “eternal” was exactly the word Jesus had in mind when he first told this story.

Rob Bell has tried to sow seeds of doubt regarding heaven and hell using poor exegesis and an incorrect understanding of a particular Greek word. His work on the Matthew 25 passage is misleading, at best. There is a lot more that could be said here, but the point has been made: αιωνιον, in Matthew 25:46, refers to time, and because of its adjectival form, the most compelling translation is “eternal”.