Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

Book 6 – Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

I’d watched some of his Nooma videos, but had never seen Rob Bell in person ’till he came to the Somerville Theatre a couple years ago. A friend had called earlier that day to say that Rob was in town and that Tara & I might want to get tickets and check him out.

Even before we got there, I knew something was up. For starters, there was no publicity – none. I couldn’t find it on the internet and there was no lettering on the marquee above the entrance. At the ticket office we were told that it was sold out but we could buy a “standing room only” ticket and watch from the back. The crowd inside was interesting – definitely not from the church scene around Boston. There was a lot of leather and many people was wearing black – artists, punks, musicians… Nobody moved for the next 70+ minutes as he told stories about altars and sacrifice and how the God of the Bible looks different from every other God ever worshiped. I was hooked – both by his style and by the way he told the story.

I didn’t know how controversial his latest book had become until I looked for it at christianbook.com and realized that, though they have Rob’s other books and videos for sale, they aren’t selling Love Wins. Ok…

I bought the book on Amazon and read it.

THINGS I LIKED

1.  Rob asks a lot of questions – there are literally hundreds in this little book. More than that, he pushes back on the answers we’ve all heard when they don’t really fit with the witness of the text. At times this is uncomfortable – but also good. It encourages those of us who read and love the text to really own and deal with these ideas honestly. Rob doesn’t do in depth exegesis of the text but does spend time on a few important passages (Luke 15 – the two sons and the waiting father, Luke 16 – the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 18 – the “rich young ruler,” Revelation 21 – the new Jerusalem, Exodus 17 – Moses and the rock, etc…). Each of these are incomplete but are fertile ground for further study.

2.  He challenges the followers of Jesus to “seek the kingdom of Heaven” to pursue it here and now.  He gives a list of suggestions on page 46:

Honest business,

redemptive art,

honorable law,

sustainable living,

medicine,

education,

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.

in heaven,

on earth.

3.  His translation of Aion as “eternal” suggests more than just a length of time, i.e. “forever.” Instead, it points to a particular “quality and vitality of  life lived now in connection to God.”

Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;

it starts now.

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can

endure and survive even death. (p. 59)

4.  On hell – as with heaven c.f. The Great Divorce, Rob says that that hell is both a present and a future reality – and it is something that is chosen:

What we see in the Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life and so we can assume we can do the same in the next.

There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.  (p. 79)

God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free. (p. 72)

5.  I love Rob’s phrase the gospel of goats (p. 182). It’s a sort of shocking image right? A picture of the scarcity mentality embraced by some, who like the older brother (Luke 15), won’t join the party that the Father is throwing for his son who has come home. They have been “slaving all these years” and haven’t even gotten a goat (an animal he points out doesn’t even have that much meat!) so they can celebrate with their friends. Yes, this is toxic. “This is why,” he says (p. 179), “Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.”

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1.  I’ve thought a bit about Rob’s suggestion that there may be a time after death during which God’s persistent loving pursuit engages those who have previously rejected his call. He even mentions a letter (p. 106) from Martin Luther himself as evidence that God could do it. I think it is a compelling idea and I hope that this is the way it works. But I just don’t read it in the Bible. In fact, Luke 16 suggests that, at least for those who have Moses and the Prophets, another witness isn’t going to help anyway. It’s like Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce—the choice which the damned spirits make to reject heaven is merely the summation of choices they have made their whole life long. Why, having lived their life with every choice made in a certain groove, in response to another invitation after death, would they choose now to yield to joy?

2.  In addressing the uniqueness of Jesus for God’s redemptive work in the world, Rob underscores John’s statement in 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However in place of exclusivity or inclusivity Rob proposes something he calls exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (p. 155) Basically, this is saying that nobody is saved apart from Jesus but how this works is unclear. It may be that many people of other faith traditions – “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” could be saved by Jesus apart from knowing or coming to Jesus. Here again, it is a compelling idea that I don’t find in the invitations of Jesus in the Gospels to leave all and follow him.

3.  Rob suggests that our process of being fitted for heaven isn’t concluded as the bass in Handel’s Messiah sings, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…” Instead, he says “our heart, our character, our desires, our longings—those things take time.” (p. 51) I don’t know about that but my wife is not going to be happy about this.

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Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

Brian McLaren observes that what American Christians put forward as Gospel (Good News) about Jesus bears little resemblance to what Jesus himself said was Good News. I believe he is right and the implications for, not just the followers of Jesus, but the whole world are profound.

If evangelists understood and embraced what he calls the Secret Message of Jesus they would tell a very different story and engage the world in very different and much more transformative ways.

In many ways The Secret Message of Jesus continues the conversation that James Choung brought us last week. Namely that the gospel according to Jesus is:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The rest of the book articulates what this kingdom is, how it is announced, who it’s citizens are, and where it is going. Virtually every page challenged my imagination and invited me to take a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying. I loved it!

THINGS I LIKED

Several phrases stuck out and are helping me reframe the message of Jesus and my own response:

1. I really like what he says about worldview (p. 77) – Not just that it is a “way of seeing,” but his advice that we are “wiser to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ worldview rather than drag him into ours.” Jesus worldview is better than ours (p. 87). The story he tells about an imaginary TV reporter in Chapter 7 is brilliant.

2. Eternal Life he says (p. 63) doesn’t refer to “life after death” burt rather “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” Naturally, this sort of life would continue on and on, but the focus is on life here and now.

3. Signs and Wonders are real “touches of God’s grace” (p. 82) and serve to free us from the Tyranny of the Impossible – I LOVE that phrase! He describes the significance this way:

But when the kingdom of God comes near, when we experience it, the word impossible deconstructs. It melts and evaporates, and its tyranny over us ends. (p. 83)

He says that signs and wonders are a sign of the kingdom – namely that the King is present (at hand) working all around us from the inside.

4. The purpose of parables is to hide the message (p. 71-74). Jesus says this plainly in Mark 4:9-12

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, 
and ever hearing but never understanding; 
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ 

Those of us in InterVarsity tend to draw attention to the danger of being an outsider, emphasizing the importance of asking questions. We say that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to those who ask questions – or maybe, ask questions of Jesus. But Brian suggests that the intention of Jesus is to hide the message in such a way that it transforms hearts.  He keeps it away from the “know-it-alls” who never ask questions and reveals it to those who have nothing but questions, i.e. children. I’m not sure this is good news for me or the people I hang out with at Harvard…

5. The Five Moves for immigration to the kingdom (Chapter 13) are brilliant:

1. Repentance – Hear from the heart and think deeply about what you hear

2. Faith – of believing, of trusting

3. Receptivity

4. Going public with repentance, faith and receptivity – Baptism

5. Learn to follow Jesus every day for the rest of your life

Amen!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The scandal of the kingdom (p. 100) is that it needs to fail to succeed. This is a shocking idea and I’m sure he’s right. It reminds me of a talk our faculty advisor Bill Stuntz gave at the Law School a few months before his death. Bill said that God’s law is designed to fail. Spot on!

2. Brian says that it is necessary to exclude from the kingdom – namely those people who are themselves exclusive! At first glance this seems like some sort of logic problem. What he’s saying is that, if someone rejects the fundamental character of God’s inclusive kingdom, for the sake of inclusion, then they must be kept outside the territory and community. This is hard, right? I understand that he is trying to protect those who have come in for reconciliation and want to be reconcilers. At the same time, I wonder where I would be today if my inclusion depended on my satisfying some criteria of inclusiveness.

3. He doesn’t attempt to solve every theological problem around the eschatology of Jesus and some (maybe many) of my friends might be nervous about his  ideas about the future and the end times. He comes down sort of hard on “prognosticators” – and not just those who are looking for the world to end on August 22. It’s not that I have a better summary of Revelation (cf. p. 223). I mostly don’t know how he holds onto hope that the kingdom will someday come (really come) in fullness in the midst of all this realized eschatology.

4. Brian writes that the kingdom isn’t about making people nice – good news for me! – but rather to help them become secret agents of another realm. He goes on to mention a variety of jobs (including military service!) that can be engaged as agents of the kingdom. But what does this really mean? And what jobs are outside the boundaries of kingdom work? Tobacco framing? Brothel management? Partner in a hedge fund? (a friend of mine from the Business School says that today this work is outside what Jesus would approve) I believe this is an area for prayer, honest conversation, mentoring, accountability and Spirit-guided-creativity.

It is true as he said of Jesus’ secret message:

…if we take it in and manage not only to look at it but also to learn to look through it, our world and our lives will look different to us at the end of our exploration. And if that happens deeply enough for enough of us, everything could change. (p. 19).


Book 2 – True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In

James Choung has undertaken a significant project in this little book:

  1. Redefining the gospel
  2. Providing a new napkin-size summary diagram

The challenge is worth it because James observes that a major obstacle the followers of Jesus face in speaking about Him is that the only message they have doesn’t feel like good news. In fact, most Evangelicals describe the gospel almost exclusively in terms related to heaven after they die. There is little or no relationship to the world they see everyday. No real-world benefit in the face of the profound brokenness of the world.

Not only, he says, is today’s gospel largely devoid of substantial good news, it also shares little in common with the gospel that Jesus himself preached – the one articulated in Mark 1:14-15:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

When’s the last time you read that in a “gospel” tract somebody handed you in the subway station?

If you didn’t get to read the whole book, or if you want to see it in action, you can watch James himself line it out with a Sharpie in a couple of 3- minute videos on YouTube. These are not to be missed. There is also a pocket-sized version from InterVarsity Press cleverly named, Based on a True Story (ha!), that you can give to friends.

THINGS I LIKED

1. It took a little getting used to it, but I ended up liking the conversation format in the first part of the book. There were two separate conversation threads and they worked in two different ways:

• Caleb’s conversations with Professor Shalandra Jones provided opportunity for his own doubts as a confused-but-engaged follower of Jesus to surface and be thoughtfully and compassionately addressed.

• Caleb’s conversations with Anna showed how these ideas could be helpful to those most skeptical about following Jesus.

2. I like his drawings. I’m a visual guy so, if you’re gonna take away my bridge illustration, you’ve gotta come back at me with something else.  I’ve tried these a few times and, though I’m in no way as good as James on the videos, I’ve found them helpful. It’s also fun to draw when you’re chatting, right?

3. I like the three movements that this gospel describes and the invitation that follows.

Decision –> Transformation

Individual –> Community

Afterlife –> Mission Life

Understanding and applying those form the key difference in his invitation to embrace Christ and his revolutionary movement.

4. I liked James’s theological riffs – Seeing him put that doctorate from Fuller to work!  A couple stuck in my mind. First, in the run through Genesis (p. 97-8) Shalandra’s comment that Noah must have seen that first rainbow in the midst of falling rain – something that had previously destroyed every living thing. God’s promise and sign meant he would never have to fear the rain again. The second was his comment on the coming together of heaven and earth seen in the Temple, in Jesus’ body and (finally) in the community of believers. It gave me fresh appreciation for our InterVarsity goal to foster and support witnessing communities. “Guess where earth intersects heaven?” he says, “In the community of believers – where heaven shows up on the planet.” Right on!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Of course most of you will be surprised to hear me say this… I was put off a little by the progressive political viewpoint assumed by the author and the characters in the story. While the dialogue is somewhat believable in the college campus setting (University of Washington in Seattle), and it may be that we’re in a time in our culture where North Americans automatically assume Jesus and his followers are all white Republicans whose political/social agenda revolves entirely around ending abortion and keeping gays from marrying, I thought James piled it on too thick. My friend Professor Bill Stuntz who died this past winter told me shortly after arriving at Harvard Law School that, though he was a center-right conservative, he “leaned to the left whenever he could.”  There is certainly something to that when so many people want to line Jesus up behind their agendas. I only want to make sure we don’t exclude people because they can’t get past our rhetoric or don’t subscribe to Sojourners.

2. I know that Professor Jones highlights the centrality of Jesus death and resurrection in the the dialogue, but it felt like the power of both was insignificant compared to the role of Jesus’ followers who are, in his language, “Sent together to heal.” It would have helped to have him line out more about how his view of the Atonement – Ransom is one meaning he mentions among others – works to “Restore for better” and “Sent us to heal.” The same could be said for the Holy Spirit.

One last thing. James said that his hope (p.12) is that “this book will provide us a simple tool to share the hope that we have – one worth believing in.” He really has done this for me – now if I can get my friends on campus to learn how to draw those circles…


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