Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Here is the New There"

     Some say the world will end in fire,  
     Some say in ice.         
     From what I’ve tasted of desire        
     I hold with those who favor fire.       
     But if it had to perish twice,          
     I think I know enough of hate           
     To know that for destruction ice       
     Is also great    
     And would suffice.
     (Fire and Ice, Robert Frost, 1920)

When will the world end? HOW will it end? WILL it end?

We’ve lived through the latest doomsday prophecy, with its attendant jokes. Next scheduled date: October 21, with the Mayan doomsday on its heels, in December, 2012.

In the church tradition of my childhood, the end of the world was a common Sunday dinner topic. First the rapture, when the saints are taken and sinners left. Then the tribulation. Then the millennium – a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth. Then the final battle. Then the judgment. Then, finally, heaven.

I confess, I found the heated arguments about Christ’s second coming so un-Christlike I’ve done my best to steer clear of eschatological argument ever since. Define preterism? Pro/con texts for amillenialism? Defend Theonomy?  For me, fingernails on a chalkboard create the same effect.

The second chapter of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, "Here is the New There", approaches eschatology in a very different way. The chapter is by far the longest in the book, and in many ways the heart of the book.

illustration from Love Wins
Bell starts by responding to the ways heaven is portrayed: somewhere “over there,” distant from and unlike this current life. Ethereal, purely spiritual: “harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.”

The assumption, of course, is that in the end those who trust in Christ will be rescued to sit somewhere else with our robes and harps while this world, this broken home of ours, is destroyed, gone forever.

Bell asks: “Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended ther in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire? I say yes, there are.”

From there Bell goes on to talk about eternal life, life in the age to come, as tied in important ways to life in this age, and suggests that life in the age to come starts now, as the kingdom of heaven presses in on earth, as we learn to live, now, as the people who will live forever in the presence of God.

“How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world."

Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffereing seriously now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.”

Pages later, Bell says
“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 death.”

There’s nothing new in what Bell says here. N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, and others have written at length about how we misunderstand heaven and eternal life, and about the dangerous dualism the church has created between the eternal/spiritual realm of the future and the temporal/material world of now. I haven’t read Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, recommended in Bell’s endnotes, but a Christianity Today excerpt published in 2008 gives an idea of the direction of his argument:

“The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

"If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the "now, already" of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the "not yet.”

This discussion is an important one. In a long post about Love Wins, Byron Borger, of Hearts and Minds Books, offers context, history and additional reading. Scot McKnight, author of The Blue Parakeet and religious studies professor at North Park University, offers his own thoughtful critique of Bell’s chapter in light of Wright’s work, and in light of a broad view of New Testament scholarship.
As Bell says
“Our eschatology shapes our ethics.
Eschatology is about last things.
Ethics are about how you live.”

In fact, our eschatology shapes everything. How we worship, how we pray, how we budget our money, share our faith. What we plant in our yards, what we serve at our tables.

International Justice Mission
If we believe this world is doomed, and we’re headed elsewhere, we watch with  detachment the suffering around us, eager to be on our way, happy to announce doomsday and watch our neighbors squirm.

If we believe this world is loved by God, and that we are part of the ongoing story of redemption, then our response will be different.

As we hear news of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and droughts, I’ve been thinking of Romans 8:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Strange as it may sound to contemporary Christians, our physical selves and the physical world are tied in some way to the unfolding of God’s plan and the working of his spirit. Old Testament prophecies spell this out. Here’s just one of many passages, this one from Isaiah 32:

The fortress will be abandoned,
   the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever . . .
till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
   and the desert becomes a fertile field,
   and the fertile field seems like a forest.
The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
   his righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
   its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.

Blight and oppression are brought to an end as the Holy Spirit moves in God’s people. As Jesus prayed: “your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.”

Bell may overstate his point in places, but it’s an important point, worth hearing:

“Jesus invites us,
in this life,
in this broken, beautiful world,
to experience the life of heaven now.
He insisted over and over that God’s peace, joy and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are.”

Even that last line gives me pause: “exactly as we are?” And yet, when I stop to think, yes, exactly as we are. Jesus demonstrated this again and again: healing for those who had never expressed faith, forgiveness for those still reeling in their sin, love for those who lived beyond the reach of love.

Our presentation of the gospel, too often, is backwards: “Repent, believe, accept, and sometime, way off in the future, you’ll get a good taste of what Jesus has to offer.”

Kenya Clean Water Project, Water Missions International
What if we lived the kingdom, the eternal life we talk about, in the way that Jesus showed us? What if the love, joy, peace, kindness, friendship, justice, mercy, wisdom, healing, was so visible and available that our friends, neighbors, children, could enjoy the fruit of our kingdom life before we even put it into words? What if our care for creation and our stewardship of resources created islands of grace and plenty that nourished not just our own, but those around us in need?

Isn’t that what led thousands at a time to a life of faith in the early days of the church? Isn’t that still the most compelling witness, in places where the church is growing?

Wright, in the CT article, says: “When the church is seen to move straight from worship of God to affecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus' table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.

I’m not wasting time worrying about when I’ll be rescued and taken off to heaven, and I’m not going to argue about the precise chronology of Christ’s coming. I’m excited to be living “life of the ages,” eternal life, life in God’s presence, here, today, from the minute I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. And I’m thankful for those, Rob Bell, Bishop Wright and others, who challenge the “dualistic, sectarian mentality” of the church and invite God’s people to demonstrate His kingdom now, in every arena.
As Bell says:
“There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here,
sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.”

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.