Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rob Bell &... Purgatory?

I've read Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I agree with him on some things, and disagree on others. That's perfectly OK with him because likes dialogue, and that's good. It is a good thing for Jesus-followers to be in dialogue with one another. 

Rob writes: "Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about things that matter most." This is true. There are indeed Christian communities where no questioning or wondering about one's faith is allowed. Thomas could doubt. We can't. Bell says: "There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous." True. For Jesus, that is. For people, it's a different story.

The year was 1980. I am pastor of First Baptist Church in Joliet, Illinois. I was teaching a Sunday evening Bible study on the book of Revelation. We talked about different views of the Second Coming of Christ. Whereas at one time I was uncritically accepting of Hal Lindsay's eschatology in his Late, Great Planet Earth, I had changed my mind. The change came from actually studying Scripture. I shared, on that evening, that I disagreed with Lindsay, and thought another view and interpretation of Revelation was more accurate.

That was when the attack came. A man named Bill (not his real name) was so angry with me that he came and stood directly in front of me, placed his face a few inches from mine, and yelled so loud at me that the veins on his neck were exposed. I was, to Bill, Satan incarnate! When Linda and I left that evening, I was shook. Couldn't we just talk about this? For Bill, no. No dialogue about this one was allowed. I was branded, by him (but not the others who were there), a heretic.

Rob has the right to dialogue and question. Why freak out about this?

As I read the book I found some things, for the sake of dialogue, that I disagree with. Here's one.

Rob's idea is that "God’s love is so big that the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life so that all could be saved." (See Mars Hill's Q&A here.) Rob writes: "Much of the speculation about heaven - and, more important, the confusion - comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who "know" everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings - those things take time."

I think not. When Rob uses the word "may" then, of course, it "may." But that is speculation. And, I think, unfaithful to the text. So is "heaven" a purgatory? That I will enter heaven in the spiritual and psychological and even bodily (?) condition in which I die on this earth? That I'll be as troubled during my initial heavenly existence as I was the last moments on earth? While this is logically possible, I see it as textually improbable.

This sounds a bit like theistic philosopher John Hick, who argued for earth as a place of "soul-making." But not heaven.

Will I get ticked off at you while I am in heaven, with God, in the fullness of the Age to Come? Will not the next life be a face-to-face encounter with God, as opposed to our current see-through-a-glass darkly" existence?

The texts Bell cites in support of this, with words that sound confident, do not support this reasoning. It is... itself... speculation.

Rob often does a good job of going to the actual biblical texts. I don't think he can strongly support the idea of a kind of purgatorial state in the afterlife. I think he takes the awesome truth of God as Love and works too hard to logically extend this into an orthodoxy that is, textually, way too generous.

One more thing. I love Rob Bell.