In rereading this chapter I've discovered that I liked it much more in the rereading than I did the first time through the book. Perhaps I was not quite in sync with Rob Bell's style then.
Bell begins with a commentary on a painting that hung in his grandmother's house. He raises questions about the theology implied in the picture. He notices that the message of the picture is about people who are crossing a fiery canyon safely on a cross. They are leaving one place and are headed to another. The implication is that salvation is all about getting from this world to heaven someplace else. Those of you who heard my sermon from May 22 will connect his point with the slide I showed about the relative importance of getting to heaven in some construals of what "church" is for. [Image is from Brian McLaren.]
In this notion heaven is somewhere else.
Then he moves on to the question that is raised about heaven, viz. Who will be there and who won't be there? I found the contrast between the two women on page 25 quite striking. The two are at the same church service and one has tears of joy in expectation that she will be reunited with her family who have died. The other with tears of grief that her family - presumably "unsaved" - will have no reunion with her. The pastor explains to the latter woman that that will not bother her in heaven because she will be having so much fun. That is, of course, troubling to the woman who grieves.
Bell moves on to focus on the rich man in Matthew 19 who asks Jesus what good thing he must do to get eternal life. Bell notes that for many Christians this is the central question. Jesus does not answer in any way like contemporary "evangelical" Christians do. As Bell explicates the passage, Jesus tells him to do exactly what he needs to do in order to be a person fit for heaven.
Mixed in with this explication of what the man must do is a fair amount of explanation about the Greek word aion, or in English age. Without going into the detailed analysis, suffice it to say here that Bell reminds us that in Jesus' tradition, the prophets spoke mainly of a coming age in which God's way would be fulfilled on earth. This time was the age to come. This would be a time of justice and peace. Jesus' teaching, like the prophets' teaching was about how to be the kind of persons who would be at home in this coming time of justice and peace. It is an earthy environment of justice and peace.
Bell moves on to the idea of judgment. I believe this is a central dimension of the book. To speak loosely for a moment: I think that there are many Christians who are tied to the notion of an otherworldly heaven and hell because they believe that if we give up on those, we have necessarily given up on there being a judgment. Bell takes pains to reject that connection. Bell believes in judgment and suggests that we all do. When bad and cruel things happen we want God to be angry and to judge and rule some things out. Of course, at the same time, we realize that we are also involved in injustice and wrongdoing. We want mercy. The prophets also speak of that: Justice and mercy will hold hands, embrace, and kiss.
Bell spends time going over what heaven means in the Bible, and how the kingdom of heaven relates to the kingdom of God. This should be a review for those of you who have been paying attention in church at FUMC.
A key couple of sentences: "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." (pp. 44-5) Bell says, "God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere." "…[W]orking for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come." "That's what happens when the future is dragged into the present." I take this last quote to mean that the divinely ordered age to come has an eruption into the presence in the form of compassion or peace or reconciliation.
Bell asserts that our eschatology (belief about the divine future or end) shapes our ethics. If we believe that we are destined to simply evacuate the planet, why do anything about this world?
As Bell reviews the stories of Jesus, we see the unexpected outcomes of who find divine favor. Those who presume on it, lose it. Those who receive it are surprised. The question is: Are you busy NOW being the kind of person who will fit in in an environment of love and justice and are you busy now preparing the world in that direction?
The last few pages of the book are about time and another meaning of the Greek word aion. He concludes the chapter with an expansive understanding of heaven, which may seem paradoxical without working through the fairly compelling Scriptural account that he gives: "There is heaven now, somewhere else. There's heaven here, sometime else. And there's Jesus's invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place."