Last week a book was published. Unremarkable, since every week thousands of books are published all over the world. But this book had Christians all over the internet screaming ‘heretic’ back and forth.
But get this: The accusations were flying BEFORE THE BOOK WAS PUBLISHED!
Now THAT is quite the stir. Like a suggestive picture on the front a glossy magazine, one of a wholesome family celebrity coyly removing clothing or blushing as a skirt is caught in an updraft, the author of this book had posted a promotional video and sent out samples of the book. From this, many people accused Rob Bell of deviating from Historic Christian Orthodoxy. Others accused the accusers of being narrow minded, forgetting the days when they themselves would have been called heretics. Still others looked on with a patronising smile, giggling to themselves over the absurdity of the whole thing.
Love Wins, the latest release by Rob Bell, is written as a retelling of the Christian story, specifically the role of heaven and hell in God’s plan. For Rob, God cannot be glorified by the endless suffering of billions of people and eternal torment doesn’t seem to fit with the message of Christ. Instead he casts a vision of God redeeming and renewing all things through Christ. Hell is what we experience when we choose to depart from God and live in greed, selfishness and sin. Heaven is what God is doing on earth and will continue to create for all eternity.
Whilst we may stand in opposition to this for a time, eventually God’s love will win out and we will turn from ourselves and our sins, and enter in to life as God intended. A God who fails in this task, who fails to reconcile all people to himself is too small for Rob, too narrow minded and ultimately not glorious.
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins.
There are a number of ways I find Bell’s book difficult (historical inaccuracy, Biblical infidelity and theological inconsistency) but I am not going to flesh those gripes out here. Other people far smarter than me have already done so.
No, the purpose of this blog post is for me to explore why I believe that the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell as faithfully told by countless generations of Christians magnifies God, shows his power, love and justice and has the power to change the world and the human heart.
The great question is this: What, ultimately, is all creation here for? Why did God make the world and all that is in it? We are told that God owns all creation. It is his. Psalm 24 boldly proclaims
The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
God announces to his people that they are special to him, since he own all the peoples of the world and yet has chosen them:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine (Exodus 19:5)
And again, Job has pressed God as to why he permitted him to suffer. God’s response is to announce:
Who then is he who can stand before me?
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
Creation therefore exists for God’s purpose. He does what he wants with this creation, like saving Israel from the hands of the Egyptians and he owes nothing to anyone, despite what Job might believe. Human beings might experience salvation or damnation but God does what he wills because creation belongs to him.
What is God’s purpose, then?
What does God exist for?
The answer to this question will provide the framework through which to interpret all reality, including heaven and hell and what our lives exist for.
When God saved Israel he announced to them Ten Commandments. Well, quite how those ten are divided is up for discussion. For the purposes of this question I am concerned with the first few lines of this Divine Announcement.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)
Why did God redeem Israel? For what reason did he go to the trouble of saving them? Because they were worthy? Because they earned it? Because they were just so loveable?
This announcement tells us the reason for Israel’s salvation: So that God would be worshipped and glorified.
If God was not concerned for his own glory, he really wouldn’t have minded if his people went ahead and worshipped Baal, or sacrificed their children to Molech, or participated with the Canaanite cults. He would have been like a superhero, swooping in to save the day because it’s the right thing to do.
God insists upon his own glory.
Quite the ego.
Or is it?
What if you knew someone was desperately thirsty. Dying for a drink. They had perhaps gone for days without water and so would be on the brink of death. What would you do? Hopefully you would want to get them help. Water, treatment, medical attention. You would point them to the source of their help.
But what if you were those things: You were water, you were treatment, you were medical aid. Would it be self centered for you to point the thirsty, dying person to yourself?
Similarly, I do not see God as being egotistical for insisting upon his own glory. In fact I think he is being most loving by seeking to make much of himself. After all, without him we are just dust.
So we see in his actions he seeks glory for himself. God acts for his own glory.
So God’s action in all creation is for his own glory.
Creation is for God’s glory.
And in Israel’s redemption we see the role of God’s people in this glory.
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a)
Therefore the purpose of all existence, experience and enterprise is to proclaim the glory of God.
What has this got to do with heaven and hell?
Heaven is the place where the glory of God is displayed in it’s fullest splendour (Rev. 21:23) for all to enjoy and savour for eternity.
Hell is the place where the glory of God is displayed in it’s fullest splendour for all to cringe and cry out at for all eternity. (Rev. 20:7-15)
Heaven and Hell are the end. The eternal end of all things.
Does that make you feel small? It should.
Heaven glorifies God because it shows his plan wins, that God is not impotent and that his intention for the whole of creation to be filled with his glory will not be defeated. It gives hope to all creation, and especially to human beings, that all their hopes will be and can be fulfilled and that their desires will not be left wanting in this life or in the life to come.
Hell glorifies God because it shows his plan wins, that God is not impotent and that his intention for evil to be done away with and darkness to be banished for all eternity will not be defeated. It warns human beings, that those who will not glorify God and understand their existence in terms of serving him, not themselves, will be judged in this life and the life to come.
In this way, every person will glorify God in one way or another.
When God was saving Israel from Egypt, he sent ten plagues against the Egyptians. Ten terrible judgements against their sins. God gives some very interesting commentary to what is going on. Talking to Pharaoh, he says:
…for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16)
Yes. In God’s judgement he is glorifying his name. He makes his name great through salvation and through judgement. Israel proclaimed the wonder of God’s name as their Saviour. Egypt proclaimed God’s name as their Judge.
God’s perfect purpose is fulfilled.
And this will be the ultimate end of all people: That God’s perfect purpose to magnify his own name will be fulfilled.
It is not that eventually God’s love will melt every heart and everyone will enter heaven. It is that at the end of all time, all will look on the tapestry of history and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In the end, God wins.