One of my favorite theological concepts to study is eschatology. Eschatology, or the study of “last things,” centers around what we as Christians believe will happen at the end of time, what happens to our souls and bodies after death, and what the afterlife might look like. While the questions that eschatology asks may seem nothing more than esoteric speculations for the future, I am fully convinced that our beliefs about eschatology deeply impact how we live our lives. As Karl Barth writes in Dogmatics in Outline eschatology is the most practical of theologies:
The Christian hope does not lead us away from this life: it is rather the uncovering of the truth in which God sees our life. It is the conquest of death, but not a flight into the Beyond. The reality of this life is involved. Eschatology, rightly understood, is the most practical thing that can be thought. In the eschaton the light falls from above into our life. We await this light.
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Ever since Rob Bell entered the realm of evangelical ideas with his best-selling book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Nooma, his influential series of short videos, his ideas have struck a nerve with the theologically conservative. Before his most recent work, Love Wins, hit the shelves, the conservative Christian blogo- and Twitter-sphere expressed vehement opinions of heresy. Others have come to Bell’s defense claiming that these views must be adopted by evangelicals.
Amidst this debate, the School of Theology sponsored a forum titled: Does Love Win? Heaven, Hell, and God’s Future. Featuring SOT faculty members Dr. Daniel Castelo, Dr. Nijay Gupta, and Dr. Mike Langford, the event applied some scholarly analysis to this raging debate.
A Little of Both
Straight away, the professors suggested that anyone in the well-attended crowd looking for some leverage in the debate would leave the debate empty handed. The presenters recognized that Bell’s book contains some excellent content as well as some mind-bending reasoning.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Langford proclaimed,
This book, like most books, says some really good things that make me nod and say ”right on!“ And I discover I have this strange urge to text or twitter or tweet or blog or whatever Rob Bell disciples do with their enthusiasm and spare time. And, in addition, the book also says some things that make me shake my head and say ‘ugh’ and want to vigorously cross sections out with my red Uniball marker, or at least draw huge question marks and say ”Where do you get that?”
The Kingdom of God on Earth
Despite their reservations at some of Bell’s curious statements, the speakers agreed that Bell brings a critical eschatological view to the table: the notion of God’s Kingdom on earth; here and now. Langford adds,
The best way to think about the Kingdom of God is to not think of it as a place, but rather think of it as a happening. The Kingdom of God happens. It happens here. It happens there. It happens whenever the Holy Spirit strikes. It happens whenever God’s will is done, whenever we love God with all that we are and love our neighbor as ourselves. And in those moments all creation is as it is meant to be— God is present, things match up to their Creator’s intention, we live up to the image in which we were created and become fully human. That is when the Kingdom of God happens, and Jesus said that he came to establish that Kingdom here and now.
An Individual or Collective Approach?
While praising Bell for portraying a missional God, Dr. Gupta found Love Wins suffering from a fatal flaw; it views the relationship between God and humanity in individualistic terms. He asserted,
From my reading of Bell’s book, the Church has no clear “proclamation” role in the future state of the world when this winning over is taking place. If God is going to win people over after death, it seems that Bell does not imagine the Church being the primary agent or instrument.
At the core of the debate is the question of who possesses salvation. Is salvation something that Christians own and dispense? Or, does God continue to hold the keys to salvation? Dr. Castelo stated,
Salvation is not about us; it is about the God of Israel on display in the life and work of Jesus.
Put differently, Bell’s book reminds us that when we focus intently on who is “in” and who is “out,” we individualize and take ownership of an item reserved for God alone.
Even if the attendees hoping to watch a theological boxing match found a gracious atmosphere, Drs. Castelo, Gupta, and Langford engaged with Bell’s ideas, giving him an honest reading. Love Wins offers some interesting topics for dialogue in the evangelical world, but it, like many other theories, contains its flaws.
For more on the subject, read Dr. Nijay Gupta’s book review of Love Wins.
Check out SPU iTunes U to download audio from the event.