Our Father (who art) in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven
Whether or not you consider yourself an evangelical Christian, you still might be aware of the fuss and buzz surrounding the new book by pastor Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The New York Times has written about it, it sparked blog posts from mainline pastors, including Bromleigh McCleneghan at the Christian Century, and Rob Bell was interviewed about the book by Martin Bashir on MSNBC. People from all over the Christian theological spectrum are commenting on the “hot topic” of salvation, the afterlife, and the picture(s) of God described by Bell.
I am actually a little fatigued by it all. Everywhere I turn I discover another online voice lobbing the label “heretic” or “saint” his way. Some try to frame him with more nuance and complexity, others are content to reduce him to a few lines from his latest book. There are even a special few, like Martin Bashir, who come off as aggressive dunderheads when pursuing Bell’s material.
Still, despite the fatigue I feel after each new article or blog post emerges, I find myself time and again reading yet another bio or commentary on Bell. Sometimes it’s because the “controversy” itself generates awkward situations. For example, serious twitter confusion followed the buzz of Bell’s new book. Many enlivened, self-appointed, tweet-prone doctrine-protectors lambasted Pastor Rob Bell’s teachins via twitter. Unfortunately, the twitter name “RobBell” belongs to a British tech consultant, not the pastor.
Other times I find myself reading about his book because I know so little about Rob Bell. Everyone seems to have an opinion about his work while few have any sense of his story. So I got sucked into a recent post promising to give a brief picture of Rob Bell as a college student. My interest quickly subsided after his new book was framed as “an instant spiritual classic” (really?), and I was about to click away from the article when I noticed a quote that reinvigorated my reading. Bell was sharing with his college friend, now religion reporter, that
“I begin with the world that we live in right now and the simple observation that we can choose heaven and hell right now…I see lots of hell around me all the time. We all do. From greed to abuse to rape to genocide to exploitation of people who are vulnerable, we see this around us all the time. And then I see people choosing peace and joy all the time, and experiencing extraordinary peace that transcends anything you can get your mind around. …”
I’ve not read Bell’s book. I can’t comment on its contents. But I can definitely affirm the thrust of these words. They reflect the words of the Lord’s prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven.” Whatever else heaven, hell, and the afterlife are all about, God’s Kingdom–sometimes called “the Kingdom of Heaven” (e.g., Matthew 11:11-12)–is also an earthly aspiration. Just as heaven can be here and now, if only in glimpses and tastes, so too hell can be experienced in its desctructive, depleting force in our present day lives.
The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that heaven should not be reduced to a speculative location for an afterlife, locked up beyond the clouds. Rather, heaven extends into this world, into this life, through the Spirit of Christ. Even so, this life is not all heavenly bliss either. Hell is lurking in the pain, poverty, torment, cruelty, and violence that so often mark our fragile lives. Whatever else Rob Bell has to say in his book, he is surely right that heaven and hell are earthly realities.
The Lord’s Prayer echoes in the words of pastor Bell drawing us into this life anew, reconfiguring the life we are leading now; a life enriched in the hope of God’s Kingdom coming, God’s Will unfolding in us, through us, and with us. The Lord’s Prayer brings our attention to the hell that surrounds us and our fellows, it sensitizes us to the way God’s kingdom breaks into our lives with each morsel of food we offer the hungry, with each loving hand we offer the hurting, and with each attempt we make to live more justly.
By God’s Spirit, may the Lord’s Prayer remake us as we pray its words, so that our eyes can see and our ears can hear the realities of heaven and hell which beckon us on earth.
“The fate of every person who ever lived” is a subtitle designed to sell. But the fate of every person each of us encounters, however insignificant that encounter may seem, is still in some important way bound up in God’s love winning us over and making us new. And each of those encounters is ripe for heaven to come on earth.