As I continue the journey through Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, I’d like to examine what I consider to be the book’s greatest weakness. While there is a lot to like about the book, and I hope to get to that later this week, there are several points where Bell’s scholarship is suspect. Today I want to look at his treatment of the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, specifically focusing, as he does, on verse 46.

Bell makes the following exegetical claim:

The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience.

This statement is all kinds of messed up and misleading. First, let’s examine the grammar. Bell claims that the goats are sent to “an aion of kolazo“, implying that aion is used as a noun in this passage. It is not. The Greek phrase is κολασιν αιωνιον, and aion[ion] is an adjective. The -ion ending indicates that this is used adjectivally and tells us some other, less relevant information. It is not, therefore, “an aion of kolazo“, it is aionic kolazo, so to speak.

Now let’s look at how Bell defines the word aion. He rightly says it has several meanings. The Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon (which, to my knowledge, is the standard Greek Lexicon of New Testament scholarship) defines αιων this way:

I. lifetime, life

A. age, generation, posterity
B. one’s life, destiny, lot

II. long space of time, age, for ever

A. space of time clearly marked out, epoch

Nowhere in this entry do we find Bell’s alternative definition, “intensity of experience”. Unfortunately, Bell does not cite where he found this meaning, so in the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that he is wrong on this. The Greek word αιων simply does not mean “intensity of experience.”

Another point that Bell fails to mention is that, in Matthew 25:46, the phrase κολασιν αιωνιον is contrasted with the phrase ζωην αιωνιον. So, whatever αιωνιον means in the first instance, it must also mean in the second. If the punishment is only for an age, then the life must also only be for an age. If one is temporary, then so is the other.

So, the good news Bell hoped to be proclaiming turns out to be really, really bad news. What happens when that zoe is over? Are we up for judgment again? Do we disappear into the divine, subsumed by his goodness? Does God start over? Is anything eternal?

Or maybe αιωνιον means what the Bible translators say it means. Maybe Rob Bell doesn’t know Greek as well as the people chosen by the various Committees on Bible Translation, who have studied this ancient language their entire adult lives. Maybe, just maybe, “eternal” was exactly the word Jesus had in mind when he first told this story.

Rob Bell has tried to sow seeds of doubt regarding heaven and hell using poor exegesis and an incorrect understanding of a particular Greek word. His work on the Matthew 25 passage is misleading, at best. There is a lot more that could be said here, but the point has been made: αιωνιον, in Matthew 25:46, refers to time, and because of its adjectival form, the most compelling translation is “eternal”.

When reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, it’s important to keep two things in mind: Who the book is for, and who the book is against. Ironically enough, Love Wins is an often angry diatribe against a very particular group of people (fundamentalists) for the sake of another very particular group of people (skeptics). If you don’t catch this, you’ll miss the point of Bell’s book altogether.

Love Wins was written with the intention of destroying a popular view of the afterlife. Bell alludes to this indirectly on page 200, where he writes, in the Acknowledgements, “[Thanks to] Zach Lind for saying ‘wrecking ball’ under his breath several times in a row.” The book, then, is a wrecking ball against a peculiar understanding of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. What, exactly, is that understanding? Let’s sketch the main points.

Heaven is Somewhere Else

Heaven is where you go when you die if you prayed the sinner’s prayer in this life and put your faith in Jesus Christ. It is an entirely spiritual place, and is basically a worship service that goes on forever. It is completely discontinuous with life on earth, which will be entirely destroyed anyhow, so life on earth doesn’t have much significance, other than putting your faith in Jesus.

Hell is Somewhere Else

As with heaven, hell exists somewhere else. Metaphorically speaking, heaven is up and hell is down. Hell is a spiritual nightmare (or possibly a physical nightmare). Eternal torment goes on and on forever amidst the raging fires.

It’s All About Eternity

All that really matters in this life–your life now–is what it means for your eternal destiny. The only thing that has any true, lasting significance is whether you surrendered your life to Jesus in faithful obedience.

God is Angry With You

Your sin makes God angry. He is waiting to pour out his divine wrath upon you as the just penalty for your sins. Fortunately, Jesus has stepped between you and God; he took the full brunt of the wrath of God against the sins of humanity on the cross. Those who place their faith in Jesus Christ will receive God’s love, but those who reject Jesus Christ (or have never heard of him) will bear God’s wrath forever in hell.

Turn or Burn

Repent of your sins, renounce your ungodly ways, and turn to Jesus; or else face the consequences of burning in eternal hellfire. It’s really that simple.

The Gospel is Your “Get Out of Hell Free” Card

Our primary motivation to trust in Jesus is that he saves us from hell. “If you were to die tonight, are you 100% certain you would go to heaven?” That’s the question that must be asked of unbelievers. While the forgiveness of sins is important, it is our escape from hell that is the gospel’s greatest benefit to us.

God has Predestined a Select Few for Heaven and Everybody Else Goes to Hell

In his sovereignty, and for his glory, God has predestined a certain number of people–the Elect–to receive salvation. Conversely, he has predestined everyone else to receive condemnation. The Elect will enjoy eternal communion with God in heaven, but the rest will suffer eternal torment in hell.

Those Who Have Never Heard of Jesus will Spend Eternity in Hell

The Bible teaches that, besides Jesus, “there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved.” Conscious, responsive faith to the gospel message is the only means of salvation available to humans. We are all, from birth, under the wrath and judgment of God as the due penalty for our sins, and he has graciously offered one way, one truth, and one life–Jesus Christ, his son. Nobody can come to the Father except through him.

These eight main points comprise the basic worldview which Rob Bell is seeking to destroy in Love Wins. This is the eschatological building against which Love Wins is the “wrecking ball”. You should know this going in.

I’ve tried to present the views as accurately as possible, though I can’t say that Bell has been as gracious in his book. He often creates a strawman based on caricature beliefs of extreme fundamentalist Christians, and then proceeds to swing his “wrecking ball” at the strawman. While it’s rhetorically effective, I found it rather disingenuous and, in the end, detracted from the force of his argument.

I’ll continue to post more on Love Wins this week. Some of it I like, some of it I don’t, and I’ll try to offer some reasonable counterarguments where I disagree with Bell. In the meantime, if you want to know the love that Bell is referring to (though he doesn’t talk about it like this), check out this post, and this one, too.

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