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”.