Greg Gilbert | I have mixed feelings about putting this post up, mostly because I don’t think very much else needs to be said about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. If you haven’t seen Martin Bashir’s interview with him on MSNBC, you need to. It tells you everything you need to know about the book and Bell’s approach to these issues: He clearly has about six highly-crafted and exquisitely ambiguous things to say, and is doggedly determined to avoid—at all cost—giving straight answers to any questions about what he really believes. Bashir calls him out on it, and it’s a service to the church and the world that he does.
Several friends have already done a great job of reviewing the entire book. Both Tim Challies’s and Kevin DeYoung’s reviews are helpful pieces of work. So this isn’t going to be a full review. That said, I do think it might be useful to point out a couple of details that I haven’t seen talked about much, and that Bell simply got flat wrong. You know the old quip about lawyers? “Always confident, sometimes right.” That’s an almost perfect description of Bell in Love Wins; he writes with amazing confidence about certain facts (word meanings, Jewish backgrounds, historical issues), and yet if you just pick up a dictionary or google a quote, you realize that what he’s saying is simply wrong. Pointing these things out isn’t just a matter of “picking on” Bell, either. It’s a matter of doing our best to make sure little errors don’t become part of our atmosphere. Otherwise, before we know it we’ll have people in our churches saying, as if everybody knows it already, that Luther was a universalist and that the Bible doesn’t have a concept of “forever.” So in the interest of preventing that, here are just a handful of the things that Bell gets flat wrong in his book.
1) Bell rests quite a lot of weight on his understanding of the Greek word-group that has its root in aion, which English translations of the Bible often translate as “eternal.” Bell argues that aion actually has two meanings, one of which is “age,” as in a period of time, and the other of which is “a particular intensity of experience.” The upshot of this, he says, is that when we see the word aion in the Bible, it doesn’t mean “forever,” as if eternity were talking about “a 365-day year followed by a 365-day year followed by another 365-day year.” Instead, it’s referring to one of two things: either a limited period of time or to “a particularly intense experience.”
Now, Bell’s right to say that the word does sometimes mean those things (or something like them, anyway): aion does refer sometimes to “an age,” and John’s use of aionios in the phrase “eternal life” means a lot more than simply “life that never comes to an end.” (Though I don’t think it’s so much the intensity of the experience John’s talking about, but rather the “life of the age to come.” It’s objective, not subjective.) Anyway, the real trouble is in Bell’s insistence that the word-group rooted in aion can only carry those senses, and therefore that it can’t and doesn’t carry the sense of “forever, never-ending.” But in fact, words in that group do carry that sense in the New Testament, quite a lot in fact. Consider these:
- In 2 Cor 4:18, for example, aionios is specifically contrasted with the word proskairos, which means “temporary.” To speak in terms of the root, as Bell does, aion here means “permanent,” “eternal,” “never-ending,” as opposed to temporary, passing, and ending.
- In Matthew 1:33, the angel says that Jesus will reign on the throne of David “into the aions,” which he explains by saying that of his kingdom estai ouk telos, “there will be no end.”
- Same thing in Hebrews 1:8-12. God’s throne is “into the aions of the aions;” in other words, it will not ekleipo, “end, cease, stop, go out of being.”
- One more: In Romans 16:26, God is referred to as the “aioniou God.” What sense would that even make if the word can only mean what Bell says it means? “God of a period of time?” “A particularly intense God?” No, what it means is what it means in many places in Greek literature—“the never-ending, never-to-be-otherwise, non-temporary, eternal God,” the same yesterday, today, and forever.
There are other examples we could mention, but that should be enough to make the point. Aion and other aion-words don’t just mean “a limited period of time” or “intensity of experience.” Some of them very well mean “forever,” whether you understand that to mean something like time-without-end or without-time. Either way, they refer to something that never ceases, never comes to an end.
2) Bell’s mistake on the aion word-group has a direct bearing on how he interprets Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:46. Here’s what he says about that passage:
The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, as we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.
An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “ a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.
In a good number of English translations of the Bible, the phrase “aion of kolazo” gets translated as “eternal punishment,” which many read to mean “punishment forever,” as in never going to end.
But “forever” is not really a category the biblical writers used. . . . Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever.
Three quick points: First, I’ll say it again: yes “forever” is a category the biblical writers used. They understood it as the opposite of “temporary” and “ending.” Jesus’s kingdom is forever; God’s throne is forever; there is an age to come, and it will be an age without end.
Second, the text simply doesn’t say that it’s an aion of anything. It doesn’t use the noun aion, but rather the adjective aionios. It’s a kolazo that is aion-ish. In fact, that kolazo is just as aion-ish as the “things which are unseen” in 2 Corinthians 4:18. It’s the same word, meaning the opposite of temporary.
Third, on kolazo itself, it’s simply a basic exegetical mistake to look at the etymology of a word and assume you can derive its meaning from that. It may be true that the word originated in the horticultural world to mean “lopping off” or “pruning.” But the meaning of the word developed over time, as words tend to do. Eventually, it came simply to carry the connotation of the fairly violent action involved in “cutting short” or “lopping off,” and hence came to mean “to punish, to chastise.” Bell’s inclusion of the phrase “so it can flourish” certainly gets him where he wants to go in his conception of hell, but that idea simply doesn’t exist in the word kolazo itself, as it was normally used in Koine Greek. It meant punishment. Jesus is saying that the goats go to “non-temporary, non-ending, permanent chastisement,” just as the sheep go to “non-temporary, non-ending, permanent life.”
3) This isn’t a biblical point, but it’s worth noting how uncarefully Bell uses a particular quote from Martin Luther. Obviously his aim is to make it appear that belief in a post-mortem second-chance for salvation is a respected position in Christian history—held by the one who ignited the Protestant Reformation, no less! But like his treatment of aion and kolazo, Bell’s use of the quote doesn’t hold water. In fact, it actually casts Luther in precisely the opposite position from where he actually stands. Carl Trueman has commented pointedly on this mistake, but the gist is that when Luther considered a post-mortem “second-chance” for repentance and said, “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?,” he was talking about precisely that—ability. God could have done it that way. It’s not logically impossible in the way that making 2+2=5 is logically impossible. But the very next sentence of Luther’s letter, which Bell either ignores or is unfamiliar with, is “No one, however, can prove that he does do this,” by which he means that there is nothing in Scripture to lead us to think so. In fact, in his published writings, Luther made his position on that issue clear beyond doubt. In other words, to the question, “Is there a post-mortem second chance?” Luther’s answer is, No, neither Scripture nor reason gives us reason in the least to think so. Bell, however, simply ignores (or, again, is unaware of) everything else Luther said on the issue, and leaves his question about ability hanging out there as if it were the only thing Luther ever said on the topic, as if Luther were using Bell’s own technique of asking a loaded question with an obvious didactic purpose.
Well, there’s much else that could be said about the book, and others have ably said it. I hope these few selected details, though, will serve as a warning to you about the level of exegetical, historical, and theological care you’re going to find in it. As a pastor, you should probably read the book and be ready to answer questions about it (it’s selling at #3 on Amazon today, after all). But don’t go in thinking it’s a serious scholarly work, or a tightly-reasoned theological argument. Just open your Bible beside it, along with a basic lexicon and Google for quotes like the Luther one, and I think you’ll find that it’s a suprisingly easy book for you to answer.