Say it ain’t so: review of Love Wins pt. 2

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Until this week, I often wondered what it was like for White Sox fans to watch the 1919 World Series and witness their team lose it all to the Reds. Mainly, I can only imagine because I am a Cubs fan and have never seen my team make the World Series. But, to see their team lose… then to be faced with the unthinkable. They took a dive. They would forever be known as the Chicago Black Sox. What a point of shame for the hapless fans! I am certain that it was worse than watching the Mighty Casey strike out in Mudville. I say “until this week” because the more I read Love Wins, the more certain I am that Rob Bell wears black socks (sox) while writing. At first, I began reading and thinking that maybe I misunderstood, as I am sure that the Black Sox fans hoped as they read the headlines of scandal and bribery. Or perhaps, he was just mistaken in his interpretation. I am over that now. I am an amateur Bible scholar and can see his errors plain as day. The only answer that makes sense is that Bell set out to find what he was looking for and ignored everything that didn’t support his position. He had to have taken a dive. There are those who still claim that Shoeless Joe Jackson played his hardest, despite taking the bribe. In the same way, I suspect that there will be Bell fans who will insist that the book is not an intentional dive or is quality theology. I can see no other explanation…which makes me feel like a Black Sox fan… and for a north sider, that’s pretty crummy! For more on that, check out part 1 of my review.
I am 67% of the way through the book, according to the kindle progress meter, and I realize that short of writing a response book, I could not possibly address all of the problems in the hermeneutics (hermeneutics is the way we find the meaning of Bible texts). As a result, it will be necessary to only address a small sliver of the book. Please note: This is by no means a definitive collection of interpretive errors. I could write quite a bit on passages that were mistreated, parables that were interpreted entirely outside of the clear intent of the text and passages simply taken out of context. The only way to make sense of the mess that is the interpretive approach taken in this book is that it is a willful effort to find a desired message that simply isn’t there. Also, this is a bit technical and chunky. Bell reads smoother and cooler. Other than the fact that I am neither smooth nor cool, this is because I am explaining why what he wrote in a very simple, smooth and cool way is just wrong.
I have chosen Bell’s read of Matthew 25:46 to illustrate my point regarding the problems in the book. In the text, Jesus is telling the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep are followers that go to heaven and the goats are followers destined for “eternal punishment.” I use the phrase “eternal punishment,” because that is the most common interpretation in English. In fact, that is the ONLY way that this verse is translated in every major translation. Well, I’ll take that back. KJV renders it “everlasting punishment.” The Message has it as: “eternal doom.” The CEV says, “punished forever.” The Young’s literal translation is a little weird with “punishment age-during.” The Worldwide English Translation says, “punished for ever.” (It’s fun to think of the kid from sandlot saying that… “For-Ev-Er”) Anyway, perhaps you get the point. Every big translation pushes the idea of punishment that doesn’t end. Please note that Bell says: “most translations read “eternal punishment.” By this, I assume he means “all of them, but saying otherwise hurts my argument.” If the common read is incorrect, thousands of Bible scholars have to have willfully misinterpreted the text. They have to have cared about the doctrine of eternal damnation enough to risk bringing it on themselves by intentionally misinterpreting these verses. I don’t even think Comiskey could have talked them into that! (or the devil or both… I think they are the same guy anyway)
Bell, on the other hand, reads the text a little different. He uses these two words as the center of his argument for a temporary hell, from which every man will be restored to heaven eventually – after suffering makes their hearts brand new and open to God’s love. He opens his discussion by making a claim that the Old Testament Jews had no concept of hell and really didn’t have a concept of eternity. This is essentially true, with some notable problems, but rather than get bogged (blogged) down in the weeds, we will forge ahead. Bell then asserts that because the Jews didn’t consider use the concept of “forever,” Jesus is not speaking of forever in the sense that we think of it. So, the word translated by every Bible translator to mean “forever” or “eternity” actually means for an age or a period of time. This is the singular form of the word aiōníou. Now, the plural version of the word really does always mean forever. It basically means “ages upon ages.” The singular version usually refers to forever. It is translated almost exclusively as forever or some variant in the New Testament. It is used in the same way in other spots to refer to the unending nature of God’s covenants or to refer the “eternal God.” These become awkward passages if the word means for a long time. So, the “no forever” thing doesn’t hold water. It further doesn’t hold water because 60ish years before Jesus taught this parable, two rabbis by the names of Hillel and Shammai, had arguments about the nature of hell. These two guys are important because Jesus frequently makes comment on their teachings when he teaches. Bell is familiar with them because he refers to them in his own teachings and exegesis of Christ’s teachings. (Exegesis is the explanation of a passage to a modern audience.) Hillel and Shammai decided that there were three groups of people in eternity: The righteous, who would go to heaven; the moderately bad, who would suffer for a time in hell only to be destroyed and have their ashes spread in heaven for the righteous to tread upon; and the really bad, who would be sent to suffer in Gehenna for eternity. If the Jews lacked a concept of eternity, how on earth did these rabbis identify a temporary punishment as being in contrast to an everlasting punishment? Fact of the matter is that early Jews may have lacked the idea, but the Greeks didn’t. The Greeks had conquered the world under Alexander the Great and had brought their language and ideas with them nearly 400 years before Jesus taught this. The Jews learned about eternity during the intertestamental period (that time between Malachi and Matthew). Arguing that New Testament Jews had no idea of forever in regards to the New Testament is roughly akin to arguing that Americans don’t know what TV is because we didn’t know about it when the constitution was written. Bell knows this stuff. If he doesn’t, he could have researched it pretty easily. I nailed it down in a couple of hours of research…. And I am not writing a book!
Now, Bell also comments on the word translated “punishment.” This word, he argues, is a word that is used in agriculture. It really means pruning. Thus, the proper read of Matthew 25:46 is a time of pruning. Now, Bell’s interpretation is based on the etymological root of the word, which is pruning. However, 1 John uses it to mean “punishment”. The early church fathers use the word to refer to punishment, particularly the sentences carried out on the martyrs. The Greek philosophers use it to refer to punishment. The problem with using the etymological root is that the word evolved. It took on new meanings. Think of this in terms of the word “gay,” which 100 years ago meant happy. “Cool” meant cold and, “bad” meant bad 30 years ago. Words change. The first rule of interpreting a word in Greek is to look at the common usage. It is not to look directly at the etymology. Again, Bell knows this stuff.
Another major rule is context. Greek is an inflected language, this is a complicated way of saying that meanings in words can change based on the context. So, we look at the context. Check out verse 41. Jesus announces the first condemnation of the goats. He sends them to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Now, this is five verses earlier. Five. 5. It’s in the same story for Pete’s sake! To read the text in the same way that Bell is reading it involves thinking that PERHAPS the devil and his angels will be cast into a temporary time of punishment, involving fire, that will result in their restoration. Huh. That doesn’t sound much like what Jesus is teaching or would teach. Plus, it falls at odds with Revelation and a few other spots in the Bible. He’s throwing the game. How could he not look at the punishment mentioned 5 verses earlier for a clue?
I know this is a little long, but there’s just one last thing (in my best Peter Falk). Bell makes a big deal of the fact that eternity is not a Jewish concept and that it is inappropriate to apply non-Jewish concepts to interpretation of Jesus’ words. I have already pointed to some flaws in this. A bigger problem is that there is no Jewish concept of a temporary hell that fixes the hearts of evil people in order to restore them later. The idea doesn’t first emerge until the 3rd century. That’s when it became part of a synthesis of Christianity and Plato. Bell interprets a hugely un-Jewish meaning in the passage. Ultimately, I would argue that this is because he is finding what he is looking for, and not what is actually there. He is throwing the big game.
Part 3 will look more at this idea…. Whenever I get around to it.

Say it ain’t so: review of Love Wins pt. 1

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Rob Bell is one of my favorite authors. I have always enjoyed his fresh, unique look at various spiritual concepts. Further, I will admit that I freely steal from his teaching in my own preaching and teaching. I own most of his books, have been listening to him preach via podcast for years and have even met him. The man is a bit of a Rock Star to me. I may need to get a life. His recent book,Love Wins, has been a disappointment to me, to say the least. Reading Love Winshas been like discovering that Miles Davis recorded some country albums at the prime of his career. For me, this is a telling moment. I want to buy the idea that he is right and that the 2 millennia of scholars who stand on the other side of the issue are wrong. I want to believe that Miles Davis recording Achey Breaky Heart isn’t a crime against nature. The reality is that the Bible has to have ultimate say in matters of true and not true. The coolness of the messenger isn’t a reasonable argument in favor of the validity of theological truth.

I am only a few chapters into Love Wins and had not intended to do any writing before I finished. However, I am stuck with the constraints of my life and limited memory. I really have to write as I go because I have no idea when I will finish the book due to a busy seminary schedule, new fatherhood, youth ministry, my full time chaplaincy and fitting in 6 hours of TV a day. Plus, if I write everything into one essay… it’ll be 35 pages long, and unlike with a conversation where I am right there, you could just stop reading this when I begin to drone.

So I am going to address this book in bits. Plus, I will write a couple of blogs on the interesting phenomena I am noticing around the whole Miles Davis country album fiasco…. Er…. Rob Bell, Love Wins thing. I will begin with my general observations about the aim of the book as it is set out in the introduction chapter. According to the introduction, Bell is struggling with matters that, as a pastor, I can sympathize with. I have had the “hell conversation” and the “sexual abuse conversation” and the “I hate God” conversation with lots of people. It’s just not easy. Every pastor in the world bears the weight of the tensions inherent in the meetings of real life and spiritual ideals when dealing with real people. Bell’s response is to look for an “out” for God because dealing with the “some people are sent to hell by God” issue seems unfair and inappropriate to him.

The problem is that dealing with the tension is part of the calling. You cannot be the smartest, coolest guy in the room all the time. Sometimes the answer has to be: “I don’t know” or “the Bible’s answer may be one you don’t like.” You cannot come at the Bible trying to find a specific escape from these conundrums. In doing so, you end up betraying your calling. Pastors are not called to give all the answers or provide the escape for every difficult situation or even apologize for God. We don’t get to do those things. We are called to be God’s representatives and to shepherd his people. Prophets say what they are told to say. I see a lot of that in the portions of the book I have read thus far. I see, “I don’t like this doctrine. God must meet my ethical standards. I’ll find a way out for Him.” In providing God escapes, we rob God of his dangerous side. We change Aslan from a mighty lion into a fierce tabby. The God that isn’t dangerous isn’t to be feared. We cannot simply dismiss the theology of hell because we don’t like that God isn’t fair or because we don’t like his punishments.
I would argue that the desire to remove the punishment from the hand of God and make him nice is a symptom of removing the horribleness of sin. Bell speaks of sin, but it isn’t a matter of rebelling against God. It’s a matter of spreading brokenness in the world. Bell poses the question: Is ignoring God enough to merit eternal punishment? I would be forced to respond: Who are we to demand God answer our questions on these matters? Does the pot have the right to question the potter demanding: “why have you formed me this way?” Working with drug addicts and criminals, I have never heard one of them admit that the jail time they have coming was justified and wonderful. We are the criminals before God. We deserve hell. I deserve hell. The more I grapple with my sin the more clear it is that I have some bad stuff coming my way. Bad stuff I deserve. Any man that takes stock of his sin before a truly Holy God cannot deny the justice of the punishment. Certainly we would never wish it on others. But we cannot live in their heads and see their sinfulness. When I approach a Holy God, my own sin rises to accuse me. Surely I would never say another deserves eternal punishment, but I know I do. My sin is great and my God’s holiness is greater. This is the problem with the opening set of questions in Bell’s book. It frames questions in terms of how God ought to be based on the idea that our sins really aren’t that bad or that he ought to meet our standards of justice. It isn’t stated outright, but it is in the background. Bell’s questions betray a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of sin. How could a loving God send anyone to hell? How could God punish you forever because you don’t believe right? Perhaps a better question would be: How could God ignore my evil and not destroy me now? How could God send his Son to be tortured and crucified for a filthy animal like me? How come I am not going to hell, sent there by a clean, holy and entirely justified God?

The gospel message is offensive. God is not safe. He is not tame, but He is good. Making God safe is not the answer to difficult questions. The difficult questions are part of how God is dangerous. Bell misses that by taking the edges off to keep people from stumbling over the hard parts or sticking themselves in the eye with anything pointy. I suspect Jesus would rather we poke our eyes out on the point parts than fall into the hands of God without Jesus to save us.