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.