Book review: Erasing Hell

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20110818-070048.jpgWith all of the hoopla and arguing associated it the Rob Bell book, I was surprised at the nearly total lack of fanfare associated with the release of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We Made Up. Having devoted a four part series to Love Wins, I felt it only appropriate to review Chan’s offering. So when I came across it at Sam’s Club, I snapped it up. Last night I read the first several chapters, which has forced me to the conclusion that, like Bell’s book, I will need to take this one on in small bites in order to do it justice.

I will say out of the gate that neither book is particularly ground breaking. Bell’s material could have been copied from the ancient Universalist Origin’s work 1900 years ago and Chan’s book reflects a far more conservative theological bent. The two clearly take polar opposite positions on the matter of form out of the gate. Further, their approaches are vastly different. Bell is far more rhetorical and relies more on accusation and speculation to drive his points, whereas Chan works largely in the Biblical texts and their cultural contexts. Essentially, Bell comes across with a more post-modern mysterious set of arguments, while Chan presents a series of propositions based on the Biblical evidence.

My impression from the first few chapters is that Chan’s work is clearer in it’s presentation of information. Chan also is CLEARLY responding to Bell’s work. He works his way through and addresses the various points Bell makes scripturally and rhetorically. His style is light and he addresses the topic with a sober seriousness that is appropriate to any theological discussion of hell. He spends considerable time making the argument that he does not want hell to exist and that he hopes it doesn’t. However, he points out if the scriptures are true then it doesn’t matter what he wants. Wanting something to be true doesn’t dictate its truth. Chan acknowledges his sorrow over the existence of hell.

The opening chapter addresses the matter of whether or not everyone goes to heaven. It also offers a very simple classification of the various positions regarding universal salvation. Chan doesn’t do so in a vitriolic or accusatory manner, rather he simply presents the facts. In doing so, I’d argue that he clearly presents the position from Love Wins amongst the various Universalist camps. Again, not in an accusatory manner, as has marked much of the discussion on the matter. He then moves on to address the various scripture passages that are typically used to defend the universal salvation position, demonstrating repeatedly that proper exegesis eliminates all support for the position. In the process, he also addresses Bell’s “Does God always get what He wants?” discussion, again demonstrating that proper interpretation removes all doubt as to the validity of the argument. He closes his chapter questions regarding passages that offer the hope of post-mortem salvation.

The most refreshing aspect of Chan’s treatment of the scriptures as it relates to the question of universal salvation is his dogged insistence on referring to the passages in question in their full, original context. He clearly demonstrates that every major scripture used to support the universal salvation position depends on being taken out of context of the book where it appears. Any student of Biblical interpretation can rattle of the 3 rules for interpreting a text:

1. Context
2. Context
3. Context

Chan uses this basic rule time and again to drive home the point that the text’s original context demonstrates its meaning most effectively.

He continues this trend in the following chapter by examining the cultural context in which the New Testament was written. Here, he is doing to work of exegesis on the matter of the New Testament’s treatment of hell by showing what first century Jews believed about hell. Here again, Cahn is clearly addressing one of Bell’s arguments that first century Jews didn’t believe in eternity and had limited acknowledgement of hell. Chan demolishes Bell’s position by simply quoting passage after passage from intertestamental Jewish authors and first century Jewish and Christian authors demonstrating clear belief in the existence of hell. Perhaps the thing that blew me away most profoundly was Chan’s demonstration that Gehenna, which is often argued to refer to a garbage dump in the Hebron Valley by Jerusalem and is the word used for hell by Christ, doesn’t in any way refer to a garbage dump in the Hebron Valley. This is important, because Bell argues using this word to support his argument that Christ spoke of the dump, rather than hell. I was a little surprised by this, because this is a popular teaching. However, this isn’t supported by any early documents and no archeology find supports it (and there would be archeological evidence of a city dump). In fact, the first reference to a garbage dump in association with Gehenna wasn’t made until 1200, when a rabbi in Europe compared Gehenna to a garbage dump. Over the centuries that reference morphed into this odd little tidbit. As a guy who read and studied Love Wins, it’s hard to miss the fact that Bell’s argument relied heavily on a lack of cultural context for hell in the first century. Chan eviscerates the position, again doing so in a very matter of fact way, without vitriol and using the basic tools of sound exegesis.

I have not finished the book, but will continue to post as I read. Thus far, I have not found any problems with the text. There is nothing I can critique as far as his handling of the Biblical texts, though there is a leaning toward annihilationalism. Though, he has only referred to it thus far as it relates to various texts. If the early chapters are any indicator, this is a book worth reading and considering.

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Faith and reason comic: Love wins… What loses?

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This is my second attempt at a comic. Please let me know what you think. Before you criticize my position on Bell’s book, please take the time to read the first four installments of my review. I’ll write the last one eventually. Most of what stalled me out was the sort of thing I highlight in this comic. Please let me know what you think.

Interlude: Sola Scriptura

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One of my favorite memories from my adolescent years is of arguing with my dad. Seems odd, right? I became a Christian when I was in Jr. High School and was excited to learn. One of the first Christian books I read was Luther’s Catechism. I read it because I wanted to know everything about God that I could possibly learn. I read and studied and absorbed. My father blessed me tremendously by pushing me to think about what I believed. His challenges to my thinking forced me to read the scriptures as a meter stick for my beliefs. Since then I have tried to practice this discipline in relation to my faith. When I read seminary texts, I try to check the scriptures to determine if the Bible supports the claims being made. When I read books from popular theologians, I read the Bible to determine the veracity of the claims. When I listen to sermons, I work to do the same thing. Measure, test and discern using the scriptures as the source for ultimate truth. Debating Bible with my father gave me this gift. At times, clever philosophies and theologies have come along only to be measured against the Word and judged accordingly. Let there be no doubt, at times I wanted them to be true, while at other times, I wanted to find them false. But my desires must always be subordinate to the will and truth of the God I serve. Paul pointed to the Berean church in Acts 17:10-12, referring to it as particularly noble because they tested everything he taught against the scriptures. Paul was happy that they questioned him and checked his teachings against the scriptures. Paul lived in a time rife with deceivers and false teachers, not unlike what we face today. In the wake of his ministry, Paul constantly battled false teachings, prompting him to say amazingly stern things to the effect of: if anyone teaches any gospel other than the one I taught, let them be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-9) What is taught in the church matters. We must measure and test. I don’t have time to write the next installment of my love wins review. I will probably write it next week. However, I wanted to take a moment to comment on my observations of the discourse thus far. After all, the debate ought to be part of how we measure and test. That having been said, I have been reading blogs and articles, listening to podcasts and having conversations. The bluster, incredulity, name calling and condemnation has been more distasteful than anything else. Now, I have read a few great articles and discussions from a variety of sources. I have also read some dump and mindless articles. One of the more discouraging trends that I have encountered time and again is scant discussion of the scriptures and facts. I suspect this is a product of the appalling degree of Biblical and theological illiteracy in the church. We have so much freedom and so many available resources that they have lost all value. In the end, if we are going to discuss the matter, the only thing of importance is the scriptures. Period. Sure, it is difficult to think that people may go to hell. Its a sad possibility, but that isn’t enough to make the scripture supporting the existence of hell null and void. Only God can decide the truth of the existence of eternal punishment or salvation by faith in Christ. God gives us the truth in the scriptures and only they can act as the arbiters of truth. If we are to debate, let us do so with the scriptures. This makes it tough because it’s easy to love Rob Bell. We want to defend Bell because we love him. Others want to attack him because they loathe him. It doesn’t matter either way. We can only look to the scriptures for truth. Love him or hate him, measure the truth of all teachings against the word of God. I rather like Bell, but I will not choose any teaching over the plain message the scriptures. Don’t argue about the other guy’s argumentation style, argue their scriptures. Nothing else matters. The most important lesson I learned from arguing with my dad is that the best way to learn is to study and read in pursuit of the truth. If this debate has caught your attention and gotten your blood boiling… Read the scriptures and study. Then the goal ceases to be defeating the evil heretic or the stiff necked evangelical and becomes about learning who our God is so that we can take a closer walk with him.

Say it ain’t so: Review of Love Wins pt. 4

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This morning I drove Abbey to our Pastor’s home, where his awaiting wife took her for the day. This was her first day away from us. I was so preoccupied by the thought of it that I took a wrong turn. Then, I took another wrong turn. When I finally came to my senses, I was not where I wanted to go. In fact, I was a good bit turned around and wasn’t sure exactly where I was. I thought through my options at this point. I considered pushing on in the hopes of arriving at my destination by figuring out where I was going on the fly. I hate turning back. It feels like I am admitting defeat. Just as long as I keep moving and pushing forward, it’ll all be ok. Then, I looked at the gas gauge of my 12-mile-to-the-gallon-XTerra and decided that I would be better off not driving all over creation trying to find the way to my destination via the undiscovered path (that probably didn’t exist). Please note: As a man, I feel that all roads should lead me to where I am going without any need to ask for directions. Reality doesn’t usually agree with me. Some roads are just the wrong way to go. A similar question raised amongst skeptics today is that of the many roads to the same God. “Can’t I follow any religion and have it lead to God?” This seems to fly in the face of the really exclusive statements made by Christ on the matter. In my most charitable reading of the “There Are Rocks Everywhere” chapter of the book, this is the question being addressed. In the chapter, Bell indicates that Christ is the only way to salvation, but that He never indicates the mechanism by which this happens. Thus, the door is open to all cultures and backgrounds to be saved through Christ without having actually believed in Jesus himself. For example: by believing in Islam, they really believe in Christ. It’s just that he’s Jesus with a Mohammed mask.

Please note that I say this is my most charitable reading of the chapter because I find myself trying to interpret specifically what the heck it’s trying to say. It’s clear that the general sense is that this is the right direction in reading Bell’s words on this matter. The question I end up asking is whether he is talking about how every religion leads to Christ or something screwier. My less generous reads include: (1) Every faith leads to the creative force we experience as Jesus. (To be fair, this is my very least charitable reading and though I can see it, I have trouble buying that this is the right read.) (2) Christ saves everyone, so what then matters is what is going on with their hearts and how they live their lives. (3) A mashed up version of 1 and 2. It is difficult to figure out what he is saying primarily because he is extremely vague. He alludes to ideas in flowery language without saying what on earth he is saying. On a charitable day, I would suggest that this is the result of the fact that the material is controversial and he desires for people to read the book and look for the truth in the statements without labels. On a less charitable day, I would probably argue that it is because the material is so antithetical to the message of Biblical Christianity that to say it overtly would result in even his most ardent supporters balking. I will look at the overall theology of the book in a later post. Reading #2 is the one I think fits the best to the overall theology presented. Deep down, I think that that this is the read that he intended, primarily because it fits his understanding of hell/heaven well and allows for a cohesive train of thought in the text. But, I digress.

Because I plan on writing a response/review for this idea, it is necessary to pick a road and press on. I have chosen to address the most charitable reading I can manage. Please note, that this applies to all of my guesses as to what he means. The chapter title points to the pivitol text cited in the argument. Bell looks at Paul’s use of the rock from which water sprang in the desert in the book of Exodus. The passages to which he is referring can be found in Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10, respectively. Paul’s statement about the rock is that it was Christ. He speaks of baptism and clouds and the crossing of the red sea. Bell reads the text to mean that the Israelites in the desert literally experienced Christ in that rock. He jumps off from there to indicate that if Paul could find Christ in the rock, he could find him anywhere. In this, he implies that all sorts of people find Jesus in their own cultures. Note I say, “implies” because he is vague in doing so. Before chasing after that, it is worth addressing the matter of Jesus as the rock. In Biblical interpretation, there is something called “typology.” A typology is something that happens in the Old Testament that points forward to Christ. Some notable examples would be the account of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son (God sacrifices his son, Jesus) or the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and placing the blood on doors to protect the Jews from death (like how Jesus is the Lamb of God and his blood protects us from death) or the sacrifices in the tabernacle (point toward Christ’s atoning sacrifice). The word typology comes from a Greek word used in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and in Romans 5. The word is “τύπος”. It essentially means a likeness. Its root means: an imprint, like an impression made by a stamp. Paul uses it to indicate that something that happened in the past can teach us about Jesus. In Romans 5, he says that Adam is a τύπος (type) of Christ, meaning he is a likeness. Paul then compares Adam to Christ in order to make the point at redemption is more powerful than sin. Is he indicating that Adam was Christ? Certainly not. In 1 Corinthians 10:6, Paul speaks of the τύπος in a way that indicates that the Christians are to look to the example of the Jews and learn from it. They are both typologies. Bell’s read requires that we recognize the rock in the desert as an experience of Christ, the crossing of the red sea as a baptism and the entire desert experience as a weird Jesus salvation moment for the Jews. The problem is that it is just terrible interpretation. One must ignore the point Paul is making about learning from the τύπος of the Jews in order to find a path to God through things that are Jesus, but aren’t Jesus.

Bell does similar gymnastics with passages about other sheep and the great mystery of Christ. The traditional read on these passages is that Christ is speaking of the Gentiles being included in salvation through Him. Bell reads these passages to mean that He is speaking of those who believe other stuff being saved through Him. First, to understand a christocentric universalism (this means: “whatever you believe… it’s Jesus”) in these passages involves taking them totally out of context. Second, there is no overt Biblical support for the idea that every religion leads to Jesus.

Here again, I won’t address every passage misinterpreted and mishandled to force the universalist every-religion-leads-to-God-but-its-not-universalism-for-some-reason idea into the texts. There are bigger issues to address. First, how on earth is this in the book without it being the number one issue raised by critics? Is hell really that much more fun to talk about? Second, could Bell be right on this one? I am gonna say that he probably isn’t for several reasons. Christ makes numerous statements of exclusivity, which Bell speaks of, but indicates that there is an inclusively in the world (via the other sheep passage) that allows for Buddhists to be saved in this way. The only cited scripture that seems to used to support this position is the mistreated passages that I just mentioned. The problem is that Bell reads the meanings he wants into the passages, rather than considering what the Biblical writers intended. I suggest that if you read the book, take the time to read the scriptures Bell cites and see what they say in context. Frequently Bell uses one or two words from a passage to make a point, but neglects context. The problem with this is that if the scriptures directly taught anything like what Bell is suggesting, there would be more meat to the scriptural citations. As is, we are forced to bend and turn down every side-street trying to find the path to a destination that cannot be reached straight away by the roads presented in the scriptures. I can cut across retirees’ lawns and try to jump over the river on the way to the babysitter’s house, but it isn’t a legitimate path. Neither is this a legitimately established doctrine by scriptural standards.

There is a bigger problem with this approach. Well, another problem. I guess its hard to point to a bigger problem than: the Bible doesn’t support it. The problem is that of the general movement of scripture urging the spread of the Gospel. If Paul believed that every religion saved people and that was what he meant when he wrote the epistles, why did he waste his life witnessing? Why was he tortured over the exclusive claim of Christ? Even worse, if a person who believed in Zeus was saved by having the right heart and actions, did them rejecting the actual Jesus negate their salvation in Zeus because they were coming to Him through Zeus, but Paul screwed it up for them by introducing them to the actual Jesus? Paul’s actions only make sense if he believed that there was an eternal urgency that necessitated the frantic spread of the Gospel he endeavored upon. In fact, does this mean that Peter was wrong by indicating in Acts 4:12 that there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved? Or maybe Peter wasn’t in on the same theology that Paul was. But, that doesn’t work because Paul indicates that if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord you are saved (Romans 10:9). Well Maybe Jesus knew this stuff and didn’t tell the disciples. Of course, Jesus says in John 3:18 that “Whoever believes in God is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (The funny thing about that verse is that Bell cites verse 17…. The one right before it… to demonstrate that Jesus came to save, so hell isn’t a part of the equation.) Probably Jesus wasn’t  in on the big theological secret either. Or maybe Rob Bell is importing something into the scriptures that isn’t there.

Ultimately, I can drive forever in the wrong direction and never get to the babysitter’s house… or I can find the one narrow road that gets me where I am going.

I had no time to properly address every misuse of scripture in this text. If you have issue with my approach or questions shoot me an email: youthguyerik@gmail.com

Say it ain’t so: Review of Love Wins pt. 3

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I have had a great 12-year stretch working with adolescents. During that time, I have found myself responding time and again to one of the great choruses of the adolescent subculture: “lots of people are saying…” Please note that various covers of this age-old tune have come out. These include: “everybody thinks so,” “everybody knows,” etc. What I have discovered in the last 12 years is that scratching below the surface will invariably result in “everybody” or “lots of people” turning out to be “the three guys I gossip with.” The strength of the argument is that it presents a sense of large and unified opinion backing the spurious statement being made, thus solidifying it as fact. This type of argument is called “argumentum ad populum.” It is a logical fallacy and is not a solid basis for a line of reasoning. We might see this in the statement: “Justin Bieber sells lots of records; therefore, he is the greatest singer EVER!” This statement is clearly wrong and clearly made by a 13 year old girl. Just because lots of people think its true, doesn’t make it any less true that Johnny Cash is actually the greatest singer ever. (Hey! My philosophy degree isn’t quite as useless as all that!) This is the central argument behind the chapter in Love Wins dealing with the tradition of the church regarding universal salvation.

Bell appeals to the early church fathers for support to the idea that universalism has always been around, we just ignore it most of the time because it isn’t orthodox. Please note that this is similar, but not identical to, a more common approach for demonstrating theological truth through appeal to the early church fathers. The proper way to look to the early church fathers as a measure for the validity of theological concepts is to consider their reflection of the teaching of the apostles, and Christ through them. This isn’t the same as appealing to the opinion of the masses, as is the case with the ad populum argument. It is appealing to the teachings of Christ directly. The thinking goes: “If Jesus taught the disciples stuff and they taught it later, then they must be teaching what Jesus taught.” Jesus is authoritative primarily because he was God. There is a collection of books called the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which features the collected writings of all of those guys from before the Nicene Creed was written (that was a basic statement of the beliefs of the church regarding Jesus, the Trinity, etc. Google it! It’s important!). Theologians will frequently look at these guys’ writings to establish things about the early church. This frequently includes the usage of words (check out the long boring part 2 of my Rob Bell Love Wins review), minutia of history that is lost otherwise, some theological ideas, etc. We find Bell referring to this collection of books when he speaks of Clement and Origen in his chapter on how universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” was a part of Christian thought since the beginning of the church. Clement and Origen are generally credited with coming up with the Universalist theology, which makes it odd to point to them because the stuff they taught has ALWAYS been labeled universalism even though Bell repeatedly denies universalism in his book… but I digress. Now, for this to be a valid argument from authority, it would need to be established that Clement and Origen got their teaching from Jesus or one of the apostles. The problem is that Origen was pretty open about the fact that he had synthesized Platonic philosophy (a Greek pagan guy’s writing) with Christian Theology, which is actual origin (pun) of this doctrine. This negates that apostolic authority that is sought by those appealing to Origen and Clement. Because Origen is open in his indication that the idea of universal salvation came from non-Biblical sources, it is his opinion rather than apostolic authority. Thus appealing to him and those who were taught by/agree with him is an appeal to popular opinion (ad populum). The lack of apostolic teaching is further demonstrated by the fact that this idea didn’t appear until 250 AD. 
This is in the ballpark of 150 years after the last apostle’s death. It simply was not a teaching of the apostles at all.

In addition, Bell appeals to their teaching as a demonstration that there has always been an element of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church, without actually revealing what it was that they taught. This is problematic. Clement was not overt in his teaching of Universalism. Origen, his student, taught that all things would be restored to God, which Bell resonates with as a central point in his “everybody says so argument.” For Origen, this included the devil and the fallen angels, who would repent and go to heaven. Further, Origen argued that our freedom to reject God through sin results in repeated casting to hell and restoration to heaven for ALL people throughout eternity. Now, Bell isn’t pointing to these arguments as true, but he is pointing to the guy who said this stuff as an authority of some sort. This is somewhat akin to saying “the crazy cat woman down the street thinks so.” (Please note that I am being a little tongue in cheek. Origen did make some useful contributions to church history.)

Now, Clement and Origen did have a school in Alexandria that taught this universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason.” By all accounts it remained prominent for quite a while. This leads to the second half of the argument regarding the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in church history. Bell points to Clement and Origen as holding the belief. He then goes on to list several well-known names that acknowledge the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church. These names include: Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius, Gregory, Basil, etc. Now, it’s key to note that around 250 AD Origen was teaching heavily. Augustine and Jerome wrote in the early 400s AD. Eusebius wrote in the late 300s AD. Basil and Gregory wrote in the mid 300s AD.  This puts the full breadth of the witnesses supporting/mentioning the doctrine to a 50-150 year stretch, with a heavy emphasis on 50. Now, it is also important to note that this rash of sightings of Universalists during this era is easily accounted for. There was a school teaching it. I drive by the Humvee factory on the way to work every day. I frequently see Humvees on the road on their way to the train yards for shipping. Therefore, lots of people drive Humvees because I see them every day. Lots of people has always driven Humvees because I see them every day. Henry Ford taught about the importance of Humvee maintenance… He must have because I see so many people driving them. Everybody thinks so. See the problem? Bell makes a moment in history seem like an eternity. The total argument is not based on apostolic authority, but an appeal to ad populum for authority. Worse still, its ad populum that simply doesn’t exist beyond a short stretch in the history of the early church.

The only other name mentioned is Luther. Martin Luther is cited in a letter, responding to a friend’s inquiry about God forgiving those in Hell. His response essentially was: “God can do anything He wants.” This is far from a point of doctrinal support, particularly in light of the fact that Luther wrote about Hell quite a bit. Luther’s larger writings on the subject are neglected, probably because it doesn’t support the premise.

There you have it. That is the full breadth of the “lots of people in the Christian tradition held this view” support that is pointed to in the book. It’s just not true. In my research, I have found the suggestion from historians (I’d have to look it up and I need to cook lunch for my wife so I won’t. E-mail me if you want names) that this particular theology came about as a result of Platonism’s infusion with the church and died out again quickly because of the lack of scriptural support. This does happen with various doctrines. Popular culture and philosophy makes in-roads into the church and ultimately the influence dies.

Now, we CAN learn from the early church fathers regarding the doctrine of hell. Polycarp was a student of John the Beloved Disciple. This was the guy who leaned on the breast of Christ at the last supper. He was one of the infamous “sons of thunder.” He wrote 5 New Testament books. Irenaeus was Polycarp’s student and wrote about his life. In Irenaeus’ writing there is a clear acknowledgement of eternal hell. This is a real point of apostolic ascendancy. The teaching has a clear line from the apostles to these guys. They don’t acknowledge Plato or any philosophers as sources for ideas. In addition, their teachings appear in the second century. Earlier than the third century when universalism popped up. This is not an example of “everybody says so.” This is an appeal to authority to establish fact. It is also neglected in the explanation of the vast stream of Christian tradition referred to vaguely in Love Wins.

What is the point? Simple, Bell’s argument that the church has always held these beliefs is spurious. Even if there is a history of the doctrine, it runs contrary to the teachings of the disciples and is demonstrably the result of synthesizing philosophy and Christianity.

I will take this moment to reiterate something. I am not taking joy in this effort. I am (was) (maybe am still I am unsure) a Rob Bell fan. I am not certain what to do with any of this. I will point out falsehood, though with a heavy heart. I am not trying to play gotcha at all. This is about the basic facts of the discussion that are glossed over in Bell’s book. Basic facts that most people lack the resources to research. Instead, they look to shepherds and teachers for guidance and education. It is appalling to me that they are taught shoddily. The mantle of ‘teacher of God’s people’ is one that should be taken up with fear and trembling. The whole thing saddens me.

 

 

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.