You’re right; perhaps John Piper made a mistake with his now infamous tweet.
However, until, if ever, Piper comes out and specifically indicates why he tweeted what he tweeted, we will never know the true substance and purpose behind his tweet.Although we can know the general purpose behind why Piper uses Twitter.
With that said, I still find a proclivity within myself to trust John Piper, despite his potentially flagrant “sin”, more than Rob Bell.
Although Piper might have had a lack of judgment, let us not forget that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), which does not preclude those within popular ministries.
Despite the fact that Piper is a sinner, and that his tweet might have been uncalled for, I agree with his apparent concern regarding the path Bell is choosing to take.
Based on Bell’s latest monograph, it is quite evident that Piper’s skill in exegesis, history and logic is quite superior to Bell’s.
So I ask, what is the greater sin?A momentary lack of judgment?Or bad exegesis that dishonors God and leads others astray?
In fact, both Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung (amongst others) had actually written reviews on Rob Bell’s Love Wins prior to its public release.Along with these two reviews, I’ve provided a few additional reviews that were helpful: Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, Jim Spiegel and Mark Galli.Or, if you want to pay to read some refutations, you can pick up books by Michael Wittmer, Mark Galli and/or Francis Chan.With those reviews in mind, please note that it will be my goal to not belabor certain points that have already been addressed by other reviewers; rather, my intent will be to focus on some issues that concerned me personally.
For those that don’t know…
Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, led by Mark Driscoll), has a church following of 8,000+, is a renowned speaker and author of several books, to include Velvet Elvis, and has been described as a winsome, provocative, creative and engaging communicator.
HOWEVER, when we enter into the arena of Biblical scholarship, it is not enough to only be winsome, provocative, creative and engaging (emotively charged qualities), we must also be, and perhaps should primarily be, prudent and astute historians and exegetes (cognitively charged qualities); for, to be winsome, provocative, creative and engaging is, at best, empty without the use and foundation of accurate historical and contextual exegesis.
Quickly though, two preliminaries before we get to the review:
First, a word on making judgments: I think we need to be careful in assuming that someone is being judgmental simply because they disagree; or, for that matter, that someone is being judgmental just because they are a Calvinist.It certainly seems ironic to me that the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes claimed to come from those within the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement towards the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” questioning of “traditional” biblical/theological interpretation is absolutely similar to the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes demonstrated by the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement towards the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement when they question the questioning of the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” biblical/theological interpretation. For, when those within the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement take personal jabs at the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement for being the claimed “key holders of orthodoxy”, they are, in fact, making an assertion that they are the “key holders of orthodoxy”.In other words, there are opportunities for healthy disagreement and reflection if we can contest the position, rather than the person (although “attack” is a violent term which causes most people pause and concern).For instance, within the same paragraph Jesus calls us not to judge and then calls his opponents dogs and pigs (Matt. 7:1-6).
Second, Bell's YouTube video, wherein he “comes clean” has a critical error to it.If I say that I believe in the color “green”, and yet my understanding, interpretation and conception of “green” is actually the color “blue” (or some made up color) then I have misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconceived the color “green”.Therefore, if Bell’s understanding of heaven, hell, salvation, etc., are misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconceived as compared with historical/traditional orthodoxy, then the statements made in his “coming clean” are, in fact, quite inadequate.
Now, onto the review…
One concern that is, perhaps, overall in tone is permitting philosophy to trump exegesis.Now, please note that I am pro-philosophy (in fact, I teach several philosophy classes at a local community college), and I am well aware that philosophy and exegesis are linked; however, my concern is when we allow our philosophies (appropriately compassionate as they may be) to trump proper exegesis of hard texts.For instance, before he even gets out of the preface Bell is already allowing his philosophy to trample upon exegesis:
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
Or, consider this example:
“[I]t’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others.Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story.Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”
More so, Bell’s exegesis, when employed, is quite disconcerting.For instance, Bell insists that “[t]he…meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end”; or, that “[w]hen we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or year, and more to a period or era of time…it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever”.Now, I have addressed aionpreviously, so I will not belabor the point other than to say that I agree with Bell that at times this word can have a temporal meaning, however, it can also at times have an eternal meaning.
Furthermore, Bell’s historical accuracy is lacking:
“Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley.There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap.When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound.Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.”
Although, this has been a common myth throughout Christian history, other scholars would argue that “[t]here is no convincing evidence in the primary sources for the existence of a fiery dump in this location”.
Now, although I am pretty certain that we are all flawed (including me!) to some degree as historians and exegetes, my concern is that, whereas our flaws might take place in the home, or small group, or even larger church congregation, Bell’s flaws are done via world-wide monograph publication.With that said, Bell should have employed a bit more scholastic due diligence within his monograph; and, henceforth, anything I (and you too) read or hear from Bell should be scrutinized for historical and exegetical accuracy.
An additional concern of mine is Bell’s apparent rehashing of liberal Christianity.Liberal Christianity is generally thought to emphasize social justice at the expense of doctrine/propositional truth.Now, although I certainly affirm that a critical aspect of Christianity is to care for the orphan and widow (Jam. 1:27), I would also affirm that this is not the ultimate or final goal to the Christian life.Consider the following quotes by Bell:
“Compassion for the poor, racial justice, care for the environment, worship, teaching,
and art are important, but in the end, for some followers of Jesus, they’re not ultimately
“Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now…[a]round a billion
people in the world today do not have access to clean water.People will have access to
clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean water access for all is
participating now in the life of the age to come… [i]t often appears that those who talk
the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to
earth right now…[a]t the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most
about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die.”
Should access to clean drinking water (in this life) trump our eschatological (and perhaps more urgent) need for a Savior (in this life and the one to come)?In other words, we ought to be cautious in espousing a Christ-less, moral, therapeutic deism, wherein, at best, our actions (as important and compassionate and charitable as they might be) are empty, and, at worst, are simply an attempt at self-aggrandizement.
It’s because, although I partially agree with Bell that “eternal life is…about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God”, I also believe there are serious eschatological implications regarding the future destinations of all humanity.
In fact, at times, Bell actually seems to be agnostic toward his position on hell.
“[i]n other stories he tells, very religious people who presume that they’re ‘in’ hear from him: ‘I never knew you.Away from me, you evildoers!’”
“[h]e tells entire villages full of extremely devoted religious people that they’re in danger, while seriously questionable ‘sinners’ will be better off than them ‘in that day’”.
“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
“This invitation to trust asks for nothing more than this moment, and yet it is infinitely urgent.Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved.One man buries the treasure he’s been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he’s “thrown outside into the darkness.”Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and they end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”Goats are sent “away” to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and “tied in bundles to be burned.”
But if Bell believes in ultimate reconciliation, then why these warning passages?Where are the evildoers going?What are these devoted religious people in danger of?Is it only about not living your best life now?Or is there more to it?
Another concern is that Bell seems to make a critical error in over-emphasizing the love of God as the ultimate attribute.Yes, God is love.God is love.However, that statement does not negate that God is also many other things: patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.And, what we must reconcile is that God’s attributes work together in perfect unity.In other words, although God is love, his love is patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.What this indicates is that God’s love cannot be separated from his holiness; God’s love cannot be separated from his righteousness; and God’s love cannot be separated from his wrath.Let’s pause a moment and reflect on a few quotes from Bell regarding this subject:
“That’s how it is – because that’s what God is like, correct?God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy – unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever.That’s the Christian story, right?Is that what Jesus taught?”
“[I]f your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.”
“But there’s more.Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different to them forever.A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.”
What these statements mock is the apparent “Jekyll and Hyde” characteristics of the traditional/historical conception of God: loving and desiring a relationship with all of humanity during life and damning, with hateful vengeance, all those who die apart from a relationship with God, in Christ.Moreover, an argument rejecting the traditional/historic understanding of God’s wrath answers the question, “how we would respond if an earthly father did to his children what God will eventually do to part of humanity?”, with “we would throw that father in jail for life” (i.e. surely a loving, kind and merciful God could not be involved in something this heinous).However, if this is the criteria by which we judge God, then should we not have already thrown God in jail for “murdering” Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:1-11), or Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11)?Of course not, because we know that God, in his holiness, justice and righteousness, must respond to sin.Therefore, the critical error in this reasoning is that our eternal fate ought to rest on the (often) triteness of our sin, rather than the majesty of the One sinned against.For instance, if I attempted to attack a regular “Joe”, I might end up in prison for a short while; however, if I attempted to attack the President of the United States, I would, most likely, remain in prison for the remainder of my life.This is because the crime, although the same, has a different consequence when committed against someone of greater renown.Therefore, we surely ought to not place Almighty God on the same level as our earthly fathers.
Furthermore, Bell’s emphasis on the love of God promotes his confidence in post-mortem opportunities for reconciliation:
“And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”
“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”
“In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people.In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well.In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.”
“Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory.”
My concern with the above statements is the lack of biblical evidence to support such claims.I have already, albeit briefly, addressed post-mortem evangelism, and therefore will instead stress that although some argue that Scripture is silent on the possibility of future (post-mortem) opportunities for reconciliation, I would contend that if we affirm that God is sovereign, why would he not have found it relevant to indicate these future opportunities?In stark contrast to this argument from silence, it seems more appropriate to affirm the New Testament writers’ emphasis on the “faith decision” in this life.
Two additional issues raised by Bell, which certainly deserve more space and thought, are inclusivism, which Bell addresses here:
“As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.”
“Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody.”
“What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”
“Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t.”
…and Bell’s apparent denial of penal substitutionary atonement addressed here:
“Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God.God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction.God is the rescuer.”
So that’s it.There’s my review.Those are my concerns with Bell’s most recent monograph.I believe Rob Bell is a Christian brother who simply allows his philosophies to trump his exegesis.Ergo, it is my hope and prayer that those reading Bell’s book, those reading this blog, and those reading any other reflections on biblical matters will approach them with critical minds, examining their content historically, exegetically and theologically.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), viii.
Michael “Squints” Palledorous, one of the characters in The Sandlot, always knew he was going to marry Wendy Peffercorn. However, some time before they had their first kiss on the side of the community pool, “Squints” made his famous quote about the Beast’s sentence to its backyard fortress as he uttered, “For-ev-er”.
Rob Bell, in his newest and most controversial book (to date) Love Wins, aptly describes the feeling of The Beast’s owner upon learning of its sentence:
“Remember sitting in class, and it was so excruciatingly boring that you found yourself staring at the clock? Tick. Tick. Tick. What happened to time in those moments? It slowed down. We even say, ‘It felt like it was taking forever.’ Now when we use the word ‘forever’ in this way, we are not talking about a 365-day year followed by a 365-day year followed by another 365-day year, and so on. What we are referring to is the intensity of feeling in that moment. That agonized boredom caused time to appear to bend and twist and warp.”
Bell also states:
“When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever.”
Part of the controversy surrounding Bell’s book is his supposed rejection of the historical understanding of the doctrine of hell (i.e. eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked). Now, a separate review of Bell’s book and thoughts is forthcoming; however, for the time being, and based on additional conversations surrounding the term aion, it seemed necessary to provide a linguistic analysis of this crucial word.
To begin, we ought to note that there are two different words (and their many derivatives) used to address “an age” or “eternity”: aion and aionios. With that said, we ought to next look at how these terms are defined.
Aion has four definitions: (1) a long period of time, without reference to beginning or end (of time gone by/the past/earliest times, or of time to come which, if it has no end, is also known as eternity); (2) a segment of time as a particular unit of history, age (the present age or the age to come); (3) the world as a spatial concept; and (4) the Aeon as a person.
Aionios has three definitions: (1) pertaining to a long period of time, long ago; (2) pertaining to a period of time without beginning or end, eternal; and (3) pertaining to a period of unending duration, without end.
With those definitions in place, it would certainly seem absurd to attempt to persuade someone that aion never has a temporal sense, as the following texts demonstrate: Luke 20:34-35; John 9:32; Acts 15:18; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:8; et al. All of these texts (and many more) certainly point toward a temporal or historic sense when using the word aion.
However, the issue at hand is whether, at times, aion, aionios, and their derivatives can have a non-temporal meaning (i.e. specifically, contextually and correctly defining the term as eternal, eternity or everlasting). The rest of this essay sets out to convincingly demonstrate this fact.
It seems most prudent to begin by demonstrating that aion, aionios, and their derivatives can, at times, identify a non-temporal sense when using these words. For instance, consider the following texts:
Rom. 9:5 – will God’s praise be only temporary?
Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20 – will God’s glory be only for an age?
2 Cor. 9:9 – is God’s righteousness momentary?
Based on this evidence (certainly non-exhaustive!), is anyone willing to continue arguing that aion, aionios, and their derivatives do not, at times, convey a non-temporal sense?
Therefore, if we are willing to concede that there might be instances where the sense is non-temporal, then, what should follow is a reminder that we ought to read, interpret and understand Scripture in its context. For instance, if we look back to one of the temporal examples (Luke 20:34-35), we can see that translating aionos as eternal, eternity or everlasting would certainly not fit.
But what about texts that speak about heaven and hell as a post-mortem destination? Let’s first consider Daniel 12:2…
“Prior to Daniel 12:2 we find no clear evidence of belief in hell, if by hell we mean a place of eternal torment and judgment for the wicked. It would be left to later revelation in the New Testament to develop this image. When the doctrine of hell develops in the New Testament, it borrows much of its imagery from the Old Testament, particularly the images of perpetual suffering through maggots and unquenchable fire in Isaiah 66:24.”
In addition, regarding olam:
“[i]t is true that the Hebrew word…does not always mean endless in a strict temporal sense. But in this context [Daniel 12:2], it seems to because it points to a decisive division into joy or misery after death and resurrection. As the life after death is everlasting, so the shame and contempt are everlasting. There is no thought in the Old or the New Testament that after the resurrection divides humanity into life and contempt, this division will ever be replaced by a new condition.”
Now, before we proceed any further, two things ought to be acknowledged: (1) I have not had formal Hebraic studies; therefore, outside of a few thoughts by reputable scholars, I am going to focus mainly on interacting with the New Testament Greek, which I have studied. (2) “The idea of an afterlife or eternal life came late in postexilic times and is attributed to Jewish contact with Persian documents. Dan. 12:1-2 is conceded to be the first biblical reference to an afterlife.”(3) “Though anticipated in the OT, the concept of eternal life seems to be largely a NT revelation.”
With that said, as we turn to the New Testament, we should not be intimidated by the fact that the idea of an afterlife came late in postexilic times due to interaction with Persia. Why is that? Because God, in Christ, also discussed the afterlife, and by no means should there be argument that Jesus was influenced by Persia’s influence on his culture enough to where he would teach falsely.
Moreover, it seems appropriate in this instance to allow for some mystery, as, at least from my studies, I have not come across any conclusive evidence as to why the idea of eternal life or eternal punishment were not addressed in more detail throughout the OT. Perhaps, though, we should consider the fact that “[w]e do not have to have a satisfactory explanation for everything God tells us is true. There are mysteries: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever’ (Deut. 29:29).”
Moving now to two specific New Testament texts:
In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31ff, the term aionion is used, which Jesus uses both to point to the eternal life of the righteous and eternal punishment of the cursed (Matt. 25:41, 46). Therefore, if we are to read this portion of Scripture in context, unless we are going to conclude that the eternal life of the righteous is also temporal, we must conclude, rather, that the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the cursed are, in fact, eternal. Moreover, Jesus uses the same word aionion to address the “eternal fire” reserved for the “cursed”. Therefore, because this word is not being used in a historical context, it seems appropriate to translate this word as “eternal”.
Within Revelation 20:10, John uses the phrase tous aionos ton aionon (translated “for ever and ever”), to describe the eternal torment received within “the lake of fire and brimstone”. Now, those who wish to argue for a temporal meaning of this phrase must also consider Revelation 22:5, which describes the eternal, or unending, reign of God’s servants. Therefore, if an argument is made for the temporal nature of the torments of hell in Revelation 20:10, then we must conclude that the reign of God’s servants in Revelation 22:5 is also temporal. Surely, no one is willing to contend for that part of the argument.
“And against the strong body of NT teaching that there is a continuing punishment of sin we cannot cite one saying that speaks plainly of an end to the punishment of the finally impenitent. Those who look for a different teaching in the NT must point to possible inferences and alternative interpretations. But if Jesus wished to teach something other than eternal retribution, it is curious that he has not left one saying that plainly says so. In the NT there is no indication that the punishment of sin ever ceases.”
In conclusion, it is my hope that this entry has provided some conclusive evidence that aion, aionios, and their derivatives can and are, at times, translated as eternal, eternity, or everlasting (even when speaking about the post-mortem destinations of humanity). Future posts will consider the terms used by the New Testament writers to describe hell, along with additional thoughts about hell as “eternal, conscious punishment of wicked. For the time being, let’s conclude with the following:
“The notion of eternal punishment was greatly elaborated in the early Christian apocalypses that came to be called apocryphal (to the NT). In The Apocalypse of Peter, for example, various places of punishment are revealed. In each case the mode of punishment suits the sins for which the lost souls are being punished. It is this later tradition that Dante incorporated in his Inferno.”
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 31.
 Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 32-33. It should also be noted that BDAG is arguably one of the premier language resources. With that said, one must be willing to grapple with the evidence provided therein in order to claim reputable scholarship.