As briefly mentioned, exegesis has been traditionally defined as the process by which a reader seeks to discover the meaning of a text via an understanding of the original author’s intentions in that text. The classic goal of exegesis has been to articulate the meaning of a passage as the original writer intended it to be understood by his or her contemporary audience. Thus R.T. France (Marshall 1979: 252) understands exegesis as ‘the discovery of what the text means in itself, that is, the original intention of the writer, and the meaning the passage would have held for the readers for whom it was first intended’. [Porter, Stanley. Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament, 6]Proper exegetical method involves things like understanding the occasion for the writing of the book, establishing the coherence and boundaries of a passage, preparing your own translation of the text in question, explaining the semantic structure of the passage, discussing the rhetorical features present, etc. You get the picture. It is a lengthy, drawn out process that produces rich, eternal fruit as it's reward. In what follows, I want to look at the extent of exegetical work Rob Bell has utilized in his book, "Love Wins." In particular, I am going to examine Rob Bell's method for determine the meaning of a word or phrase that appears in several biblical passages.
To begin with, on page 91 of his book, Rob Bell provides, in part at least, his exegesis of Matt. 25. The Greek phrase in question is "aion of kolazo." Bell begins by saying that we know the phrase has several meanings. Well, for anyone remotely familiar with the biblical languages, or any language as far as that goes, most words have more than one meaning. When I first began to study the Greek language, I cannot tell you how heart-broken I was when I discovered that the best way to understand the meaning of a Greek word was by looking at it's immediate context, not by looking it up in the lexicon or looking at it's morphology. Keep this principle close by as you read this article.
Bell's exegesis of Matt. 25:46 is extremely curious. Concerning the phrase eternal punishment, or as the Greek constructs it, kolasin aionion. For starters, Bell says that aion means "age," or "period of time." Another meaning, he says, refers to intensity of experience. Secondly, the word kolazo refers to pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish. So Bell concludes that the phrase, when put together means, "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming" or "an intense period of correction." Bell then chides translations for translating this phrase as eternal punishment or punishment that will last forever. Why? According to Bell, "But 'forever' is not really a category the biblical writers used." And that sums up Bell's exegetical work on this text in Matt. 25.
Space prohibits even a small exegesis of this passage, but I can and will provide the results of what sound exegetical methodology produces when it is employed on this very same text. One common category of exegetical fallacy committed by those attempting to understand Scripture is in the area of word studies. By introducing the broad range of meaning for the phrase aion of kolazo, Bell commits what D.A. Carson calls, "Unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field." This happens when you bring the entire range of meaning of a word into the more narrow context of a particular text. This is precisely what Bell does and by doing so, he manages to muddy the waters. Whether or not muddying the waters is really what Bell is attempting to do is another question. All I can say is that his method is at least consistent with such an objective. The two phrases that are in question are
κόλασιν αἰώνιον (kolasin aionion) translated eternal punishment, and ζωὴν αἰώνιον (zoen aionion), translated eternal life. The first phrase says "And these will go away into eternal punishment." The Greek word KOLASIN, translated punishment occurs only twice in the NT. The other place is in 1 John 4:18. There the word appears as a noun, accusative mood, singular number, feminine gender the same as it does in Matt. 25:46. According to BDAG, the range of meanings for this word are: infliction of suffering or pain in chastisement; transcendent retribution. This word is a derivative of the Greek word KOLADZO. As it so happens, this word also appears only twice in the NT: Acts 4:21 where is simply says "finding no basis on which to punish them," and 2 Pe. 2:9 where it is used in the phrase, "and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment." BDAG defines it to mean penalize or punish. Louw-Nida defines it to mean punish, with the implication of resulting in severe suffering." The Greek word aionios appears some 70 times in the NT. In 43 of those occurrences, it modifies zoe, the Greek word for life. Clearly the word is used most often to refer to a life that does not end. The picture is one of eternal, unending bliss when it does so. Here is the real issue that Bell fails to satisfy when he suggests that eternal punishment is somehow temporal: Bell seems to fail to understand that if it is true that punishment is temporal then so too is eternal life. The Greek constructions are identical. Yet Bell never bothers to address this glaring inconsistency in his exegesis. In other words, if Bell is correct in his view that hell or punishment is temporal with an end in mind, then so too is eternal life. He cannot have it both ways. If we are to understand hell as temporal, then heaven must also be temporal.
In addition to this, Bell purports to deal with all the NT passages on the subject of hell. However, just as he did in his section on the OT passages that deal with hell, Bell omits considerable material from the NT discussion as well. For instance, if one were to look at one of the words translated "punish" in the New American Standard they would discover a couple of significant passages that point to a state of eternal punishment.
Jude 7 says" just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire."The same Greek word for eternal, aioniou modifies the word Greek word, diken. Here, Jude points to Sodom & Gomorrah as an example of God's fiery punishment and then says this punishment will be eternal. In 2 Thess. 1:9-10, Paul states,
"These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. "Paul says these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction and death. It is clear that Paul is referring to the very end when men will be judged and accounts settled once and for all. The Greek word diken is used but it is not the word being modified by aionion. Instead, the word olethron is modified and this word actually means death or destruction. In every case where it is used in the NT, it means a state of destruction or ruin.
Rob Bell claims to address every mention of even the concept of hell in the Old Testament. However, not only does Bell fail to do so, he clearly fails to deal with two of the most prominent passages that deal with hell in the Hebrew text: Dan. 12:1-2 & Isa. 66:24.
Bell also claims to deal with every mention of hell in the NT, but clearly he does not. He refuses to deal with numerous passages that deal with the punishment that God will deal out to unbelievers at the final judgment. One has to wonder if Bell is dealing honestly with the text. At best, Bell's handling of Scripture on the subject of eternal punishment is sloppy and terribly incomplete. At worse, it is unethical and disingenuous..
Robert Lewis Dabney wrote,
Infinite benevolence, intelligence, justice, and truth are co-ordinated and consistent attributes, acting harmoniously. That God is not benevolent in such a sense as to exclude punitive justice, is proved thus: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." Heb. 10:31 Again, God is not too benevolent to punish devils, once His holy children, eternally."We have an ethical obligation to treat the word of God with only the highest respect. Based on Rob Bell's own claims to give the doctrine of hell a fair shake from Scripture's perspective, it is clear that he does not do so. He only includes those passages he finds conventient. And where he can, he muddys the waters by introducing semantic ranges of word meanings with warrant in an attempt to confuse the intended meaning of the author. Bell is an intelligent man. I can draw no other conclusion than this. The only other possibility is gross incompetence and I do not think that is the issue here. I will continue this line of though regarding Bell's ethic as we move into the next chapter of his book. There we will find an excellent example of the unethical treatment of the reformer Dr. Martin Luther. It is here that Bell's methods begin to really show their true color. So stay tuned.