Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rob Bell's Exegesis on Hell

What is exegesis? Does exegesis really matter in arriving at a proper understanding of Scripture? What are the possible consequences of poor exegetical methodology? It is not my objective to slight Rob Bell merely because I passionately disagree with his understanding of Christianity. Mr. Bell is free to hold whatever views of God, Christ, man, salvation, heaven, hell, and the bible that he wants. Far be it from me to say otherwise. On the other hand, just because he is free to take up such a view, that does not mean he has the "right" to do so. You see, the words right and wrong are much different from the word free. Right and wrong have ethical connotations that free does not. One could say that you have the freedom to misrepresent my article but not the right. In your interpretive undertaking you have a moral obligation to do your best to interpret my article according to the intended meaning I wish to communicate. If I intentionally twist your communication, regardless of the form you chose to express it, you feel a sense of violation. You feel I have wronged you under such circumstances. And you would be correct. Exegesis then is concerned with the ethical treatment of God's word. It seeks to understand the message God has communicated to human beings through the medium of a written text. Stanley Porter writes,

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.

Bell's Exegesis
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.

Dr. D. 


  1. Really interesting - the semantics of the Greek word for 'eternal' was the part of Rob Bell's text where I really took interest. Thanks for the insight. Does 'aion' mean eternal then? I mean 'era' and 'eternal' are 2 different words no matter what context you put them in.

  2. The semantics of this Greek word is an excellent area to focus on. But Bell's handling of Hebrew and Greek words is unfortunate. The problem is that many of these words have wide semantic ranges. Aion has a range of meanings and as such, must be defined within the context of which it appears. Look at it like this: the English word "hot" can mean a hot stove or a hot car. The same word has two entirely different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. In Greek, there are very specific constructions that drive the meaning of a word. If Aion ALWAYS means era from a temporal standpoint, then heaven must also be temporal. And so too must be the throne of God. Yet Hebrews 1:8 says, Your throne, O God is forever and ever." The Greek construction is "eis ton aiona, tou aionos." If aion always refers to a temporal age or period, then God's throne, or His reign will be temporal as well. This is what I mean when I say Bell commits the fallacy of unwarranted introduction of semantic ranges into a text. He selects the one meaning that suits his theology and forces it onto the text in question. This is very regrettable. Imagine what would happen if we did that with words like hot and cool, etc. We understand what they mean by how they are used. Bell refuses to acknowledge this in his book.

  3. The "aionos" in the NT is used as an adjective and a noun. We get the word "eon" from it. It means "a finite amount of time" or an "age".

    It is used in the plural form (ex:"ainos y ainous" is a figure of speech literally meaning "ages and ages") to denote eternality such as the example you gave in Hebrews 1:8. Every time that God is described this plural version is used.

    The singular form of "aionis" is always used when describing a judgement. It is also used as an adjective. A very simple and direct question Dr. D: Can you give one example of the plural version of "aionus" being used to describe God's judgement or wrath? Why is the singular version of "aionion" used to describe the duration of a judgement?

  4. Another point about heaven and the singular tense of ainous being used to describe it. When the writers are talking of the return of Christ to reign on earth this is considered "heaven" or the New Jerusalem by the writers. This time is referred as the Milliniel reign of Christ by some theologians. Since this is a 1,000 year reign it fits the classic definition of an age, thus the singular version of aion is used.

  5. Dr. Peace,
    Heb. 1:8 says, ho theos eis ton aiona tou aionos. This is a description of God and aiona and aionos are both singular. The former being in the accusative and the latter being a genitive. Look at the articles for both of these nouns. You assume the ending alpha indicates plurality but it does not. This is an accusative sinular. The article is your clue. If aiona were plural, the construction would be eis ta aionias. Therefore, I would not agree with your statement regarding the plural distinctions of this word at the outset.

    Secondly, Matt. 25:46 describes eternal life and eternal judgment. Aionion appears in the singular for both and there is no reason to assume that Jesus is referring to the 1000 year reign at all. The context would indicate He is speaking about the eternal state of the righteous as contrasted with the eternal state of the wicked. You can't have it both ways.

    The number of this word does not provide us with a nice, neat countour of it's semantic range. For instance, 2 Cor. 9:9 says His righteousness endures forever. (eis ton aiona) singular. Heb. 5:6, you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (eis ton aiona) singular. Heb. 5:24 again, eis ton aiona, singular form. And here is it coupled with aparabaton which means, permanent or unchangeable.

    The semantic evidence suggests that aion is used repeatedly in the singular form with the meaning of endless or eternal. That fact stands on its own two feet.

    To answer your question directly, yes. Rev. 14:11 uses the phrase "aionas aionion" to describe the torment of those who received the mark of the beast as "forever and ever." The phrase in Rev. 19:3 is tous aionas ton aionion and refers to the punishment of the great harlot. The same phrase ocurrs in Rev. 20:10 to describe the eternal punishment of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. Aion appears in the plural several times to refer to judgment. I hope this answers your question.

  6. *****You***Heb. 1:8 says, ho theos eis ton aiona tou aionos. This is a description of God and aiona and aionos are both singular. The former being in the accusative and the latter being a genitive. Look at the articles for both of these nouns. You assume the ending alpha indicates plurality but it does not. This is an accusative sinular. The article is your clue. If aiona were plural, the construction would be eis ta aionias. Therefore, I would not agree with your statement regarding the plural distinctions of this word at the outset.
    ***Response***This is describing God's throne as being a limited time-not God. It literally means " to the age of the age". I am sure you have heard of dispensationalism. God's throne is symbolic of judgement. The Great White Throne is a judgement dispensation. Since the Judgement age ends then the singular form is correct. It is GOD who is eternal, his throne is limited. THis is not a correct example. Any others?????

    ****you*** Secondly, Matt. 25:46 describes eternal life and eternal judgment. Aionion appears in the singular for both and there is no reason to assume that Jesus is referring to the 1000 year reign at all. The context would indicate He is speaking about the eternal state of the righteous as contrasted with the eternal state of the wicked. You can't have it both ways.
    **response*****You can have it both ways- There is no reason to assume Jesus is not referring to the 1000 reign. Punishment is limited, so yes you can have it both ways-they fit!!
    2 cor 9:9 is Paul quoting Psalm 112:9. The word in Hebrew is "עֹמֶ֣דֶת לָעַ֑ד-o·me·det la·'ad" which does mean eternal. It is not the normal word for age in hebrew "olam" which is the Greek equilavant of "aion". The Greek translators did not have an equivalent to translate OMEDET LA AD so they wrongly used the singular form of aion. This is a mistake going from Hebrew to Greek not an example of the Greek Aion being used as singular when referencing GOD.
    ***response***Heb 5:6- same as above - Paul is quoting Psalm 110:4 but this time the hebrew uses olam. The Priesthood age will end. After the Great WHite Throne Judgement why will their be needs for priests? No sacrifice will be needed.

    *****Hebrews 5:24 ???? there is no Hebrews 5:24

    *****Rev 14:11 " the smoke of their torment" goes on for ever but not the torment themselves. I know this is a literalist approach but it is consistent with all of the other forms. It never says they will be tormented eternally. Reread.
    *******Rev 19:3 " the smoke" goes on forever. This is not the person themselves.
    Agreed this is forever. There are no humans referenced in this verse.
    Any others?????????

    1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

    We all died in Adam, We all will be made alive through Christ...

    2But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver...

    God's fire purifies not punishes...

    Thank you for your responses-very well formulated and delivered. Very good spirit as well. Peace.

  7. I referenced Heb. 1:8 because I understood your remarks to imply that the plural was used in that case. If I misunderstaood you, I apologize.

    Matt. 25:46 refers to the eternal state of the righteous and the wicked. This state will extend beyond any 1000 year period and we all agree on that. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Jesus would be referring to the 1000 year reign and hence, no good reason for me to think he would be. Moreover, it isn't until AFTER the 1000 years that the rest of the wicked are judged and sentenced to eternal torment.The Great white throne judgment provides for the final disposition of the wicked.

    Your interpretation of Rev. 14:11 reveals that you have overlaid your grid on the text.

    You assert that God's fire purifies not punishes: Rev. 20:10 reads, "And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. The construction is in the plural and this refers to created beings. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever. This does not seem to serve a purifying purpose to me. It seems to be punishment.

    Back to Rev. 14:9 "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of th wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lambs...they have no rest day and night,... The language is unambiguous for those who allow it to stand on its own two feet.
    Finally, Rev. 21:8 "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderes and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

    The langauge of the text provides for clear and unambiguous teaching regarding the eternal state of those who reject God. The same fate that awaits the Devil and his angels, the beast an the false prophet awaits all those who rebel against the God of heaven. They will drink from the wine of his wrath for his cup is filling up.

    What if those who beleive in hell are wrong? What are the eternal consequences? No down side as far as I can see. But they are not wrong. Scripture seems clear. But what is those who teach no eternal torment are wrong? Wow! Oops! Now what? As Rob Bell would say, Good question.

  8. "Fire and Brimstone" is used in other ancient texts( IE: Iliad) as a cleansing agent. It was like vinegar- if you wanted to clean a metal cup you would use "fire & brimstone". God chastens and then restores. To make a metal 24k you must heat to remove the impurities(sins) so that is pure to presented to a king (God).

    The Lake of Fire (limne y pur) could easily have been translated "Pond of Purification". "Fire and Brimstone" was not used by parents in ancient Greece to punish their children.

    The answer to the question -if I am wrong? I will call it a "Paschals Wager" regarding hell.

    I do believe in judgment and holiness. There is a consequence for sin. I do believe in hell. Not a Dante's Inferno version of hell but one that chastens ones sins. I believe that it's duration is limited and just regarding ones need for purification.

    I think that when you view those outside of the elect as ones you will never see in the afterlife then you can grow cold and isolated from them. If you believe that you will see all in the afterlife then it makes one very conscious of treating all people with dignity and respect. I do not believe that all people who believe in eternal torment do not show love to all people (my personal experience with most have been that they are very gracious) but that most seem more interested in the afterlife and not the "now"life.

    I notice you seem to have a Calvinist bent. Any problems with God predistining the majority of his creation to an eternal torment? He basically created a human knowing they would not repent and then torments them eternally?? I think Bell makes a great point.

    acts 3:21
    He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
    1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (or did Paul mean "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ some will be made alive"?)

  9. Response to "Fire and Brimstone"
    I would contend that an appeal to other texts to arrive at what the Biblical authors could have meant by the use of these terms is not in keeping with proper exegetical methodology. While I do appreciate the value that consulting such texts stands to bring to a subject, I think you have gone too far and have committed a serious exegetical fallacy in this case. Homer’s work was completed nearly 1000 years before the Biblical texts. The diachronic movement would have considerable linguistic implications.

    Response to God Chastens and Restores
    To posit that the Lake of Fire could just as easily have been translated “Pond of Purification” is an unwarranted and unnecessary narrowing of the semantic range of this word. Although fire may be used metaphorically to represent purification or cleansing in certain texts, this meaning is easily recognizable when that is the case. For instance, in I Cor. 3:13, the trying of every man’s work by is clearly not literal. There are very few passages in the NT where it is not very easy to determine the precise meaning of the word ‘fire.’ But for the most part, it is easy to distinguish between the literal use and metaphorical use. The overwhelming use of this word in the NT is in it's literal sense.

    Response to Pascal's Wager
    It seems to me that the wager would lead one not to posit your views openly so that others would not be harmed by them just in case you are wrong.

    Response to Dante's Inferno
    I do not think Dante was original with this version of hell.

    Response to Personal Experience
    I cannot speak to your experience. I can only speak to what Scripture teaches about the loving proclamation of the gospel to all out of a love for obeying God.

    Response to Predestination
    The only reason people consider Bell’s argument cogent is because they do not truly understand what Calvinism (Scripture) teaches. Space limits additional comments in defense of Calvinism.

    Response to Acts 3:21
    This same text talks about the fact that God will utterly destroy any soul that does not heed the coming Messiah. I find it very interesting that you would reference it.

    Response to all men will live in Christ
    I Cor. 15:22 comes in the context of the resurrection controversy at Corinth. Paul’s major concern here is the future hope of a coming resurrection. The key here is that you are assuming that all are in Christ and they are not! Everyone who is in Adam dies. All men are, by definition, in Adam. We come from Adam, and were in Adam from the beginning. Not all men are in Christ.

  10. I will add one final comment as it relates to one of my pet peeves. It is not my aim to be rude in my remarks. However, I cannot tell you how much it bothers me when I hear someone say, as you did, that they believe in hell, but then redefine it in such as way that we really are talking about two completely different concepts. In actuality, you do not believe in the historic orthodox view of hell. You believe in something entirely different. I also think it is unfair to use Dante to describe the historic orthodox hell. Doing so seems to me to be playing it safe. This is not unlike blaming predestination on Calvin and then trying to debunk it. Better to disagree with Calvin than with Paul. Just a little pet peeve of mine. I am sure this wasn't tactical on your part.

  11. Paul's version - 1 cor. 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

    Dr D's version - For as in Adam all die, so in Christ some will be made alive.

    Great responses and you are a very good defender of your positions. Keep an open mind toward the original Greek view on hell. It changed after Augustine . Good read from William Barclay-

    Thanks for the dialogue and Peace to you.

  12. Thank you for your kind words. I would like to provide a short response to your interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:22. As you know, one could isolate just about any text from it's context and impose their own bias on it's meaning. What is the context of the statement Paul makes to the Corinthians. We must take his statement as it was mad in the middle of a larger point he is making. Taken in the context of 1 Cor. 15, we understand taht Paul is not engaged in making an argument for or against universalism. He is desperately concerned with the false belief that there will be no resurrection whatsoever. His purpose is not to focus on the the idea that EVERYONE will be made alive in Christ and be saved. His purpose is to contend that just as everyone is dead and dying in Adam, just as much as that is true, everyone in Christ will be made alive, or resurrected! Note the present active indicative of the Greek verb ἀποθνῄσκουσιν. In Adam all ARE dead! And just as surely as that is the case, do not doubt that in Christ, all those in Christ, ζῳοποιηθήσονται will be made alive! Future passive indicative. Maybe something should be said about the voices of these two verbs, but space prohibits additional comments. If one simply allows sound exegetical practice to guide them in the interpretation of this text, they should not end up positing universalism as a result of this text. Take care.


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