At the Christian Post they reviewed Francis Chan’s book on Hell, a response to Love Wins. They comment,
“In his book, Chan admits that when it comes to Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” – “Everything in me wants to interpret it differently, to make it say something that fits my own view of justice and morality.”
Alcorn, author of Safely Home, supports Chan’s approach to the issue of hell. He said too many Christians had chosen to believe “whatever makes them feel good,” ignoring, denying, or reinterpreting Scripture to suit culture’s current definition of love and tolerance. “Hence, culture and the reader of Scripture become the authority, rather than Scripture itself. Faith becomes merely a collection of fleeting opinions, always subject to revision.”
Wow – this strikes me as prejudiced – and almost disingenuous. I don’t like your interpretation, so therefore your interpretation is compromised – influenced by culture and sentiment. Mine, the traditional view, is unbiased: objective and true. UNhelpful, and naive. Let’s acknowledge that none of us sees with perfect sight, and we all have biases, then let’s do our best to work with the original language, in its cultural setting. In this case, a lot depends on this little word “aion.”
Of course it’s entirely possible that any view of eternal destiny related to judgement or salvation could be forged from an opinion based on personal feeling. It’s equally possible that upholding any popular doctrine could be based on personal feeling – a desire to not shake the boat, or an unwillingness to examine Scripture as a whole – texts within the context – particular doctrines in light of what God has revealed about himself.
When Scot McKnight opens his review of Love Wins, he opens with the reason Rob writes, and a summary of the classical options. He writes,
“Consider the single-most important problem Rob Bell is facing and seeking to resolve in this book. That problem for him is how many in the church, and by and large most in the 19th and 20th Century of American evangelicals, have understood hell and who and how many populate hell. And what that view implies about God. Here are the three big facts…
Those who have heard the gospel and who have accepted it will go to heaven.
Those who have heard the gospel and not accepted it will go to hell.
Those who have not heard the gospel will also go to hell. [and possibly #4]
Those who have not heard the gospel may be in a special class, and could be judged in a different way — on the basis of the light they have received from natural revelation.
It’s fair to ask “Why infants who die will be saved but not those who have never heard?” And it’s fair to ask “If infants can be saved, why not others?”
Scot’s reviews (all nine posts) are worth reading. Today I want to summarize a single piece of Rob’s argument.
So the translation we have of Matthew 25, for example in the TNIV, is as above. The word aion is translated as “eternal,” but like many Greek words it’s difficult to capture the nuance of the word in English. We have to make some hard choices, and none is perfect. The English word is generally taken as time without end – constant, unending, eternal torment. But is that what the Greek word means?
In Love Wins Rob Bell goes back to Matthew 19, where a rich man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” We immediately read this and think, “Yes, that’s the question we all ask – we all want to know about our eternal destiny.” The problem is, that is not a typical concern in the first century Jewish world. It doesn’t fit their eschatology, as much as we want to read our popular eschatology back into that world.
And in fact, Jesus doesn’t answer the eternity question either. The answer he does give, Bell rightly points out, is all about how to live in the present age. He says, in part, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
Now we have two problems surrounding this issue of future destiny. One, Jesus says nothing about grace. It’s as if keeping the commandments can get us there. Two, Jesus doesn’t address a future destiny – or does he?
They go back and forth, and Jesus hits at the main issue for the rich man – his wealth. Jesus tells him it is weighing him down – get rid of it! If he does this he will have “treasure in heaven.” And there is the phrase we would expect to hear, loaded with assumptions we bring to the text. We are now thinking “next life,” but Jesus is still addressing the question of life here and now – a kingdom that is both present and yet to come. To see this we have to look at another text.
In Matthew 13 speaks of a harvest at the “end of the age,” and in Luke 20 he talks about “the people of this age” and some who are considered worthy of taking part “in the age to come.” In Matthew 24 the disciples ask him, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” This is Jewish eschatology – history is divided into two ages: this age, and the age to come. We often think in terms of eras. Another way to say “life in the age to come” in Jesus time was to talk about “eternal life.” But does “eternal” mean what we think it does? (Look also at Jesus words in Luke 18, as the rich man walks away).
Bell points out that the word aion (our translation “eternal”) has multiple meanings. One meaning refers to a period of time as in “the spirit of the age.” This is not a precise period, but more a space or quality of time. It does not mean “forever” as in something like time that moves unbounded forever. The first meaning of aion is a period of time that has both a beginning and an end, though the boundaries are not noted.
It helps to make the connection to the coming kingdom, God’s shalom. A time will come – an age will come – when the nations will stream to Jerusalem and swords will be beaten into ploughshares (Isa. 2), the earth will be “filled with the knowledge of the Lord” (Isa. 11) and death will be destroyed (Isa. 25). All things will be renewed and restored and “new wine will drip from the mountains” (Amos 9). But this isn’t our popular understanding of heaven – floating on a cloud, living in spirit, outside of time – it is literally LIFE renewed, resurrection life. It is the answer to the prayer, “May your kingdome come, may your will be done on earth..” It’s a vision of human flourishing in a renewed world where God reigns.
Where God reigns! Where justice reigns! Where God’s will is done – not just the will of kings and corporations with wealth and power. The age to come – heaven if you like – is that place where things are restored to the way God intended: the world set to rights. For Jesus heaven was not less real, but MORE real. CS Lewis captured this beautifully in the Narnia series. Richer colors. Textures you can hear. Seeing with layers. 5 dimensions or more. Further in and higher up.
For Jesus heaven — the earth renewed under God’s reign — is MORE real than life in this age; the second meaning of aion is a a particular intensity of experience that transcends time. We use the word “forever” this way when we say, “As we waited for our wedding, it seemed like it was taking forever.” “When we had our first date, time stood still.” When the translators looked at this word in the Greek New Testament, they had to make some choices. The word “eternal” comes close, but it doesn’t mean time without end – it means transcending time, belonging to a new age, or a certain quality of time. In Luke 18 Jesus answer implies a new – resurrection – kind of life unknown to this age (as Paul in 1 Cor. 15).
What does this mean for our traditional reading of Matthew 25? “Eternal” punishment is just as likely a very short encounter, and might be, as NT Wright argues, the death of the soul. “Cast into outer darkness” is an image that may mean forever apart from God and from life because finally and completely dead – no more existence anywhere.
To know Jesus and to follow him is to enter life: to find shalom. He came that we might have life, and that more abundantly! The “final” place in the Bible, where those who love God end, is the New Heavens and the New Earth — and these two meet in Jerusalem. (Rev. 20-22).
Minority report. Bell doesn’t quite cover all the bases. In Revelations the age to come is stated in terms of endless time. In Revelation the lake of fire — (John’s equivalent for Gehenna in Jesus, also called the “second death”) — lasts “for ever and ever” (Rev 20:10), and there the words are aionas ton aionon, or “ages of ages.” Scot McKnight describes it as “one Age piled on top of another on top of another.” The New Heavens and the New Earth have this same property, but all things become New (21:1-8).
NT Wright – “Have we got heaven all wrong?”
Note: I loved Richard Mouw’s take, in response to criticism he himself faced. He wrote,
“I just received an angry email from someone who pulled a comment out of something I wrote a few years ago in Christianity Today. A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith. A straightforward question: Did Mother Teresa go to hell? My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you. Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?”