Friday, April 8, 2011

Rob Bell and the New Testament Concept of "Forever"

There are numerous reviews of Rob Bell’s Love Wins in print and on the blogosphere, and my purpose here is not to review the work or even to engage many of the larger issues in the book. I would simply like to address Rob Bell’s understanding of the NT idea of “forever” and “eternal life” that is expressed in the book and in public interviews he has given since the book’s publication (http://video.foxnews.com/v/4624628/love-wins-sparks-religious-debate). I am interested in this discussion in part because I teach biblical languages (Hebrew) and have read many student word studies that have arrived at some rather unusual conclusions. I am more concerned with this particular discussion because I believe that Bell has seriously misrepresented the biblical data on eternity in a way that results in a defective view of both heaven and hell. Bell’s basic premise is that the aion words refer to an intensity of experience rather than to something that is eternal and never-ending in nature. In line with his comments in the interview linked above, Bell states in the book, "We saw earlier how aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end. Another meaning of aion is a bit more complex and nuanced, because it refers to a particular intensity of experience that transcends time.” He then illustrates this usage of the word by noting how we refer to a boring class that takes “forever” or how we say that “time flies” when we are in love. He adds: "Whether an experience is pleasurable or painful, in the extreme moments of life what we encounter is time dragging and flying, slowing down and speeding up. That's what aion refers to - a particularly intense experience. Aion is often translated as "eternal" in English, which is an altogether different word from "forever" (see pp. 57-58 of the book for these quotes).

Bell’s analysis of “forever” fails to properly distinguish between the words aion and aionios, which are different words with different meanings. The noun aion refers to an age that has a beginning and an end, while the adjective aionios refers to something that is forever and never-ending. Aion is frequently used in the NT to refer to this present age or world (cf. Luke 1:70; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18; 2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4; Eph 2:2; 6:12; 1 Tim 6:17;2 Tim 4:10) or to the ages of human history (cf. Eph 3:9; Col 1:26; Titus 2:12: Heb 1:2). While the basic meaning of aion may be “age,” the expressions eis ton aiona (singular) or eis tous aionas (plural) clearly signify something that lasts for as long as time endures (eternal). This idea is strengthened by the expression eis tous aionas ton aionon, which describes the endless future as a perpetual succession of shorter ages. Bell is certainly correct that the idea of eternity stands outside of time, but the concept of permanently enduring time is the only way to express what is eternal from our present perspective within time. The way in which Paul uses the expression “from the ages” (apo ton aionon) in Colossians 1:26 and Ephesians 3:9 to refer to God’s eternal purposes before time began (and we have a similar use of the adjective aionios in Rom 16:25) supports the idea that there can be unending ages that extend eternally into the future.

Both the noun aion and the adjective aionios are used to describe God’s eternal nature and existence. The writer of Hebrews uses the noun aion when declaring that Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today, and forever (eis ton aiona)” (Heb 13:8), making reference to past, present, and future. The adjective aionios is used to describe the “eternal” God (Rom 16:26), and the “eternal” Spirit (Heb 9:14). 1 Timothy 6:16 speaks of God’s “eternal” power, while also making reference to his immortality. Jesus Christ himself is the “eternal life” (1 Jn 1:2; 5:20), and the believer’s life is unending because it is in Christ and has Christ as its source (1 Jn 5:11). The noun aion is used to describe the duration of God’s eternal kingdom (Heb 1:8; Jude 25) and of the reign of Jesus as Messiah (Luke 1:33). It is also used to refer to the enduring glory, blessing, and honor that belongs to God, which must be eternal in light of his eternal nature (cf. Rom 1:25; 9:5; 2 Cor 11:31; Gal 1:5; Eph 3:21; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 13:21).

Both the noun aion and the adjective aionios are also used with reference to the everlasting life offered to those who are followers of Christ. The adjective aionios is used with this way in passages that include Matt 19:16; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 16:9; 18:30; John 3:15, 16, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3; Acts 13:46, 48; Rom 16:26; 2 Cor 5:1; Gal 6:8; 1 Thess 6:12; 1 Tim 6:19; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 3:7. In Romans 2:7 and 1 Timothy 1:16, aionios life is also connected to the word “immortality” (aphtarsian—the same term used to describe the “incorruptible” body of the glorified believer in 1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53 and the immortality of the believer in 2 Tim 1:10 due to the fact that Christ has “abolished death”). The never-ending nature of aionios life is clearly present in 2 Corinthians 4:18 where Paul contrasts the unseen things that are aiovios with the seen things of this world that are “temporary” or “transient” (proskairos). Paul then goes on to discuss in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 the eternal (aionios) body that the believer receives when the mortal and earthly body is destroyed by death.

When the noun aion is used as the measure of this life given to those who believe in Jesus, it is often specifically set in contrast to the type of life that is ended by death (John 6:51, 58; 8:51-52; 10:28; 11:26). In John 6, Jesus promises bread that is superior to the bread eaten by the fathers that did not prevent them from dying in the wilderness. In John 8, there is the promise that the followers of Jesus will not experience death, and this reality is set in contrast to the death of Abraham. In John 10:28 and 11:26, the promise of eternal life means that one will never die. In John 12:34, the crowd asks how the Messiah can die if he is to remain eis ton aiona. They clearly understood that a life lasting eis ton aiona has no ending.

Bell is right to emphasize that the believer presently enjoys everlasting life and that the new life in Christ has a distinctive quality in the here and now (John 10:10; 17:2-3). Traditional forms of evangelism in some Christian traditions have certainly overemphasized the idea of going to heaven when we die as the primary issue of salvation. However, “eternal life” in the New Testament refers to both a quality and quantity of life, and the aion words themselves specifically highlight the durative nature of the life given to the believer in Christ. Bell states that “heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future” (p. 58). No one would want to describe eternity in such a pedantic manner, but Bell’s understanding fails to reckon with the strong biblical emphasis on the unending nature of everlasting life. In contrast to Bell’s selective and one-sided explanation, Joachim Guhrt has provided a much more accurate and balanced understanding of the NT perspective on everlasting life:

John understands eternal life in relation to Christ through faith, love and in keeping the commands of Christ (Jn 3:15 f. , 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2 f.). The word 'eternal' here indicates a definite quality: it is a different life from the old existence typified by hate, lack of love, sin, pain and death. Eternal life does not therefore just begin in the future, it is already the possession of those who have entered upon fellowship with Christ. Thus, Jn. 3:15 speaks of having eternal life in the present. But there is also a temporal sense, so that eternal (aionios) indicates the quantity of this life: because it belongs to Christ, who himself is the Life (Jn. 14:6), it has no end. It will not even cease at death (Jn. 8:51; 11:25 5).

Bell argues that when the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to get “everlasting life,” he is asking how he could enter into kingdom living in this present life rather than inquiring about where he would go when he died. However, Bell is insisting that the rich man is asking about either this life or the next one when it seems rather obvious that he is asking about both this life and the next. Guhrt explains, “From the book of Daniel onwards ‘eternal life’ is an expression of the long-for eschatological blessings of salvation, life in the age to come (cf. Dan. 12:2).” This eternal life is associated with the resurrection from the dead and the coming kingdom of God (cf. Matt 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9-10), and there is a good bit of discussion in Second Temple Judaism as to what this afterlife was like. The NT speaks of this present age (Gal 1:4) and the age that is to come (cf. Eph 1:21; 2:7). We particularly see the never-ending nature of the age to come in passages where the adjective “everlasting” (aionios) is used to describe the coming future age (aion) (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30). The eternal nature of this future age contrasts with the present age that is passing away (1 Jn 2:17).

I would like to conclude this discussion by looking at the twelve uses of the expression “forever and ever” (eis tous aionas ton aionon) in the book of Revelation. In eight of its uses, the expression refers to God’s eternal existence (Rev 4:9, 10; 10:6), to the eternal glory and honor that God is worthy of (Rev 1:6; 5:13; 7:12), and to the unending duration of Christ’s kingdom rule (Rev 11:15). The same expression is used to refer to the eternal life and reign of the saints with Christ in Revelation 22:5 and to the torment of the wicked and Satan in the lake of fire in Revelation 14:11 and 20:10. It is also used metaphorically to refer to the smoke from the city of Babylon going up forever in Revelation 19:3, but there is no clear reason in light of overall biblical teaching why this metaphorical use of forever should be applied to persons in the lake of fire. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective aionios describes both the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked, and Jesus presents these two ideas as parallel concepts. The aion words alone certainly do not resolve all of the issues regarding the nature of hell and eternal punishment, but the usage of these words in the NT is in line with traditional Christian teaching. Bell’s overemphasis on the this-worldly side of salvation and his suggestion of the possibility of a second chance beyond this life for those condemned to hell are both inconsistent with the NT concepts of eternal life and everlasting punishment as unending realities.

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