Monday, January 7, 2008

23 MINUTES IN HELL by Bill Wiese

23 Minutes in Hell is Bill Wiese's account of his claimed trip to Hell, followed by attempts at explaining what he saw and the presentation of the Gospel message. His fundamental point is this: that Christians have a duty to witness to others. My review is that of a Christian scholar, and so presupposes the existence of God, Jesus, and afterlife.

The fundamental problem with 23 Minutes in Hell is Wiese's absolute lack of hermeneutical knowledge or approach. He doesn't understand the imagery of Hebrew poetry (which is in many cases not so different from our own modern poetry). Most scriptures are used out of context, a fact which Wiese himself admits from time to time. He also seems to have no clue about the Biblical languages. He also freely quotes any theologian that serves his purpose.

In the English Bible, there are several distinctly different words that are translated as "hell." In the Old Testament, the word occurring most often is Sheol, the underworld, where all the dead go. It is in no sense a burning, flaming hell, and would not have been imagined so by the OT authors, because at that point very little, if any, understanding of an afterlife had been developed. As such, Wiese uses nearly 100% of his Old Testament references inappropriately. The reader gets the feeling that Wiese just went through an English concordance and found what he was looking for.

There are certainly questions with Wiese's account. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but I was hardly unnerved by his account of hell, as so many have claimed to be. And pretty convenient how he "instinctively" knew how the stench and the heat were "a thousand times" more intense than on earth, and that it was too hot to survive in. The reader is forced to take him at his word (or not). Did he have that experience? Maybe. Maybe he had a dream. Maybe he made it up. But of more glaring concern is how he bent the Bible to make it fit his account.

The title certainly piggybacks on Piper and Murphey's 90 Minutes in Heaven. Also, Wiese mentions he got to know a man at his gym. Wiese says, "I discovered that he had won the World's Strongest Man contest in 1996" (p. 60). Well, I looked it up. The winner in 1996 (and 1991, 1994, and 1995) was Iceland's Magnus Ver Magnusson. He lives in Iceland. I was unable to find any evidence connecting him with Wiese (although I didn't try too hard).

In spite of the heaps of criticism this book has deservedly received, it does make a good point: Christians have a duty to witness to others, as the Bible is clear that there will be a final judgment. As Wiese says on the back cover, "Even if you don't believe my story, I hope you will believe the Scriptures and avoid hell just the same." Amen to that.

From a scholarly perspective, this book is a joke. There are other "I had a personal experience" books that are a lot more credible. It is rather unfortunate that formally-trained seminarians never seem to have these experiences. It would be great to see a book like this written credibly.