Book Review: 23 Minutes in Hell

A parishioner recommended 23 Minutes in Hell to me, and I have to admit I was fascinated just by the title.  Having recently read and reviewed the enormously popular Heaven Is for Real, I wondered how a book on the Other Place might fare.  

Not terribly well, I’m afraid.  It would be easy enough to focus on the limitations of the writing style.  It’s very straightforward, but not particularly eloquent.  As is my wont, I find myself thinking of an old Bloom County comic strip where Steve Dallas is an astronaut circling Earth.  He takes on the responsibility of describing how Earth looks from space, and he makes several rather lacking efforts, capped off by the insight that it looks just like a “great big globe”.  The strip ends with Opus lamenting that we need to get a poet up onto a space shuttle – and quickly!
Bill Wiese struggles to try and convey what he experienced during his 23-minute trip to hell.  It is not a terribly victorious struggle.  While I have no doubt that our language truly lacks adjectives sufficient to describe the horrors he witnessed, I think he could have worked with someone a bit more adept with language to try for a more compelling narrative.  What he describes never really hits home, and he doesn’t seem to describe things fully.  He later in the book shares that he never saw children or heard a child’s scream in hell, but this wasn’t part of the initial sharing of the experience.  It comes off as though he is remembering other things as he goes.
I didn’t find anything in his description contrary to Scripture.  It was clear that he sees Scriptural backing as absolutely necessary – sort of the proof that what he experienced was real and from God rather than the result of, say, too many anchovy donuts the night before.  Many times his use of Scriptural referents seemed to ignore context and genre, so that he pulled verses as proof that, to my reading of them, weren’t necessarily intended as literal depictions of specific aspects of hell.  I can’t go so far as to say they aren’t, they just don’t look that way in context.  
My main frustration with the book is that the amount of time spent actually describing his experience in hell is a minor portion of the overall book.  Granted, it’s only 23-minutes.  But I imagine it ought to take a bit longer than 43 of 160 pages to describe it.  The effect of immediately jumping into things without pretext is very effective in grabbing the reader’s attention.  I just wish that, once he had mine, he had been more effective at holding it.
The remainder of the book is a theological primer on the Biblical Christian view teachings on hell.  Some of this teaching his helpful.  Some is not.  His main point is to convince people that hell is real, and that without Jesus Christ, hell is really our eternal destination.  Towards this end, he does a good idea of conveying what is often left out of discussions about hell – that there are dark spiritual forces who actively seek to waylay, confuse, and otherwise prevent people from responding to the Holy Spirit’s working of faith in their hearts.  So many people who object to hell do so on the grounds that a loving God could never have a place like hell.  What they don’t take into account is that there are other forces that necessitate and perpetuate it.  Christians need to take this seriously without becoming paranoid about it.
What I appreciate about the book, unlike the Heaven Is for Real book, is it repeatedly stresses that our confidence ought not to rest on the author’s experience, but on the Word of God.  Over and over he directs the reader to contextualize what he experienced in Scripture.  He provides a great deal of Biblical quotes to back up what he experienced.  Some of these are great stretches of interpretation and application.  Others seem dead on.  But the point is that he isn’t telling us anything we haven’t already been told.  That’s an important thing to remember.  
I’m grateful for having been pointed to this book.  I recommend it not because it’s a particularly well-written book, but because it boldly addresses something that the Church in America has grown more timid about speaking on.  

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