Erasing Hell Review

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Title: Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up
Author: Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
Year Published: 2011
Pages: 197

My grandfather passed away recently. At the funeral the other week, the pastor, a dear family friend, said he’s done around a hundred funerals over the years. While all funerals are difficult, he stated a funeral like my grandfather’s where he is confident he will see the deceased again in heaven someday is much easier than when he’s unsure of the person’s final destination. He said at about a quarter of the funerals he’s done, he’s been unsure and that those are very, very difficult funerals.

Erasing Hell never pretends that the doctrine of hell is easy. Francis Chan could have treated hell in a sterile, academic manner. But he doesn’t. He makes clear from the start that hell is not to be simply intellectually acknowledged, but that if you truly believe in hell, it must transform how you live your life. I’ve never read anything by Chan before, but I’ll make a point to now. I can see why he is so popular. Throughout the book there is an explicit challenge to allow your belief in hell to transform how you treat other people. If you truly believe in hell and that people will be going there, that should motivate you to do everything in your power to make sure the people you come in contact with have an opportunity to believe in Christ.

You’ll notice in the above paragraph I referred to Chan as the author of Erasing Hell, but his is not the only name on the cover of the book. He co-authored it with New Testament professor Preston Sprinkle. From what Chan wrote in the preface, it appears the expertise in the original languages and the research were Sprinkle’s, but the presentation (i.e. the words on the page) were, for the most part, Chan’s. Also, the book is written in first-person perspective and whenever there are personal anecdotes, they are from the perspective of Chan. So for simplicity’s sake, I will continue to refer to the author as just “Chan.”

Chan’s challenge is clear:

This is not just about doctrine; it’s about destinies. And if you’re reading this book and wrestling with what the Bible says about hell, you cannot let this be a mere academic exercise. You must let Jesus’ very teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you. (72)

Due to space, I cannot quote all the passages where Chan emphasizes this theme. Hell being about more than doctrine but about destiny is a major theme that can be traced throughout Erasing Hell. Other relevant passages include pp. 14, 16-17, 36, 81, 107-108, 118, 124, and 145.

I cannot discuss Erasing Hell without mentioning Rob Bell’s Love Wins. While I’m sure Love Wins was at least part of the catalyst for Erasing Hell, the latter is not a diatribe against the former. I don’t know if Bell has even read Erasing Hell, nor do I have his phone number, but if I did and called him up to ask him what he thought of this book, I suppose he would agree with most of it. Bell never denied the existence of a literal hell.

What Erasing Hell addresses is a stream of thought within evangelicalism of which Love Wins is just the most recent (albeit most popular) example. Chan quotes from The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott (published 1999) and The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (published 2006) alongside Love Wins. Where Chan and Bell part ways is on the possibility of postmortem salvation. Bell proposes that God continues to extend the invitation to salvation even after death, and since in his proposal this invitation is extended for all eternity, he espouses a de facto universalism.

In fact, Chan writes of Bell’s proposal, “To make a compelling case that ‘the love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God’ [a quote from Love Wins] without clear biblical evidence is incredibly dangerous—especially if you are one of these ‘sinners’ and things don’t work out like this” (36). What Chan is saying is that some of Bell’s claims in Love Wins are akin to spiritual malpractice.

Chan follows in the long Protestant tradition of sola scriptura. He urges the reader to test all doctrine with scripture and to “be eager to leave what is familiar for what is true” (16). Yes, all doctrine must be tested with scripture, but some doctrines are time-tested. While you should always be willing to reevaluate doctrine in light of scriptural evidence, doctrines that have withstood the test to time should not be abandoned without compelling evidence. It is not contrary to sola scriptura to do so. When a doctrine like the doctrine of hell has been around thousands of years1, that means it has been compared to and tested by the words of scripture countless times by numerous scholars. It is unlikely you’ve spotted something in the Bible they missed.

In the very first chapter, Chan tackles universalism by digging into the biblical evidence. He analyzes five passages2 that are usually used to support universalism. He comes to the conclusion, “No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus” (35). Bell can’t imagine Jesus saying “Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late” (Love Wins, 108). But, as Chan points out, Jesus did say this. Read Luke 13:25-28.

Those problematic passages that say God is reconciling all people to himself and that God wants everyone to be saved are addressing ethnocentrism, which was a major issue in the first-century. Many Christian Jews couldn’t imagine God saving non-Jews. But “God is not a bigot” (32 cf. pp. 79, 120). He wants to save Jews and Gentiles. Upper class and lower class. It’s been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. This is a message the church still desperately needs.

After the first chapter, Chan adopts a methodical approach to the doctrine of hell that reminds me of N. T. Wright’s approach to resurrection in The Resurrection of the Son of God. He analyzes resurrection in ancient paganism, then the Old Testament, then first-century Judaism, then Paul, then early Christianity, and finally the Gospels. Chan’s popular-level survey of the doctrine of hell is not nearly as comprehensive as Wright’s academic-level survey of resurrection found in his massive 817-page tome, but there are endnotes and a bibliography for those who want to dig deeper. In the second chapter, Chan investigates first-century Judaism’s beliefs about hell using three categories: (1) Hell is a place of punishment after judgment, (2) hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, and (3) hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment. He uses those same categories in chapter three to investigate what Jesus said about hell and then in chapter four what Jesus’ followers (Paul and the other New Testament books) said about hell.

There are some widespread theories that sound really intelligent but are actually very dumb. For example, you probably hear every Christmas from some smart mouth that Christians appropriated the date of a pagan holiday for the date of Christmas. While we know Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, the problem with the pagan holiday theory is that it didn’t show up until the Middle Ages. Christians had been celebrating Christmas for over a thousand years before anyone even suggested the date came from a pagan holiday. You may have heard the theory (in fact, Bell repeats it in Love Wins) that gehenna, the word Jesus used for hell, was also the name of a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. I learned from Erasing Hell that this theory is garbage. It turns out it too is a medieval myth. The first person to refer to gehenna as a dump was rabbi David Kimhi in AD 1200—over a thousand years after Jesus used the word to refer to hell. On top of that, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that the valley outside Jerusalem that is called gehenna was ever a garbage dump. Archaeologists have dug and dug and have yet to turn up any artifact that would suggest the area was once used as a dump.

While Chan considers postmortem salvation unbiblical, he allows for the possibility that souls are annihilated (cease to exist) after a certain amount of time instead of being subjected to eternal punishment. In a section of chapter three subtitled “So Where Do I Land?”, Chan states, “While I lean heavily on the side that says [punishment in hell] is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty” (36). There is a strong biblical basis for both the doctrine of hell as a place of unending torment and annihilationism.

Chan took a contentious subject and turned it into a challenge to live wholeheartedly for Jesus. Probably thanks to his co-author being a college professor, the book is well-researched and includes endnotes (one of my frustrations with Love Wins was a lack of footnotes or citations). As Chan says, “we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it” (146).

Notes

1 As Chan shows in chapter 2, the doctrine of hell predates the NT. Although the OT is vague on the afterlife, by quoting first-century Jewish writers, he shows that the doctrine of hell was firmly rooted in Judaism by Jesus’ time.
2 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:19, Phil. 2:9-11, Col. 1:19-20, 1 Tim. 2:4

Check out other books I’ve read at BookShrub.

Publication: Scientific American
Frequency: Monthly
Average Page Count: 90
Issues Reviewed: February 2011, March 2011, April 2011

When it comes to biblical studies and theology, I can read Greek, employ technical commentaries when doing exegesis, and read both academic journals and books. I also enjoy science, but in a different way. If I picked up a scientific academic journal, it would be Greek…uh…Italian?…to me. That’s why I’m grateful for popular science magazines. I subscribe to three, in fact: Popular Science, New Scientist, and Scientific American.

This is the perfect time to review SciAm. Mariette DiChristina took over as editor-in-chief in December of 2009, replacing John Rennie who had been editor since 1994. She’s now had a little over a year to get into the groove of things, and we can begin to evaluate her unique contributions to the magazine.

More recently, late last year, SciAm underwent an overhaul. This wasn’t a simple redesign: It was a complete overhaul. The dimensions of the magazine changed, the binding changed (from staples to perfect), and even the website was redesigned. Those are all cosmetic though.

The overhaul was deeper than that. They also updated some of their editorial strategies. DiChristina has even expanded the size of the board of advisers. And they are still committed to the reason I fell in love with the magazine in the first place: in-depth feature articles on scientific issues written by scientists and researches—not journalists—that are clear and understandable to a general audience. I don’t know if I’d recommend SciAm for a ten-year-old (Popular Science is probably more on their level), but a high schooler interested in science should have no problem following the articles.

Where the editorial strategy has changed is the addition of shorter content interspersed between the longer feature articles. I was afraid at first this was a sign of “dumbing down” SciAm. I am happy to report they are still committed to the longer feature articles (usually six to eight pages), and I have even found the new, shorter material interesting.

In the February 2011 issue, there is a two-page feature (about one page of text and one page taken up by a full-page computer-generated image) about NASA’s NuSTAR telescope. The April 2011 issue featured a six-page photo essay about the Dead Sea and a two-page computer science feature (again, about one page of text and one page of illustration) discussing new techniques that may allow voice recognition software to decipher between multiple voices speaking simultaneously (something humans do routinely but is incredibly complicated for a computer).

I am less interested in biology, medicine, and earth sciences articles and more interested in physics, astronomy, computer science, and mathematics articles. SciAm usually has a good mix of both though. DiChristina does seem to pick more biology and medicine stories than Rennie did though. The cover stories for both the February 2011 and March 2011 issues were medicine articles: “Scaling Back Obesity” and “How Minds Bounce Back.” The April 2011 cover story, “Quantum Gaps in Big Bang Theory,” was a physics article and probably the article I enjoyed most of the three issues reviewed here.

Other articles that stood out were “Citizen Satellites” (February) about how standardization is lowering costs to allow small research agencies and even hobbyists to perform experiments on satellites, “Journey to the Innermost Planet” (March) about Mercury, and “Demons, Entropy and the Quest for Absolute Zero” (March) about new techniques for reaching ultralow temperatures.

The one area where I feel SciAm is weak is there book section. They have one page—and only one page—near the end of each issue dedicated to books. There is a recommended book with a one-paragraph (really, a few sentence) review (not much more than a summary), an excerpt from a recently released book, and a list with no commentary whatsoever of recently published popular science books. New Scientist dedicates two to three pages of each issue to books. There is usually one or two full-page reviews and then a page of three or four shorter (a few paragraph) reviews. SciAm should expand their book coverage another page and at least really review their recommended book of the month.

Part 1 of this series. Also check out my review of Love Wins

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about Love Wins, so I won’t be writing another in-depth interaction with Rob Bell’s critics. I was only able to interact with five critics in part 1. I tried to prioritize the earliest published reviews. There are many significant reviews I wasn’t able to get to. Here I’ll only provide a short summary of each review though.

Richard J. Mouw, “The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell” (March 15, 2011)

Part 1 was somewhat one-sided. Only one of the five critics cited, Greg Boyd, maintained that Bell was not a universalist. Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, joins Boyd in endorsing Bell’s eschatology. He writes that Love Wins is “being widely criticized for having crossed the theological bridge from evangelical orthodoxy into universalism. Not true… Rob Bell is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy.” Mouw presents a few possible excerpts from a hypothetical theological essay on “The Eschatology of Rob Bell.” If this really were the eschatology of Rob Bell, I wouldn’t have any problem with Love Wins. For the most part, I agree with the eschatology Mouw lays out; I just don’t believe it’s the eschatology Bell actually presents in Love Wins.

Russell D. Moore, “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell” (March 15, 2011)

Moore’s essay is the most insightful review of Love Wins I’ve read so far. If you don’t read any other review of Love Wins, I recommend you at least read this one. Moore is Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s not Bell’s eschatology that surprised Moore. “What caused [Moore] to gasp out loud though was Bell’s dismissal of the blood of Jesus.” Bell wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods” (128). Moore counters, “The gospel is all about blood.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology” (March 16, 2011)

Another voice from Southern, Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler states that Bell appears “to argue for outright universalism on some pages” but also recognizes that he backs “off of a full affirmation.” Like Mark Galli for Christianity Today, Mohler detects a trajectory toward Protestant Liberalism in Bell’s work. “[W]e have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism.” And I love Mohler’s concluding line—it is well worth quoting: “The problem begins even with the book’s title. The message of the Gospel is not merely that love wins—it is that Jesus saves.”

Brian D. McLaren, “Will ‘Love Wins’ Win? We’re early in the first inning…” (March 21, 2011)

This is where the conversation Bell sparked really starts resembling a conversation rather than disparate voices each voicing their own opinion. McLaren, no stranger to controversial books himself, responds directly to Mohler’s review. McLaren joins Bell in saying he “can’t in good conscience defend [the traditional view of hell] any longer” but also that he won’t condemn those “who can’t in good conscience stop defending it.” He hopes we will “see the conversation continue and deepen, and Dr. Mohler can be thanked for getting the first inning off to a strong and exciting start. If we seek true understanding and give one another a fair hearing all along the way, knowing we’ll all strike out sometimes and even commit an error or two from time to time, whoever ‘wins,’ love will win.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “A Theological Conversation Worth Having: A Response to Brian McLaren” (March 23, 2011)

Then Mohler responded to Mclaren’s response: McLaren’s “essay is a welcome addition to this important conversation.” Mohler feels McLaren “is to be credited with taking theology seriously, with making clear arguments, and with a willingness to engage the conversation. I return his candor with my own. [T]his conversation must continue.”

JR Woodward, “Divided by Hell? An Assessment of ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment” Part I (March 18, 2011), Part II (March 19, 2011), Part III (March 20, 2011), Part IV (March 21, 2011), Part V (March 22, 2011), Part VI (March 23, 2011)

In a series of posts, Woodward, co-founder of a network of neighborhood churches, hones in on two specific questions: (1) What is universalism and is Rob Bell a universalist? (2) Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave? On the question of universalism he concludes, “If we understand universalism as ‘the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved,’ that ‘only one destiny awaits, namely, salvation in heaven,’ then Rob Bell cannot be called a universalist. In Love Wins, Bell passionately declares that God’s love is universal, yet he never does away with people’s freedom to choose” (Part III). On the issue of whether postmortem salvation is heresy, he quotes Alister McGrath that heresy “is ultimately a teaching judged unacceptable by the entire church.” Therefore, something like Arianism is heresy whereas Calvinism and Arminianism are not because both are accepted by at least some in the church. He also quotes a nineteenth-century German pietist who said, “Anyone who does not [hope for] belief in universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass” (Part VI). He agrees with Hans Shwartz that “[o]nly those who are already in this life connected with eternity in time, with Jesus Christ” can have assurance (Part VI). His conclusion is that “[I]n light of the fact that it seems like universalism has been a minority voice in the church since the early days, and the fact that some in the past have gone further than Bell on this matter, I do not think we can call Love Wins heresy…” (Part VI, italics in original).

Ben Witherington, “Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls… A Chapter by Chapter Review of ‘Love Wins’” (Part One, March 23, 2011)

Witherington is one of my favorite bloggers and authors. He writes so many scholarly books (particularly on the NT—his specialty) that I sometimes wonder if he’s not an android who never sleeps rather than a man. To keep this short, I’ll only be summarizing the first part, but I recommend you read the entire series. His review is an excellent example of how to remain generous and balanced even when you disagree with the conclusions of the author you are reviewing. He praises Bell’s gift of teaching but with that “comes the need to do his best not just to ask good questions (which he is a master at), but also to seek to provide good and helpful answers where possible. Beyond that, one should say—‘I don’t know’.” In reference to Bell’s disclaimer in the preface that “nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity” (x), he writes, “As it turns out…this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy. If one means no more that some church father somewhere at sometime said something like this before, whether we deem him to be making an off-handed comment or not, then perhaps this claim can stand.” In the first part of my interaction with Bell’s critics, I pondered if Bell was even asking the right questions. Witherington chimes in on this as well, “Most of the various objections raised, allegedly about Jesus in Chapter One, are actually objections to Christians behaving badly, not objections to Jesus himself. This is a category mistake.”

Roger E. Olson, “The Promised Response to Bell’s Love Wins” (March 25, 2011)

Olson is an author I respect, and I always pay attention when he has something to say. He, like Boyd and Mouw, is emphatic that Bell is not a universalist: “[I]t is obvious to me that early critics of the book were wrong and they owe Bell an apology. Nowhere in the book does Bell affirm universalism.” But he does voice some disagreement with Bell: “One thing I disagree with in Love Wins (and I disagreed with it in The Shack) is Bell’s affirmation that God has already forgiven everyone through Jesus Christ. I believe God has provided everything for forgiveness, but forgiveness depends on acceptance of God’s provision.”

Carl Trueman, “Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses,” (March 2011)

This isn’t a review of Love Wins. It is a response to how Bell used Luther in support of postmortem salvation. Bell wrote, “[T]here must be some kind of ‘second chance’ for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: ‘Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?’” (106) The controversy surrounding Love Wins started well before the book even came out. The publisher released a promotional video in which some critics felt Bell was endorsing universalism. Others felt they should wait until the book came out to draw any conclusions. Bell wanted people to wait until they had read his book before drawing conclusions about his theology; it only seems fair that he should, in turn, not use an out-of-context quote to make a theologian appear to support an issue he does not. Trueman writes, “[T]here is a basic problem of historical method here: it is illegitimate to take a small quotation from a single letter and use it to extrapolate to a person’s general theology.” Enlisting the support—even of a long-dead theologian—to support an issue he most certainly would have disagreed with seems at best unfair. Trueman points out, “Even the briefest reading of, say, Luther’s Larger Catechism would indicate that his mature position allows no space for such postmortem second chances.” Trueman argues that Luther’s question doesn’t mean what Bell indicates it means. According to Trueman, Luther was employing a common medieval rhetorical technique. Luther “asks if God could give somebody faith after death and justify them on that basis. Yes, he replies, he could do so; but there is absolutely no evidence that he does do so. It is akin to asking ‘Could God have made the earth without a moon?’ The answer is ‘Yes, there is no logical contradiction in that claim; but he did not do so.’”

There are many more great reviews out there. Bell has started an important conversation about universalism. As even Bell acknowledges, that conversation is not new; he just brought it to the forefront again. And the conversation will go on well after Love Wins is forgotten.

In this two part series, I tried to summarize both the earliest, significant reviews and reviews from authors that I respect and seek out when dealing with a controversial issue. Another such author I seek out is Scot McKnight. He is one of my favorite writers. Anytime he writes something, it is well worth reading. He has promised a review of Love Wins sometime early in April. When it comes out, seek it out (you’ll probably be able to find it on his blog). I promise it’ll be worth it!

Part 2 of this series. Also check out my review of Love Wins

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has started a conversation. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, that is a good thing. Talking about our beliefs about heaven and hell helps us clarify what the Bible really says.

I’ve already written what I think about Love Wins. A lot has been written about the book. Much of it was written before the book even came out. I’m not interested in that. The reviews I summarize and interact with in this article are all written by people who have read the book and are reviewing Bell’s actual words—not a blurb on the back of the book.

There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

Your elementary teacher was wrong. There is such a thing as a stupid question. Search engines have taught us that. Unless you ask the right question (enter the most relevant search terms), the search results won’t be helpful. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything is 42. They had the answer, but they still had to figure out the question.

How the question is framed effects the answer you come to. Bell asks a lot of questions and gives what he thinks is the answer to at least some of those questions. But is he asking the right questions? Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd answers that question with a resounding yes.

Love Wins was available to the general public on March 15, 2011. The earliest review I’m aware of from someone who had actually read the book is Boyd’s “Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I acutally read ‘Love Wins’)” posted on his blog on March 4. Boyd had been given an advance copy. He is a pastor and one of the chief evangelical proponents of open theism. He writes that “Love Wins masterfully raises all the right questions, even if one ends up disagreeing with some of Rob’s conclusions.” Boyd thinks it’s the questions—and not the answers—that are important:

Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion (italics in original).

Another early review came from Tim Challies, a Reformed author known for his insightful book reviews. He posted a review based on an advanced copy on March 9. He challenges the validity of how Bell frames the questions, “They say that the person who frames the debate is going to win the debate. That is especially true when the debate is framed in this way, through these particular questions.”

Boyd argued Bell is more interested in the questions than the answers. Kevin DeYoung, who pastors a church just about an hour from Bell’s church and author of several books himself including Why We’re Not Emergent and Why We Love the Church, thinks the answers—not just the questions—are important. In a March 14 blog post titled “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True,” he writes:

[A]lthough Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” … This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that).

Although DeYoung doesn’t reference Boyd’s review, it’s clear he’s read it and has it in the back of his mind while he writes his own review:

Bell means to persuade. He wants to convince us of something. He is a teacher teaching. This book is not a poem. It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.

It’s a Question of Worldview

Here’s how Bell frames the question:

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (2)

NT scholar Denny Burk writes in a March 14 blog post “Revising Hell into the Heterodox Mainstream” that “Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions.” There is a worldview implicit in how Bell’s question is framed: People are basically good. Nobody deserves to go to hell. This is an unbiblical worldview (Romans 3:10, 23).

Bell thinks the traditional Christian narrative that “a few committed Christians will ‘go to heaven’ when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death” (110) is not a very good story. He thinks “everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (111).

By what measure or objective is Bell’s story a better story? Christianity Today published a review of Love Wins, “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far,” on March 14. According to senior managing editor Mark Galli, Bell’s story is essentially the story liberal Protestantism has been telling:

To be fair, many people become Christians as a result of hearing the liberal gospel. And one suspects that Bell’s book will have this effect for some. But liberalism has never been able to win a large following for Jesus. Too often, its Jesus sounds like an ideal people already believe in, so why bother? Just in this generation, we’ve witnessed the steady and dramatic shrinking of liberal Protestant churches, while Pentecostal and evangelicals churches—which preach substitutionary atonement, hell, and other doctrines supposedly offensive to modern ears—have been exploding in growth worldwide.

The traditional Christian narrative is a good story. If we were to judge by the numbers, it is the better story. But the better story is not the story that attracts the greatest numbers; the better story is the story that is true—something Bell does not seem to be concerned with. Bell thinks, “Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (111). If I’m reading that right, even if universalism isn’t true, a Christian should long for it. In trying to improve the gospel, Bell has succeeded only in creating, as Challies puts it, “a gospel with no purpose.” DeYoung eloquently expounds:

In Bell’s theology, God is love, a love that never burns hot with anger and a love that cannot distinguish or discriminate. “Jesus’ story,” Bell says, “is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody, everywhere” (1). … There’s no good news in announcing that God loves everyone in the same way just because he wants to. The good news is that in love God sent his Son to live for our lives and die for our deaths, suffering the God-forsakenness we deserved so that we might call God our God and we who trust in Christ might be his children. The sad irony is that while Bell would very much like us to know the love of God, he has taken away the very thing in which God’s love is chiefly known: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

So the Question Is: Is Bell a Universalist?

I opened my review of Love Wins by stating that Bell is not a universalist. That was an oversimplification, but for brevity’s sake, I didn’t expand upon it. First of all, Bell does not make it easy to pin him down. He’s intentionally elusive, which is compounded by the fact that he doesn’t bother with footnotes or cite his sources.

Challies shares the frustration I expressed in my review that “Bell turns to the original languages but he quotes no commentaries, points to no sources.” DeYoung states, “Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.” Galli repeats the common refrain among Bell’s critics, “Given the complete lack of quotes from any other writer or tradition, one is led to the unfortunate conclusion that what makes one extraordinary biblical claim a time-bound metaphor and another literal truth is that Bell says so.” I acknowledge the difference between a popular and an academic work, but contrary to what many publishers seem to believe, a footnote here and there is not going to scare away general readers. One of the big publishing surprises of 2010 was the bestseller status of Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This meticulously researched, heavily footnoted, 608-page tome should have only been of interest to a select few history nerds.

Of the reviews I’ve interacted with in this article, Boyd was the sole reviewer who maintained that Bell is not a universalist. Love Wins, Challies suggests, “reveals [Bell] as a proponent of a kind of Christian Universalism. He would deny the label as he tends to deny any label.” Bell seems to propose a Protestant version of purgatory, but unlike purgatory, DeYoung points out, Bell’s “‘period of pruning’ is for anyone, not just for Christians who die in a state of grace as Catholicism teaches.” Burk adds, “While Bell does not want to be labeled a universalist, this book does more to advance the cause of universalism at the popular level than any book I have ever seen.” And Galli concludes, “After reading the book, it’s hard for me to believe that Bell doesn’t espouse universalism, but to be fair, he never formally affirms such belief.”

“Is Bell a universalist?” can’t really be answered with a simple yes or no. At times Bell seems to be espousing universalism. But then, at other times, he inserts little escape hatches for himself, such as: “[W]ill those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility” (114). And Bell obviously doesn’t consider himself a universalist—he has said as much in interviews. His position is definitely a sub-universalism just a step, a step Bell does not seem willing—yet—to take, away from universalism. I think the best term for Bell’s position in Love Wins is postmortem salvation.

Reviews Referenced in This Article:

Love Wins Review

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Also check out my two part series, “Rob Bell and His Critics,” in which I summarize and interact with what critics of Love Wins have been saying: Part 1 and Part 2.

Title: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Author: Rob Bell
Year Published: 2011
Pages: 202

You may have heard that Rob Bell espouses universalism in Love Wins. He doesn’t.

Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can proceed to what I agree and disagree with in the book. This book has been out for less than two weeks, and there have already been volumes written about it. I just finished the book yesterday, so I haven’t even begun to read and digest any of the many, many reviews yet. Evangelical magazines Christianity Today and Relevant have both already published reviews. Influential Christian writers Tim Challies and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. have chimed in. I plan to write a follow-up review where I’ll interact with some of these other reviews, but for now I just want to write what I thought about the book.

I’ll start with the positive: I love the chapter about heaven, “Here Is the New There” (Chapter 2). Bell’s observations on heaven are spot on. I would recommend reading Love Wins for this chapter alone. At the end of the chapter, he summarizes:

There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
here
and
now,
in this moment,
in this place (62).

That is exactly how it appears in the book. Idiosyncratic line breaks and all. You may find Bell’s style hip and engaging. I find it annoying. That’s the last I’ll say about his style, and I will not preserve his line breaks in any following quotations. Now on to the content of the quote:

It’s orthodox, evangelical belief about heaven and kingdom of God. Pick up any book about the kingdom of God by a leading evangelical author at your local Christian bookstore (there’s hundreds to choose from), and you’ll read much the same thing.

Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God than he did about any other single topic. Where is this kingdom? Is it some ethereal place you go when you die? Or is it here and now? Sometimes Jesus talked about the kingdom of God like it was a long time away. Like it would be established at the apocalyptic end of this earth when he returns in the clouds ushering in the new earth. Other times he talked about it like it was here now.

Which is it? Both. Some people call this “already/not yet.” If you want to get really theological, it’s called inaugurated eschatology. One day Jesus promises a new heaven and a new earth. This is the “not yet” or what Bell calls the “heaven here, sometime else.” But Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated this kingdom here and now. When you accept Jesus as your Savior, you are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This new creation is a preview of that new earth. This is the “already” or what Bell calls “Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now.” The new earth the Bible speaks of is not going to be disembodied souls floating around in clouds as popular culture often depicts heaven. You will have a resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15:42). And it won’t get sick or old like the body you have now. But we won’t receive this body until the coming of the new earth. Both Jesus and Paul seem to teach that we’ll join Jesus immediately when we die. Bell writes that prior to the new earth “after death we are without a body” (56). This is what Bell calls “heaven now, somewhere else.”

When you realize that heaven is about more than where you go when you die, it has important theological implications. When you realize Jesus extends an “invitation to heaven here and now,” it impacts how you live your life. Bell points out, “A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it” (46). A beloved teacher of mine teaches that eternal life isn’t the life that begins when you die; it’s God’s life that he gives you the moment you trust in Jesus. Or, as Bell puts it, it’s “less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more bout a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (59).

The chapter on heaven is followed by a chapter simply titled “Hell” (Chapter 3). I won’t spend a lot of time discussing this chapter because, frankly, it is vague and unclear. Maybe Bell is intentionally vague, but the chapter needs a major rewrite to make the key concepts more clear. Suffice it to say that he seems to believe in a literal hell where unrepentant sinners exist in torment and separation from God.

What I do want to spend a little time on is Bell’s discussion in the last few pages of the chapter of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In verse 46, the King banishes the goats to “eternal punishment.” At least that’s how the TNIV, ESV, and HCSB—all versions translated by large teams of scholars within the past decade utilizing the newest tools and scholarship—translate it. The Greek is κόλασις αἰώνος (Bell’s transliteration is aion of kolazo). According to Bell, a better translation is “a period of pruning” (91). Here’s where his lack of footnotes frustrates me (a similar frustration I had with Velvet Elvis). An assertion like that should be backed up with citations of journal articles and commentaries. Even if the translation is in question, the context seems to indicate an eternal punishment. Verse 41 says the goats depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Here the Greek (τό πῦρ τό αἰώνιον, to pur to aionion) is definitely “eternal fire” or “age of fire.” It’s the next phrase, however, that offers the most support for “eternal punishment.” This eternal fire is the same place prepared for the devil. And in the Book of Revelation, the devil is “thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (20:10, TNIV).

So if Bell believes in hell and believes unrepentant sinners go there, where do the accusations of universalism come from? After laying out his theology of heaven and hell, he says some people “insist that there must be some kind of ‘second chance’ for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime” (106). Although the word purgatory never appears in Love Wins, he seems to be proposing a Protestant version of purgatory. This is not universalism. He believes unrepentant sinners go to hell. He even asks, “[W]ill those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility” (114).

Bell is approaching this issue from a pastoral point of view. What do you do when you’re performing a funeral and a grieving member of your congregation cries to you that her deceased father was not saved and asks if that means she’ll never see him again? I understand the impulse to comfort. I really do. But Scripture must still be our guide. Bell quotes verse after verse about God’s love. Painting God solely as a God of love is an incomplete picture though. God is also holy and perfectly just. These attributes exist in tension with his love. You must look at all these attributes together to get the complete picture.

The proposal of a quasi-purgatory is not even what I found most disconcerting about Love Wins. As Bell says, historic, Christian orthodoxy is “a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (xi). Although I believe the biblical evidence indicates Bell is mistaken that the opportunity to trust in Jesus remains extended to us even after this lifetime, unlike universalism, I believe it is within the bounds of historic Christianity. Most Catholics and some Anglicans believe in purgatory. C. S. Lewis believed something very similar to Bell.

What I found most disconcerting about Love Wins was Bell’s repeated dismissal of the traditional Christian narrative as simplistic, quaint, and primitive. He recounts, “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” He claims that this narrative is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message” (viii). You find similar denunciations on pp. 95ff, 103, 105, and 173. He seems embarrassed by the Christian narrative—afraid others will see us as barbaric. So to make the narrative more palatable, he constructs a narrative where God loves everybody so much that he continues to extend his offer of salvation even after this life is over.

This time. This book.

What about next time? This time he softened the consequences of sin. What about his next book? What will he be willing to give up then to make the Christian narrative more palatable to a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity?

Check out other books I’ve read at BookShrub.

Title: Me and Orson Welles
Author: Robert Kaplow
Year Published: 2003
Pages: 260

Although Me and Orson Welles is fiction, Robert Kaplow drops 1930s pop-culture references as naturally as if it were 1937 and name drops enough actual performers to fill a dozen Orson Welles productions. It is set in 1937 when a just-twenty-two-years-old Orson Welles produced a stage production of Julius Caesar. That is the second-half of the title, and that much is historical.

The “Me” of the title is the wholly fabricated Richard Samuels. Welles rose to worldwide fame overnight after being cast in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at the young age of nineteen. Samuels was hoping to rise to fame at a similarly young age when he happened to run into Welles himself while taking a stroll through downtown New York after taking a train there from his home in New Jersey. Through a series of coincidences, Samuels is cast in Welles’ upcoming production of Julius Caesar.

For me the first-half of the title (Richard Samuels) was mostly uninteresting while the second-half (Orson Welles) was fascinating. Kaplow hits the nail on the head with his portrayal of Welles’ personality. Whenever the book would veer—fortunately, usually for no more than a chapter or two—to Samuels’ home life, I would be thinking the whole time, get back to Welles, get back to Welles!

There was no attempt to idolize Welles. If anything, the opposite: he was lecherous and selfish albeit a creative genius. After just being showed the fliers for Julius Caesar: “‘This is completely inadequate,’ said Welles. ‘Very possibly the worst-looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ‘We just had two hundred thousand of them printed.’ ‘They’re not entirely bad’ said Welles” (26-27). Kaplow also captures Welles’ dramatic flourishes. The Mercury Theatre sign has just been plugged in and turned on for the very first time, and Houseman has asked him when the play will open: “‘Thursday! Thursday! I told you. We let Tallulah open on Wednesday in her three-million-dollar Hindenburg of Antony and Cleopatra. And then we open Thursday—a lean, brutal Caesar—a Caesar that will bestride the narrow world like a Colossus!’ He slapped his hand on my [Richard Samuels’] back. ‘Sonja! Teach this kid the part. Know it by the time I come back, Junior, or you’re fired. And to you, my mighty Mercury company, and to you, my mighty illuminated sign, how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown! Behold, the Mecury Theatre!’” (30)

Nor does the book idolize the 1930s. The content of Me and Orson Welles could be described as R-rated. This coming of age story included the ultimate coming of age cliche—losing one’s virginity. Each generation seems to think that the generation that came before represented some golden age or higher moral standard. One character even declared, “Morally right? This is 1937, Richard—I don’t think the words ‘morally right’ mean anything anymore” (197). Our questions today about what is right and wrong are nothing new. They stretch back to the 1930s and even back to ancient Greece and Rome and further.

Unlike many historical fiction novels that try to cover huge swaths of history or entire eras, Me and Orson Welles takes place entirely during a single week—the hectic last week of dress rehearsals before the debut of Julius Caesar. This gave the book a sense of urgency hence the story was rarely dull.

Title: The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing
Editor: David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge
Year Published: 1975
Pages: 304

The death of evangelicalism had been greatly exaggerated. This was the basic message of The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing. And it was published in 1975!

Now thirty-five years later, evangelicalism is still a vibrant movement. Is there any way the writers in this collection of essays could have imagined what would happen in the following more than quarter of a century? Focus on the Family would not be formed until two years after its publication. CCM was a fledgling movement then; now it is a multi-million dollar industry. We’ve managed to get two presidents of the United States elected since then. The success of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush can largely be attributed to evangelicals.

As far as I’m aware, The Evangelicals is not a particularly significant book. It’s no longer in print though you wouldn’t have too much trouble finding a copy if you really wanted to (as of writing this, there are twenty-three used copies available on Amazon starting as cheap as $1.60). Although many of the authors are well-known evangelicals even today, none of the essays are considered seminal that I know of.

So what led me to this book? Curiosity. Being the book lover that I am, when I heard the library at a small Christian college not far from where I live was having a book sale, I rushed over. Paperbacks were fifty cents and hardbacks were seventy-five cents. At that sale, I picked up books by renowned Biblical scholars Martin Buber, Martin Dibelius, and Phyllis Trible.

Then I came across this hardback missing its dust cover. It’s cover was falling apart (I’ve since taped it back together). But its title caught my eye. The history of evangelicalism is something I am intently interested in, and I was familiar with the names of the editors. Since I was out less than a dollar if the book ended up being a dud, I decided to take a chance on this tattered, yellow book.

When historians study personal letters from a certain time period, most of those letters are not significant. But reading what people were writing to each other during that time helps you get a feel for what it was like to live then. There are many excellent histories of evangelicalism available. But it is different to read a book about evangelicalism in the 1970s and to read a book about evangelicalism from the 1970s. The reason I decided to read this book was a curiosity about what it was like to be an evangelical before I was born.

To my amazement, many of the changes and growing pains evangelicalism was experiencing during the 1970s were not that different from the changes and growing pains evangelicals are dealing with today. It is not that we should study history lest we’re doomed to repeat it; we should study history because we are doomed to repeat it.

Back to the statement I made at the very beginning of my review. The death of evangelicalism had been greatly exaggerated, or, as the editors put it in their introduction, “the demise of evangelical Protestantism, both in the popular imagination and the academic mind, had appeared so complete” (9). The Scopes Trial of 1925 had “seemingly crushed” (12) evangelicalism.

But there was a resurgence of evangelicalism at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. By the end of the 1960s, to many people, “their faith had resulted in an escape from the horrors of the drug world, rescue from the free, but dehumanized love of the counterculture” (16).

The postmodernism of the 1990s and 2000s convinced many people that they could construct their own truth and reality. Why follow the church your parents went to when you can make up your own faith? Like people became disillusioned with the drug and free love culture at the end of the 1960s, I predict the 2010s will see people become disillusioned with buffet-style religion and return to orthodox faith.

Beginning in the 1940s, evangelicals wanted to differentiate themselves from fundamentalists while still identifying as conservative. One essay calls these evangelicals “new conservatives” (34). The same spirit can be seen among what Roger Olson calls “postconservatives” today. They want to respect the evangelicalism of the generation that came before them, but they also want to explore new ways of expressing their evangelicalism.

My favorite essay was Paul L. Holmer’s “Contemporary Evangelical Faith: An Asessment and Critique.” I will leave you with some quotes from his excellent essay:

[M]ost American evangelicals…have…not quite succeeded in being respectable. [T]hey have kept…the mood of Christianity being a minority movement, alive amid their erstwhile success. The oddness of God is almost shown you in the difficulties the evangelicals have in being true to him. The more smoothly run ecclesiastical outfits by comparison tend also to tame God (68).

[For evangelicals] becoming and being a Christian was and is a shattering experience neither a churchly performance nor an alternative code of life (69).

[S]uffering the angularity of trying to be evangelical and an intellectual, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the evangelicals had never completely forgotten how hard it is to integrate God with what we want to make of ourselves. The God of the Bible will have us his way, or not at all (69).

Title: A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times
Editor: Michael S. Horton
Year Published: 2000
Pages: 256

The goal of the authors in A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times is to reform evangelicals. Ironically, that is also the goal of the group they are opposing, who R. Albert Mohler, Jr. even labels “reformist evangelicals” in his essay, “Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference.” While reformist evangelicals want to return to the spirit of the Reformation, confessing evangelicals want to return to the doctrines of the Reformation. The former believe we should critique (reform) the doctrines handed down to us from the sixteenth century Reformers in light of fresh readings of Scripture; the latter argue we have strayed from and need to return (reform) to the doctrines of the Reformation.

Disclaimer: I count myself among those evangelicals labeled reformist. It is important to read authors from both sides of the issue though. The book even includes one essay arguing for the opposing viewpoint, “A Defense of the Postmodern Use of the Bible” by Edgar V. McKnight. Academically, as the book acknowledges, the main representatives of the reformist position are Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz (who has passed away since the publication of this collection), and Roger Olson. Popularly, I would add, Brian D. McLaren and Rob Bell as representatives. For an academic defense of the reformist position, I would recommend Reformed and Always Reforming by Roger Olson; for a popular treatment, A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D. McLaren and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.1

I don’t mean to imply that A Confessing Theology presents a monolithic position. Its contributors include Lutherans, Reformed (Calvinists), Presbyterians, Baptists, and even an Anglican (“Full Circle: ‘Confessing’ Mainliners” by Paul F.M. Zahl). Some of them can’t even decide if they’re evangelicals or not. Exhibiting the typical Baptist hubris that led to the now thoroughly debunked landmark theories2, McKnight claims that “[b]y the time [the fundamentalist-modernist] debates touched Baptists in the South, they were so numerous that they did not need to belong to the developing evangelical movement” (67) while Mohler, the other Baptist contributor, has no problem including himself among evangelicals. David P. Scaer (Lutheran) and D.G. Hart (Reformed) make similar arguments for their traditions while the other contributors from their traditions happily embrace the evangelical identity. But Mohler points out: “The history of American evangelicalism is one long narrative of a search for identity” (131). It should be noted that there is not a single female contributor, which seems to be a major oversight in 2000.

In “The Church’s Dogma and Biblical Theology,” Charles P. Arand asserts that we need to return to historic Christianity in order “to maintain a Christian identity and find a Christian unity” (23). He proposes that we use the Nicene Creed as the basis for Christian doctrine today (24). Arand calls this view “neo-conservative,” (23) another name for neo-orthodox.3 David P. Scaer in “Is Reformation Theology Making a Comeback?” says “that what we [confessing evangelicals] confess finds its substance in the ancient creeds and Reformation confessions” (157). This isn’t neo-orthodoxy (concerned with right beliefs for today) but paleo-orthodoxy (regards the beliefs of the sixteenth century Reformation as right for today).

The emphasis on doctrine calls into question the book’s view on Scripture. Arand contends that dogma “provides unalterable boundaries that are not to be crossed” (23). Does this not elevate dogma to the level of Scripture? We should always be willing to compare our dogma to Scripture, and where dogma and Scripture do not line up, we must be willing to alter the dogma. In “Sources of Lutheran Dogmatics: Addressing Contemporary Issues with the Historic Christian Faith,” J.A.O. Preus III declares: “While Scripture is clear, our own reality often is not so clear and often our error is that we interpret our reality poorly” (34). I don’t know what Bible he is reading, but I know when I read Isaiah or Revelation, they are anything but clear. The only reason to declare the Bible clear is to pound somebody over the head with “You must be wrong because it clearly says so here!” Likewise, Richard Lints claims in “The Vinyl Narratives: The Metanarrative of Postmodernity and the Recovery of a Churchly Theology” that “the self-disclosure of God in the Scriptures…is not open to a thousand different interpretations” (107). Why then—and this is a conservative estimate—are there thousands of different interpretations?

My review may seem negative so far, but A Confessing Theology makes a number of positive points. Two of which I wish to point out: (1) The distinct disciplines of Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology need to be reconciled. This is actually a major theme in the collection: 15, 25, 65, 208, 209, all of chapter 11, “Reintegrating Biblical Theology [Biblical Studies] and Dogmatics [Systematic Theology]” by Paul R. Raabe, and then chapter 12, “Redemption and Resurrection: An Exercise in Biblical-Systematic Theology” by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., actually gives a (short) example of what this might look like. (2) Theology should be in the church and for the church. According to Lints, “theologians have become technicians and engineers, specialists who are called upon only to answer the really abstract esoteric questions. There must be…an increasing willingness of theologians to speak from within the church and not merely to the church” (105). And D.G. Hart in “Overcoming the Schizophrenic Character in Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition,” admonishes “theology and the teaching of it should be going on in families and in congregations” (125).

Notes

1 Bell is accessible to any layman—churched or even unchurched. McLaren—while still a popular treatment—goes much more in depth and assumes some familiarity with theological terminology (i.e. Christianese).
2 I give this criticism as a Baptist myself. I’ve actually had a rural Oklahoma Baptist pastor tell me that Baptists aren’t Protestants because since Baptists were founded by John the Baptist (!), we never split from (“protested”) the Catholic Church—because we were never part of the Catholic church.
3 Neo-orthodoxy also refers to a 20th century, European theological movement begun by Karl Barth (though Barth himself rejected the label), so most people use neo-conservatism to avoid confusion. In my context, ortho- (right) doxy (belief) is more meaningful.

I often discover great books in the footnotes of the book I’m currently reading. What discoveries have you made in the footnotes of the books you’re reading?

While reading The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright, I discovered Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts edited by Jeremy Begbie.

Title: The Color of Magic (The Discworld Series)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year Published: 1983
Pages: 207

In The Color of Magic (or The Colour of Magic as it’s spelled in its native Britain), Terry Pratchett takes you to the edge of the world—and beyond! And on Discworld where this book and the thirty-seven books in the series (the very prolific!) Pratchett has written since it are set, there really is an edge of the world. Discworld is a flat disc that rests upon the shoulders of four elephants whom are standing upon a giant turtle.

In addition to spawning a long-running fantasy series, The Color of Magic was first published twenty-seven years ago and remains in print to this day. If you ask me, that qualifies it as a bona fide classic. Pratchett is a creative genius—and that is not a title I use lightly. For comparison, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and George Orwell (coincidentally, also all British) are the other writers I give that title to.

The plot—insurance fraud—is not one—if you’re familiar with fantasy literature—you’d expect to find in a fantasy novel, but it fits perfectly in the inventive universe Pratchett has created. Twoflower is a tourist from another part of Discworld. Insurance is a common concept where he comes from but an entirely new idea to the pub owner he introduces it to. After being sold an “inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea,” the pub owner promptly burns down his pub—and consequently the entire town—in order to immediately collect on his newly purchased policy.

Twoflower and his tour guide, the wizard Rincewind, subsequently go on the run. Rincewind is an incompetent wizard who doesn’t know magic (okay, he knows one spell, but he can’t use it). My favorite character is one who doesn’t even have any spoken dialogue, The Luggage. It is a trunk made of sapient pearwood which Twoflower brought with (or followed) him. Pratchett describes it as a trunk with hundreds of little legs with which it uses to follow its master. And it will follow its master everywhere. Rincewind says that if you die, at least you will have clean socks in heaven.

At one point in the story, The Luggage gets separated from Twoflower; The Luggage remains on a pirate ship while Twoflower and Rincewind escape. Bits and pieces of The Luggage’s story are interspersed with Twoflower and Rincewind’s continuing tale. The Luggage went on a murderous rampage in which it ate several pirates and forced several others overboard:

The captain was not quite certain. The Thing looked like an ordinary sea chest. A bit larger than usual, maybe, but not suspiciously so. But while it sometimes seemed to contain things like old socks and miscellaneous luggage, at other times—and he shuddered—it seemed to be, seemed to be, seemed to have… He tried not to think about it. It was just that the men who had been drowned overboard had probably been more fortunate than those it had caught. He tried not to think about it. There had been teeth, teeth like white wooden gravestones, and a tongue red as mahogany… (160-161)

The captain ordered the ship abandoned and burned. It sank in an area of the sea “that was so black, so deep and so reputedly evil that even the krakens went there fearfully, and in pairs” (176). As it was sinking, a sea monster swallowed the ship in one mouthful. The hideous monster was found later dead and beached with an expression of horror on its face. Got to love The Luggage! Pratchett describes it thus in another beautifully descriptive passage:

[A] perfectly ordinary, if somewhat large, wooden chest…rose up on dozens of what could only be legs and turned to face the Arch-Astronomer. A perfectly ordinary if somewhat large wooden chest does not, of course, have a face with which to face, but this one was quite definitely facing. In precisely the same way as he understood that, the Arch-astronomer [sic] was also horribly aware that this perfectly normal box was in some indescribable way narrowing its eyes. (200-201)

Pratchett divides the entire book into only four large chapters, so if like me you try to reach the end of a chapter whenever you have to take a break from reading, it is unlikely you will be able to do so. Much of Pratchett’s humor stems from a mastery and manipulation of language. The Discworld universe is polytheistic, and at one point, Rincewind exclaims, “We are going over the Edge godsdammit!” They encounter dragon riders whose unpronounceable names such contain punctuation (e.g. K!sdra). Pratchett is as great a humorist as Douglas Adams, but he is the far greater storyteller.