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.

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