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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.

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: 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.

Title: No Wonder They Call Him the Savior
Author: Robert Hudson
Year Published: 1986
Pages: 207

Max Lucado is not the type of author whom I typically read. He writes inspirational non-fiction while I normally read more technical non-fiction. I’m much more at home with a biography of Karl Barth, a theological monograph like Terence E. Freitheim’s The Suffering of God, or a Christian classic like Augustine’s Confessions. I decided to start reading Lucado to find out why his books sell millions of copies but also to broaden my horizons. Because of my obsessive compulsive tendencies, I’m reading through his bibliography in chronological order of how it was published. I read and enjoyed his first book On the Anvil (later retitled Shaped by God) a few months ago. Published in 1986, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior was his second book.

No Wonder They Call Him the Savior is an easy read, but the label inspirational is deceptive. Yes, it is “A Timeless Inspirational Classic” as the cover of Thomas Nelson’s The Bestseller Collection edition of the book declares, and it fits well within the inspirational genre. But it is also theological. You won’t find the word Christology in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, but it is just as theological as N. T. Wright’s whopping, 741-page Jesus and the Victory of God. If you don’t count the section of study questions for each chapter at the back of the book, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior clocks in at just 136 pages. While Wright’s tome is meant for Biblical scholars and pastors, Lucado’s intended audience is the person in the pew.

Lucado teaches theology without you even realizing you are being taught theology. He subtly slips in exegesis: While discussing a verse in Mark, he adds, “Those who know these types of things say that the Gospel of Mark is really the transcribed notes and dictated thoughts of Peter” (71). While I have to read William F. Buckley, Jr. with a dictionary in one hand and Max Lucado can be read by an elementary school student, I would describe both authors as erudite. Lucado is obviously intelligent, but he avoids ever talking down to his audience.

“In your Bible of over a thousand pages,” Lucado asks, “what matters?” He answers his own question, “The part that matters is the cross” (xiii). The premise of No Wonder They Call Him the Savior is that it all comes back to Jesus Christ. As Christians, he is our inspiration, our sustainer, our Savior—our everything. “Any serious study of the Christian claim is, at its essence, a study of the cross” (xiv).

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, “The Cross: Its Words,” each chapter is built around one of Jesus’ sayings on the cross. Each chapter in the second part, “The Cross: Its Witnesses,” is built around one of the characters (e.g. one of the disciples or Pilate) in the passion narrative. The final part, “The Cross: Its Wisdom,” didn’t seem to have a unifying theme and seemed somewhat out of place in a book that had been so focused upon the passion narrative up until that point.

Lucado has a distinct style. His writing is lyrical. His frequent use of one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs is effective and gives his prose a rhythm usually found only in poetry. Authors who imitate his style (younger writers may actually be imitating Rob Bell) are less effective. I’ve seen several instances in periodicals where authors have tried to throw in one-word sentences and paragraphs, and their articles just sound choppy. I actually liked what Rob Bell had to say in Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, but I found his choppy sentences to be annoying.

Even Lucado can take it too far at times. One chapter was the passion story told solely with one-word sentences:

Stirring. Parade. Crowd. Swell. Romans. Pilate. Toga. Annoyed. Nervous. Officers. Tunics. Spears. Silence. “Charge?” “Blasphemy.” Indifference. Ignore. (Wife. Dream.) Worry. Interview. Lips. Pain. Determined. “King?” “Heaven.” “Truth.” “Truth?” Sarcasm. (Fear.) “Innocent!” Roar. Voices. “Galilean!” “Galilee?” “Herod.” (87-88)

This would have been fine as an introduction or attention-getting illustration, but the above paragraph was just one in an entire chapter written exactly the same way. Thankfully, like most of Lucado’s chapters, it was only three pages long. The average chapter in the book was three to four pages. The book seems tailor-made (especially with the large section of study questions at the back) for use in a small group or Bible study. With its thirty-three chapters, you could easily read a chapter a day during your quiet time and use the book as a one-month devotional.

Lucado’s writing is also pastoral. It is meant to comfort and encourage the reader. He is writing for the person who is going through a death in the family, has recently lost her job, is experiencing pain, etc. and offers practical advice and guidance. He reminds the reader who is feeling lonely, “The most gut-wrenching cry of loneliness in history came not from a prisoner or a widow or a patient. It came from a hill, from a cross, from a Messiah” (26). This is not surprising since Lucado’s day job is as a pastor. It is not hard to imagine that the first part of the book was possibly adapted from a series of sermons on the sayings of Jesus on the cross.

Title: The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style
Editor: Robert Hudson
Year Published: 2004
Pages: 432

With great style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, is there any need for a Christian Writer’s Manual of Style? Thankfully The Christian Writer’s Manual doesn’t duplicate what CMOS already does (and does well). Rather than as a replacement for it is better seen as a supplement to CMOS. It can really be a supplement to whatever style manual you prefer, but it is specifically cross-referenced with CMOS.

Whereas you still want to have CMOS handy for the correct way to cite a web page, only in The Christian Writer’s Manual do you get an extensive entry on whether to capitalize the divine pronoun or not. Their verdict: don’t. The purpose of capitalization in English is to distinguish the specific from the general. Chicago is more specific than city. To confer respect is not the purpose of capitalization. We capitalize both Churchill and Hitler.

They preface the discussion of the divine pronoun with, “The following paragraphs outline Zondervan’s policy and the reasoning behind it.” This is a useful disclaimer for the entire book. This manual is adapted from The Zondervan Manual of Style. Zondervan being one of the largest Christian publishers, you can be confident that most of the suggestions will hold for most Christian publishers.

The manual is packed full of useful reference material. It has a table that supplies two different abbreviations for each book of the Bible as well as the Apocrypha. It has entries of specific interest to the Christian writer such as “Agnostic Versus Atheist” and “Hallelujah Versus Alleluia.” It contains an extensive list of Bible translations including a list of important non-English translations. This is an important reference work that belongs on every Christian writer’s shelf.

Title: Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes
Author: Charles Seife
Year Published: 2006
Pages: 296

It all started as a way to increase profit. Computers, the internet, even a scientific revolution. In the 1940s, AT&T, the king of telephones at the time, wanted to know how many telephone conversations they could cram onto the same line at the same time. On the surface it appears to be a straight forward question. It proved anything but. Several engineers had tried unsuccessfully to answer the question.

If the question had been how many cars can cross the same bridge at the same time, the answer would have been easy. You weigh the cars and determine how much weight the bridge can hold. But a telephone conversation is information. Scientists at the time had no way of measuring information.

One of the central tenets of information theory is that information is not just an abstract concept but that information is physical—“information is as real and concrete as mass, energy, or temperature” (9). You measure the length and width of a car in inches. You measure its weight in pounds. Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, discovered that you measure information in bits—1s and 0s.

Shannon was a researcher at Bell Laboratories working on the problem of how many conversations can fit on the same line for AT&T. The term bit is part of our vernacular in the “information age,” but it first appeared in Shannon’s 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Information theory, the theory Shannon developed to determine how many conversations can fit on one line, was “the third great revolution in physics in the twentieth century” after relativity and quantum mechanics (59). In fact, both relativity and quantum mechanics can be described in terms of information.

If you want to learn more about this scientific revolution, Decoding the Universe is a great introduction. As the unwieldy subtitle suggests, information theory is changing the way scientists think about everything from our brains to black holes. Charles Seife writes in an engaging style that clearly explains scientific principles for a general audience. As the best popular science writers do, he doesn’t just teach ideas—he tells the history of those ideas. His account is peppered with anecdotes and stories. Although there is an extensive ten-page bibliography at the back of the book, Seife doesn’t use footnotes to cite any of his sources as he goes along. Unlike the publishing industry, I don’t think footnotes would have scared off the non-technical reader.

After a short background on information theory and a brief, one chapter detour on how information theory is changing the life sciences—how we understand DNA and the brain—Seife explores the first two great revolutions in physics in the twentieth century—relativity and quantum mechanics. If information is physical and not abstract, it must obey the physical laws of the universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity set a universal speed limit—the speed of light. Information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. It cannot get from place to place instantly.

Up till now a bit can be either a 0 or a 1. Quantum mechanics introduced the concept of a qubit, a quantum bit that can be a 0, 1, or both 0 and 1 at the same time. One of the great mysteries of physics is how the rules that govern very large objects (relativity) and the rules that govern very small objects (quantum mechanics) can be so different and contradictory. Why can an atom be in two places at once (superposition) while a baseball cannot? How can two atoms separated by millions of lightyears be entangled (what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) when doing so seemingly causes the two atoms to exchange information at speeds many times faster than the speed of light? Scientists hope the answers to these questions lie somewhere in information theory. Maybe in a couple decades Seife will be able to write a sequel titled The Universe Decoded. (Though when we answer one question, it usually introduces ten new unanswered questions.)

Although we don’t know what the future holds, God does. Seife explains that “everything in the universe is shaped by the information it contains” (2). Everything—from humans to stars—contains information. In Genesis, God spoke the universe into existence. The creative act itself communicated information. It’s been said that God is a mathematician. According to mathematician Gregory Chaitin, God is a programmer. Seife describes the universe as a giant computer. Maybe God is the divine programmer.