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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

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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.