I want so badly to transcend the tribalism of the Rob Bell vs. Team Hell battle, but I have to say that I’m frustrated Francis Chan only gave himself three months to write Erasing Hell, his response book to Love Wins. I guess I should start by saying nice things about his book. I did appreciate the way that Chan was trying to be confessional and vulnerable and sympathetic (22, 163, other places). I also saw that he was trying hard to find ways that his presuppositions had changed over the course of his three-month writing blitz (e.g. maybe annhilationism isn’t heresy, 86). He also acknowledges very importantly (121-122) the way that it’s abominable to proof-text Matthew 25 for “eternal punishment” but then dismiss what Jesus says we have to do to avoid hell. Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 16:19-31 clash with the books of Romans and Galatians and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s quite astounding when people who preach about “letting God be God” turn around and iron the nuance out of the Biblical witness to fit their systematic theology (a problem which Chan seems to acknowledge, thankfully).
So I recognize that he tried, but I guess I was hoping for something more inspiring from Chan, kind of akin to the way that Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” was an amazing retort to the other great song about the South, Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” I really am just trying to understand the issue of hell better so I can be a more effective pastor and preacher. I want to preach a gospel that makes people excited about giving their lives to Jesus and building the kingdom of God. And I agree with H. Richard Niebuhr’s assessment that there is little power in a gospel in which “”a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” But Chan’s book let me down.
I think I wanted Chan to put a little more effort into his apologetics, showing me more of how his reading of hell is essential to the logic of his interpretation of the gospel rather than settling for the predictable “The Bible says so, and I shrug my shoulders” response to this issue. To be more effective apologists to people with my sensibilities, there are certain gestures and tactics that writers like Chan need to lose. Otherwise they’ll continue to appeal to people who already agreed with them before opening their books. I’d really like to hear someone else from the “hell defense league” give a more adequate presentation of this issue both in terms of substance and tone. So if you’re so inclined, please avoid the following pitfalls.
1) Don’t airbrush the context out of the passages you quote
I’m not really sure how Isaiah 55:8-9 became part of the canned Calvinist explanation for God’s inexplicable predestinarian wrath, but it wasn’t surprising that Chan followed suit, dropping the passage on page 133.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The reason why this is a pet peeve of mine is because the preceding verse in Isaiah 55:7 that this text explicates is about God’s inexplicable mercy not His condemnation: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” This is an example of proof-texting a passage from the Bible to make it mean the opposite of what it says in its context. Sorry but that’s abominable hermeneutics. Please, Calvinists, don’t ever use Isaiah 55:8-9 again as a proof-text for God’s predestined condemnation without explaining why you feel justified unhinging these verses from 55:7!
2) Shame != Eternal Conscious Torment
Early on in his book Chan seeks to dispense with “universalist” proof-texts, like Philippians 2:9-11, which says that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” (which universalists interpret to mean that everyone will “accept” Christ in the end). The way Chan takes down this proof-text is to trace its midrashic source in Isaiah 45:22-25. He says that “in that passage, Isaiah is referring to God’s salvation, which is witnessed among the nations and embraced by some but not all” (27). According to Chan, any semblance of universalism in Isaiah 45:23 is undermined by Isaiah 45:24 in which God’s “judgment” is apparently revealed. Let’s look at the whole passage (vv. 22-25) to see if Chan’s interpretation holds up:
Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity, a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, “In the LORD alone are deliverance and strength.” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But all the descendants of Israel will find deliverance in the LORD and will make their boast in him.
Is being “put to shame” ( יבש) the same thing as eternal conscious torment? Is “rag[ing] against [God]” analogous to being the man in the jungle who dies without hearing the official gospel of Jesus Christ? No! Isaiah wasn’t interested in weighing in on our hell debate when he wrote out this prophecy. This passage, like every other passage in the Bible, has a particular narrative purpose that doesn’t snap neatly into the formulaic propositional system that modernists from a scientific age want their theology to be.
This passage is not talking obliquely about the eternal fate of humanity; its contextual purpose is to describe prophetically the time when Israel’s enemies will be humbled. In fact, within this passage, the fault-line is between Israel and the other nations, not between believers and non-believers or all of the nations and some of the nations. The “descendents of Israel” are the only ones who “find deliverance in the Lord.” There is no basis from this passage for saying with Chan that all witness God and some believe. Israel is delivered from oppression and all who witness declare: “In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.” Those who opposed God are “put to shame,” but outside of Chan’s proof-texted deployment of this passage, there’s no reason not to interpret being “put to shame” as the moment when Israel’s enemies are forced to repent of their rage against Israel and accept the “deliverance and strength” that are to be found “in the Lord alone.”
3) Jesus was not just a first-century Jew
A big part of Chan’s argument hinges on his “historical-critical” use of 1st century Jewish views on hell. Chan explains that reading the 1st century views he cites should “help us erase any twenty-first century ideas of Jesus we may have added” (50). He writes that “so ingrained was the belief in hell among first-century Jews that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to distance Himself from these beliefs if He didn’t actually hold them” (49). So in other words, he’s arguing that if Jesus’ description of hell sounds like the other first-century Jewish descriptions of hell that Chan quotes, then Jesus must agree with other first-century Jews about hell.
I’m not sure that logic is sound. Here’s why. What if the correspondence between the images and assumptions about hell in Jesus’ teachings and contemporary Jewish writers only illustrates that Jesus was effectively exegeting His audience? For example, the presumptions and symbols I use rhetorically to make my case as a preacher are going to be completely different if I’m preaching to a bunch of hippies or if I’m preaching to military veterans. If I make a lot of gestures in my sermon to “American values,” it might be because I think patriotism is important or it might be part of how I make my case for something else that’s important to an audience of patriotic people.
If Jesus had introduced hell as a brand-new idea , that would make it a critical centerpiece of his message like his reinterpretation of the Sabbath, Jewish dietary laws, etc. But if Chan is right about how commonplace hell was to 1st-century Jewish discourse, then it seems perfectly valid to conclude that Jesus made use of a concept that everybody else was already talking about to make a different point. In other words, if the phrase Jesus uses to describe the consequences for ignoring “the least of His brothers” in Matthew 25:31-46 — kolasis aionios (eternal punishment) — was a stock-phrase in 1st-century Jewish discourse, as Chan seems to suggest, then Jesus would have used this phrase not to ensure that 21st-century Christians reading today would be clear on the forever-ness of damnation, but for the sake of using lingo that would resonate with and persuade his 1st century audience.
Jesus’ point in Matthew 25:31-46 is not to lay out propositional axioms about the afterlife in modern science lecture format, but to challenge presumptions in his audience about who counts in God’s eyes (the poor, the outcasts, the naked, the prisoners, etc). Chan recognizes the way that many fellow evangelicals try to dismiss the force of this passage by “add[ing] all sorts of footnotes to fix Jesus’ shaky theology… justification is by faith, not by works; you don’t really have to help literal poor people, etc” (121). But when we reduce this passage to a propositional proof-text for our systematic doctrine on hell rather than allowing ourselves to be judged and shamed by it as Christians who know that we aren’t hell-bound, then we will end up treating Jesus’ words dismissively. The more we need for Matthew 25:31-46 to be about hell, the less it has to say to people who aren’t going to hell.
Jesus used hell as a rhetorical device to make other important points. Marshaling out a bunch of 1st-century texts about hell tells us about Jesus’ context but it doesn’t definitively nail down Jesus’ purpose for using hell rhetorically. Jesus was a 1st-century Jew, but he wasn’t just a 1st-century Jew.
4) Give me more than a word study
In Rob Bell’s Love Wins, he sets out to contest every reference to hell in the Bible, which in turns into one big word study of Greek terms like gehenna (hell) and kolasis aionios (eternal punishment). It was probably careless of Rob Bell to advance the theory that gehenna was the Jerusalem garbage dump. I kind of liked the theory because I’ve never understood how “worms” that “never die” are swimming around in a lake of fire (Mark 9:48). It makes a lot more sense to me for the hell-worms to live in a giant pile of decaying matter. In any case, I do wish Chan had taken more than three months to write his book, because then he could have done a lot more than disprove Rob Bell’s garbage dump theory and other word studies.
I guess if Erasing Hell is only supposed to be a response to Love Wins and not a stand-alone treatise in its own right, then it was reasonable for Chan to focus most of his energy on refuting all of Rob Bell’s interpretations of kolasis and gehenna. But I really wanted more that that! I wanted Chan to explain how Jesus’ rhetorical use of hell fits in the overall framework of his discourse. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be surprising about Jesus making a “harsh statement” (86) in every sentence where he uses unpleasant words like kolasis and gehenna. about that. But shouldn’t we balance the parables that talk about kolasis and gehenna with parables like the prodigal son that don’t necessarily use these vocabulary words but may have something to say about the afterlife? It seems like circular logic to consider only passages with words like kolasis and gehenna in them and conclude that Jesus had a one-sided perspective (because we looked at one side of it).
Does it matter that the older brother in the prodigal son parable chooses the outer darkness over his father’s banquet rather than getting cast out of the banquet by his father? Is this parable allowed to provide us with an insight that nuances Jesus’ message about hell? What’s particularly frustrating is that nobody raised a stink when Tim Keller made this parable the paradigmatic summary of the Christian message in Prodigal God but then Rob Bell got pounced on for following Keller’s lead and wondering if our eternal destiny can be understood as our choice to accept or reject God’s mercy when we discover that we must share it with younger brothers whom we find undeserving.
In any case, rather than just scoping out the instances of several specific vocabulary words in the New Testament and making predictably lopsided conclusions as a result, I would have rather seen Francis Chan grapple with how hell fits into the overall story. I would have rather seen Chan wrestle more with the discrepancy between Jesus’ seemingly Pelagian expectations of those who wish to avoid eternal punishment and the solo fidean theology of Paul that evangelical Christianity has accepted as normative, which has clipped the wings of Jesus’ commands for us by making Romans the hermeneutical lens for the rest of scripture.
Chan says that Jesus words about hell “caught [him] off guard because [he is] so used to people emphasizing His words of blessing, not His words of warning” (86). If we filter Jesus’ teachings to consider only His words of warning without the counter-balance of His words of blessings, then we shouldn’t pretend to be surprised at the unusually harsh-sounding Jesus we create in the process.
5) Don’t Apologize to God for Not Realizing How Right You Already Were
One of the more dishonest rhetorical tactics that preachers engage in might be called the use of a straw-self, instead of a straw-man. I’ve used this tactic before and I’m sure I’ll use it again. Basically I attribute to myself the qualities about other people that I want to criticize in order to get credit both for humbling myself in public and for not judging others. Maybe I should trust that Chan is a lot less cynical and devious than I am, but it rubs me the wrong way when he apologizes to God for “wanting to erase all the things in Scripture that don’t sit well with me… [and] trying to hide some of Your actions to make You more palatable to the world” (139). If Chan had written Love Wins himself and then felt convicted and wrote Erasing Hell as its sequel, then I could take his prayer a little more seriously. If the cover of his book didn’t have as a subtitle, “What God said about eternity, and the things we’ve made up,” then I might be a little less tempted to believe that when Chan says “I” or “we,” he’s really not talking about himself. Why doesn’t he just admit that this is what he, Francis Chan, has to say about eternity and the things that Rob Bell made up?
Long before Chan wrote this book, he was already a disciple of John Macarthur and John Piper, from the school of high nominalism in which the most important thing to know about God’s nature is that “God has the right to do WHATEVER He pleases” (17). I’m having trouble seeing how his three month intensive writing experience did much other than reaffirm the convictions he already had. So I have a tough time taking seriously a prayer in which he’s asking God’s forgiveness for not believing stringently enough in what he’s trying to convince the reader to believe. It’s problematic to put confessional prayer, which Jesus tells us to do in a private room behind closed doors (Matthew 6:6), in the rhetorical context of a persuasive essay.
I agree that God has the right to do whatever He pleases, which is why I’m bitterly opposed to any kind of systematic theology that pretends to respect His sovereignty while coming up with strict boundaries for what that sovereignty is allowed to look like. What will we do if for some reason God does choose in His sovereignty to let all of humanity into heaven? It almost seems like that would be the perfect litmus test of who really sees themselves standing upon God’s grace. Will we complain like the workers who spent all day in the vineyard when the “slackers” who worked less than an hour get paid the same denarius? Will we say, “The hell with you, God,” and step out of the banquet hall into the outer darkness to sulk like the older brother of the prodigal son? It’s certainly not our choice, but disallowing God that possibility is not respecting His sovereignty. He certainly made all kinds of threats He retracted against Israel. That was the recurring story of their relationship. Are we going to burn with anger like Jonah if it turns out that God doesn’t make good on the threats we find in the Bible and “repents” like He did with Nineveh?
I’m certainly not banking on universalism. And I can’t imagine wanting any less than for everyone I meet to have the joy that I know continually as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Without Christ, I would hate God’s beauty for making me look ugly. I would want to be the source of my own beauty like God rather than thanking God for letting me participate in His beauty. Because of Christ, I have made peace with being a broken vessel of the beauty that comes from beyond me and does not threaten or indict me. I tremble before God but I delight in Him also (and it’s not like the “delight” that terrified North Korean schoolchildren pretend to have when they clap for Chairman Kim Jong Il). I know that God is love; I know that God is holy; I know that God is fair. So like Chan, I too “cling to Abraham’s words in Genesis 18:25: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’” (163). Abraham was asking God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (even though Chan again didn’t provide the context for his quote). I’ll make a similar plea whenever people who I care about don’t seem to know God when they die; hopefully God will be as patient with me as He was with Abraham. In the meantime, I’m going to invite everyone I meet to come to the heavenly banquet.