Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Love Loses: A Review of "Erasing Hell" by Francis Chan

So I just finished reading Erasing Hell by Francis Chan, his not-so-subtle response to Rob Bell's controversial book Love Wins. The book deserves a more thorough review than I will give it, and I must preface this post with something of a disclaimer. I am not objective and I am biased. I gave the book my most fair read but not an objective one. This topic of sin and Hell has become an all but personal issue. The book affected me, perhaps more than any book I've read recently. I actually found myself emotionally distressed if not depressed by what Chan was suggesting and arguing. I guess it opened up an old scar for me. It is from this ground--my biased and subjective perspective--that I will give a humble review. The truth is, we're all biased anyway, so I hope you'll still find my critiques to be noteworthy.

Chan operates from several presuppositions (as we all do). He implies in his introduction that Hell and judgement are so close to the heart of the gospel that if we were to teach that it did not exist, we'd actually be sending people there. He writes, "Think about it. If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place I convinced them did not exist!" (page 14) This, however, is a drastic leap in logic. I was not aware that I needed to accept Hell into my heart in order to be saved. You do not need to preach Hell--at least not as a place of eternal torment--in order to preach the good news of God's saving love unless the only thing from which we need saving exists beyond the grave. Indeed, even Chan admits that there's more at stake than just our eternal destination and even Chan admits that the nature of Hell is less important than the point for which it has been taught (see chapter 5).

Chan's Christianity is one that's utterly obsessed with postmortem destination. In other words, the biggest question that Chan's Chistianity answers is "what happens when you die?" It is what I call an Ahistorical soteriology (salvation outside of history). This, however, was not at the forefront of thought for the first Christians and it's certainly not the biggest question of our culture (at least not anymore). This presupposition--that where you go when you die is the most important thing about you--drives Chan's exegetical work.

Chan takes ample time and does a thorough job in his exegesis of some key passages. He does well to argue that Hell is a reality in scripture but not without assuming it primarily to be a postmortem and eternal reality. No Christian universalist has come to their conclusions without having to answer to the passages that Chan brings up. And Chan does well to deal with the New Testament passages that some have used to argue for universal salvation. But herein lies a major misrepresentation. Chan barely dealt (if at all) with the Old Testament, particularly the prophets. See, universalists just don't read the scriptures like Chan does. They don't examine one passage at a time. Wrong or right, from my experience, universalists have a much more narrative and holistic foundation for their arguments. They appeal much more to the Old Testament than Chan represented. Indeed, Hell is almost solely a New Testament concept. Of course you wouldn't look there for supportive passages. They'd look to the narrative. What sort of God does Jesus reveal? Where is history headed? And Chan refused to approach those questions--questions about the flow of the Biblical narrative and the role of God's creative and savific work in the whole of creation. He didn't provide any insight on the eschatological implications of his perspective (although he made many!). He stuck to dealing with one passage at a time, for the most part keeping them well within their historical and literary context (very conservative approach), and went no further than to layer them one upon the other.

It seems that Chan is conflicted. He does so much intellectual work to create the argument that our intellect simply gets in the way. He leans heavily upon what I can only say is a cop-out. Whenever the question of God's love or goodness is raised, he quickly squelches it by saying, in essence, that God's ways are "higher" than our ways--a distortion of an otherwise Biblically endorsed perspective. If all this judgement stuff sounds like bad news instead of good news, well chalk that up as a human error... God's ways are "higher." If the thought of God's love being the kind of love that is satisfied by the suffering of its' object sounds horrible to you... well God's ways are "higher" and God defines love. If this God sounds like a monster to you... well too bad, you've got no choice but to accept that God is "good"... otherwise, you might go to Hell. It's a completely anti-intellectual perspective and it assumes that the definitions of love and goodness which he is undermining are nothing more than the calculated fabrications of our human sensibilities. The fact is that for many universalists, Christ has defined love and goodness--the Christ who loves the unlovable, saves the sinner, and tells stories of a Kingdom where the "least of these" share God's identity and where even the lonely lost sheep is sought after at all costs. The same Jesus whose sense of justice brought him to a cross to die for the very people who had him killed, has become the image of true justice (bringing the world to right), love, mercy, and even power (ironically).The God of whom Chan paints a picture seems to undermine not only human sensibilities but the revelation of love and justice we've received in Christ. Chan asks not whether we want to believe these things but "could you believe these things?" The answer is yes... and that's what made me so depressed in reading this. I used to believe in that God and then I discovered Jesus. I used to believe in a God who sent people to Hell out of a sense of justice but Jesus seems to have taught otherwise. Jesus seems to stand against any God who gives prosperity to some and issues suffering to others based on what they "deserve" (this is in fact how the Roman Empire operated, and Jesus wasn't a big fan of that structure). If God is the sort who sends people to Hell, Jesus is the sort who travels there at their side. Jesus does allude to the existence of Hell, and quite explicitly, but it seems that he desires so much that none should go there that He gave his life to defeat the powers that send them there (for Chan, Jesus is apparently defeating God, since God sends people there. It's the Penal substitutionary theory of the atonement: Jesus' death appeases God's wrath).

For Rob Bell, if I can venture to mention him, God desires for all to be saved and goes to every length to see that they are. For Chan, God could save everyone but simply won't. Chan makes it clear that God can do whatever God wants, but certain individual passages of scripture, gone unchecked by the narrative as a whole, have kept him from embracing such an idea. For Bell, Hell exists but there's room for hope. For Chan, Hell exists and to hope against it would be theological treason. Apparently Love--the kind of love which calls out every individual and ascribes value to them, making them dearly loved and worthy to be saved, even worthy of God's desire--eventually loses.

8 comments:

Sam said...

Hey Wes,
Thanks for this review. I haven't read either of the books, but I will respond to your post.
While I firmly believe in the existence of Hell and also believe that Scripture teaches that Hell will be populated, I do grab on to passages like Ephesians 1:9 in the hope that Hell may one day be empty.
I cannot speak for Chan, especially as I have not read his book, but I agree with what you say is his point concerning the need to preach about Hell. While I may hope that Hell is empty, I am not given the liberty by Scripture to preach that it is of no concern to men and women.
I am not sure which Old Testament passages in particular point toward universal salvation (could you share a few?), but as to your point concerning the fact that the OT barely has a concept of Hell, I agree with the caveat that it doesn't have much of an idea of Heaven either. If we look at the trajectory of Scripture and the ways in which revelation progressed, it would seem that teaching on the life post mortem is a later development, in regard to both Heaven and Hell.
You seem to mention both that Jesus does more than allude to Hell (in fact, He is the primary preacher on Hell in the Bible) and that He does not seem to want anyone to end up there (hence His death on the cross and 1 Timothy 2:3-4). Now, I also find Chan's view of God as a God who can save everyone but who won't uncomfortable, but you don't mention here alternative understandings that can be more helpful. Being more of an Arminian myself, I see Scripture pointing to a God (who has consistent character, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who, in love, longs for every person to be saved and who also refuses to use His overwhelming power to save those who do not want to be saved. This is more along the lines of Lewis' Hell in "The Great Divorce" where God's grace is resist-able and the gates of Hell are locked from inside.
I appreciate your thoughts here and hope to benefit from more conversation with you.
Thanks,
Sam

Robin Dugall said...

all I can say is "bravo"...I tell you, I haven't read either book...I find it presumptuous to even participate in a "who's in/who's out" discussion. BUT, I hear what you are saying about Chan's theology...reformed theology in its purest form is about the "elect" vs. the "non-elect"...even other protestants struggle with that...you keep tempting me to read the books though...for now, i'll just keep reading insightful blogs like yours and get on to other books...good job bud. no matter what your bias, you expressed yourself eloquently and passionately!

Andrew said...

‎"Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free …,that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might prove to be empty!" ~ Karl Barth

Great stuff Wes!

WES ELLIS said...

Sam,
Thanks for commenting. To address a bit of what you said, it is difficult to list suppprtive passages from the Old Testament becuase that would be cobtrary to my point. The point is that they would appeal much less to individual passages and much more to the narrative as a whole. The OT, particularly the prophets, provides the richest imagery in scripture for a renewed world. And on this note, i disagree with your point that the OT does not speak of heaven. On the contrary, there is little development between the testaments concerning the nature of heaven. Heaven, in the new testament, remains primarily understood as the fruition of God's salvific work--a renewed creation. Take, for example, the end of Revelation. The author borrows most of his/her imagery from Isaiah. It is even more recent than the New Testament that postmortem paradigms have hijacked the language of heaven. I hope this conversation is helpful, even if we're in some disagreement. Thanks for your comments.

Robin,
Thanks for the big complements.

Andrew,
Love that Barth quote. It's actually in my favorites, thought about quoting it in this post. Thanks for sharing it!

Wes

whatthehellbook said...

Erasing Hell was absolutely brutal. I like Chan but he should have waited to write the book. It was clear that he is still working through these issues and hasn't settled yet. The explanations given for eternal punishment were less than convincing and unbiblical.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjRcO1Sm0HU

SarahJoy said...

Thanks, Wes. You've put concrete words to some of my ambiguous feelings. :)

SarahJoy said...

P.S. Your title is funny.

WES ELLIS said...

Thanks Sarah! Glad you liked the title :)