Culture At Large

Francis Chan beats the hell into Rob Bell

Steven Koster

Reading like a sermon complete with altar call, Francis Chan’s new book, "Erasing Hell," explores hell from a nearly opposite approach from Rob Bell's recent book, "Love Wins."

Chan is obviously engaging Bell, and where Bell seemed to avoid clear answers, blurring traditional boundaries and inviting people into conversation, Chan offers directness, clarity and propositional answers to tough questions.

Beyond dueling rhetorical approaches, Chan challenges the substance of Bell’s apparent leanings. (I expected Chan and Bell to be closer together, given that Chan is the first preacher after Bell to have videos produced by Flannel, the production company informally associated with Bell’s church in Michigan.) Straight out of the gate, Chan reviews and refutes the evidence for universalism, especially the notions associated with Bell. Walking through major passages, Chan shows how they must be taken out of context to support universalism (not to mention how they also ignore other passages that clearly oppose universalism). Where Bell suggested “Given enough time, everybody will turn to God,” Chan concludes that no passage says there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus. He even suggests Bell’s vagueness is “incredibly dangerous” since such speculation involves eternal realities for real people, not just speculative conversations.

Chan then sketches a biblical picture of what scripture means when it mentions hell. He examines how Jews spoke about hell and judgement just prior to Jesus and the New Testament writers, what Jesus himself had to say and how the followers of Jesus spoke afterwards. Chan presents a consistent, prevailing Jewish perspective that saw hell as a place of “punishment after judgement,” a place described in images of fire, darkness and lament, resulting in either annihilation or everlasting punishment.

Chan follows this exegesis with several chapters exploring the “so what” question. First he makes the crucial point that these biblical warnings and descriptions are written primarily to those who claim to know God, and the sharpest warnings are to lukewarm disciples and self-serving teachers. “He gave us these passages so that we would live holy lives," Chan writes.

He then challenges those who would disown a God who would not make the same choices they would. God is God, and you are not. Rather, “a sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel as it did for Paul," according to Chan, for hell is the backdrop that reveals the profound and unbelievable grace of the cross, in both the enormity of our sin and the gift that Christ endured the hell we deserve.

Especially given the context of Bell’s book, Chan achieves his goal of writing about embracing a God who isn’t always easy to understand. There’s much here that 21st-century ears don’t want to hear and it’s well reinforced with biblical evidence.

Yet there’s more to say about hell than Chan lets on. I wish he had explored more of the passages that shape our understanding of eternal life beyond just the ones with warnings of hell.

First, not least are passages of assurance. Of course our sin is great and hell is deserved - our deep need for a Savior stands in the starkest contrast to Christ’s sacrifice and grace. But where Chan mentions only warnings of punishment, the Bible also offers security. Romans 8 comes to mind: if God is for us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

Second, also scriptural but more subtle, is the current reality of heaven and hell in our lives even now. Bell was criticized for seeing hell only now - the pain and suffering of broken people damaging themselves and their world in crime, genocide, disease - and somehow implying that these realities are the totality of hell, rather than being amplified in the fullness of hell after death. But where Bell sees hell only now at the expense of later, Chan emphasizes the later at the expense of now. Granted, this inaugurated eschatology - the now-but-not-yet reality of God’s Kingdom - lacks the spectacular graphic descriptions of a burning lake of sulfur, but it is no less scriptural and formative for what it means to have eternal life. We are already heirs with Christ, citizens of heaven and children of the light, ready for the dawn of his return.

Finally, Chan buries some important material in the appendix. He wrestles with some big pastoral questions that might have been better integrated into the main body (whether images of fire and darkness are literal; whether the Old Testament Sheol is the same as hell; whether those who never heard the gospel are automatically sent to hell). These are important (and assumption-laden) questions that are best understood in the full context of scriptural teaching.

In sum, Chan’s "Erasing Hell" is a valuable and accessible contribution, if not correction, to the conversation about biblical teaching on eternal destinies. In the midst of tears and reminders that we are not God, Chan holds strongly to the promises of a loving Lord, echoing Abraham in Genesis 18: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Faith, Theology