In 2011, I remember grabbing a copy of Erasing Hell the day it was released in stores. Hell was not a topic explored much amongst Christians or in churches. I thought this was crazy to me. I know it is easier to talk about an eternity in Heaven. But if there is a place of eternal separation from a loving God, why would most churches not talk about this place? If where we spend eternity hinges on who we place (or not place) our faith in, would it not make sense to learn about both eternities? This is why my desire to learn about hell does not arrive at wanting to, but needing to.
Among Francis Chan's published works at the time, this was the most difficult one to find in stores. Several stores seem to have Chan's other books except this one. I am not sure if this was a popular sold out book, or a limited release, or a difficult book to get into stores. Whatever the case, Erasing Hell is available in stores; but not as many as I thought. And of course there should be no difficulty ordering one online.
What makes Erasing Hell intriguing is how it was published to begin with. Had Rob Bell not wrote Love Wins, it would not have existed at all. Erasing Hell was written as a response against Love Wins perspective on Hell. Rob Bell was the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. He pastored one of the fastest growing churches in America. But on September 22, 2011, six months after he published Love Wins, Bell stepped down. One of the main reasons was due to the fall out with the congregation. They deemed his book as "heretical and universalist". While he denies that he is a universalist, his writing comes across as an inclusivist which is essentially a cousin to universalism.
After Chan read Love Wins, he disagreed with its message about hell. This was not the hell that the Bible speaks about. Chan disagreed so much, that he felt compelled to set the record straight on this matter of eternal importance. At first, he did not want to write a book about hell, but he believes God specifically asked him to and wanted him to. Well it did not take long for Chan to write a response. Erasing Hell was published June 30, 2011; Three and a half months after the release of Love Wins.
What makes Love Wins intriguing is the controversy surrounding it. Bells first four books were published under Zondervan. But that relationship came to an amicable end when he decided to leave the publisher. He then signed with Harper One. Although Zondervan never received a book proposal for Love Wins, they would have rejected it anyways. Their reason is that it would not have fit within their mission. Their mission is, To be the leader in Christian communications meeting the needs of people with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles. But why did Bell leave what seemed to be an already good relationship with Zondervan? Was he already certain Zondervan would reject his book proposal?
Another area of controversy was an endorsement it received. From international best-selling author Eugene Peterson, well known for authoring The Message. He received major criticism from Christians for his endorsement. It reads, "It isnt easy to develop a biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ...Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination without a trace of the soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction."
A day later, Peterson clarified his endorsement in an interview stating, "Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister. We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God. And I dont think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight. I think thats bad family manners. I dont agree with everything Rob Bell says. But I think theyre worth saying. I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people. I dont like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another. I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement. I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him. He may not be right. But hes doing something worth doing. Theres so much polarization in the evangelical church that its a true scandal. Weve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way."
Before we explore Erasing Hell, there needs to be a few clarifications worth mentioning. First off, Bell and Chan have no hostility, rivalry, or animosity towards each other. They may not be close friends, but they both have a healthy respect for each other. At one point Chan wrote a letter to reach out to Bell. They even talked on the phone for a few hours. Despite their disagreements, Chans writing is in no way an attack on Bell. Second, Chan did not write this book alone. He had a lot of help from co-author Preston Sprinkle. Preston has earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from Aberdeen University in Scotland. He has been a professor of theology at various universities. He is currently a full-time author, speaker, and teacher. Chan also got several scholars to comb through a lot of his writing. He wanted to be careful and make sure his writing was biblically accurate and sound. Chan did lots of homework as this is a book that he did not want to be wrong about. Finally, I have not entirely read Love Wins, so I have not been able to fully comprehend Bells perspective. While I will be cross-referencing several writings between the two authors, the focus will remain as a review of Erasing Hell; not Love Wins.
If you were excited to read Erasing Hell when it came out, Chan wastes no time telling you not to be. In the very first sentence of his introduction, Chan bluntly states to the reader that, If you are excited to read this book, you have issues.
There are a few recurring themes Chan poses to the reader. The first theme is communicated with two questions. Do readers WANT to believe in a God that decides to punish those who dont believe in Jesus? COULD readers believe in a God who does that?
The other recurring theme is the understanding that God does what he wants whether we like it or not. Whether it is flooding the earth, slaughtering all the inhabitants of Canaan, or even sending his own son Jesus to die for the sins of the world. These actions do not make logical sense to us. Yet God tells us his ways are higher than our ways. The potter has the right to mold his clay the way he wants. With that, Chan urges us to let God be God. This does not console many readers, but the point is valid. It is arrogant to pick and choose which truths we want to embrace. Our minuscule thoughts on this earth does not place us on the same level as Gods thoughts.
So what are the objections Chan and Sprinkle have with Love Wins? This will be a unique review in that it will try to address four main contentions:
1. DOES EVERYONE GO TO HEAVEN?
2. ARE THERE SECOND CHANCES?
3. IS HELL A PLACE?
4. IS HELL ETERNAL?
DOES EVERYONE GO TO HEAVEN?
While some passages suggest everyone will go to Heaven, the context does not translate that way. They would contradict other passages that speak on judgment. They also do not align well with the context of the passages themselves.
For example, Philippians 2:9-11 states, "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." This sounds like everyone will be saved. But in context, this verse means everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. There will still be a judgement.
Another verse that suggests all will be saved is 1 Corinthians 15:22, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." But once read in context, the verse speaks more on those IN CHRIST or WHO BELONG to Christ rather than every single person. When Paul says all be made alive, he refers to the the resurrection of believers at the second coming of Christ. Even a few verses later (verses 25-26), Paul mentions that there will be destruction for those that oppose. In 1 Corinthians 16:22, he warns those who do not love the Lord will be accursed.
Another verse in 2 Corinthians 5:19 states, "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." Once again the words IN CHRIST is used to mean a certain group.
Chan concludes that, "For those that follow Jesus, there is an everlasting life. For those that don't, there will be punishment." (pg 38).
Bell suggests that everyone will eventually embrace God if not this life, then certainly in the next (pg 107). While He is not specific in arguing for this position, the favourable way he speaks about it suggests he is advocating for it.
So does everyone go to Heaven? Bell believes eventually, yes. Chan believes most likely not.
ARE THERE SECOND CHANCES?
Chan states, "No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus." (pg 35)
Support for this is in Luke 13:22-24 when Jesus says that few will be saved. "He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, Lord, will those who are saved be few? And he said to them, 'Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.'"
Even worse, the next four verses Jesus further states there are some that think they are saved, but will appear on the outside. In Luke 13:25-28 Jesus says, "When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!' In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out."
Chan mentions Revelation 20:11-15 where John describes the lake of fire as a final destiny of punishment to those that do not follow Jesus in this life. In this chapter John says, "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Chan goes on to say that, "There is nothing in Revelation that suggests theres hope on the other side of the lake. nor that this lake of fire is intended to purify the wicked." (pg 34)
Bell suggests the idea that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. (pg 106/107). He sort of advocates this idea by referencing scripture in Revelation 21:24-25 where John speaks on the city of the new Jerusalem. He states, "By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there." Bell concludes that, "If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go." (pg 115)
While that sounds promising, John explains two verses later that there are still two different destinies for believers and unbelievers. "They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life." (Revelation 21:26-27)
Chan also counters this idea by noting that John mentions again that there will be outsiders and insiders in Revelation 22:14-15. He states, "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."
So even though the gates are always open, it appears there are still those that will never enter.
But in Love Wins, Bell suggests the idea that, "The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most depraved sinners will eventually turn to God." (pg 107). This time, there was no scripture to support that truth claim.
Chan affirms once again that "The Bible does not say that there will be a second chance after death." (pg 36)
So are there second chances? Bell believes there are, and as many as needed. Chan believes there are no seconds chances.
IS HELL A PLACE?
Since Jesus was a first century Jew, it would make sense to see how first Century Jews view the concept of Hell. It is the most common held belief among first century Jews that:
1. Hell is a place of punishment
2. Hell is described in imagery as fire and darkness, where people lament
3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.
This helps prepare readers for understanding Jesus' teaching on the subject in his own context. Because if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in hell, he would need to be clear about this and argue against it.
So what did Jesus say about Hell? Well in the Gospels, Jesus uses the Greek word gehenna (translated as "hell") twelve times. Hell is mentioned in the context of judgement in Matthew 5:22 where Jesus says, "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." A clear example of gehenna used in the context of God's future judgement is found in Matthew 23:33 where Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees. He says, "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" This place of punishment that awaits the wicked has a clear description in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus explains "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Jesus often used the image of fire to describe hell. This is mentioned in a few parables. There is The Parable of the Weeds found in Matthew 13:30. Jesus says, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn." He explains this parable further in verses 40-43 by saying, "Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear." There is also the Parable of the Net found later in verses 49-50 where Jesus says, "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Based on all this scripture, Chan concludes that Jesus did not argue against the common belief first century Jews had about hell.
Bell describes Jesus teaching about hell as "a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do anytime, anywhere, with anyone." (pg 73).
He supports this claim by using Jesus story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. Because the rich man ignored the poor beggar Lazarus, he ends up in hades while Lazarus is in heaven. The rich man was able to communicate to Abraham in heaven. Bell sees this as "an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells." (pg 79)
He concludes, "there are individual hells, and communal society-wide hells...there is a hell now and a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously." (pg 79)
He also gives an interesting observation that hell could be seen as a garbage dump. Gehenna in Greek means Valley of Hinnom. Bell observes that, "Gehenna in Jesus Day was the city dump. This was a place people tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out." (pg 68)
Bell's essential belief is that we create our own hell on earth (pg 114). There are various hells that are a state of our own reality. With that, he constructs his own definition of hell. He describes hell as "the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us...the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in Gods world Gods way." (pg 93)
Chan and Sprinkle do some extra digging by examining what Jesus's followers say about hell. With Paul, he never used the word hell in any of his thirteen letters. But he often mentioned the words 'perish', 'destroy', 'wrath', and 'punish' along with others more than eighty times in his thirteen letters. So while Paul does not mention hell or describe it, he mentioned the wicked would face a horrific fate if they remain in their sin. The closest he comes to mentioning hell is in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. He says, "This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also sufferingsince indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.""
Peter and Jude both describes hell as "the gloom of utter darkness" (2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13) and the "punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 1:7).
John's description of hell is far more different than Peter and Jude's take on it. In Revelation 14: 9-11, He states, "And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, 'If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.'"
So is hell a place? Bell thinks it is a state of own reality that we create. There are individual and communal hells on earth. Chan believes it is a place.
IS HELL ETERNAL?
Jesus said things that may suggest hell as a never ending punishment. For example, in Matthew 18:8 he says, "And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire." But is it the fire or the punishment that is eternal? Another example is in Mark 9:47-48 where Jesus says, "And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'" While Jesus could be referring to never-ending punishment, Chan notes that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah 66:24 which uses the same terminology. When read in context Chan believes Isaiah was giving the imagery of worms feasting on unburied dead people to emphasize the shame of defeat. The context does not say that Isaiah was thinking of an everlasting punishment or that souls of the dead are being tormented.
Again with the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus found in Luke 16, Hades is often confused with hell. Hades is a temporary state where the wicked go until they receive their judgment. Hell is the final state once judgment is received. But what about the chasm that Jesus refers to in verse 26 that separates the wicked from the righteous? Well Chan thinks this passage means that the process of punishment being received cannot be reversed and that there is no reference of the duration of hell found in Luke 16.
So according to Chan it appears some of these passages are inconclusive. He notes that, "In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, he doesn't explicitly say it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that its a place to be avoided at all costs, but he doesnt clearly tell us how long it will last." (pg 81) The closest example we have is described again in Matthew 25:41, and 45-46: "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Chan found this topic to be more complex than he imagined. While he leans heavilythat the duration of hell is eternal, he admits that he is not ready to claim that hell is eternal. He does point out the duration should not take away from the fact that hell is a horrifying place.
As for Bell, it depends on how words are translated. We go back to Matthew 25 where Jesus speaks about The Final Judgement. Again Jesus uses the analogy of separating the righteous and unrighteous like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Bell says "The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kalazo. Aion, we know has several meanings. One is age or period of time; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish. An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean a period of pruning or a time of trimming, or an intense experience or correction." (pg 91)
While "aion of kolazo" is translated as "eternal punishment" which is read as "punishment forever" in many English translations of the Bible, Bell does not think "forever" is a category biblical writers used. The closest translation for "Forever" in Hebrew is olam. It has multiple translations such as "vanishing point", "far distance", "a long time", "long lasting", or "beyond the horizon". Bell thinks that although olam is a versatile word, in most cases it refers to a particular period in time.
So is hell eternal? Bell believes hell is as long as people make it to be. It is a state of corrective punishment until they are ultimately saved. Chan, while not entirely certain, leans heavily that yes hell is eternal.
The fact is, Scripture is filled with divine actions that don't fit our human standards of logic or morality. But they don't need to, because we are the clay and He is the Potter. We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy categories and compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than His inexplicable ways.
It's incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God's plan of redemption, even though it doesn't make sense to us. Neither should we erase God's revealed plan of punishment because it doesn't sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God's actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for clay to do. - page 135/136
Erasing Hell is a short book because many of the pages consist of extensive notes at the end of each chapter. This stresses the importance of reading the notes as they provide so much context to what Chan and Sprinkle are trying to teach and why they disagree with Bells premises. Unfortunately, Erasing Hell gets caught between refuting Love Wins and actually speaking on the topic of Hell. At already a short length to begin with, I am not sure if using three of those chapters to refute Bell was the best use of its length. The back of the cover states how "this book is not about who is saying what", but the first three chapters sort of do that by examining what Bell says. It is a tough call because in some ways I appreciate Chan using those chapters to challenge our critical thinking by not just believing what any Christian says about Hell. This motivates readers to investigate the truth of what the Bible says. But I sometimes wonder if those chapters could have been used to help readers further understand an already difficult subject rather than responding to someone elses interpretation. Although if we believe peoples eternities are at stake, it is of vital importance to have a correct interpretation of Hell.
There are a number of differing questions and opinions amongst Christians to this day that will remain unresolved. What Chan, Sprinkle, Bell, and everyone else can agree on is that none of us want to experience what Hell is.
Chan and Sprinkle do not explain everything we need to understand about Hell. And that was never its intended purpose. They both understand several aspects were not discussed in detail in order to keep the book understandable reasonable and accessible to most readers. They do offer a frequently asked section to help with more common questions not discussed. Chan also encourages readers to keep doing their research.
Erasing Hell is not a book about settling a doctrinal issue. It is about real destinies. If we make trying to understand hell all about being right, we are missing the point. As Chan states, "Jesus did not speak about hell so that we can study, debate, or even write books about it. He gave us these passages so that we can live holy lives." This should further spur readers on to knowing where they stand with Jesus. Not so that they can avoid hell, but to embrace a relationship with Him.
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