Review of “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan, part 1/2

20120812-230532.jpgChan, Francis; Preston Sprinkle (2011). Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. David C. Cook. ISBN 978-0-7814-0725-0

Review by Leif L.

Introduction

Erasing Hell is a book by the American Evangelical pastor and Bible teacher, Francis Chan. He addresses those inside the Christian church who have grappled with the doctrine of eternal punishment, and have thought it appropriate to revise the doctrine, or abandon it altogether. This two part review of Erasing Hell contains my thoughts and reaction to Pastor Chan’s treatment of this doctrine. It will be followed by a conclusion in several parts, which will show how the point of view of this book has affected my larger view of the problem of mankind and sin, the gospel, and how humanism has, I believe, largely affected the view of God in Western culture.

In this book, Francis Chan brings out the fact that God, as our creator, has complete right and jurisdiction over his creation. Yet, he also manages to hold in tension the equally important picture of God as a loving Father.

As I am using an electronic version of the book for the review, I am not able to provide page numbers for the quotes, but will try to provide chapter numbers.

Difficulties with the Doctrine of Hell

First of all, I appreciate his approach to this subject. The writing style is not in the form of a biblical “arm-wrestle”, it is irenic rather than polemic. He examines this sensitive subject in tenderness and humility, revealing his struggle with this doctrine. This resonated with me, as he addressed many of the issues that I faced in trying to come to terms with this biblical truth. After all, this not an abstract subject, but one that deals with the real destinies of us all. In chapter four he says:

What causes my heart to ache right now as I’m writing this is that my life shows little evidence that I actually believe this. Every time my thoughts wander to the future of unbelievers, I quickly brush them aside so they don’t ruin my day. But there is a reality here that I can’t ignore. Even as the conversations of people around me fill my ears, the truth of Scripture penetrates my heart with sobering statements about their destinies. We can talk about the fate of some hypothetical person, but as I look up and see their smiles, I have to ask myself if I really believe what I have written in this book. Hell is for real. Am I?

He is open about his natural dislike for the doctrine of hell, and states that he would like to believe in a God who saves everyone in the end. He tests the alternate theories of universalism, pluralism, inclusivism and the idea that there is a second chance by the Scripture, showing that they all fall short of biblical teaching.

Even though his treatment of the topic is gentle throughout, I believe he remains true to the teaching and intent of the Bible, rather than rationalizing the plain statements of Scripture to suit post-modern sensibilities. He shows that God can and does punish in anger, and how we as humans should understand and react to that biblical truth.

There are several things to note in this passage. First, the wrath of Jesus here is retributive and not corrective. In other words, the wrath isn’t intended to correct the behavior of those opposing Christ to make them fit for salvation. Rather, the wrath is an act of—dare I say—vengeance.

The Jewish Point of View

In chapter two he says:

Through the years, many ideas of hell have been proposed—some attractive, some not. But if truth is what we are after, we need to stick to what Jesus actually said. We also need to try to understand Jesus’ statements in the context of the world He lived in. We need to enter Jesus’ world, His first-century Jewish world, His first-century Jewish world, if we’re going to figure out what He meant when He spoke of hell.

The doctrine of hell is progressively developed throughout Scripture, much like heaven, the Holy Spirit, and even Jesus. This definitely does not mean that these things changed over time; God simply reveals more and more about them as Scripture unfolds.

Knowing how the first century Jewish mind understood hell is important to interpreting Jesus’ words. I feel he may have used this material to more strongly to support the view that Jesus was in agreement with the traditional view of hell. As it stands, he remains somewhat inconclusive on this point.

Annihilationism

While the author is a proponent of the traditional orthodox teaching hell, he does not entirely close the door on annihilationism, which declares that the fires of hell will one day grow cold, and those in it will cease to exist. He writes:

The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty.

Some will, no doubt, consider this the primary weakness of the book. However, I appreciate his openness with the issue, even in the face of possible criticism from other Bible scholars. Later in the book he does give good reason to believe that the timeframe is everlasting, and says:

So it seems best to understand the word death not in terms of total annihilation but as a description of those who will be separated from God forever in an ongoing state of punishment.

Until fairly recently, I was very critical of the doctrine of an eternally burning hellfire, siding with the view that it was of temporary duration. This book did much to help to set my parameters for consideration of what my head told me was so, but my heart resisted, that the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and John in the Revelation seem clear that this event does not end. It answered many questions for me, helping to settle issues that troubled me about both sides of the debate: the glibness of many traditionalists, and the failure for annihilationists to take the text literally and seriously. It also helped me to see I was not completely wrong to perhaps leave some room in my mind for the possibility that all of that suffering might at some point end. It is something, frankly, I have decided to leave in God’s hands, believing that he knows what is best. I don’t think many annihilationists would be comfortable expressing the inverse.

Annihilationism is not as serious an error as those teachings that dispense with divine wrath and punishment for sin altogether (whether through inclusivism, universalism, or viewing hell as a means of purification). These are incompatible with biblical teaching, and should be rejected, for they eliminate the need for work of Christ in the gospel.

Annihilationism teaches of a future judgment, and of the need for sinners to repent and turn to Christ now, while salvation is available. The problem that I see with the idea is that it can take much of the urgency out of the need to embrace the gospel (some understand it to be a kind of divine euthanasia), and requiring many of Jesus’ statements about hell to be read in an unnatural way. It also has as its starting point a human sense of justice, which is imposed upon God. God has the right to do as he pleases, and no man may stay his hand. We can not measure God with a human yard stick, nor apply our cultural views of justice to him.

Interestingly, Chan challenges the popular annihilationist argument regarding Gehenna as a garbage dump.

So here’s the problem: What are the chances that Jesus is thinking of this town dump in using the term gehenna when we have no evidence that there was such a place until over a thousand years after He lived? There’s no evidence in the piles and piles of Jewish and Christian writings preceding the time of Kimhi that the word gehenna was derived from the burning garbage in the Hinnom Valley.

I plan to blog about the doctrine of annihilationism in the coming weeks, so will leave further discussion until then.

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