20110818-070048.jpgWith all of the hoopla and arguing associated it the Rob Bell book, I was surprised at the nearly total lack of fanfare associated with the release of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We Made Up. Having devoted a four part series to Love Wins, I felt it only appropriate to review Chan’s offering. So when I came across it at Sam’s Club, I snapped it up. Last night I read the first several chapters, which has forced me to the conclusion that, like Bell’s book, I will need to take this one on in small bites in order to do it justice.

I will say out of the gate that neither book is particularly ground breaking. Bell’s material could have been copied from the ancient Universalist Origin’s work 1900 years ago and Chan’s book reflects a far more conservative theological bent. The two clearly take polar opposite positions on the matter of form out of the gate. Further, their approaches are vastly different. Bell is far more rhetorical and relies more on accusation and speculation to drive his points, whereas Chan works largely in the Biblical texts and their cultural contexts. Essentially, Bell comes across with a more post-modern mysterious set of arguments, while Chan presents a series of propositions based on the Biblical evidence.

My impression from the first few chapters is that Chan’s work is clearer in it’s presentation of information. Chan also is CLEARLY responding to Bell’s work. He works his way through and addresses the various points Bell makes scripturally and rhetorically. His style is light and he addresses the topic with a sober seriousness that is appropriate to any theological discussion of hell. He spends considerable time making the argument that he does not want hell to exist and that he hopes it doesn’t. However, he points out if the scriptures are true then it doesn’t matter what he wants. Wanting something to be true doesn’t dictate its truth. Chan acknowledges his sorrow over the existence of hell.

The opening chapter addresses the matter of whether or not everyone goes to heaven. It also offers a very simple classification of the various positions regarding universal salvation. Chan doesn’t do so in a vitriolic or accusatory manner, rather he simply presents the facts. In doing so, I’d argue that he clearly presents the position from Love Wins amongst the various Universalist camps. Again, not in an accusatory manner, as has marked much of the discussion on the matter. He then moves on to address the various scripture passages that are typically used to defend the universal salvation position, demonstrating repeatedly that proper exegesis eliminates all support for the position. In the process, he also addresses Bell’s “Does God always get what He wants?” discussion, again demonstrating that proper interpretation removes all doubt as to the validity of the argument. He closes his chapter questions regarding passages that offer the hope of post-mortem salvation.

The most refreshing aspect of Chan’s treatment of the scriptures as it relates to the question of universal salvation is his dogged insistence on referring to the passages in question in their full, original context. He clearly demonstrates that every major scripture used to support the universal salvation position depends on being taken out of context of the book where it appears. Any student of Biblical interpretation can rattle of the 3 rules for interpreting a text:

1. Context
2. Context
3. Context

Chan uses this basic rule time and again to drive home the point that the text’s original context demonstrates its meaning most effectively.

He continues this trend in the following chapter by examining the cultural context in which the New Testament was written. Here, he is doing to work of exegesis on the matter of the New Testament’s treatment of hell by showing what first century Jews believed about hell. Here again, Cahn is clearly addressing one of Bell’s arguments that first century Jews didn’t believe in eternity and had limited acknowledgement of hell. Chan demolishes Bell’s position by simply quoting passage after passage from intertestamental Jewish authors and first century Jewish and Christian authors demonstrating clear belief in the existence of hell. Perhaps the thing that blew me away most profoundly was Chan’s demonstration that Gehenna, which is often argued to refer to a garbage dump in the Hebron Valley by Jerusalem and is the word used for hell by Christ, doesn’t in any way refer to a garbage dump in the Hebron Valley. This is important, because Bell argues using this word to support his argument that Christ spoke of the dump, rather than hell. I was a little surprised by this, because this is a popular teaching. However, this isn’t supported by any early documents and no archeology find supports it (and there would be archeological evidence of a city dump). In fact, the first reference to a garbage dump in association with Gehenna wasn’t made until 1200, when a rabbi in Europe compared Gehenna to a garbage dump. Over the centuries that reference morphed into this odd little tidbit. As a guy who read and studied Love Wins, it’s hard to miss the fact that Bell’s argument relied heavily on a lack of cultural context for hell in the first century. Chan eviscerates the position, again doing so in a very matter of fact way, without vitriol and using the basic tools of sound exegesis.

I have not finished the book, but will continue to post as I read. Thus far, I have not found any problems with the text. There is nothing I can critique as far as his handling of the Biblical texts, though there is a leaning toward annihilationalism. Though, he has only referred to it thus far as it relates to various texts. If the early chapters are any indicator, this is a book worth reading and considering.