Book review: Erasing Hell

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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.

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Faith and reason comic: Love wins… What loses?

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This is my second attempt at a comic. Please let me know what you think. Before you criticize my position on Bell’s book, please take the time to read the first four installments of my review. I’ll write the last one eventually. Most of what stalled me out was the sort of thing I highlight in this comic. Please let me know what you think.

Skipping Out on Milk and Cookies Christianity

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I first began attending church when I was 15 at a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Montgomery Alabama. One of the staples of the weekly service was the recitation of the creeds. This always took place right before the sermon. I now understand that this took place so that the listener could compare the beliefs of historic Christianity with the message being presented. It kept everything Kosher, so to speak. As a new believer, I found this comforting. I liked hearing the totality of the beliefs of the church summarized succinctly. In addition, I read the creeds and looked up the ideas in the scriptures. The product of this was: I knew what the Christian faith was about and I knew why I believed it. Over time the repetition from week to week began to wear out the joy of hearing the creeds. Eventually, we moved to a new town and the family settled into a Reformed Church, which has less repetition. When I went to college, the creeds disappeared from my worship experience entirely, though I can still recite them from memory.

The last few Sundays, I have listened to a series of sermons on the basic ideas of the Christian faith. These messages have reminded me of how powerful and comforting those creeds are. Last week, Denver preached on the Trinity. I will admit that it has been over a decade since I have heard a sermon on the Trinity. I have read about it in classes for seminary and as a part of various books. It was terrific. In a day and age of movie themed and self-help sermons, the appearance of a message on the foundations of the faith was a welcome change of pace. What made it particularly powerful was that the topic of the Trinity parlayed into a call for repentance in Christ. An altar call in a sermon on the Trinity… awesome! Having mulled over the whole thing at length, I think I figured out why it struck me as being so terrific.

Standard therapy/entertainment sermons found in churches across the country aren’t about God. They are all about the listener. More time is spent dealing with the listeners thoughts, feelings, needs and wants than is spent talking about Jesus. Relevance has turned the weekly service into a sad variation of the worship song: “it’s all about me, it’s all about me… the listener.” This relevance is a necessity because there is no real focus on God. People come in and have little or no relationship or connection as the Body of Christ and very little connection to God and only stay as long as they feel comfortable. They need to be entertained, because they are not growing members of the Body of Christ, instead they are merely spectators or infants who need something shiny to look at. There is no need to mature in the Body because maturing would require they not indulge in the lowest common denominator of spirituality, which seems to be self-indulgence. They need milk… or Kool-Aid, lest they accidently nourish themselves spiritually and treat anything other than themselves and their own comfort as God. The easy listening sermon is a powerful tool in building large churches, and by large churches I mean gatherings thousands of attendees wide and very very shallow. I am being a bit harsh and am painting with a broad brush. I do not wish to convey a total condemnation of all efforts toward relevance in preaching. However, when relevance crosses from speaking the language of the congregation to making the service completely about the listener, there is a problem. That is not accessibility, it is consumerism disguised as Christianity.

This is highlighted in the Trinity in particular. Augustine points out that the Trinity is essentially the note of doctrine that describes God’s relationship with Himself. It isn’t about us. Certain elements of our lives may reflect the Trinitarian relationship, but merely because they are designed to do so. The important part of the Trinity sermon is God. The important part of worship ought to be God. This is perhaps why the call to repent and follow Christ stood out to me as being particularly powerful in this sermon. It was about committing to follow Christ, not buying a bill of goods. In our day and age, following Christ is packaged as a way to have secure finances or better self-esteem or a more fulfilling sex life. The problem is that the real call to follow Christ is about receiving forgiveness and becoming a follower of the way. The way may have side effects, but they are side effects. The primary effect is salvation. The Trinity puts on display the various aspects of God and highlights how awesome He is. Creator, comforter, redeemer, etc. are all parts of the picture of God provided in the Trinity. These are the things that ought to attract us when we commit to following Christ. Further, they are the meat and potatoes that every growing believer needs.

Interestingly, for all the time, effort and energy spent by evangelicals and conservatives speaking out against questionable cultural trends and liberalism in the church and books about whether or not hell exists, all in the name of protecting the flock from being mislead from the Biblical message of Christianity, simply teaching the flock to recognize basic truths about God would do wonders to ensure that such things do not occur.

By the way, it was a great sermon.

Interlude: Sola Scriptura

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One of my favorite memories from my adolescent years is of arguing with my dad. Seems odd, right? I became a Christian when I was in Jr. High School and was excited to learn. One of the first Christian books I read was Luther’s Catechism. I read it because I wanted to know everything about God that I could possibly learn. I read and studied and absorbed. My father blessed me tremendously by pushing me to think about what I believed. His challenges to my thinking forced me to read the scriptures as a meter stick for my beliefs. Since then I have tried to practice this discipline in relation to my faith. When I read seminary texts, I try to check the scriptures to determine if the Bible supports the claims being made. When I read books from popular theologians, I read the Bible to determine the veracity of the claims. When I listen to sermons, I work to do the same thing. Measure, test and discern using the scriptures as the source for ultimate truth. Debating Bible with my father gave me this gift. At times, clever philosophies and theologies have come along only to be measured against the Word and judged accordingly. Let there be no doubt, at times I wanted them to be true, while at other times, I wanted to find them false. But my desires must always be subordinate to the will and truth of the God I serve. Paul pointed to the Berean church in Acts 17:10-12, referring to it as particularly noble because they tested everything he taught against the scriptures. Paul was happy that they questioned him and checked his teachings against the scriptures. Paul lived in a time rife with deceivers and false teachers, not unlike what we face today. In the wake of his ministry, Paul constantly battled false teachings, prompting him to say amazingly stern things to the effect of: if anyone teaches any gospel other than the one I taught, let them be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-9) What is taught in the church matters. We must measure and test. I don’t have time to write the next installment of my love wins review. I will probably write it next week. However, I wanted to take a moment to comment on my observations of the discourse thus far. After all, the debate ought to be part of how we measure and test. That having been said, I have been reading blogs and articles, listening to podcasts and having conversations. The bluster, incredulity, name calling and condemnation has been more distasteful than anything else. Now, I have read a few great articles and discussions from a variety of sources. I have also read some dump and mindless articles. One of the more discouraging trends that I have encountered time and again is scant discussion of the scriptures and facts. I suspect this is a product of the appalling degree of Biblical and theological illiteracy in the church. We have so much freedom and so many available resources that they have lost all value. In the end, if we are going to discuss the matter, the only thing of importance is the scriptures. Period. Sure, it is difficult to think that people may go to hell. Its a sad possibility, but that isn’t enough to make the scripture supporting the existence of hell null and void. Only God can decide the truth of the existence of eternal punishment or salvation by faith in Christ. God gives us the truth in the scriptures and only they can act as the arbiters of truth. If we are to debate, let us do so with the scriptures. This makes it tough because it’s easy to love Rob Bell. We want to defend Bell because we love him. Others want to attack him because they loathe him. It doesn’t matter either way. We can only look to the scriptures for truth. Love him or hate him, measure the truth of all teachings against the word of God. I rather like Bell, but I will not choose any teaching over the plain message the scriptures. Don’t argue about the other guy’s argumentation style, argue their scriptures. Nothing else matters. The most important lesson I learned from arguing with my dad is that the best way to learn is to study and read in pursuit of the truth. If this debate has caught your attention and gotten your blood boiling… Read the scriptures and study. Then the goal ceases to be defeating the evil heretic or the stiff necked evangelical and becomes about learning who our God is so that we can take a closer walk with him.