Posts tagged ‘Origen’

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Two

“Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?” is the question that begins chapter two of Erasing Hell. Here, Chan discusses inaccurate ideas and images that many of us persist in believing. He begins with an embarrassing confession about the image that comes to his mind when he hears the name Jesus: a Caucasian man with long blonde hair, staring up into the sky, courtesy of a painting that hung on the wall of a church he attended as a child. Chan acknowledges,

“Jesus did not look that way when He walked the earth, and He certainly doesn’t look like that now. But as hard as I have tried, I have not been able to erase that picture from my memory. It occasionally creeps back into my mind when I hear the name Jesus. Sometimes it even happens when I’m praying!”

Chan’s point here is our tendency to choose a version of Jesus reinterpreted in the light of our own cultural, political, or theological opinions, rather than the Jesus presented by the Bible itself. Having made this point, he then applies it to the topic of Hell, noting:

“The question “what is hell?” has spawned many answers over the years. For Origen, hell was a place where the souls of the wicked were purified so they could find their way back to God. Dante depicted hell as a place under the earth’s surface with nine levels of suffering, where sinners were bitten by snakes, tormented by beasts, showered with icy rain, and trapped in rivers of blood or flaming tombs; some were even steeped in huge pools of human excrement. C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of hell was significantly less creepy. For Lewis, it was a kind of dark, gloomy city, or a place where “being fades away into nonentity.” A happier portrait of hell was painted by the band AC/DC, who said that “hell ain’t a bad place to be”–it’s where all our friends are. Most recently, Rob Bell said that hell is not “about someday, somewhere else,” but about the various “hells on earth” that people experience in this life — genocide, rape, and unjust socioeconomic structures.”

Chan’s plea is that we set aside notions of hell that are based on literature or music or popular culture, and that we examine what Jesus actually said about hell, in the context of the world Jesus actually lived in. To do so, insists Chan, is to acknowledge a world in which hell was seen as a place of punishment for those who did not follow God. So ingrained was this belief among 1st-century Jews, says Chan, that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to set Himself apart from such a view if he didn’t share it. Although he leaves the question of whether or not Jesus did that for the following chapter, Chan devotes most of the second chapter to examining the 1st-century Jewish view of hell, noting that for the Jews of Jesus’ day, three things were believed in regards to Hell:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment

Chan notes immediately that first-century Judaism built its theology from the Old Testament, which doesn’t have that much to say about hell. He does make mention of Daniel 12:2 as most relevant, with its reference to punishment in the afterlife: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Chan also refers to Ezekiel 32:17-32, another passage which mentions hell and punishment.

At this point, Chan wanders onto some possibly shaky ground, as he must depart from Scripture to examine Jewish belief in Hell — not the best place to wander when one is insisting on examining what the Bible says about Hell. He is careful to note that many 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were developed after reading the Old Testament, but that these beliefs are not in themselves inspired by God. The purpose of explaining these beliefs, for Chan, is to demonstrate the beliefs that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were surrounded by and would have been influence by.

HELL AS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGEMENT

Here is Chan’s description of 1st-century Jewish belief in Hell as a place of punishment after judgement:

“The typical afterlife scenario among Jews in Jesus’ day was that after the wicked die, they go to a place called hades, sometimes called sheol. This is not the same thing as “hell.” Hades is not usually depicted as a place of punishment, though the wicked may suffer there. It is a place where the wicked wait until judgement day. After they are judged, the wicked are then thrown into hell as a punishment for their sins.”

Chan notes that the punishment was not intended as corrective or remedial. It won’t make the wicked fit for salvation. Rather, he states, “hell is retributive — it’s God’s punishment for sin.” Chan cites from first-century Apocryphal book, 4 Ezra, by way of demonstrating this:

“[The chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgement … recompense shall follow … unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear … and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed.”

Chan also cites a second-century work, 1 Enoch, to demonstrate the Jewish belief that after sinners die they go to a place where they await judgement, as they have not been judged in their lifetimes.

“[T]he sinners are set apart when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed upon them in their lifetime, upon this great pain, until the great day of judgment–and to those who curse (there will be) plague and pain forever, and the retribution of their spirits.”

Chan notes how  at odds this is with the notion that Rob Bell asserts in Love Wins, that hell is the various “hells on earth” that people might face daily.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGES OF FIRE, DARKNESS, AND LAMENT

The length of time in which 1st-century Jews believed one would spend in hell was the matter of differences of opinion, Chan says, with some believing that the personal existence of the wicked would cease as hell was a place of annihilation, while others believed that the wicked would continue to exist, albeit in eternal torment and pain. What was consistent, he elucidates, is the common description of hell using images of fire.

“[T]he coming world will be given to these [i.e. the one’s obedient to God], but the habitation of the many others will be in fire.“(2 Bar.,  44:15, first century AD)

“Woe unto you, sinners, because of the works of your hands! On account of the deeds of your wicked ones, in blazing flames worse than fire, it shall burn.” (1 Enoch 100:9, first century BC)

Chan aptly compares the language of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the words of Jesus himself in their use of the images of fire and worms.

“And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24)

“where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (Mark 9:48)

“Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance upon them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.” (Judith 16:17, first century BC).

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Some 1st-century contemporaries of Jesus, Chan states, saw Hell as a place of annihilation, while others saw it as a place of never-ending punishment.

“And their dwelling place will be in darkness and the place of destruction; and they will not die but melt away until I remember the world and renew the earth. And they will die and not live, and their life will be taken away from the number of all men.” (L.A.B. 16:3, first century AD)

This clearly a view of Hell as being a place where — while there may be a period of suffering — the wicked are destroyed. Yet Chan also notes that other Jewish views on Hell posited a place where the wicked were punished eternally. He quotes Enoch’s description of

“a place of “all kinds of torture and torment” where “dark and merciless” beings would use “instruments of atrocities torturing without pity,”

as well as the wicked’s

“pleading that he may give them a little breathing spell from the angels of his punishment … begging for a little rest but find it not … Light has vanished from before us and darkness has become your habitation forever and ever; because we have formerly neither had faith nor glorified the name of the Lord of the Spirits.”

IS HELL A GARBAGE DUMP?

Chapter Two of Erasing Hell ends with an examination of the argument that when Jesus used the word hell (gehenna), he was in fact referring to a garbage dump situated in the Valley of Hinnom outside the city of Jerusalem, a place where the Jewish people discarded their trash. This is not a new argument, but it is one that has been thrown out (no pun intended) recently by Rob Bell. Chan does Bell the courtesy of acknowledging that “one of the most encouraging aspects of Rob Bell’s preaching and writing” is to “try to situate Jesus in His own context.” Unfortunately, according to Chan, as positive a step on Bell’s part this is, he is incorrect in identifying Hell as the city garbage dump. Chan asks the reader to consider how awkward some of Jesus’ statements are if by hell  he really meant garbage dump.

“Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 5:22)

“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into the garbage dump.” (Matt. 5:29)

“Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in the garbage dump.” (Matt. 10:28)

“It is better for your to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 18:9)

Chan labels Bell’s theory as both misleading and inaccurate. Misleading, because “it confuses the source of an idea for the idea itself.” In other words, the image of the burning garbage dump may have been the inspiration for Jesus’ description of hell, but Jesus does not mean that the dump itself is Hell. Chan labels this as a misunderstanding of the way language functions, using the example of people referring to a gridlocked freeway as a parking lot. The parking lot inspires the comparison, he argues, yet no one would claim that people are driving to the freeway, stopping, locking their cars, and then going about their business.

Chan also argues the theory as being inaccurate because there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that the Valley of Hinnom was, in fact, a dump. No archeological evidence of the valley’s use as a garbage dump has been found, and the first mention of gehenna was made by a rabbi, David Kimhi, in 1200 AD — over a thousand years after Jesus!

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called “Gehenna.”

It’s not logical — as Francis Chan is quick to bring out — that Jesus is referring to this alleged dump, when “there’s no evidence in the piles and 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.” More importantly, Chan highlights that Kimhi himself, the first writer to connect gehenna with the town dump, saw it as an analogy for the place where the wicked would be judged.

Chan closes the chapter by identifying what it was about the Hinnom Valley that might have caused the word gehenna to be associated with fiery judgment:

“In the Old Testament, the Hinnom Valley was the place where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. It was here, in fact, where they sacrificed their children to these gods (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) making them “pass through the fire” (Ezek. 16:20-21 NASB). When Jeremiah began to preach, the Hinnom Valley started to take on a metaphorical reference for the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast (Jer. 7:29-34; 19:6-9; 32:25): “Behold, the days are coming … when it will no more be called … the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:32). Jews living between the Testaments picked up on this metaphor and ran with it. The word gehenna was widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus to refer to the fiery place of judgment for the wicked … “

Although he spends much of the chapter in extra-biblical sources, this is a very satisfying and Scriptural closure to Chan’s examination of Hell.

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Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter One

The question with which Francis Chan begins the first chapter of Erasing Hell is, “Does  everyone go to heaven?”

Without even the slightest trace of sarcasm, Chan comments,

 “Based on what I hear at funerals, the answer is an overwhelming “Yes!” How many funerals have you attended where this was even in question?”

Chan correctly points out that questions of heaven and hell are of far too much importance to leave  to feelings or assumptions, and that we must get down to what the Bible itself says on the matter. That is the launching point for this first chapter, and Chan wastes no time in getting down to it. He does this by asking a different question entirely: does the Bible say that everyone will be saved in the end?

To answer the question, Chan begins with a brief survey of Universalism, the teaching that the Bible says that God will save everyone.  It’s a very old teaching, Chan informs us, going back to the early church leader Origen. Origen’s beliefs eventually were deemed heresy, and for most of Church history (1600 years) there were very, very few who argued that everyone will be saved.

Universalism was heart and center over this past summer’s controversy regarding Rob Bell and Love Wins. Chan is careful to state that Bell never actually uses the label “universalism,” but in a lengthy endnote to the chapter insists that it is in fact what Bell is advocating.

” … Bell never actually comes out and says that this is what he believes. To be fair, he is not explicitly arguing for this position but listing it as a valid view that would help explain a lot of the tension that we feel when thinking about the hard realities of hell. But he presents this position in such favorable terms that it would be hard to say that he is not advocating it. He even says that the traditional view of a literal hell that features eternal torment is not “good news” at all. To use Bell’s phrase, “The good news is better than that.” He implies the view that all people will eventually be saved is actually much better news. So while he never actually says that this is the correct view, Bell certainly presents this as the good view and the traditional view of hell as the bad view.”

Chan spends the bulk of the first chapter in addressing specific passages of Scripture that universalists have said show that God will save everyone. He begins  with Philippians 2:9-11.

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 bend, 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.

But Chan argues that this passage can only teach universal salvation if it is ripped out of context. He points out that in Philippians 1:28 the Apostle Paul writes that the Gospel is the evidence of destruction for those who oppose it, and salvation for those who embrace it. Similarly, Chan points out that Philippians 3:19-21 makes a contrast between the enemies of the Cross — whose end is destruction — and those who follow Christ, who will receive glory. The day of Christ return spoken of in Philippians 2:9-11 is not a day of universal salvation, argues Chan. It is a day when Jesus will return to reclaim His creation and reign as King, but with that comes judgment for those who opposed Him.

Chan next brings up a number of passages concerning God restoring all people and reconciling all things to Himself, which he says are misused by universalists to prove that all people — regardless of a relationship with Christ — will be redeemed.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22)

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, no counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:19)

In him all the fullness of God was please to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:19-20)

[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4)

Again, Chan points out that context is key, and that where Paul says “all will be made alive” in 1 Corinthians 15:22 he is clearly speaking of the resurrection of believers at the return of Christ, as evidenced by the very next verse.

But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:23)

Chan also point out Paul’s first  letter to the Corinthians ends with a rather forceful warning that everyone who does not love Jesus will be damned.

He continues his examination of these Scriptures by asking in regards to 1 Timothy 2:4 what exactly “all” means and what the word “want” means in the context of the verse. Chan demonstrates that “all” does not neccesarily mean every single person, contrasting the verse with 1 Timothy 2:1 in which Paul commands Timothy to pray for all people. Chan argues that it doesn’t seem logical that Paul wanted Timothy to “march through a prayer list that includes every person on the face of the earth,” and that if this earlier “all” doesn’t mean every single person, then neither does 2:4.

As to answering the question of what “want” means in context, Chan draws an important distinction regarding God’s will. 

“To figure out the meaning of “want,” it’s helpful to consider what the theologians have called God’s moral will and His decreed will. Some things may be part of God’s desire for the world, and yet those desires can be resisted. God doesn’t desire that people sin, but He allows it to happen because humans are moral agents who often make evil choices. God is not a puppet master who pulls everyone’s strings to suit His will. That’s why the Lord taught us to pray things like “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). God’s desire — His moral will — is resisted.”

This distinction that Chan makes underlines that the “want” of 1 Timothy 2:4 underscores that it is God’s moral will that every single person will be saved through Christ, but not his decreed will. He successfully demonstrates that the universalist position doesn’t hold up under the actual context of the Scriptures.

Chan closes this first chapter by pointing out that the New Testament clearly shows that Jesus himself not only didn’t teach that every single person would be saved, but the exact opposite — that few would be saved, while many would end up outside of the Kingdom. Chan uses the example of Jesus’ parable in Luke 13:22-30 to illustrate this.

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 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, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Chan concludes that “if Jesus actually believed in second chances for those who reject Him in this life, then this is  a dangerously misleading parable.”

What’s impressive thus far is how adamant Francis Chan is in reiterating frequently that this topic is not simply a debate over doctrine, but that it is about eternal destinies. “We can’t be wrong on this one,” is his refrain.

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