Up until this point in Erasing Hell, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle have leaned heavily towards examination of what 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were, what the New Testament records that Jesus actually said about Hell, and what the writers of the New Testament themselves wrote about Hell. All of this has had a rather deep theological weight to it. In Chapter Five, Chan addresses what all of it has to do with the average Christian. While this ranks as the shortest chapter thus far, it is by no means less important than the first four chapters. No theology matters much without the means to apply it to the Christian life, and the issues that Chan raises in this chapter are–like it or not–ones that the Church fails to grapple with today.
Chan begins by pointing out that Jesus threatens hell to those who curse their brother (in Matthew 5:22). The subject of Hell has been one that brings the worst in Christians, and as Chan accurately notes,
It’s ironic–frightening actually–that some people have written books, preached sermons, or written blog posts about hell and have missed this point completely. In fact, some people have slammed their Christian brothers and sisters in the process, simply because they have a different view of hell, missing the purpose of Matthew 5: Whoever calls his brother a fool may find himself guilty of hell.
Have you called your brother a fool lately? On a blog? On Facebook? Have you tweeted anything of the sort?
Here Chan seems to be engaging in some oblique reproof. Although he has not been shy about naming Rob Bell in previous chapters (see my reviews of the Introduction and Chapter One), this seems to be a reference to the controversy that erupted in the Christian blogosphere at the time Bell’s Love Wins was released — particularly as concerns a tweet sent out by John Piper prior to the book’s publication. The warning that Chan is giving here is that disagreement should not lead to vitriol — exactly what happened with Love Wins, and something that I was surely not the only one disturbed by (you can read some of my thoughts here and in the comments sections here). The standard, says Chan, is “that we would live holy lives.” Whatever our thoughts on hell, we must not demean our Christian brothers and sisters over the issue.
BUT JESUS, DIDN’T WE …
Chan next turns to Matthew 7, which he dubs “probably the scariest passage on hell in the entire Bible.” He offers the opinion that of all the hair-raising words used to describe hell — fire, furnace, everlasting, gloom, darkness, worms, torment — none of them are used in the passage. Rather, he finds the most terrible word to be many, as in “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” (Matthew 5:23) Chan finds this terrifying because of the indication that “many” will go to Hell when they thought they were intended for Heaven, and it’s clear that he believes this will happen because of poor teaching on what the Bible says on the subject of Hell.
This is judgment day. This is the end. There are no second chances. This is the last peaceful breath that “many” will breathe before they spend the rest of their lives in hell. Put yourself there for a second. Fast-forward your life to that day. Will you sound like the many who will call out in desperation, “Lord, Lord, did I not __________ and __________ and __________ in Your name?”
How will Jesus respond to your laundry list of Christian activities–your Easter services, tithe, Bible studies, church potlucks, and summer-camp conversions? Are you sure you’re on the right side? What evidence do you have that you know Jesus? Please understand my heart. I believe I am asking these questions for the same reason that Jesus gives the warning. It’s the most loving thing I can do! “Many” will go to hell even though they thought they’d waltz into paradise. Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23).
FROM EVERY TRIBE AND TONGUE
Chan next takes on the elephant in the sanctuary of many churches in America: racism. What does racism have to do with hell? According to Jesus, says Chan, everything. He cites Matthew 8 as an example of Jesus standing the cultural and social mores of 1st-century Jewish life on their end, noting Jesus’ astonishment over a Roman Gentile military leader whose trust and faith in the authority of Jesus far exceeds that of anyone in Israel.
Jesus spins out a short message about many people of all nations and colors and ethnicities that will flood into the kingdom. And it is here that Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” who think that God values one ethnicity over another (in this case, the Jewish people) are damned to hell: “The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12 NASB). The teeth that once gnashed at the person of another race or color will gnash in the agony of eternal torment.
Chan throws out a figure that is both disturbing and sad: only 5.5 of evangelical churches in America could be considered multiethnic (where no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of its congregants). It’s hardly necessary to point out what a glaring contradiction this represents to the unity of every tribe and tongue to which Jesus calls the Church. Chan points out another glaring contradiction, however:
We need to see the glaring contradiction of saying we believe in hell while making no effort to tear down the walls of racism and ethnic superiority. If we’re going to take Jesus’ words seriously, we have to make a more concerted effort to forge avenues of racial reconciliation and unity under the banner of the gospel of Christ … If this sounds irritating, then go back and read Matthew 8. It’s written for you.
BLESSED ARE THE POOR
The poor are mentioned over 400 times throughout the Bible, and Chan notes that while Jesus might have been ambiguous at times about the nature or duration of hell, he is positively clear about the necessity of reaching the poor. His longest sermon about judgment, as Chan remarks, makes helping the poor one of God’s criteria for determining who goes where in the afterlife. Chan quickly follows this with an admission that Christians want to qualify this.
We want to add all sorts of footnotes to Jesus’ shaky theology in Matthew 25–justification is by faith, not by works; you don’t really have to help literal poor people, etc … it’s ironic that some people will fight tooth and nail for the literalness of Jesus’ words about hell in this passage, yet soften Jesus’ very clear words about helping the poor … Why do we assume it must be one or the other? Let’s keep the teeth of both truths. There’s a literal hell, and helping the poor is essential. Not only did Jesus teach both of these truths, He saw them as necessary and interrelated.
THE TONGUE OF FIRE
The short epistle of James has not been without controversy throughout the history of the Church. Martin Luther hated the book, denying it was the work of an apostle, due to its famous statement that “faith without works is dead.” It is not works that Chan focuses on in a brief discussion of James, but rather its single mention of hell, which Chan feels is directed right at him as a teacher of the Bible.
In the context of warning teachers that they will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1), James says that the tongue is capable of burning up an entire forest (v. 5). “The tongue is a fire,” James says, and it is ignited by the fire of hell (v. 6). Again, think teachers, those who stand up and communicate God’s Word to God’s people … No doubt James agrees that sinners of all sorts will go to hell, but for some sobering reason he saves his only explicit–and quite scathing–warning about hell for teacher’s of God’s Word.
This seems an apt warning from Chan for a Church that more and more is full of not just poor teaching, but outright false teaching (i.e., the prosperity movement). In this context, Chan sees this warning about hell in James as placed squarely in context with 2 Peter and Jude (discussed in Chapter Four), with their emphasis being a place for false teachers who claim to speak for God when they are really only speaking for themselves.
LUKEWARM AND LOVING
As in the previous chapter, Chan turns to the book of Revelation for some of the most terrifying images of hell. He notes that the epistle was not written to unbelievers, but to Christians, as a warning to keep faith in the midst of adversity. The descriptions of hell in Revelation 14 and 20-21, he asserts, were specifically written with the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 in mind.
In these churches, there were those who had left their first love (Rev 2:), followed the heresy of false teachers (v. 20), and become complacent and “lukewarm” because of the earthly wealth they hoarded (3:15-17). It is to these types of people–people who confess Jesus with their lips but deny Him by their actions–that God reserves the most scathing descriptions of hellfire and brimstone.
Chan states that he has seen enough of the Church in other countries to know that not all Christian live as American Christians do. He sincerely believes that the Church in American has become “dangerously comfortable.” He depicts American Christians as “believers who ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel.” Yet he also draws encouragement from growing numbers of Christians in America who recognize how at odds this is with what Jesus calls us to, and are making changes in their lifestyles. Chan closes by reminding the reader that in Revelation, Jesus addressed a few who had refused to succumb:
“You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” (Rev. 3:4)