Posts tagged ‘Rob Bell’

Monday Roundup

Here’s a roundup of some things that I’m reading. Enjoy!Pastor Chad

  • I’ve been following Josh Tandy at Rookie Pastor for some time, and get quite a bit out of his blog. Josh is planting a church and could use your prayers (and financial assistance).
  • Speaking of church planting, Lifeway is offering some free curriculum to church planters. I spent a few weeks this past September working a temp job for Lifeway, getting feedback about this curriculum, and can attest that it is the real deal and does not skew any particular theological direction that I was able to discern.
  • An interesting profile on former Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell from The New Yorker. Whether you’re a fan of him or not, the piece is a good read.
  • Jazz legend Dave Brubeck passed away last week just one day shy of his 92nd birthday. I feel a great sense of loss — his “Take Five” made jazz personally accessible to me. Ben Witherington posts a fine memorial that includes a clip of some of Brubeck’s later work, whose subject matter may come as much of a pleasant surprise to you as it did to me.
  • Some great thoughts from Matt Kelley on what pastors should do When “Some People” Complain.
  • J. Lee Grady shares 10 Stupid Things Ministers Should Never Do. Maybe I’m just pessimistic, but my first thought before even reading it was, “Really? Just 10?”
  • In the same vein, here are some things that a pastor should never say. I found these enlightening, as someone who sometimes feels that my mouth must be foot-shaped, considering how often my foot jumps right into it.
  • A rather surprising list of priorities from the CEO of Yahoo.
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Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Five

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.

YOU FOOL

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)

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Three

Having dealt in Chapter Two with what the Jewish beliefs about Hell were that would have influenced Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, Francis Chan moves on to exploring what Jesus actually said about Hell. Chan gives the reader a reminder of what he labels a sobering reality: this is a subject which is not just about doctrines, but about destinies. He urges that anyone who reads the book and is wrestling with what the Bible says about Hell should not let it be merely an academic exercise.

“You must let Jesus’ very real teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you.”

As I wrote in my last post, Chan’s description of the 1st-century world Jesus inhabited is one in which the Jewish people saw hell as a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God’s judgment. They described hell with images of fire, darkness, and lamenting; some believed the wicked would be annihilated after they were cast into hell, while other Jews believed hell to be a place of never-ending torment. Given this milieu, Chan notes the importance of understanding that if Jesus rejected these widespread Jewish beliefs in hell, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against them.

Chan is insistent that what Jesus Himself actually said about hell stands in line with the dominant views of hell in His 1st-century Jewish world. He examines Jesus’ teachings on hell using the same three categories he discussed in Chapter Two to demonstrate that Jesus believed:

  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.

HELL IS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGMENT

Chan notes that Jesus used the word gehenna (hell) twelve times in the Gospel, employing imagery of fire and darkness to demonstrate that a horrific place of punishment awaits the wicked on the day of judgment. Chan cites Matthew 25:31-46 as the clearest example of this.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Chan is careful to admit that this is actually an instance where Jesus actually does not use the word gehenna, but that He communicates the concept of hell by phrases such as “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment.” The point that is important here is that this is a passage in which Jesus is clear that the wicked will be awarded everlasting punishment on the day of Christ’s return, judgment day. He singles out another instance, in Matthew 5:22, where Jesus does use gehenna passage concerning judgment, stating,

“… here the Judge has the power to sentence you to the “hell [gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 5:22). This is not a vague reference to hell and certainly not a reference to a garbage dump. The legal context of this statement ensures that Jesus is referring to the consequences of judgment day.”

According to Chan, this legal context is the indication that Jesus means that hell is a literal place, where punishment occurs after judgment.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGERY OF FIRE AND DARKNESS

Chan moves on to demonstrate that — like his Jewish contemporaries — Jesus described Hell using images of fire and darkness. He turns to the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13.

“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30)

Chan notes that this is a verse that doesn’t say much on its own, but comments that Jesus’ explanation of the parable and what He means by the burning weeds is of significance.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43)

Chan unswervingly calls these statements of Jesus “terrifying,” and puts forward the image of the wicked being cast into hell — and the weeping that follows — as common belief among 1st-century Jews (an argument he supported well previously). In the light of some of the Jewish writing on hell that Chan shared previously, he is successful in making the case that Jesus is right in line with Jewish thought on Hell. Jesus was using an established vocabulary to communicate a message that no one who heard Him speaking would have had any doubts about: Jesus was speaking of gehenna (hell) as “a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life.” Chan tackles some contemporary stances on hell (and by “contemporary” some would almost certainly say “Rob Bell”) by asserting,

“The hell that Jesus describes here is not a hell-on-earth that accompanies our bad decisions during this life, and it certainly isn’t the never-ending party that AC/DC describes in their song.”

Lastly, Chan gives examples of Jesus’ use of the imagery of darkness to refer to hell as a place of punishment for those of Israel and the nations who do not follow Jesus.

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)

“And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30)

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Chan concludes Chapter Three by addressing a seeming dichotomy: Jesus seems in some passages give the implication that Hell will not last very long, while in other places He refers to Hell as a place in which unbelievers are punished with horrifying, agonizing pain that never ends.

This section of Erasing Hell is one in which it seems that the voice of Preston Sprinkle could possibly be rising above Francis Chan’s, as there is a very scholarly exploration of the precise meaning of Greek words and grammar. Chan believes this is beneficial but acknowledges that it may be more technical than some might be used to. He leads into this discussion of Greek grammar with the following:

“In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that it’s a place to be avoided at all costs, but He doesn’t clearly tell us how long it will last.

Jesus’ most suggestive statement–perhaps His only statement–about the duration of hell comes in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus speaks of the final judgment that will take place at His second coming (v. 31). The sheep (believers in Jesus) and goats (unbelievers) are divided in two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives. The sheep have served Jesus by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on, while the goats did none of these things. Jesus then gives His verdict:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the  devil and his angels.’ ” (v. 41)

Jesus reviews their behavior on earth and finds convicting evidence for their condemnation (vv. 42-44) and then concludes:

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (vv. 45-46)

The vital point Chan wishes to make revolves around the phrases everlasting fire and everlasting punishment. Those who believe that Hell is of limited duration, he states, argue that the Greek aionios kolasis which is translated “everlasting punishment” does not meant that punishment is without end. Rather they argue for aionios meaning “a period of time,” with kolasis being a horticultural term referring to “pruning” or “trimming.” Here Chan is very deliberately going on the offensive against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which Bell stated:

“An aionios of kolasis. Depending on how you translate aionios and kolasis, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.”

The argument of Bell and others, Chan relates, is that the purpose of this pruning or correction is to improve something — in this case, to correct the wicked of their ungodly behavior until they have ceased to be wicked. According to this, Jesus is referring to a time of correction that will result in those who suffer punishment being eventually saved. In Rob Bell’s view, this then refers to “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”

Chan is honest enough to admit that this is an appealing argument, on the basis that it appears to reconcile the love of God with the bleak statements Jesus makes about hell. However, Chan refutes the argument on the basis of kolasis in no way referring to correction, only to punishment. He gives three reasons for this, the first being that in the three other appearances of the word in the New Testament, it refers only to punishment. Kolasis as used in Jewish literature of the first century refers to punishment.

Secondly, the everlasting punishment referred to is the same location as “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” in verse 41. This being the case, Chan notes that to argue that unbelievers endure a time of suffering for a period, which results in salvation, then the same must be true for the Devil and his angels. Chan labels this as a huge stretch, especially in light of Revelation 19-20, where it is stated that the Devil and his angels will be tormented forever and ever. Chan contends that Jesus is actually saying that unbelievers will share the same fate as the Devil and his followers. In other words, unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever.

The third reason Chan presents for kolasis referring to punishment instead of correction is that in other verses or passages in which Jesus refers to hell with phrases such as “the fiery furnace” or “everlasting fire,” He is speaking of a place of retribution, a place where sinners receive the punishment for their sins. He does not speak of correction, notes Chan, in other passages such as Matthew 13:41-42 and 49-50. He observes that the consensus of biblical commentators from diverse theological backgrounds, using diverse translations of the Bible (in numerous languages), translate kolasis as meaning “punishment.”

Chan’s final thoughts for Chapter Three contain his recognition that while he strongly favors the argument that Hell is everlasting, he is not ready to claim that with complete certainty. He concludes with this fervent admonition:

“We are bound by the words of the Creator, the One who will do what is right. The One who invented justice and knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves. God has never asked us to figure out His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee, to tremble at His word, as Isaiah says (66:2)”

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.

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.

Review: Erasing Hell, Introduction

Francis Chan puts things in perspective immediately regarding Erasing Hell, which he co-authored with Preston Sprinkle:

“If you are excited to read this book, you have issues.

     Do you understand the weight of what we are about to consider? We are exploring the possibility that you and I may end up being tormented in hell. Excited would be the wrong term to use here. Necessary would be more fitting.”

With that, Chan begins a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of what the Bible actually says about Hell, and about the things that the people of God have simply concocted out of whole cloth about the afterlife. Chan freely admits that Sprinkle (a New Testament scholar and professor of biblical studies at Eternity Bible College) is responsible for the research that underpins the book, while Chan’s is the voice in which it is written.

Let’s be honest, shall we? Hell has gotten a lot of play recently, what with the controversy over the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (you can see some reviews of Bell’s book here, here, and here). Chan’s reason for wanting to write this book is at least partly personal. He shares the heart-wrenching story of watching his grandmother die, knowing that according to what he knew of the Bible, she was headed for an eternity of suffering. The emotional burden of that incident resulted in years of Chan acknowledging the existence of Hell with his lips, but never allowing his heart to feel its weight.

When it comes to Hell, Chan says that we cannot afford to be wrong in our doctrine.

“This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake. And the Bible has too much to say.”

In his introduction, Chan stresses the importance of testing our assumptions about Hell against what the Bible actually says. He rightly points out that there are many things that Christians can believe and practice for years, only to change their views after study of the Scriptures reveals those beliefs and practices to be inaccurate.

“I’m not going to hang on to the idea of hell simply because its what my tradition tells me to believe. And neither should you.”

Perhaps the most arresting thing in this introduction is the admonition that we not distance what the Bible says from reality, that we not forget that the doctrine we study might just be the destiny of many people. Francis Chan doesn’t think Hell is a topic to be studied without tears and prayer; we should weep, pray and fast as we beg God to reveal the truth of Hell through His word, because we can’t be wrong on this one.

Thomas Jay Oord Review of “Love Wins”

Thomas Jay Oord, whom I have a lot of respect for, has posted a review of Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins. Oord is very positive about the book; in fact, he says it is a great book. I have not yet had a chance to read the book but since I have previously posted a link to a Kevin DeYoung review which did not view the book so positively, it seems fair to post a link to a review which takes an opposite stance. I remain concerned about the vitriol which has characterized discussion of the work – it just seems to me that it violates the Great Commandment.

Have you read the book? And what did you think of it?

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