Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Editing Erasing Hell

I just finished Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell.  This was made possible, in large part, by Francis and his people – always good to have your own ‘people’ – making it available for a free download on Kindle.  It was a fairly easy read and it was written in a conversational style as opposed to a slow read done in an academic style.  It’s clear that Chan is writing this book as the “matter” alternative to Rob Bell’s “anti-matter” book, Love Wins.  It’s not a personal attack but an attempt to ‘set the record straight’ when it comes to Universalism and everybody getting a free pass to heaven.  Chan’s ultimate concern seems to be that by suggesting that hell isn’t real people will not turn to Jesus and decide that they don’t really want to be in the presence of God forever but settle for an undetermined life after this life somewhere else – but not in hell if there is no hell.  That last sentence was meant to be as confusing as I found Chan’s reasoning.


First, let’s talk about the stuff I loved in this book.  Let’s start with Chan.  I love Chan.  I love his style, I love the way he’s doing his best to live his utmost for God.  I love his commitment to the Scriptures.  I love his concern for people.  I love that he doesn’t try to define the exact nature of hell (ECT, Annihilation, etc.).  I love his approach in the book to come against ideas rather than against people.  I love how short the book is.  I love the endnotes that are a must read.  I love the FAQ section at the end of the book.  I love that this book was free.

Now for stuff I didn’t like.

Where to begin?  Francis wrote this book with Preston Sprinkle.  I could be wrong but here’s how it felt like this book came together.  Francis gets an advance look at Rob Bell’s book.  Chan and Sprinkle have a caffeine soaked conversation about what Chan has read.  The publisher has already subtly suggested Chan might write a reply.  Chan is a busy guy but feels like this is a worthy endeavour if Sprinkle will go along and do the “theology”.  Sprinkle agrees.  Chan sits in Starbucks one afternoon and hammers out the main points, a few stories, some impassioned pleading – all on his mac book – and then emails the document to Sprinkle with the note: add Bible, theology, FAQ and then email it back.  And that’s how a book gets made when you are a signed author with a Christian publishing house.

“So,” you’re asking me, “you’ve just made that up and you have a problem with something you just made up?”  Fair question.  Chan acknowledges the help of many in completing this short, non-academic book.  But read it for yourself and I think you’ll get the same feeling I did.  Is that a problem for me?  Not really, it’s just a frustration to me that Christian books come together this way.  Cook, the publisher, knew it had a ready market and with an established, best-selling author’s name on it, cha-ching.  My point is this: there are many other, better, more reasoned books on this topic already available.  Chan – or Sprinkle in this case – even references them.  But you and I won’t buy them because they’re “boring” and “cost too much” and they’re way too long. 

What I’m trying to say is, if you are convinced hell is a real place and you want someone who will affirm all that you already believe without requiring you to think, this is your book.  If you are seeking to understand the historic, theological, philosophical and ethical issues surrounding a discussion of hell, keep moving please, nothing to see here.  And I’m pretty sure that if you bumped into Chan or Sprinkle in the hall somewhere (away from their publisher) they’d pretty much same the same thing.


I should have said earlier that this is not an apologetic for Rob Bell or Love Wins.  I don’t think he broke any new ground in that book or made anything more clear for anyone in a similar but “other end of the spectrum” kind of way from Chan & Sprinkle.


What else didn’t I like?  Chan spends a ridiculous amount of time talking about the meaning of “all” in Scripture.  He proves that “all” doesn’t mean “all” in the Bible other than in those places that support it meaning “all” – which all happen to coincide with Chan’s premise.  I don’t disagree with the basic idea but the execution of the point was painful and leaves us wondering if “all” have really sinned and fallen short of the glory of God or just a lot of us, or just the Jews or just the Gentiles?  There are a few of these moments that should have been left out unless he was willing to do a better job – and here I blame the editor who – to be fair – had to be under an incredible amount of pressure to make deadline.

I didn’t like the way Chan or Sprinkle kept referencing C.S. Lewis when Lewis clearly would have eaten this book’s breakfast.  Lewis was either a Universalist or an almost Universalist and includes his literary hero, George MacDonald – a Universalist – as a character in the Great Divorce.  In the Great Divorce, people leave hell – which is envisioned as a tiny crack in the soil at the edge of heaven – by bus to get a chance to enter heaven long after their “best by” date.  Chan doesn’t even bother noting in the text that Lewis completely disagreed with his primary premise in this book in which he is often quoting Lewis.  For me it’s just bad form to quote an author to support your argument to which he clearly was of a contrary mind.

More than anything else I really didn’t like Chan’s basic premise that it is hell that sways the sinner man from his ways, not the love of God.  The popularity and cultural pervasiveness of John 3:16 notwithstanding, Chan is deeply concerned that people will get the idea that there is no hell and suddenly the reason for turning to God or continuing to follow God will suddenly be removed from their lives.  I am not suggesting the text doesn’t refer to judgment.  It obviously does.  It is the conviction that this coming judgment is our great motivator that I find baffling.  Sprinkle would certainly know that the time of Jesus was pregnant with anticipation for judgment.  You couldn’t talk about God and the world and the Kingdom of heaven without using the language of judgment that they were all immersed in.  The Jews waited for deliverance from the Romans – that ultimately led to a final armed rebellion that dispersed the Jews as a people group among the nations.  It’s as if we should imagine Paul saying to the Corinthians, “these four remain: faith, hope, love and judgment, but the greatest of these is judgment.”

Let me just confess right now, even if Jesus appeared and told us we all get a “free pass” on hell, I would still be motivated to live for him, follow his way, worship his glorious name and lay my life down to see his Kingdom come.  I think Chan would too.  I think you would too.

The obvious question then is, “Why did Jesus talk about hell and judgment then?”  Well, because they’re both real (love demands an alternative) but not as the motivating force for our lives but rather the conclusion of the story we find ourselves in for those who don’t want God now and don’t want God ever.  And sadly and mysteriously there are many.

Finally, I really struggled with Chan's big idea that we should all be apologizing to God for even questioning him about hell.  I mean, who are we after all?  Chan insists that Job's lesson was "Who are you to question God?"  I'm not sure what version Chan read of Job but he seriously needs to take another read.  From Abraham question God about the destruction of S&G to Job and all the Psalms that question God about his business and his lack of attentiveness to our situation, God's created us to wrestle.  Scripture seems to be of the mind that God is much less threatened or offended by our questions, even our accusations, than Chan thinks he is.  There are huge ideas in Scripture that we have to wrestle with and sort through all the human interpretations and conclusions and translations and come to a place where things seem right to us and to the Holy Spirit.  Otherwise none of us would be enjoying bacon on our cheeseburgers.

Who should read this book?  Anyone with a Kindle who can get it for free.  Or who can borrow one from the library.  It’s not a bad book, it’s just not a great book.  It’s intended by Cook to make a lot of money.  It’s intended by Chan and Sprinkle to tip a scale back that has flopped over on the side of error.  Chan has a relationship with the Scripture that I would like to sit down and discuss with him some time.  Perhaps he’ll write a book about it?  As I read his take on the Word of God, I imagine that had Francis been in Abraham’s place, he would have come back down the mountain less a son but having gained a new ram.  If you feel comfortable sorting out good thinking from shoddy reasoning, logic from passion and orthodoxy from literalism, this would be an interesting read.

I've still got a lot to learn but I know that I'm not following Jesus because I'm running away from hell.


  1. Thank you for this review, Brian. We had a discussion on it with some guys in January. I share some of your critiques. Pascal's Wager haunts "Erasing Hell." And the question is always about how we read the Bible--that's what Bell is deconstructing a particular approach in ch. 1 of "Love Wins," the one called "What about the Flat Tire?"
    I'd encourage you to look at Lewis' chapter on Hell in the Problem of Pain. It gives depth to "The Great Divorce."

    1. Thanks Pilgrim. I've read the chapter and just hit 'refresh' on it. I probably should have just suggested people read Lewis' chapter and been done with my thoughts on EH!

      I think you're right, much of the distance between Bell and Chan comes down to how we read our Bibles...or perhaps how we think about what we read in our Bibles.

  2. I agree that we don't follow Jesus because we're running away from hell. The good news is so much better than that! But then again, our stone hearts have been changed. But for the person still trying to find their way in the world, fear of judgment could be a motivating force much like Paul's stated purpose for the law - that it cannot save - so that when they hear about the gospel they are overcome by such a jaw-dropping solution. Seeing clearly who, what, and where you are leads to a person ready for a Savior.

    I think someone needs to write their own book! Reading your post reminded me of why I was so grateful to intern under you - such a penetrating thinker and great communicator. I appreciate you brother!

    1. Thanks Megan who is not Megan, I agree, there seems to be a sense in us that one of these days the rent is coming due, the bill will have to be paid, etc. That could very well be the motivation for looking for the solution.

      Your "internship" is one of my best memories from those days! Glad you're still doing what you do!

  3. "...even if Jesus appeared and told us we all get a “free pass” on hell, I would still be motivated to live for him, follow his way, worship his glorious name and lay my life down to see his Kingdom come."

    I agree. Actually, I think i would be even more motivated. The biggest deterrent to following Jesus is the idea that he could allow someone he loves to suffer so much.

    1. I think a lot of people wrestle with that. Lewis' essay on hell - that Pilgrim Brenton mentions above might be of interest. Wrestling though carries its own reward.

  4. Very good article. I agree with your assessment that our relationship with God, should not be driven by our fear of hell. We serve God because of his outpouring of extravagant grace. I just had a question on your view of Lewis' position on universalism. I do not agree with some of Lewis' thoughts on Scripture; mainly purgatory. As a great thinker, he had many questions. However, Lewis explicitly denied universalism. When a reader asked why Lewis disagreed with George MacDonald on universalism, Lewis answered, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 65.
    Additionally, I know this is a deeper question; But what is your view of salvation and hell? Will everyone eventually make it to heaven?

    1. Dave, Lewis definitely denied universalism in the classic definition but if you read Chan you see that he broadens the definition to encompass any thoughts that would include purgatory or a continued opportunity to choose Jesus and God's Kingdom post mortem. Lewis would have failed by Chan's standard as does Bell (who Chan is critiquing) who also denies universalism.

      As for my own thoughts or beliefs they are in the text above when I wrote, "The obvious question then is, “Why did Jesus talk about hell and judgment then?” Well, because they’re both real (love demands an alternative) but not as the motivating force for our lives but rather the conclusion of the story we find ourselves in for those who don’t want God now and don’t want God ever. And sadly and mysteriously there are many."

      My hope would certainly be that everyone makes it to heaven on earth but the biblical text is quite clear that that is not what's going to happen. Sadly.

      Thanks for reading and engaging!

  5. dang. You obviously read the book better than I did. next time, I will just check your blog before trying to write a review.. dude, you crushed it. I may have to just putting links on my website instead of my own book reviews and just say "read brians review".. great work man...

    1. Thanks Kim. I think I just read "with prejudice". Your reviews are stellar and your review of this book was very good and got me thinking I really needed to read it. I'd love to see Francis at SSU!