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.