I recently read “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan (and another guy), which is essentially a response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. Bell’s book is a questioning/rethinking of some commonly held beliefs about hell, and in it he essentially states that no one can resist God forever and at some point hell, if there is such a thing, will be empty. Hence the title “Love Wins”.
That is one of the very few things that Bell states directly. For most of the book he volleys up questions without answers, which no doubt must frustrate if not infuriate his more theologically conservative readers (if he has any). I understand that this is part of his point (the fact that we don’t have as many answers as maybe we thought we did, and that questions without answers can be okay), but it does come across as a somewhat cavalier approach to a very heavy topic.
I think that this last point is what pissed Francis Chan off to the point that he felt the need to pen a response (I was going to say “book-length response”, but neither Chan’s nor Bell’s book is what would generally be considered “book-length”). Chan takes issue with Bell’s reasoning that because Bell can’t imagine a God that would sentence the majority of humanity to never-ending-conscious-torment that God must not be like that. Chan’s retort is essentially that God is whomever the Bible says he is, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not. He then goes on to take the reader through a bit of background of the literature of the time and the rationale for taking God at his “Word”. Annoyingly, Chan attempts to withhold judgement on the issue of hell until he hears what the bible says, although it’s clear from the outset that the conclusion is foregone, so when Chan finally shows his cards it’s a bit of a relief.
I felt annoyed with Bell’s book at times by the narrow scope and lack of depth into the issue, but I really liked what he contributed to the conversation, and the many conversations that I’m sure he started.But if Bell was annoying in his lack of depth, Chan was infuriating due to the fact that throughout his book he purported to be guided solely by the witness of scripture on the issue, when in reality it seemed to me that he simply found a few ‘proof-texts’ and threw in some extra-biblical sources to really wow the reader into thinking that the case is closed on all this hell business. He continually reminded the reader that “We can’t afford to be wrong on this”, and each time I felt myself thinking, “just because we can’t afford to be wrong doesn’t make us have the right answer.” Just because we can’t afford to be wrong on the issue of global warming doesn’t mean we have enough info to know exactly what is going on or how to fix it (or, incidentally, if we can fix it).
My greatest disappointment with Chan’s argument came in the Chapter in which he used a variety of extra-biblical sources to show the milieu that Jesus was stepping into when he was teaching about hell. The reader was left with the impression by the quotes and then by the explicit statement by Chan that the Jewish world that Jesus inhabited had a clear and unchallenged understanding of hell as a real place of “non-remedial punishment” (that is, vengeful punishment). The only stitch of dis-unity with this viewpoint is what Chan includes in a footnote, where he states that well, there was this group called the Sadducees who didn’t believe in an afterlife, so naturally they wouldn’t see hell the same way. The rest of the book is then built upon this argument that if Jesus had some different view of hell than this firmly established Jewish view that the onus is on him to explicitly state that he believes something different, as if he’s some 21st century research student defending his thesis.
So Chan’s main argument completely falls apart when the fact is noted that the group- what were they called again? Oh yea, the Sadducees, whom he mentioned only in a single footnote, were THE RULING SECT IN ISRAEL AT THE TIME! This means that at the very least there was great diversity of opinion on the subject of the afterlife, when the major political party doesn’t even believe in one. The only justification I can see for why Chan might think he can get away with this flimsy logic is that he believes the readers to be too stupid or “not into all that theology” to read a footnote. This is supported by what I felt to be a gently condescending tone throughout the book, which is not unfamiliar to me coming from Christian circles in which those in authority “gently instruct” those of us masses who are too weak of mind to think of these higher matters on our own. I readily acknowledge that Bell does the same thing in his book: being quite selective in his use of sources and arguments to paint a picture, but at least Bell doesn’t conclude by claiming it as the final authority. In fact he challenges the reader to look at it for herself to see if what he says is legit.
Chan disappoints me not because of the stance he takes (I knew going in that he was going to end up there), but that by paying lip service to honest searching and then proof-texting his way towards his answers he does a disservice to the conversation that I was hoping to hear continued. His book seems tailored to Bell’s audience, which is probably why it looks exactly like one of Bell’s books and also why it seems to rely on the reader being swayed by good sounding arguments (rather than supported, rational ones). For Chan to act as the representative of the biblical-literalist viewpoint he should have taken more care to hold himself to the standard of what the actual texts say. Unfortunately the approach he’s taken doesn’t move the conversation or the people forward; it just helps to entrench the sides in their uninformed views.