The thought of hell is paralyzing for most people, which is why we often ignore its existence–at least in practice. After all, how can we possibly carry on with life if we are constantly mindful of a fiery place of torment? (145).
And so begins the final chapter in Chan and Sprinkle’s “Erasing Hell.” Chan believes that this is exactly the point: “we shouldn’t just go on with life as usual” (145). He feels that one’s belief in hell should spur them on to action. I can see how he would think this, and I believe that this milder reaction to hell (compared to going completely insane out of fear) is probably one of the only ways to cope with it and still stay somewhat sane. However, Chan advocates action: “We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled–as with all doctrine–to live differently in light of it” (145). If one believes in this hell, then I agree with Chan: we must make all the efforts we can to ensure that as few people as possible go to this place. Unfortunately, if this is the case, then most Christians seem quite uncaring about the fate of the people in their lives. I’ve no place to judge, however; in all my time of believing in a hell of eternal torment, I can’t recall even one instance where I “witnessed” to someone about Jesus and salvation from hell. Chan says that “we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it” (146). Again, if one truly believes in this horrific place, then this is probably the best thing they can do while maintaining this belief.
Chan quotes from Romans 9:
“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (vv. 2-3)
[...] I don’t want anyone to go to hell, but I would never be willing to go to hell on someone else’s behalf! I hate the thought that people around me could end up in hell, but I can’t say that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.
I can’t blame Chan in the least for not wanting to sacrifice himself eternally on anyone else’s behalf. That is a truly frightening thought and if Paul really meant it in the way that Chan interprets it, then Paul is much, much more self-sacrificial than Jesus was (after all, Jesus only died once on the cross, he didn’t suffer eternally for our sins). I don’t think this is what Paul means at all. I believe what he is saying is that he would do away with the blessings and joy that come with being a Christian if it meant that other Jews could come to know Christ. He wouldn’t sacrifice his eternal soul for them, but he would sacrifice his earthly blessings and knowledge of Christ.
Chan writes about an experience he had at church where he was so emotionally affected by the words of a song that he screamed the following lyrics “at the top of [his] lungs”: “‘TILL ON THAT CROSS AS JESUS DIES, THE WRATH OF GOD WAS SATISFIED!’ [...] This is the same wrath that ultimately will be satisfied, either in hell or on the cross” (148). Despite the fact that I don’t really agree with his theology (I don’t believe Jesus’s sacrifice was done in order to satisfy God’s wrath, but as an identification with us and an act of empathy), I can identify with being overwhelmed by the words of a song. However, even if Jesus’s sacrifice was done so that God’s wrath could be satisfied, I don’t see how it could be satisfied, seeing that this hell Chan believes in never is. God’s wrath is never truly satisfied if people must suffer eternally because of it. Chan says, “While hell can be a paralyzing doctrine, it can also be an energizing one, for it magnifies the beauty of the cross” (148). Really? If anything, it diminishes the beauty of the cross, for if it was intended to save all mankind from an eternal burning torture-land, yet most of mankind ends up going there, then God has failed in His intentions.
In the final section of this chapter, entitled “Finally … Are You Sure?”, Chan presents his version of an “altar call” and asks his readers to be sure that they are not going to hell. He asks, “Do you know Him? Are you secure in Him? In love with Him?” (149). How well do you have to know Him? How secure do you have to be in Him? How in love do you have to be with Him in order to escape being eternally tortured? Is it really love if you do it so that you can avoid being tortured? Chan says, “All I know is that from my best understanding of Scripture, hell is a real place for those who choose to reject God” (149). I admire that he admits it is only his “best understanding of Scripture,” but I wish he would take it a step further and admit that people have differing views that are just as legitimate as his (if not more so). “And so we all have a choice before us. Choose life or choose death. God asks you to turn from your ways and live [...] Paul says that every single one of us knows the truth about God (see Rom. 1:18-25)” (149). Romans 1:18-25, in the ESV, is this:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
I believe that Romans 2:14-16 is also relevant here (also quoted from the ESV):
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
This seems to imply that people can obey God’s law while not even knowing Him. I find this significant because Chan implies throughout the book that the only way to please God is to believe the right things about Him, yet this passage seems to say that even those who don’t believe will be excused on Judgment Day. It seems belief is not the only criteria on which God judges people. Chan ends with, “The door is open now–but it won’t stay open forever” (150). I hope it doesn’t stay open forever, but only because I hope that one day everyone will be let in.
Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions
May 22, 2012
Chan answers seven (yes, 7, the holiest of numbers) frequently asked questions about the doctrine of hell in this appendix to “Erasing Hell.” Chan’s questions are in boldface and my responses to his responses are underneath each question.
Question 1: Are the images of fire, darkness, and worms to be understood literally?
Chan elaborates: “Are we to understand these images of fire literally? Will unbelievers literally burn forever, yet never be fully consumed?” (154). He then mentions several famous theologians who didn’t/don’t believe in a literal fire in hell. “These scholars note that fire imagery is used in many other places in the Bible [...] in obviously nonliteral ways. Jesus says that He ‘came to cast fire on the earth’ (Luke 12:49), which in the context symbolizes judgment” (154). What I would like to know is where he got the idea that this phrase definitely symbolizes judgment. It is obvious (at least to me) that Jesus elsewhere says (explicitly) that that is exactly not what He came to do (John 12:47: “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” [NIV]). It’s fairly amazing to me that he could interpret the above Luke verse as referring to judgment, believe the Bible is 100%, absolutely, literally true, and then ignore the John verse. I’m curious as to how he rationalizes this away (not to say that I’m never guilty of rationalizing, but I think that is what he would have to do here). Chan then goes through several passages (from Jude and Matthew) which suggest that the fire is metaphorical. He then suggests that other images of torment (such as “thick darkness [...], undying worms [...], and the gnashing of teeth” are probably metaphorical as well. Of course, never does he suggest that hell itself is metaphorical but merely states that “[w]ith such images, I find it best to view them all as powerful ways of conveying the inexplicable notions of punishment that will occur in hell” (155). He closes this particular question with the following: “So while the passages examined in this book are clear about hell as a real place where the wicked will be tormented, the Bible does not seem to tell us exactly what that torment will entail” (155). If that’s the case, then the only thought that really remains in my mind after reading this section is, “Who cares?” It’s still torment and it’s still terrible. Ridiculous question. Next.
Question 2: Are there degrees of punishment in hell?
Chan refers to the parable in Luke 12 where three slaves are punished and “[o]ne slave is cut into pieces, another collects many lashes, [and] the last one gets a ‘light beating’ (vv. 46-48)” (156). Chan then says that “[i]f this parable applies to punishment in hell, then it affirms that there will be degrees of suffering” (156). Again, if this is the case, my only question is, “Who cares?” There is still infinite punishment, and I doubt the person being tormented less than the next guy will find any consolation in the fact that his burning endless torture is somewhat less extreme than his neighbor’s. Chan says that Paul suggests there are degrees of punishment as well “when he says that unbelievers are ‘storing up wrath’ for themselves on judgment day (Rom. 2:5)” (156). It’s interesting to note that his assumption that Paul is speaking of unbelievers is just that: an assumption. Nowhere in chapters one or two of Romans is it explicitly stated that Paul is referring to “unbelievers.” In fact, I might even go out on a limb and say that Paul is addressing, in part, Christians and Jews in the opening two chapters. I could be wrong though. Anyway. Ridiculous question. Next.
Question 3: Is hell at the center of the earth?
Apparently this is an important enough question to be addressed. It seems like a moot point to me since I doubt the eternal sufferers of wrath will care where the hell (ha) they are. To be fair, Chan says something similar (in his own way), “It’s probably best to follow the advice of the early church leader Chrysostom, who said that we shouldn’t be concerned about where hell is, only how to escape it” (157). If such a horrific place exists, then I would agree wholeheartedly. Next question.
Question 4: Does the Old Testament word sheol refer to hell?
Finally, Chan answers a question of relative importance for those afraid of such a place. His answer? “The simple answer is no, sheol isn’t hell” (157). He explains how the old testament refers to sheol as the place of the dead where both the righteous and the wicked go when they die. However,
Still, this doesn’t mean they go to the same place. It only means that the word sheol is flexible and doesn’t have to designate the specific destiny of the righteous or the wicked. At the very least, sheol is simply a synonym for death; at most, it may refer to some sort of shadowy subhuman existence after death, without specifying the details. (157)
I mostly agree with his description. Basically, I believe sheol meant the grave, death, the end, nothingness. I don’t think it even refers to the afterlife, but merely represents the ending of a person’s existence. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of an afterlife in the Old Testament, I just don’t think the people in the Old Testament thought about the afterlife that much.
Chan mentions a few possible references to the afterlife from the Old Testament (including Daniel 12:2 and Ezekiel 32:17-32) but avoids saying that these examples are descriptions of hell. He points out that “the genre of the [Ezekiel] passage prevents us from taking all of these descriptions in a literal manner” (158). He seems to interpret that particular passage as metaphorical and, if you ask me, rightly so. Unfortunately, he takes many other passages that I and others believe to be metaphorical and interprets them in a literal sense throughout the book.
Question 5: What about the person who has never heard the gospel?
Will God save such a person?
Everything in me wants to say yes. Because saying yes makes sense. Yes seems fair. But here’s the problem: There’s nothing in Scripture that says anyone will be saved apart from faith in Jesus. (159)
That may be true, but there are verses in the Bible that do say that all will eventually have that faith. For instance, Acts 17:31 in the Concordant Literal Version: “He assigns a day in which He is about to be judging the inhabited earth in righteousness by the Man Whom He specifies, tendering faith to all, raising Him from among the dead…” Besides this, even if there was nothing in Scripture that said He would save people apart from Jesus, I’d have to believe that He would either give them that faith eventually, or would find another way to save them. That’s the kind of love I hope that God has for us.
Chan quotes Romans 1:18-22, part of which I have excerpted here: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” As I mentioned under Question 2, I don’t believe Paul is referring to “godless heathen” in this passage, but Christians or Jews. The previously quoted section, quoted from the Concordant Literal Version, reads, “For God’s indignation is being revealed from heaven on all the irreverence and injustice of men who are retaining the truth in injustice…” In other words, I believe Paul is saying here that the indignation (“wrath”) is reserved for those religious people who misuse and abuse their religion in order to deceive people and commit acts of “irreverence and injustice.” I do not believe Paul is speaking about non-religious people in this context. Like I said before, however, I could be wrong.
Later, referring to the Romans passage he has quoted, Chan says that it “teaches that all people are condemned not for rejecting the gospel but for rejecting the ‘general revelation’ that’s given to all people” (italics original) (160). Unfortunately, this is what many people within Christianity believe. Chan goes on to say that “God can reveal knowledge through many different forms: dreams, visions, or divinely given thoughts” (160). He appears to believe that anyone who does not respond positively to these thoughts and accept Jesus through them, or if they do not realize that they are from God, they have no chance of escaping Hell.
Chan says, “There are still 1.5 billion people who have never heard the gospel. God makes it clear that it is our responsibility to go to them” (160-161). This kind of guilt-trip (whether Chan intends it as such I don’t know, but I’m sure it does stir feelings of guilt in many Christians) is one of the most soul-killing doctrines in Christianity. If it’s our responsibility to save people, then we’re doing a terrible job of it. Perhaps God wants us to share what we believe to be the truth about Him with others, but I don’t think He needs us to do it. God is the One who decides who will be saved (which I hope with all my heart will be everyone, whatever that means). He doesn’t need His slaves or servants or whatever to do His dirty work. Any work that we do for Him is work that He allows us to do so we can participate in His grand scheme. So I hope, anyway.
“Everything I’ve said thus far seems clear to me from Scripture” (161). I’m somewhat glad that Chan at least admits that they “seem” clear to him and that he doesn’t use the phrase “crystal clear” again. However, when he admits that there are ambiguities in the Bible, he undermines his claim (to some degree) that the Bible is clear on everything else. It seems the only things that are “crystal clear” to him are that there is a hell of punishment and everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ (in the correct way, of course) is going there, while everyone else will be in heaven with Him for eternity.
Chan concludes this section with the following, “With all these tough questions, it’s best to let God be God and believe that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25)” (161). I agree, but I also believe that the doctrine of eternal torment is a horrific, evil, manipulative one that does incalculable damage to people’s psyches. I have to believe that condemning people to hell forever for not believing in you is wrong, no matter who it is. I hope and believe that God will do right; but I cannot pretend to assume that eternal punishment is right.
Question 6: Did Jesus preach to people in hell between His death and resurrection?
According to 1 Peter 3, Jesus, “proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (vv. 19-20). This is a rather strange passage, but it almost certainly doesn’t mean that Jesus was preaching the gospel to unbelievers who had died. (161)
Chan makes the point in this section that “[t]he word spirits, when used without any qualifications (such as ‘spirit of man,’ etc.) refers to supernatural beings, whether good or bad” (161). Chan’s conclusion is that “Jesus did not preach the gospel to unbelievers in hell, at least not in an evangelistic sense” (162).
I have little to say about his response, other than that I think he unnecessarily closes the door, so to speak, on there being a possibility that the “spirits” are actually people. I find no reason to assume that Jesus wouldn’t preach to people “in prison,” but then again, I have no hell to defend.
Question 7: How can God be loving and still send people to hell?
This one is the clincher. Chan says that “this question (among others) [...] drove the early church leader Origen to believe that all people will end up in heaven. He believed that the love of God demands it” (162). Chan believes the answer to Question 7 is “yes.” He gives three reasons why:
First, God is love, but He also defines what love is. We don’t have the license to define love according to our own standards and sensibilities. (162)
It seems to me that Chan fails to realize that he is actually defining what God supposedly “defines” love as. In other words, how can Chan presume to know how God defines love? From his own particular interpretation of what he views as Scripture? From other people’s perspectives on Scripture that he’s come to accept? Did God personally speak to Chan and tell him how He defines love? If not, Chan is still interpreting how he views God’s definition of love through his own lens. Chan says, “Though God acts in ways that seem unloving by our standards, they are not unloving by His standards–and His standards are the ones that matter” (162). I assume Chan believes that we should seek to love others as God loves us. Would he also concede that we should treat others who reject us as God treats those who reject Him? Are we to imitate this kind of love by torturing those who refuse to acknowledge our “truth”? Should we be cruel and unforgiving to those who don’t agree with us or worship as we do? If we are to truly imitate God/Jesus (which most Christians think we should do), then those who believe in an eternal hell should act as unmercifully and unforgiving as they believe their God does.
Second, we must understand the love of God in light of His other characteristics. God is love, but He is also holy and just. (162)
Yes, the “holy and just” argument. Why is it that most Christians that believe in eternal torment think that an everlasting, torturous, infernal, fiery, burning, painful, excruciating, eternal death is “holy and just”? Where does this idea come from? Unfortunately, I believe it comes from what people are taught in church. I know it certainly did for me when I believed this (although it never quite sat right with me).
The Bible itself that Chan believes is clear on so many issues could be said to clear this issue up fairly well if one is to believe it. I could be wrong, but I believe that there are no instances in the new or old testaments that say that “God is holiness” or “God is justice.” There is however, a verse (1 John 4:8) that states, “God is love.” “Holy” and “just” are adjectives. “Love” (in the case of 1 John 4:8) is a noun. God is not described as being “loving” (at least not in this verse). His very essence is love; it is not holiness or justice. Holiness and justice are channeled through that love. I believe and hope that He does not and never will perform acts of holiness and justice apart from his love.
Of course, God could choose to lavish all humanity with His mercy and therefore choose to withhold His wrath toward everyone. But the Bible doesn’t support this. (163)
I do not agree with this, in that I think even His acts of wrath are ultimately acts of love. Our perspective is limited as human beings. My hope is that all the terrible and painful things that happen to us in this life will blur into insignificance when compared with what God has in store for us in eternity. Better yet, I hope we one day find that all the painful experiences we went through are fully imbued with meaning when seen in the light of God’s ultimate plan.
Third, and to my mind most importantly, we must understand God’s love in light of God’s freedom. As we have seen in this book, God, as the Creator, is free to do whatever He sees best. [...] It’s a logical (and theological) mistake to think that God can’t be loving unless He saves everyone. Such an assumption, while seeking to cherish the love of God, violates His freedom and sovereignty. (163)
It’s hard for me not become flippant and dismissive after reading stuff like this, but I will do my best not to.
By this logic, you, Francis Chan, have absolutely no basis for trusting God at all. If God’s freedom is really so grand that a book He supposedly wrote can say “God is love” and He still condemns the majority of the human race to hell forever, then you have no reason not to believe that God will not change His mind about everything you believe about Him. By this logic, maybe God will decide to save all the non-Christians and send all the Christians to hell! If He’s so changeable and free, then what reason do you have for believing that He is trustworthy? By the way, I would not say that “God can’t be loving unless He saves everyone.” A man can be loving to his wife one day and beat her the next. However, one could not say that that man is love, because his erratic and bipolar behavior proves otherwise. God, according to 1 John 4:8, is love itself and therefore He is unchangeable. I hope with all my heart that His love is not so fickle as to be there one day and disappear the moment after our death because we didn’t love Him back soon enough.
“God does what is just, right, and loving in a much more profound way than we can possibly imagine” (163). I agree with Chan here, but I hope that this means that He loves us enough to restore all of us to Himself. If He does not, then His love is not by any means unconditional or perfect as defined in the Bible:
“Love is patient, is kind. Love is not jealous. Love is not bragging, is not puffed up, is not indecent, is not self-seeking, is not incensed, is not taking account of evil, is not rejoicing in injustice, yet is rejoicing together with the truth, is forgoing all, is believing all, is expecting all, is enduring all.
Love is never lapsing.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a (Concordant Literal Version)
Love never fails.
I found this book to be somewhat more fair-minded than some of the other anti-universalist writings I’ve seen. Despite this fact, Chan seems to contradict himself on a number of points, sometimes admitting that Scripture isn’t “crystal clear” and other times implying that the meaning of Scripture can’t be denied. I appreciate the fact that Chan often attempts to take a humble approach to the Bible, but I wish he would have given the universalist perspective a little more credibility. Unfortunately, with a doctrine that requires that one believes certain things in order to avoid a place of intense, unending suffering, it is difficult to be unbiased and completely honest.
I hope that someday, Chan and those he opposes (and everyone else) will be brought together by God to a place of mutual humility and love. I hope that we will all someday be able to look at these debates and laugh at how foolish we all were.