He is not in danger upon his surging waters

1 05 2019

“The God who is met in the measured expectations of our own desires and imagination dies in his own impotence and irrelevance.” Ronald Rolheiser

The pastor of the church my wife and I attend recently shared the above quotation during a sermon. It reminded me of a blog post (do people still read blogs?) about a particular quotation I’ve been meaning to write for years now but haven’t had the energy, time, courage, I-don’t-know-what to actually do it. I started writing little facebook notes on passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in 2014.  I said pretty much all I wanted to say about that work but there was a quote in an addendum to the book that I found particularly profound:

“O ye men, when they bring you God, the good docile dogs who have fetched him at risk of their lives, then take him and fling him out again into immensity. For God is not to be brought to the shore by the good docile dogs. He is not in danger upon his surging waters, and a great wave that is still to come will lift him on to the land which is worthy of him.” (from Journal March 1901)

I’ve come to a point in my life where nearly anything said about God or the afterlife or the will of the universe (etc.) leaves me feeling a mixture of indignation and apathy (“How do you know?” bleeds into “Who cares?”). It’s almost laughable to me at this point that we, mere human beings, often believe that we can know anything about God or God’s will or even God’s existence. To think that the entirety of God’s will can be determined from a collection of 66 theologically diverse books, dubiously assembled, is a thought that is far too confining of any God worthy of the name.  The various versions of god described in these books, molded into one by the passage of time and the “desires and imaginations” of theologians into one vague idea of a Christian “God” that no one can seem to completely agree on, eventually die, as Rolheiser says, in their “own impotence and irrelevance.”

It’s obvious to me in many ways that while religion does wonders for building communities and getting people to behave better and more charitably in certain circumstances, it also does a great job of dividing people into tribes and driving them into fear-based captivity. Robert Wright states the following in his book The Evolution of God: “Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed” (430).  I would take it a step further and say that any religion whose theology divides people into categories of “saved” and “unsaved” and whose eschatology doesn’t include the final salvation of all is a religion whose time should pass. All this isn’t to say that I know for a fact that God is definitely like this, or that he/she/it is most definitely merciful and has a benevolent plan for the universe. As Wright states,

The bad news for the religiously inclined, then, is that maybe they should abandon hope of figuring out what God is. (If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable–and yet are things nonetheless (446-7).

This is why, at this point in my life, I can’t seem to make myself adhere completely to any codified, doctrinally-established religion, including the one I outwardly seem to subscribe to based on the places of worship I attend.

If I seem to be stubbornly refusing to believe in the God that others believe in, it’s not because I haven’t tried (with the exception of the whole eternal hell thing; that belief is and always will be beyond the pale for me). I miss the certainty I once had of a loving God who wants the best for all of us, but I still have hope that all will be well in the end, that God, whatever God is, has an ultimate plan that will make everything we endure in this life make sense.

Wright, in the last paragraph of his Afterword to The Evolution of God, says the following, which I feel represents rather well some of what I’ve stated above:

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth–by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking of them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it (459).

To sum up: If anyone tells you what God is definitely, exactly, precisely like, the God they bring you deserves nothing more than to be flung out into immensity. God, whatever “God” is in actuality, is beyond our comprehension and should be discussed keeping this in mind. I can only hope to one day be worthy of such a God.

“There is Nothing I Envy but Disbelief”

29 08 2012

I recently completed a free online course entitled Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature taught by Dale B. Martin.  (If you’re interested in taking it, go here.)  One thing that surprised me to some degree (although it probably shouldn’t have) was the diversity of early Christianity.  Christians have apparently been fighting over what it means to be a Christian since Christ was crucified.  The more I learned throughout the course, the less I could take the idea of the Bible representing a single, unified view of God seriously.  According to the view taken by the instructor and the writer of the textbook (Bart Ehrman) the gospels do not harmonize with one another and each represents the theological position of its author (and probably the theological group associated with that author).  This is not to say the Bible can’t be harmonious or that it’s not inspired by God; I simply have a hard time believing the entire thing represents a solid, unified view of the Creator of the universe.

I also recently attended Kingdom Bound, a four-day Christian music festival held at an amusement park in Western New York.  I’ve attended every year (except one) since I was eleven or twelve years old.  Despite the fact that my religious beliefs have changed greatly over the past few years, I keep attending because I like a lot of the music and the message delivered by the bands is sometimes positive, in my opinion (the Christian speakers are a whole other story).  One band in particular, however, had their guitarist speak for about ten minutes about how if you don’t accept Jesus into your life, you could get in a car accident tonight and spend eternity in Hell.  I was offended and annoyed by way of impulse, but soon began to recall that bands used to do that much more often at Kingdom Bound but seem to have backed off of that approach in recent years.  I also considered the fact that if that is really what they believe, then they’re doing the right thing by letting as many people know about it as they can through their music and their opportunities on stage.

Despite the preachiness of the speakers (and some of the bands), I had an all-around good time at the festival, seeing some bands that I really enjoyed.  I found myself envying the simple faith I perceived in the crowds who would worship their God to the tune of the music.  Obviously, my (relatively) newfound freedom from a “gospel” that meant most people would be damned forever and I would too if I wasn’t truly “saved” is something that I cherish.  I would never want to return to such a state of fear.  In spite of this, I looked on the people at the festival and wished I could experience the kind of certainty of belief that they seem to have.

When I still believed in the doctrine of Hell, I often wished there was some way that it could be untrue.  I wished that God would change His mind and make it so that my loved ones and I (along with the rest of the world) wouldn’t have to face the threat of spending eternity in a lake of fire.  Almost every night, while praying with my family, I would say, “Please help everyone to come to know You” so that no one would have to suffer forever.

Shortly before learning about Christian Universalism, when I was nearing the peak of my fear of Hell (which I’ve written about before), I considered the idea that there was literally nothing I could do to determine whether I was going to Hell or Heaven.  I considered the idea that God was the only One who could choose my destiny and that I had no say in the matter.  If that was the case, I decided, then I was better off living my life the way I wanted to with no consideration as to what God or anyone else thought.  Before I ran with this idea, however, I came across the belief of Christian Universal salvation and accepted it joyfully as I found it to be much more convincing and positive than the Christianity I previously believed.

A band named Gods (fronted by former Zao drummer Jesse Smith) released a song called “Ephedra” on their CD “I See You Through Glass” several years ago.  The song contains the following lyric towards the end of the song: “There is nothing I envy but disbelief.”  As a Christian who constantly worried about whether I was believing the correct way or whether God would send me to Hell, I could identify with this feeling.  Of course, I didn’t want to die and go to Hell, but if I had no say in whether or not I went there, I would have rather lived a life of disbelief.

I recently read a book called “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel).  In it, a character called Leader (who happens to be somewhat of a cult leader, unironically), says the following to one of the main characters in the novel:

“If a certain belief–call it ‘Belief A’–makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them Belief A is the truth.  If Belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then Belief B turns out to be a falsehood.  The distinction is quite clear.  If someone insists that Belief B is the truth, people will probably hate him, ignore him, or, in some cases, attack him.  It means nothing to them that Belief B might be logical or provable.  Most people barely manage to preserve their sanity by denying and rejecting images of themselves as powerless and puny.” (441)

This quotation made a lot of sense to me as I read it, and it can be quite unsettling if one fully accepts it.  I think it’s true in a lot of cases, not just religious.  I still consider myself a Christian (to a degree), albeit one with heavy agnostic leanings.  Much of Christianity places human beings at the center of the universe, proverbially speaking, something I’m not so convinced is actually true anymore.  Despite all this, I have no problem with people who believe in (modern, popular) Christianity.  In fact, recently I’ve found myself envying the ability of Christians to be so self-assured of the correctness of their beliefs (I mean this in a non-pejorative way).  I have, in many ways, lost my ability not to question what I believe or what other people tell me is the truth.  As I stated before, I in no way miss my days of walking around on the verge of a panic attack because of my fear of Hell, but I do sometimes miss the assurance of “knowing” what is the truth and having people around me who could help me understand it better.  Don’t get me wrong, either– being unsure about the answers to the big questions in the universe isn’t something I find limiting; in fact, it can be quite invigorating to consider all the possibilities ahead.  However, it can also be quite frightening to admit that I no longer have a definitive answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”  Sure, I could answer it with the Christian’s go-to response, “We are put here on Earth to glorify God,” but then I would have to ask, “What does that mean?  How do I know He’s glorified?  Why does He need to be glorified in the first place if He’s all-powerful?”  Unfortunately, even if I believed that the Bible is the ultimate, final word on the meaning of life and is flawless, I wouldn’t have faith in my ability to understand what it’s saying.  I want to be clear that I’m not bashing Christians, here.  It’s entirely possible that their beliefs are true (although I hope with all my heart that one in particular isn’t) and I’m not here to argue about that.  I’m merely recounting my personal experience and my views as they’ve changed and molded over the years.

I used to say to myself, “There is nothing I envy but disbelief.”  I no longer think this.  Now that I’m more or less free from the fear of Hell (I sometimes have momentary relapses), I don’t have to envy disbelief anymore.  I can believe and hope that God exists and has a purpose for creation that will be realized in God’s own time.  I don’t have to know the details.  Ultimately, I hope for an objective, true, beautiful meaning for all creation.  Until I discover that meaning in all it’s glory, however, I’m going to have to forge ahead and find my own meaning in this life.  Wish me luck.

Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle: Erasing Hell (A Review)

30 07 2012

Over the course of about a year, I wrote a review of each of the chapters of Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s book Erasing Hell.  While my view of God has been evolving over the past year since I started writing this review, I think I still agree with most of what I’ve written here; the main difference would only be that I’m even less sure about what God is like, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I also don’t have the same view of Scripture as I did in some of the earlier posts.  I still hope that God loves us all unconditionally and will allow us to achieve our true potential someday.  The following is the review in its entirety (with some minor edits), divided into its original sections with the original date of publication in parentheses.

Francis Chan: “Hell: We Can’t Afford to Get it Wrong”

(May 14, 2011)

I recently viewed a video by Francis Chan entitled “Hell: We Can’t Afford to Get it Wrong” [the name has since changed], which can be seen here:

The following is sort of a review of the 10-minute video followed by a short discussion of the introduction to his upcoming book, “Erasing Hell,” which can be found here.

Chan opens his video by speaking about the recent discussions about Hell that have been taking place more frequently in the past couple of months and how they have helped him to re-examine the topic. He speaks of how he has been humbled by his study and then references Romans 9, particularly referring to verses 20-21, which state: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”‘ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (NIV)

Chan then takes this metaphor and applies it to himself (and people in general):

“I’m a piece of clay trying to explain to other pieces of clay what the Potter is like… It shows the silliness for any of us to think that we’re an expert on Him.”

I completely agree with this sentiment and am completely with him up to this point. None of us know God completely nor is it possible for us to do so on this Earth. We should stay humble in this respect. On we go…

“Our only hope is that He would reveal to us what He is like and then we can just repeat those things.”

YES YES YES. GOD is the One Who reveals what He is like. No matter how much we study the Bible, it is worthless if God does not give us revelation.

He then references Psalm 25:9 which is as follows in the NIV translation: “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”

Chan says he wants God to “show [him] the pride in [his] life” which is a good thing for all of us to want.

I believe at 1:42 it shifts from being “about” Francis Chan to being about other people.

“I’ve been concerned as I’ve listened to some of the discussion about Hell… the tone in which we use… we’ve gotta be careful here. We have to guard ourselves … against heartlessness.”

I couldn’t agree more. To be insensitive and condemning does nothing but create more tension and anger, and I’ve seen it coming from both sides.

“We can’t be careless in this discussion.”


“We present our case and we neglect all the other evidence.”

Who exactly is Chan talking about? Does “we” mean Rob Bell? Does “we” mean Christian Universalists? Or does we mean everyone involved in the discussion? Okay… I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s referring to people on both sides of the fence.

“we gotta lay everything on the table… I just wanna present all of the facts, everything I can think of in this book and let you decide.”

Good. That is a noble goal.

He then says:

“Maybe the thing I’m most concerned about is this arrogance” and references Isaiah 55, specifically verses 8 and 9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (NIV- he quotes a different version).

I’m still agreeing with him. God’s ways are infinitely higher than ours. The discussion is about what that means.

“When we begin an argument with ‘Well I wouldn’t believe in a God who would…’ Who would what? Do something that you wouldn’t do? Or think in a way that’s different from the way you think? Do you ever even consider the possibility that maybe the Creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours and that maybe his love and his mercy are perfect and that you could be the one that is flawed?”

I’m still with ya, Chan. This is a great way to think. As long as one doesn’t apply this to other people rather than him- or herself, then this is a good mindset to keep.

Chan then makes reference to multiple examples of God’s seeming cruelty and basically says after each one, “I wouldn’t think to do that.”

  • Adam and Eve are cursed after sinning
  • Exodus 32:27-28: “Then he said to them, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Each man strap a sword to his side. God back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.”‘ The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand people died” (NIV).
  • Job is tormented despite being a very righteous man devoted to God.
  • The Cross. Jesus is crucified for the sins of humanity.
  • Revelation 20:10: One of God’s own creation, the Devil, is “thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (NIV).

To this last point he says: “And I read that, I go really? Tormented day and night forever and ever? And then in verse 15″… which says “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (NIV).

Chan seems to focus heavily on the seemingly cruel things God does as things that we mere mortals would not think to do; however, for some reason, he completely leaves out God’s acts of mercy that many people wouldn’t think to do (with the exception of the Cross). For example:

  • God forgives Israel’s arguably worst king, Manasseh, of his sin in 2 Chronicles 33. What was his sin? One of them was CHILD SACRIFICE. Would we think to ever forgive someone of that sin? I’d argue that most of us wouldn’t. But hey, Manasseh repented, right? God only forgives those who repent, right? Read on.
  • Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (KJV). Jesus asked Father to forgive them DESPITE their unrepentance, DESPITE their hard hearts, and DESPITE the fact that they were killing the Son of God in the most cruelly inhumane way imaginable. Would we think to do that? I don’t think so. Those sinners deserve Hell.
  • Jesus’ words in John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (KJV). Would we think that all men will be brought to Jesus by His sacrifice? Or will most or at least a significant portion be turned away?
  • 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (KJV). Admittedly, there is some debate as to whether “will” in this passage means God “wants” all to be saved or that He “WILL” have all be saved, but does it really make a difference? God gets what God wants, always. Is this something we would think of? What about Hitler? What about Stalin? What about Hussein? What about Bin Laden? God wants all men to be saved.

“Look. There are a lot of things in this book that I go ‘Wow God You did that. You thought that. I wouldn’t think that and I wouldn’t’ve done that.’ But when I come to those passages and when you come to those passages does it even enter your mind that maybe He knows something that you don’t? Or is it always ‘I have this ability to reason and I have this level of morality and so something in Him must be off here or I won’t believe in Him.'”

If this is leveled at the Christian Universalists then it’s slightly off-base. No one really thinks that they know everything about God. Most Christian Universalists I know wouldn’t attack the character of the true God; but that’s the point. Would the true God torture people for eternity? Would He torture your dearest friends and family for eternity because they didn’t believe in Him during the limited lifespan they were given? Someone who believes that God will restore His entire creation to Himself does not believe that God ever fails or that God can accept any of His children being lost forever. It’s not arrogance to believe in a God like that; it’s hope.

“I wanna encourage you as you discuss this… Do it with humility.”

I hope we all do.

“We can’t afford to be wrong on this issue.”

There is much at stake for both sides of the issue. This is something that needs to be discussed and I’m glad it’s happening.

On to the Introduction to his book, “Erasing Hell.”

He speaks about the saddest day of his life being the day that his grandma died. He believed that she was headed for an eternity in Hell and it very nearly broke him if I’m reading it correctly.

This breaks my heart. I hate to think of people having to live with the pain of believing that their deceased loved ones are not only dead and gone, but suffering perpetually for ever and ever. I can barely imagine the grief that Chan went through that day.

He states a little later on:

“Until recently, whenever the idea of hell—and the idea of my loved ones possibly heading there—crossed my mind, I would brush it aside and divert my thinking to something more pleasant. While I’ve always believed in hell with my mind, I tried not to let the doctrine penetrate my heart.”

This, in my mind, is the most natural response to the doctrine of Hell if one believes it to be true. How can one dwell on such a subject without being driven to grief? If such a doctrine were to truly penetrate my heart, I would be heartbroken and miserable for the rest of my days.

Later, Chan expresses many instances in which he doesn’t hold traditional views that he once did, something I can admire very much. He does this in order to express the following line:

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

This is quite good to know and I hope he has truly been thinking for himself rather than blindly accepting the words of others. Despite his first words in his Introduction being, “If you are excited to read this book, you have issues,” I am actually kind of eager to read what he has to say on the subject. If he truly isn’t afraid to leave the boundaries of tradition when necessary, then I am curious to see exactly how he feels on the issue.

The following words could be my own:

“God has the right to do WHATEVER He pleases. If I’ve learned one thing from studying hell, it’s that last line. And whether or not you end up agreeing with everything I say about hell, you must agree with Psalm 115:3.”

Chapter One- “Does Everyone Go to Heaven?”

(August 16, 2011)

The first chapter of “Erasing Hell” is devoted to disproving the theory that everyone will go to heaven eventually.  The opening section has Chan asking two similar-looking questions:

Do you want to believe in a God who shows His power by punishing non-Christians and who magnifies His mercy by blessing Christians forever? (21)


Could you believe in a God who decides to punish people who don’t believe in Jesus?  A God who wants to show His power by punishing those who don’t follow His Son? (22)

He does this to point out the difference between wanting to believe something and having to believe something because it is true.  He says, “[B]ecause there are things that we don’t want to believe about God, we therefore decide that we can’t believe them” (22).

I can’t speak for other people/Universalists, but I know (better: believe) that it does not apply to me.  If someone were to prove to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is like that, I would have to believe it.  As it stands, however, no one has been able to do that.  I don’t disbelieve God is cruel only because I want to. I also do it because of the evidence I see in Scripture (which I believe points to God’s true nature) and the personal evidence I’ve seen in my own life.

Chan says that despite the fact that Origen (a church father famous in part for his belief that Christ would eventually save all) inspired others to “embrac[e] the view that everyone will be saved,”  “advocates [of Universal Salvation] were always a minority” (23).  This is misleading because it is simply not true.  Many, if not most, of the early church fathers believed in Universal salvation.  Augustine himself admits this: “There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.”  “Very many” doesn’t look like a minority to me.  (see here)

“It’s important to understand that Universalism comes in many shapes and sizes” (24).  One of the things I like about this opening chapter is that Chan admits to many things that I rarely see opponents to Christian Universalism admit to.  This is one of them.  I appreciate that he can tell the difference between a Unitarian and someone who believes Christ is the only way to salvation but will ultimately save all (I must say, though, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him- or herself a “dogmatic Universalist” [25]).

In the next section, Chan talks about the passage in Philippians (2:9-11) where it says that “every knee will bow.”  He concludes that this passage merely means that “there will come a day when Christ returns to reclaim His creation, and everyone will acknowledge this” (27).  He implies that this doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved, only that they will admit that He is God and is in control (or, as I like to put it, they’ll offer Him lip service).  He supports this view by referring to Philippians 3:18-19, which speaks of “the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction” (KJV).  The Concordant Literal Translation, however, states that their “consummation is destruction.”  The word “peras,” which is translated “end” in the Concordant, is said to be “used in the Septuagint in the sense of termination” (Concordant Literal Concordance, 88); however, this is NOT the word used in Philippians 3:19.  The word used is “telos,” which is normally translated as “finish” but is translated as “consummation” in this case.  I believe this refers not to an end of chances to change, but as a logical conclusion: the consummation of their evil acts is destruction, but this need not be an endless destruction. (It is interesting to note that a different form of this word, “teleo,” is referred to in the Concordance as “not in the sense of cessation but of accomplishment” [109]).

In the next section, “All Will Be Made Alive,”  Chan looks at four Scripture passages that seem to imply that Christ will save all (These passages are 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:19, Col. 1:19-20, and 1 Tim. 2:4).  He quotes 1 Cor. 15:22 as, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (28).  Chan believes that this “all” that “will be made alive” refers only to “the resurrection of believers at the second coming of Christ” and says that “the verse can’t mean that everyone will be saved in the end” (29).  One of Chan’s points about the word “all” from this point on in the chapter is that “all” usually means “all kinds;” however, if pressed, I have to believe that he would admit that the “all” that die in Adam is every single person ever.  If that is true, why would the “all” that are “made alive” in Christ not also be every single person ever?  Chan says that “Paul concludes the letter with a forceful warning that everyone who does not love Jesus will be damned (16:22)” (29).  What the verse actually says is that “[i]f anyone is not fond of the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema!” (CLT)  I don’t believe there is sufficient reason to believe that “anathema” means “eternally damned.”  The entry in the CLT’s concordance for this word states: “originally used of a person who, because of some public calamity, was devoted as an expiatory sacrifice to the gods” (14).  In other words, I believe that this word “anathema” was more of a declaration of disgust or a curse, and did not refer to eternal punishment.  While they do not believe in Christ, they are cursed; he says nothing of eternally damning them on the spot; they can still come to belief later.

In the next section, “Does God Get What God Wants?” Chan writes about 1 Timothy 2:4, which he quotes as “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (28).  He refers to 1 Timothy 2:1 where “Paul commands Timothy to pray for ‘all people'” (30).  He then states: “Does Paul really want us to march through a prayer list that includes every person on the face of the earth?” (30)  Yes, he really says that.  It seems clear to me that Paul does want Timothy to pray for everyone, but this does not mean that he has to do so individually.  I feel like Chan is being deliberately ignorant here.  Paul wants Timothy to pray for all people and he believes that God wants to save all people.  Chan goes so far as to imply that God only wants all types of people to be saved.  To be fair, though, Chan then speaks about God’s “moral will” and God’s “decreed will,” His moral will being how he wants people to behave, His decreed will being “those things that God makes happen regardless of what humans decide” (31).

In a footnote, Chan says, “Of course, it may be that God’s decreed will includes the very resistance of His moral will.  but that’s getting a bit off track” (42).  I would argue that it is not.  If you honestly believe that, and yet you believe that God sends people to Hell forever because of actions that He, to put it bluntly, made them do, then God is a very cruel God indeed (yes, I know, “Romans 9”).  If, however, God’s plan includes “the … resistance of His … will,” but He uses this resistance for His purpose to eventually save all and bring glory to Himself, He is shown to be as loving as He claims to be.

Chan says that “the point of 1 Timothy 2 and other passages like it (e.g. 2 Peter 3:9) is that God is not a bigot; He’s not a racist” (32).  This is true to a degree. 2 Peter 3:9 says that “[t]he Lord is… not intending any to perish” (CLT).  If God does not intend any to perish and desires all to be saved, why can we not just take these words at their face value?  Why do we need to do a contortion act so that God doesn’t actually save all?  Granted, I have done what appear to be similar contortion acts to explain some of the more “frightening” passages of the Bible, but why would someone want to believe in eternal torment when the text “clearly” says that God will save all? (I say “clearly” because one’s interpretation of a text may be clear to them but not to someone else).

No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus. (35).

I must admit this is true.  But there is also no passage in the Bible that says that there is a Hell where unbelievers are tortured forever.

Chan closes by speaking about the parable concerning the narrow gate in Luke 13:22-30.  Chan accuses those who believe in post-mortem salvation as believing that Jesus must answer “Come on in!” (37) to those who beg Him to let them in.  This is not true.  Many Christian Universalists (including myself) would say that Christ leaves them out for a season but will restore them in due time (“they are last who will be first, and they are first who will be last” [13:30 CLT]).  I personally believe this parable is for those of a Pharisaical mindset.  Those who believe that God will welcome them with open arms because of all their acts of holiness and their years of service may find themselves disappointed when they find that He sees them as “workers of evil.”  Works done without love and outside the will of God are worthless.  These Pharisaical type people may find themselves entering last when they expected to enter first.

One more thing: I like the fact that Chan is somewhat fair to Rob Bell when he mentions him in that he admits that Bell doesn’t come right out and fully embrace Christian Universalism.  Chan seems to be a fairly careful reader and not prone to rash outbursts like other writers have displayed in reaction to Bell’s book.

Chapter Two- “Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?”

(August 25, 2011)

This chapter begins with Chan admitting that he has a certain bias as to how Jesus looked when He walked the Earth because of a picture he saw every Sunday at a church he once attended.  He said this to point out that we all have our biases when it comes to what we think Jesus is like and that, in the same way, we also have biases about Hell.  He mentions the varied beliefs about Hell of different people throughout the centuries: Origen, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Rob Bell… even rock band AC/DC.  What Chan attempts to do in this chapter is to explore what the Jews actually believed about the afterlife and its punishments/rewards.  He concludes the following three points:

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. (50)

I sort of rolled my eyes as I read his three points at first, but it turns out that he offers somewhat convincing evidence in what is to follow in the chapter.  Quoting mostly from Apocryphal books, Chan provides several examples of texts that seem to imply that the afterlife is a place of “annihilation or never-ending punishment” for the wicked and those who disobey God’s will.  I find it interesting that he says that “[t]here is a ton of secondary literature on the subject of early Jewish views of hell and the afterlife,” and then provides a few works which appear to be written solely by Christian theologians (63).  Wouldn’t a few books by some actual Jewish scholars be more appropriate?

He says shortly thereafter, “[T]he Old Testament doesn’t say much about hell.  The doctrine of hell is progressively developed throughout Scripture, much like heaven, the Holy Spirit, and even Jesus” (50).  I have to ask at this point: If this question of an eternal torture pit were so urgent, why would God choose not to warn His chosen people for several thousand years?  Obviously, this is coming from my human viewpoint, but I would assume that God gives everyone an equal chance to believe in Him and accept Him, and if not, it would be wildly cruel and unfair to punish people eternally who weren’t even warned about it.  Also, according to the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, “forever” or “everlasting” wasn’t a term common to the ancient Israelites:

First rule in Hebrew study – Hebrews think in concrete and Greeks think in Abstracts. Concrete thinkers think in relation to things that can be seen, touched, smelled, heard or tasted. Some examples of this are tree, singing, smell of baking, etc. Abstract thoughts are such things as believe, faith, grace, etc. These cannot be sensed by the 5 senses. The word everlasting (the usual translation of the Hebrew word “olam”) is an abstract word. The Hebrew meaning is something like “behind the horizon.” It is something that is beyond what you can see (or understand) at the moment but may be revealed as you travel closer (or at a later time). The abstract idea of “everlasting” would have been a foreign concept to the ancient Hebrews. (quotation originally found by me on page 144 of Julie Ferwerda’s book “Raising Hell”)

Chan then spends quite a few pages quoting books from the Apocrypha as to what they say about the afterlife (specifically, the afterlife for non-believers).  Most of these speak of plague and pain and burning and flames forever for those who are disobedient to God (Chan doesn’t spend any time in this chapter qualifying the use of “forever and ever” and similar terms in the quotations).  Chan’s point in quoting all of these passages is to point out that if Jesus didn’t believe in a torturous afterlife for non-believers, He would have spoken against it strongly, since it seems to have been the common belief at the time, according to Chan.

In the final section of the chapter, “Is Hell a Garbage Dump?” Chan addresses the question of whether or not Gehenna (one of the words translated as “hell” in many Bible translations) was a garbage dump.  He does so by refuting Rob Bell’s claim that it was and points out that there is no historical evidence to suggest that it was.  He also mentions that there are no writings about the place being a garbage dump before AD 1200.  In order to explain why Jesus would use the word “Gehenna,”  Chan says that “[i]n the Old Testament, the Hinnom Valley was the place where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal” (61).  I was already somewhat aware of this, so it didn’t come as too much of a surprise to me.  All of this doesn’t prove that Hell is eternal, but it does make Chan’s point a little more convincing that God’s punishment is not “remedial” but “retributive” (52).  I must point out, though, that in one of the verses Chan uses as an example of the Israelites’ child sacrifices in the Hinnom Valley, Jeremiah 32:35, God says, “I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination” (KJV).  I know He was speaking to the Israelites, that they should not do such a thing, but I hardly think that God would do such a thing Himself (and much worse) after commanding them not to do so.

This chapter seems to serve mostly as a set-up to the next chapter, as Chan concludes it with the question, “Did Jesus affirm or reject this widespread first-century belief in hell?” (61). I guess I’ll have to read on and see what his arguments are.

Chapter Three- “What Jesus Actually Said About Hell”

(October 9, 2011)

I finally got a couple hours to read the third chapter of “Erasing Hell.” (Grad school keeps me busy.)  After going into this chapter expecting the worst, it actually didn’t frustrate me quite as much as I expected.  Chan (and, I assume, Sprinkle) has a much more open mind about this issue than most opponents to the doctrine of Christian Universalism, and for that I have to give him some respect.

This chapter, as implied by the title, focuses, for the most part, on what Jesus said regarding punishment in the afterlife.  Chan says the following on page 73:

Jesus grew up in the world of beliefs described in the last chapter.  He would be expected to believe the same stuff about hell that most Jews did.  And if He didn’t–if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in Hell–then He would certainly need to be clear about this.

That last line is very important. Better read it again.

I disagree that Jesus would “certainly need to be clear about this.”  Jesus was rarely clear with anyone, except for, occasionally, his disciples. (See Matt. 13:34 (KJV): “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them.” Parables are unclear because they are typically allegorical.) Jesus isn’t restricted to being clear all the time, and if He wished to be obtuse regarding the afterlife, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that He blindly accepted the current religious beliefs about it.

Chan later discusses the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46.  He states, “[Jesus] gives His verdict: Believers are awarded everlasting life, while unbelievers are awarded everlasting punishment” (75).  The problem with this is that this passage in Matthew says absolutely nothing about belief or unbelief.  This passage is strictly related to deeds and treatment of other people.

Chan gives his view of Hell in two similar passages: “Hell is a place of punishment at the end of the age for ‘all law-breakers’ who don’t follow Jesus in this life” (77-78) and “The everlasting fire of gehenna is a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life” (78).  The problem I find with these two statements is that he doesn’t offer any evidence that “follow[ing] Jesus” is a requirement in any of the passages he quotes (at least not that I can remember).  The passages usually mention things like sin and neglecting the poor and suffering.

Chan also says of the several passages he quotes regarding punishment: “It’s […] important to recognize that there is nothing in these passages that holds out hope for a second, third, or fourth chance for repentance after death” (80).  I would personally argue that that is because the “punishment” mentioned in the texts was never meant to be intended as never-ending in the first place.

For most of the rest of the chapter, Chan explores whether or not Hell (understood to be a place of punishment, not correction, as he sees it), is eternal or if it ends at some point.  He acknowledges that verses like Matthew 10:28, which state, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” mean “[d]estroy, not burn forever” (80).  He also recognizes that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (found in Luke 16:19-31) is used “in this context of Luke to confront the social structures of the day, not to teach us about the afterlife” (90).  It’s refreshing to see that he at least admits this much, unlike many (most?) other opponents of Christian Universalism.

Chan discusses the meaning of the Greek word “kolasis” (in Matthew 25:45-46) in some detail, arguing that it means “punishment” rather than “chastening.”  This argument is mostly neither here nor there to me, since to me the more important question is whether or not the Greek “aionios” means “eternal.”  However, in a note on page 91, Chan refers to 1 John 4:18, which says that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment (kolasis).”  Chan states that “fear instills that nagging sense that one will receive punishment (kolasis) on the day of judgment” (91).  I would argue that this is not necessarily true, since fear in and of itself could be the punishment (or “chastening,” as the Concordant Literal Version translates it).  It doesn’t have to mean that someone has to be terrified of some future brutal beatings, at least as I see it.

Chan admits that “Bible scholars have debated the meaning of [aionios] for what seems like an eternity,” and says that “we’re not going to settle the issue here” (85).  He then states, however, that “[i]t’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked, which is something that Universalists deny,” making a broad generalization that is most definitely not true for all Universalists.  Whether kolasis means “punishment” or “correction” does not negate the fact that Universalists believe that all people will be redeemed by God in the end.  Personally, it doesn’t make much difference to me, as I trust and hope that God will use the best means to bring everyone to their ultimate place of redemption, whether it’s through punishment, correction, or some other means entirely.

Chan argues that since unbelievers are said to experience the same fate as Satan and his demons that it is incredibly unlikely that “aionios kolasis” refers to age-during correction.  He says, “If one thinks that unbelievers will undergo a time of correction-to-be-saved in that place [hell], one must also say the same thing of the Devil and his angels” (84).  He says in a later passage, “We know from other passages in Scripture that the Devil and his angels will suffer never-ending punishment (Rev. 20:10)” (85-86).  Revelation 20:10 states in the KJV,

“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

However, the CLV (Concordant Literal Version) states it this way,

And the Adversary who is deceiving them was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the wild beast and where the false prophet are also.  And they shall be tormented day and night for the eons of the eons.

My point here is not that the CLT is right and the KJV is wrong; it’s that Chan uses another passage using a form of the word “aion” to suggest that aionios most probably means “everlasting.”  It’s circular logic.

Chan concludes the chapter with the following few sentences:

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).

Don’t get so lost in deciphering that you forget to tremble.

I think Chan is missing the point of what Universalists actually do.  It’s not that they try to tell God what He has to do or how He has to do it; it’s that they hope that God loves His creation so much that He will reconcile all of it back to Himself in time.  It sounds humble to say that we should just “embrace His Word and bow the knee,” but what does that actually mean?  It sounds to me like an excuse to stop thinking, something I don’t believe God would ever want people to do (“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'” – Luke 10:27 (NIV)).  We can reverence God without shutting off our brains.  God gave us consciences for a reason, and if we give our minds wholly over to our own private interpretation of the Bible, we open ourselves up to the possibility of shutting down our moral senses just so we can cling to our personal views.  If torturing people for eternity is somehow higher moral ground than loving them enough to restore them to yourself, then I’ll be immoral for as long as I live.

Thus far in the book, I think Chan is probably one of the most humble opponents to Universal Reconciliation that I’ve read.  I respect that he rarely gets emotional or accusatory and maintains an awareness that this is not just about a random Christian doctrinal issue, but about real people.  He’s made a few concessions thus far that I wasn’t expecting, and I find that admirable.  All that said, I still disagree with much of what he stands for, but I look forward to reading the rest of what he has to say in “Erasing Hell.”

Chapter Four- “What Jesus’ Followers Said About Hell”

(January 8, 2012)

Chapter Four is pretty well summed up by its title.  I’ll try to cover some interesting passages and references I came across.

Yet again surprising me to some degree with his honesty, Chan begins the first section of the chapter by pointing out that “Paul never in all of his thirteen letters used the word hell” (98, italics original).  However, he makes it clear throughout the rest of the section that he is quite certain that Paul believed in Hell nonetheless.  He says, “Paul described the fate of the wicked with words such as ‘perish, destroy, wrath, punish,’ and others more than eighty times in his thirteen letters” (98).  A note is then marked at the end of the sentence where Chan references several Bible passages having to do with several words having to do with Hell (according to Chan), such as “perish,” “destruction,” “curse,” “condemnation,” “punish,” etc.  I found it interesting that, among the other references he lists, he includes 1 Corinthians 15:18 under the verses for “perish,” “destroy,” and “destruction” (109).  What I find interesting about this is that the verse obviously has nothing to do with Hell or punishment according to his theology, yet he includes it in the list anyway.  (The verse, reproduced here in the Concordant Literal New Testament, is this: “Consequently those also, who are put to repose in Christ, perished.”)  Chan puts forth these verses as if they are all references of some sort to Hell/perdition/punishment (which they clearly are not), and then in the next sentence (following the note reference), Chan states, “To put this in perspective, Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy, or heaven combined” (98).  Not only is this a little intellectually dishonest given that not all of the passages he listed in reference to Hell are actually about God’s punishments, but one cannot determine how much significance a certain subject in a given book (including the Bible) has by merely pointing to word counts. (I admit, I’ve been guilty of this on occasion when pointing out, for example, in reference to people who believe that Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven, that the word “heaven” occurs more often in the gospels than “hell” does [141 for “heaven” and 15 for “hell,” for the curious].  Hey, everyone makes mistakes, right?)

Chan refers to a sermon by Paul in Acts 17, quoting verses 30-31: “God … commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (99).  He does this to point out that Paul is talking only of God’s judgments with no reference to forgiveness, mercy, etc.  He says:

Like most of you, I get annoyed at those street preachers who carry on about wrath and judgment–I wish they’d talk more about grace and love.  Sometimes I wonder if they do more harm than good.  Yet as I sit back and arrogantly judge their effectiveness, I must admit that Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 sounds an awful lot like the preacher I heard screaming at the beach last week! (100).

I would say the difference is that I believe Paul’s audience was a little different than a common beach goer.  The screaming preacher was disturbing the public; Paul was in the middle of a worship center.  Most of the people at the beach were not there to worship gods; the place where Paul was preaching, while probably right out in public, was surrounded by altars built to gods.  I disagree with Chan’s implied assertion that this passage justifies the angry preacher’s antics.  On another note, I find it interesting that the version Chan quotes of verse 31 says “given assurance to all” whereas in the Concordant Literal New Testament translates the same phrase as “tendering faith to all” (pistis being the Greek word translated as “assurance” and “faith,” respectively).  I’d say this passage implies that God will (eventually) give faith to everyone (whatever that entails).  Chan says, “Similar to John the Baptist and Jesus, Paul believed that warning people of the wrath to come was actually loving.  If my two-year-old son runs out into the street, is it unloving to warn him of the destruction coming in the form of a Chevy 4×4?” (100)  I would agree with Chan’s rhetoric here, but I wish he would extend his logic a little farther: If your two-year-old son runs out into the street, it is unloving to merely warn him and not do whatever you can to get the child out of harm’s way.  By extension, if Jesus merely “warns” us of wrath to come without actually saving us from it (given that He is able to), I’d say that would make Him rather unloving.

Chan warns of extremism: “[J]ust because some have swung the pendulum so far in the direction of wrath and judgment, let’s not swing it back too far the other direction and do away with what Scripture emphasizes” (101).  I would say that most Christian Universalists are not trying to do that at all.  They find many passages which they believe speak of Universal Reconciliation and believe them to outweigh the ones that seem to speak of eternal punishment; just as Chan does the opposite.  If God sends even one person to hell forever and ever (or allows them to be there because they choose to, as is the popular Christian rhetoric nowadays), the pendulum has already been swung to the extreme side of wrath and judgment.

Referring to 1 Thessalonians 1:9 (which he quotes: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” [101]), Chan says in a note that “[t]his verse is not crystal clear, and anyone who thinks it is needs a good dose of interpretative humility” (110).  That sentence, coming from Chan, was quite a shocker for me, and I find it to be quite telling.  So much of this book is dedicated to what Chan seems to believe is “crystal clear,” yet here he speaks of “interpretative humility,” something I believe most Christians could benefit from (including myself).  It’s kind of ironic to me, yet at the same time it’s a reminder to me that even when I consider myself to be somewhat humble in my beliefs or opinions, I may still be a little less so than I believe.  Chan’s note is about whether the “everlasting destruction” Paul speaks of lasts forever or ends in annihilation.  He says, “[W]hile Paul makes a clear point about punishment, vengeance, retribution, and wrath, he doesn’t speak unambiguously about the duration of this wrath” (111).  I would say that, by that logic, neither does it say that those who are punished won’t eventually be resurrected and restored to God.

An interesting line I came across is this: “Refusing to teach a passage of Scripture is just as wrong as abusing it” (102).  This is in reference to people who are squeamish about teaching on the passages in the Bible about “[a]ffliction, vengeance, punishment, [and] destruction” (102).  Who determines what constitutes abuse of Scripture?  Francis Chan?  Martin Luther?  Me? I believe Chan is misguided here in that he doesn’t seem to realize that everyone (including myself) picks and chooses out of the Bible what they believe to be true (whether they were taught it by someone else or not).  I choose not to apply the misogynistic and violent passages of scripture to my life while trying to apply the ones about love and self-sacrifice.  Does this mean I’m abusing Scripture?  I find that doubtful.  Chan follows his aphorism with this admonishment: “I really believe it’s time for some of us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself” (102, italics original).  I think serving a God that would allow His creation to be tortured for eternity is something to be embarrassed about.  Is it something people are supposed to be excited about?  Are we supposed to joyously proclaim God’s goodness in deciding to incinerate the vast majority of His human creation?  Can Francis Chan do that?  I certainly hope not. 

In the next section of the chapter, Chan takes a couple of paragraphs to speak about 2 Peter and Jude, which speak about “punishment,” “judgment,” “condemnation,” and the like.  He concludes with, “As much as these terrifying images of wrath and hell are unpleasant to read, they do capture an important part of the Christian message: God will severely punish those who don’t bow the knee to King Jesus” (103).  I can think of only two adequate ways to respond to that: 1. I hope God isn’t that petty.  I really, really hope God isn’t that petty. 2. Philippians 2:9-11: “Wherefore, also, God highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God, the Father.” (CLNT)

In the final section of the chapter, Chan talks about “Hell in Revelation.”  He refers to Revelation 20:10:

The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev. 20:10)

As you read that verse, keep in mind that the Devil is one of God’s created beings.  Sometimes we hide behind questions like ‘how could God create someone and then torment that person forever?’ Yet few people deny that He does this to Satan.  Some even rejoice in this. (105).

I don’t believe that God would do this to any of His creation, including Satan, nor would I rejoice in it if He did (or so I’d like to believe).  For some reason Chan believes that this verse (and Revelation 20:11-15) definitely refers to “never-ending punishment in the lake of fire,” whereas for other passages he was more tentative about saying it was eternal.  I believe that Chan is being influenced by the ingrained belief that Satan and his demons simply have to suffer eternally because of the fact that they’re pure evil.  Chan says:

Even though it’s the Devil, beast, and false prophet who will be ‘tormented day and night forever and ever’ in the lake of fire, John says that unbelievers go to the same place.  If they go to the same place, they probably suffer the same fate–never-ending punishment in the lake of fire. (106)

This is what truly seems to break Chan’s heart.  He laments later in the chapter:

An ongoing … state … of punishment …

For all who don’t love Jesus. (107)

We can talk about the fate of some hypothetical person, but as I look up and see their smiles, I have to ask myself if I really believe what I have written in this book.  Hell is for real. Am I? (108)

He seems to have a genuine compassion for people and wants to do what he can to prevent anyone from ending up in this terrible place he believes unbelievers will end up going to.  He seems to truly dislike the idea of hell, but his interpretation of Scripture keeps him from discarding it altogether (or “erasing” it).  He concludes the chapter with the following words:

[T]he New Testament writers didn’t have the same allergic reaction to hell as I do.  Perhaps they had a view of God that is much bigger than mine.  A view of God that takes Him at His word and doesn’t try to make Him fit our own moral standards and human sentimentality.  A view of God that believes what He says, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense to us. (108)

This sort of logic baffles me, as I can’t imagine how an eternal place of torture for people that God loves could be a better or bigger view of God’s plan than for Him to eventually restore everyone and everything to Himself.  I can’t imagine trusting a God like that, nor can I imagine someone continuing to trust that God should He decide that they are not worthy of eternal life.  And they would be right to stop trusting, for it goes against all human logic, emotion, and spirituality to do so.  If God is someone/something that will torture even one creature for eternity, then no one is safe no matter what their beliefs are.  Such a God cannot be trusted.  However, if He is a God with an ultimate, loving plan for all of His creation, then He is someone/something I can put my trust in.

Chapter Five- “What Does This Have to Do with Me?”

(January 12, 2012)

In this chapter, Chan basically takes a step back from his normal writing process to “just let the New Testament speak in its power and simplicity” (117).  He says, “I didn’t try to figure out all the nitty-gritty details of the text,” and the rest of the chapter consists of “some of the shocking things that God has hit [him] with” (117).  My first instinct was to criticize his surface reading without being willing to delve deeper, but after a bit I admitted to myself that sometimes it’s good to just see what our immediate reactions and first impressions tell us, and this is just what he does in this chapter.  Some of his points I like, while others I disagree with.  I’ll summarize each section and offer my opinion on it.

You Fool

Chan says that “Jesus preaches hellfire against those who have the audacity to attack a fellow human being with harsh words” (118).  He makes the point in this section that in the debate about hell we must treat each other with respect instead of forcefully offering our opinions and hurling insults at each other.   I like that he doesn’t seem to be singling out either side in this section, but merely calls for Christians on both sides of the issue to be respectful and loving to one another.  He concludes with some points that I can get behind, “Stop slandering one another, and live in peace and brotherly unity.  Jesus evidently hates it when we tear into our brothers and sisters with demeaning words, words that fail to honor the people around us as the beautiful image-bearing creatures that they are” (118).

But Jesus, Didn’t We …

This section is about the passage in Matthew 7 that speaks of those who think they knew Jesus but are told to “depart from Me [Jesus]” (119).  Chan says,

The most horrific word in this passage isn’t hell; it isn’t fire, furnace, everlasting, gloom, darkness, worms, or torment.  In fact, none of these words occur in the passage.  The most frightening word is many. Jesus says, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'” (Matt. 7:22 NASB) (118-119, italics original).

This section basically exists so that Chan can pull the “What evidence do you have that you know Jesus?” card (119).  I don’t have anything against his motives.  If escaping a realm of eternal torture requires that you know Jesus, then you’d better be damn sure that you do (pardon my language, but it seemed appropriate).  I can’t really fault him for exhorting his readers to be sure they do if he really believes they will suffer forever if they don’t.  He even says, “It’s the most loving thing I can do! ‘Many’ will go to hell even though they thought they’d waltz into paradise” (119).  As should be obvious at this point, I disagree with belief about hell, but I can’t disagree with the heart behind what he says.

From Every Tribe and Tongue

Chan discusses racism in this section.  He references Matthew 8:22, “‘The sons of the kingdom shall be cast into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ ([…] NASB)” (120).  His point in referencing this verse is that it is the “sons of the kingdom” that he believes will end up in hell, not those they condemned (specifically, non-Jewish people).  “The teeth that once gnashed against at the person of another race or color will gnash in the agony of eternal torment” (120).  Again, I disagree with the eternal torment part, but I agree with the general spirit behind his statement: if God created humanity, He hates racism.

Chan quotes a rather surprising (to me, at least) statistic: “Why is it that only 5.5 percent of American evangelical churches could be considered multiethnic (where no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of its congregants)? Why is that? Five and a half percent!” (120).  I find this to be rather sad, as Christian churches should be about loving and accepting people as they are, and yet they are still rather divided when it comes to race (not to mention denominations).  Chan makes an interesting grouping: “[T]here are three places where racial division still persists: bars, prisons, and the American evangelical church” (120-121).  It’s a shame that churches share a trait in common with places such as these that they typically want to have nothing to do with.  Unfortunately, this is part of the reason that churches are often branded with the stigma of being hypocritical.  If churches truly want to portray an image of being welcoming and inclusive, they should make stronger efforts to show themselves as accepting of all races.

Blessed Are the Poor

Chan opens this section with, “And what about the poor?  While Jesus is ambiguous at times about the nature and duration of hell, he’s crystal clear about the necessity of reaching the poor” (121).  I was somewhat surprised that Chan admitted Jesus’s ambiguity regarding hell at times; unfortunately, I was not as surprised when he said, “Put simply, failing to help the poor could damn you to hell” (121).  Yet again, I agree with the spirit of his message (helping the poor is important and looked on with favor by God) but dislike his method (God will punish you forever for not helping the poor for 70-80 years or so).  He refers to the passage in Matthew 25 regarding the parable of the sheep and goats by saying, “[I]t’s ironic that some 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” (121-122).  I believe he makes a good point about priorities here: many focus on condemning others while doing little to nothing to help them.

Chan refers to a note after this sentence where he makes the point that “[i]n the context, Jesus is talking about impoverished Christians, not any poor person. […] It’s never a general description of all people” (126).  I’m a little shocked and indignant that Chan would even bother to point this out.  Why should Christians only give money to poor Christians and ignore poor non-Christians whenever possible, and if Chan doesn’t really believe that, then why on earth would he include this little note?  It’s this type of literal adherence to the text that leads to a lack of compassion for one’s fellow human beings.  If Chan’s Jesus only wants us to help people financially or physically if they are Christians, then I’d like to stay away from following that Jesus if possible.  I want my compassion to extend to all of my fellow human beings, not just those who follow the same religion as me.  If you ask me, it’s the doctrine of eternal torment that can lead one to such (intentionally or not) unsympathetic notions as the one expressed by Chan in this note.  Chan concludes this section by saying that we should keep both the notion of hell and the notion of helping the poor, without dispensing with either.

The Tongue of Fire

Chan, in this next section, refers to the passage in James that “‘[t]he tongue is a fire’ […] and it is ignited by the fire of hell ([James 3:]6)” (122).  Chan says that this is the only occurrence of the word “hell” in James and that “this one instance is directed right at [him], a teacher of the Bible” (122).  Chan admits that James only warns religious people of hell in his book: “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 teachers of God’s Word” (122).  I’m glad Chan realizes that religious leaders are as much in danger (if not more) of God’s displeasure as what religious Christians normally think of as “sinners,” but of course I can’t get behind his belief that they are in danger of burning for eternity.

Lukewarm and Loving it

Chan speaks of lukewarm Christians as being in danger of God’s punishment: “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” (123).  He believes that Christians in America have become too complacent and says, “I have seen enough of His church in other countries to know that not everyone lives like us.  In fact, few do” (123-124).  Despite this, Chan is encouraged that many Christians in America are now trying to change this.  He quotes Revelation 3:4, “‘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‘ […] I would love for Jesus to grace me with those words:  You are worthy.  Wouldn’t you?” (124).  I answer that with, “Yes, but is it really all up to us?”  In other words, aren’t we all unworthy, and isn’t that the point of much Christian theology?  Is it because we’re not good or strong or smart enough that we might not hear those words?  Any good quality that we may have comes to us from God.  There is no room for boasting that we are worthy.  If Jesus created us and then calls us unworthy, thereby damning us to hell forever, then He is entirely responsible for our fates.  It is entirely up to Him whether He creates us as “worthy” or not, and to send someone to hell for eternity because of how He created them is beyond cruel; it’s sadistic.  This doesn’t mean that Christians should stop trying to live worthily of being called Christian, just that I don’t think God will allow us to remain “unworthy” forever (whatever that means).

Lord, Save Us

Chan says in this section, “Like the ER doctor who shocks the dead back to life, belief in hell should rescue our complacent hearts from the suffocating grip of passivity” (124).  This is probably true, but the catch is that by this logic, belief in hell could very likely lead to insanity.  No matter how dedicated one is in spreading the Gospel, it will never be enough.  If Christians do not utilize every single moment of their lives warning others about the dangers of hell, then they are wasting their lives by not saving every human soul they possibly can.  It’s an impossible task.  How cruel would God be to entrust humanity’s salvation to a few Christians, many of whom make it a point to avoid bringing up the subject of the very eternal hell they claim to believe in?  To be honest, I find it difficult at times to see how ET-believing Christians can even speak on any topics other than avoiding hell.  If hell exists, then “[r]acism, greed, misplaced assurance, false teaching, misuse of wealth, and degrading words to a fellow human being” (124) become insignificant by comparison (unless of course, these things must be overcome in order to escape hell).  There is no point in helping the poor (or anyone else) if they are going to burn in hell someday.  Why not just preach about “fire insurance?”

Despite my qualms with many of Chan’s points in this chapter, I believe I can fully stand behind his closing prayer for the chapter:

God, help me overcome my selfishness.  I want to love the way You asked me to.

I don’t want to say another insulting word to or about another person, not even jokingly.

I want to shock my enemies with Christian love.

I want to joyfully sacrifice for the poor, and to see You when I see them.

I don’t want to fit in anymore.

Holy Spirit, save me.  Set me apart.  Make me worthy. (124-125, italics original).

Chapter Six- “What If God …?”

January 13, 2012

Chan covers the infamous Romans 9 passage in this chapter, where Paul refers to humans as clay in the hands of God.  He quotes part of the passage in his version of choice (ESV, according to the copyright page): “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Rom. 9:22-23)” (130).  This could be completely true and yet incompatible with the idea of eternal torment.  Chan seems to quote it as if we should worship God whether he chooses to torment some people eternally or not.  However, the passage speaks of “vessels of destruction,” and I don’t believe this necessarily leads to the conclusion that they are destroyed repeatedly forevermore, as a big (huge) theme of the Bible is resurrection.  If God really has created some human beings just so He can torment them forever, then I can’t help but confess that I find Him terrifying and unstable, not someone/something I can put my trust in.

Chan says, “We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people” (131).  I understand his point, and I don’t think most Christian Universalists would disagree with him.  Yes, God decides what He does with people, but no one knows for sure what that is or what that will look like in the end.  Yes, we can look in the Bible and try to interpret what it says regarding the afterlife, but that in no way guarantees that any of us are right.  I don’t think I have a right to determine what is just or right; I merely do my best to follow the conscience God has given me.

Chan tackles the question of ultimate responsibility in Romans 9:

“‘Why does he still find fault?  For who can resist his will?’ (Rom. 9:19)  Good question!  If God gives mercy to whomever He wants, then why does He still find fault?  Or put the question another way: If we all need mercy, and God grants it to some and not others, then who is really responsible–us or God?” (131)

But look at Paul’s answer to this question:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is formed say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:20-21)

Did Paul really just say that?

Does the potter have the right to do whatever he wants with the clay? […] Yes, the potter has this right. (131-132, italics original).

I can’t imagine ever being happy or satisfied in life knowing that even one of my fellow human beings was being tortured forever.  As a flawed person, I can imagine myself selfishly wishing for an enemy to be punished harshly for a crime against myself or my loved ones, but I can hardly imagine myself wishing for them to be tortured eternally for it; at some point, I would want the punishment to stop.  Neither would I want the person to be wiped out of existence; I would find it much more fulfilling to allow myself to forgive that person and for them to be sorry, resulting in a whole relationship with one another.  Yes, Francis Chan, I can admit that “[t]he Potter has this right;” but if the Potter is going to torture the clay forever (a flawed metaphor, since clay isn’t even animate), even one pot, then this life/universe/existence we inhabit is unbearably horrifying and heartbreaking.

Chan says, “I often hear people say, ‘I could never love a God who would …’ Who would what?” and then proceeds to list several ways to complete the statement before arriving at the clincher: “Who would–send people to hell?” (132).  He likens such questioning to clay questioning the Potter.  So Chan’s point is that we’re God’s playthings and no more?  For Him to torture forever or not at His whims?  I really hope that isn’t the case.  How depressing that would be.

In what I see as a very telling statement, Chan says, “Like the nervous kid who tries to keep his friends from seeing his drunken father, I have tried to hide God at times” (133).  Chan sees this as a negative thing; something he’s ashamed of doing since he believes being ashamed of any of God’s qualities is wrong.  I see it as perfectly natural.  Who wouldn’t be ashamed of serving a being that tortures people eternally for not believing in it and worshiping it given extremely limited evidence?  A being like that seems unstable and terrifying; but, alas, I am merely clay, so what do I know?

Chan quotes out of Isaiah 55: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (133).  At first glance, I would think that this should be something to rejoice about!  I don’t think the message here is that this is something we need to fear for our eternal souls about.  Chan says, “His thoughts are infinitely higher than ours.  Knowing that the gap is so large, shouldn’t we put our energy toward submitting rather than overanalyzing?  It is natural–no, it is expected–that there will be times, many times, where you won’t figure Him out” (134).  To that I say, Yes! The same thing applies to everyone, however, including Francis Chan.  What makes him think that his belief in hell isn’t also just a result of trusting his own brain?  Because he believes he reads the Bible exegetically?  He (and everyone else, including myself) still uses his own mind and abilities to interpret what he believes is truth.  Just because his theological background programs him to believe in hell doesn’t make it true (just as my programming doesn’t make anything I believe necessarily true).

The next section is titled “I Wouldn’t Have Done That” and talks about many of the frightening and violent actions God commits and commands others to commit.  I covered this mostly when I discussed Chan’s intro video to “Erasing Hell.”  Later in this section, he says, “We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy categories and compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than His inexplicable ways” (135).  Chan doesn’t seem to realize that the Bible itself is one of the “tidy categories and compartments” that he refers to.  God’s actions are not limited to what the Bible prescribes for Him.  He transcends the Bible, He transcends time, He transcends what we believe about Him; if this were not the case, there would probably be much less religious debate in the world.  He also doesn’t seem to realize that what we believe about God is inextricably linked to our “human sentiments.”  It may seem that what we believe is sent straight from God to us as incontrovertible truth, but as anyone who has ever evolved in their belief knows, oftentimes things that seemed to be absolute truth turn out to be false (or, at least, not quite as true as they seemed).

Towards the end of this section, Chan says, “It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace” (136).  I would say that it’s also arrogant to assume you have a perfect understanding of any given passage of the Bible or that your interpretation is the sole correct one.  It may seem humble to merely take someone else’s interpretation as your own and insist on that as the right one, but doing that is ultimately just as arrogant as if you had come up with a new one all on your own.  He says, “[We shoudn’t] erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us.  As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for clay to do” (136).  The problem with this logic is that doing this doesn’t necessarily put “God’s actions in submission;” it puts the Bible in submission.  One must use reasoning to decide to believe that God’s actions recorded in the Bible actually are His actions; therefore, God’s supposed actions are already in submission to the person’s reasoning who believes that the Bible is infallible.

In the next section, “Wrestling with God,” Chan first speaks about the story of Job.  He mentions how Job suffers and then makes his complaint to God, only to end up being questioned by God in return.  This doesn’t seem to have much to do with eternal torment, but rather with questioning God based on one’s suffering in this life.  Chan says,

What if God, whose wisdom and justice are beyond our understanding, decided to rain down severe suffering upon Job without feeling the need to tell him why?  Do you want to love a God who would do this? Could you love a God like this? (137, italics original).

My answer to this query is a definitive “Yes!” but only if God’s plan is ultimately benevolent and results in the greatest good.  If Job suffers this much and is then torched for eternity, I cannot, no matter how much I might want to for my own sake, see myself loving a God like that.

Chan then moves on to talking about Jeremiah and the book of Lamentations.  He quotes the following verse after mentioning the context (“Babylonians ripped through Israel, slaughtering and torturing men, women, and children”), “‘You have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity’ (Lam. 2:21)” (138).  Chan then says that Jeremiah “believed that the actions of the Babylonians were ultimately acts of God” (138).  To this I offer yet another emphatic “Yes!”  Isaiah 45:7 states, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (KJV).  God is responsible for everything that happens anywhere, anytime.  That includes all the atrocities people have committed against each other.  The argument is not over whether or not God allows bad things to happen.  Everyone knows that bad things happen!  The argument is over whether or not God’s plan will result in everything being made right in His time, not ours.  Later, Chan says, “There is little in Lamentations that is pleasant.  It’s a horrifying little book, and aptly titled.  If anyone had grounds to ‘not love a God who would …’ it was Jeremiah” (139).  I would argue that this is not the case, because Jeremiah had not been continuously tortured for centuries upon centuries yet, something Chan seems to believe will happen to non-Christians.  This is also not terribly relevant to the idea of an eternal hell.

Chan then says,

But through it all–through tears, pain, confusion, anger, and doubt–Jeremiah clung to the faithfulness and goodness of God, even though he didn’t feel that God was very good at the moment:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:21-23) (139, italics original).

I would also mention Jeremiah 3:12, “Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger forever” (KJV).  Not only does God’s love never end, His anger does end.

In the last section of the chapter, titled “His Name is Tobiah,” Chan tells the story of a couple whose baby was delivered alive and breathing yet died two minutes later.  Despite being heartbroken, the couple decided to name their child “Tobiah,” meaning “God is good” (140-141).  Chan points out how the couple could still believe that God is good and have hope in Him despite their devastating circumstances.  While this is touching and powerful, I don’t think it is relevant to the eternal torment question.  Believing God is good despite someone we love dying is much, much different than believing He is good despite torturing people we love forever.  Forgive me if this reads crass and uncaring, but could that couple still believe God is good if He tortured their baby eternally?  I know I couldn’t.

Chan concludes the chapter with the following words:

As I have said all along, I don’t feel like believing in hell.  And yet I do.  Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with Him, but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part.  God is perfect.  And I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine. (141, italics original)

I hope with all my heart that Chan is in agreement with God in disliking the idea of an eternal hell.  I see no need for Chan to go against his God-given conscience here.  Unfortunately, religious programming is a powerful thing, as I’ve learned from experience, and I can see why Chan would be reluctant to give up this belief.  I can only hope that God’s higher ways mean that He is going to bring about the best possible result for all of His sentient creatures.  I hope that He loves us all more than we can imagine and that we can all someday come to a realization of that truth.

Chapter Seven- “Don’t Be Overwhelmed”

(January 13, 2012)

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.

The Problem with “Love Wins”

3 04 2011

(written 4/1/11)

(If you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to do that before reading my little article about it)


I finished reading Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, today.  After reading, I have to say that it’s pretty much everything everyone said it was going to be: heretical, controversial, universalist-leaning, thought-provoking, vague, etc.  I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said and he reiterated a lot of beliefs that I’ve grown to accept over the past few years.


One of these was his perspective on the age of accountability (and by extension, abortion): “This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces.  If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?” (4)


Another thing I found myself agreeing with him on was his assertion that certain “individuals’ rejection of church and the Christian faith they were presented with… may in fact be a sign of spiritual health” (8).  Church can be a pretty poisonous environment if it is proclaimed there that God will soon torture you forever if you don’t accept that church’s doctrines.


I should just stop with those two things, because if I go through everything I agree with him about, I’ll be re-writing most of the book.  However, to quickly sum up some other things I agree with:

  • Most, if not all, of the scriptural references he presents to back up his views are references I’ve seen before in my studies in relation to God’s ultimate desire to reconcile all people back to Himself.
  • Most of his comments on the translation of “aion” and its derivatives as well as the reference to “kolazo” are ideas I’ve seen before and come to accept with a hopeful heart.
  • I have heard and believed his assertion that many leaders within the early Church either believed in Christ’s ultimate reconciliation of all things or acknowledged that many within Christianity believed in it.


The main problem I have with this book comes in Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?  He starts out well enough (from my perspective) with hopeful language of God’s combined love and sovereignty.  He says on page 101, “The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found.  This God simply doesn’t give up.  Ever.”  He even goes so far as to ask some leading questions, such as, “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” (109)  None of this is problematic for me.


The problem comes in towards the end of the chapter when he starts talking about choices and will.  He says on page 117, “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option… If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.”  After leading people to think, practically through the whole book, that he is going to conclude his thoughts with the assertion that God does indeed prevail upon the hearts of all people to turn to Him for salvation, he takes a bit of a left turn at the end of Chapter 4.  He says, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?  Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact” (115, my emphasis).  Doesn’t leaving questions like these intact, especially in the context of this book, defeat the purpose of trying to show how God’s love can overcome every heart?  I understand that leaving room for questions is important and that it’s good to be open-minded, but the fact that he leaves something so crucial to his argument so open-ended can only be detrimental to what he’s trying to do with his book.  This is noticed even by those who disagree with the entire concept of ultimate reconciliation:


Bell’s god is a small god, so bound by notions of radical free will that I wonder how Bell can be so confident God’s love will melt the hardest heart. If God’s grace is always, essentially, fundamentally, resistible (72, 103–4, 118–19), how do we know some sinners won’t suffer in their own hell for a million years? – (Kevin DeYoung, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/)


Bell says on page 116: “‘Does God get what God wants?’ is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss.  But there’s a better question… It’s not ‘Does God get what God wants?’ but ‘Do we get what we want?’ And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.”  Despite having read the entirety of Kevin DeYoung’s rebuttal of Bell’s book and having disagreed with most of it, I nevertheless agree that Bell is “bound by notions of radical free will.”  Bell mentions several times throughout Love Wins that love is all about choice.  I would disagree.  Love is not about choice, love is about wanting what is best for another person, whether that person wants that or not.  Consider the following quotation:


What father holding his little daughter’s hand while crossing a busy street would ever let it go? The more she pulls, the tighter her dad squeezes. There’s no way she is going anywhere! Is God any different? – (Gerry Beauchemin)


In God’s eyes we are merely children.  He knows what’s best for us.  Would he be foolish enough to leave us entirely to our own devices?  Bell says, “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours.  That’s how love works.  It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced” (119).  I agree with the idea that love cannot be forced, etc.  What I disagree with is the notion that God does nothing to win us over to Himself and merely leaves us to choose for ourselves.  He wins us over with His love.  He doesn’t do any of the things Bell describes, but He is responsible for our change of heart.  God changes hearts.  He is in control of our lives whether we acknowledge it or not.  He is not irresponsible enough to give us a free will that overpowers His own.  If we reject God or disobey Him and suffer the consequences, it is because God wants it to happen.   This is why I believe the more important question is “Does God get what God wants?”  Why?  Because God wants what’s best for us.  We can trust Him.  If we’re hell-bent on destroying ourselves or others, then God is not loving in allowing that to happen forever.  He has the ability to change hearts.  This is not force, manipulation, or coercion but the act of a loving Father wooing His children into His arms so that He can protect and care for them.  He overcomes our wills with His love.


Rob Bell’s ideas on free will are nothing new.  According to Jeff Cook:


There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis. (http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/03/23/rob-bell-and-c-s-lewis-by-jeff-cook/)


This is evident in Bell’s “Further Reading” list at the end of the book, as the sole book he lists for “On hell” is Lewis’s The Great Divorce (201).  This is unfortunate, as Lewis’s book is largely fiction and speculation about how some people in hell will have the opportunity to change their minds, yet most won’t want to because of the degradation of their natures (or something; I haven’t read it in a while); indeed, their fates depend mostly on what their “free wills” dictate.  I say it’s unfortunate because there are a number of other books on hell that Bell could have recommended that are much more hopeful and in line with his book’s positive tone, but I suppose listing those would associate him more with the “universalist” label, something he seems determined to avoid (If anyone wants a list of some of these, I’ll be happy to give it).


Later in his article, Cook says:


I see every reason to think that Rob has an identical ontology of hell to CS Lewis, Rob however has more faith in the ability of some to eventually repent, that is the only real difference between them—and it is a belief about people not about God and God’s desires.


Unfortunately, in both C.S. Lewis’s and Rob Bell’s writings, people’s wants and desires seem to be more powerful than God’s.


There seems to be a bit of contradiction within the book, though, as later (after Chapter 4) Bell states, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).  The question Bell seems to be asking in Chapter 4, though, is “Will He still do it if no one wants Him to?”


I, for one, hope He will anyway.

6 01 2010


Well, I gave in…

21 07 2008

I finally decided to start up a blog… whether or not people will read it is another story, but writing facebook notes all the time gets kind of old and doesn’t look quite as pretty.  Anyway, my first few posts will be some old facebook notes I want to put here.