“When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.”1
Let the gravity of that statement sink into you for a minute.
“Think about it. If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place that I convinced them did not exist! If I say there is a hell, and I’m wrong, I may persuade people to spend their lives frantically warning loved ones about a terrifying place that isn’t real…Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake” (14).
In Erasing Hell, Francis Chan never separates his search of God’s Word for the truth about hell, from the reality that this is an eternal life or death issue for real people. With co-author Preston Sprinkle adding knowledge and experience in the study of scripture, Chan honestly lays out his struggle to know what to believe and the fact that he doesn’t want to believe in hell. But his question becomes, not do we want to believe in hell, but can we believe the truth about hell? First, he begs his readers to seek God earnestly in prayer about this issue and then to let the words of Scripture speak even louder than his own voice.
Chan lays out a very helpful overview of Universalism; the belief that everyone will be saved. However, there are many different views of Universalism and he writes that the label Universalist is about as specific as the label Baptist.
There is a difference between non-Christian Universalists, who believe Jesus is one way among many, and Christian Universalists who believe that salvation is still, ultimately, only through Christ. With thoroughness, and yet in an easy to understand style, he approaches the scriptures that are used to support this view. But in the end, the most compelling reason for him to reject even Christian Universalism is this: there is no passage throughout Scripture that hints that there will be a chance to repent and follow Jesus Christ after death.
Jesus and Hell
Jesus was not afraid to speak out against the status quo of his day, often confusing the Jewish leaders by directing his authority against their long-cherished traditions. So, Chan makes the logical case that we must understand the context into which Jesus is speaking and then see how Jesus responds to those preconceived ideas.
If Jesus had disagreed with the common perception of hell and life after death, he no doubt would have been very clear about his position. But after laying out his research of first-century Jewish writings and the words of Jesus, Chan makes three statements that hold true for both: hell is place of punishment after judgment, hell is described in images of fire, and hell is a place of annihilation2 or never-ending punishment (74).
For many, that may immediately turn you away, but keep reading. Chan writes boldly about his conclusion and yet with sensitivity. Also, while the book is very clear, the additional information included in footnotes at the end of each chapter is very helpful for those with questions about his statements.
What does this mean for us? We so often shy away from the topic of hell, perhaps for the inexcusable reason that it has been mistreated, but the Apostle Paul was very clear. He describes the fate of unbelievers with the words perish, destroy, wrath and punish. Paul uses these words more times than he mentions the forgiveness and mercy of God.
Perhaps, Chan concludes, we get a better understanding of the tenacity and motivation of Paul when we see what he believed about eternity. He lived conscious of the reality that every soul that didn’t receive Christ was headed for a literal hell. The goal in recognizing this is not a guilt trip for ourselves, but a willingness to take God at His Word and to see others around us in the light of eternity.
Another important point to notice is the context in which Jesus talks about hell, describing “outer darkness…in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”3 In Matthew 5, Jesus talks of hell in relation to speaking harshly about another person, and in Matthew 7, Jesus says that he does not know those who have a long list of things they have done in his name but who never truly established a relationship with him. In Matthew 8 he is very clear that your birth or ethnicity gives you no automatic standing with Christ; Jesus is speaking against racism! These passages, all mentioning hell, are for us, and “He gave us these passages so that we would live holy lives” (118).
Difficult but Real
If you can read Erasing Hell and remain unmoved, Chan is clear that you will have missed his point. His goal is not a theological debate but a deeper understanding of the glory of God. Ultimately, we have to come to terms with the fact that God is God, and it is only in our arrogance that we think we must cover up or explain away the things he says or what he chooses to do.
And yet there is hope; think of the amazing reality of the love of God in planning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the way of salvation for us. It is an incomprehensible truth to us, and yet, Chan says, we cannot be so arrogant as to embrace the truth we can’t understand about the cross and reject the truth we can’t understand about hell.
“The 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 sense” (108).
|Sadie Werner lives with her noisy, loving family in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. She is excited about the adventure of life God is leading her on and desires to live full of His Spirit. Currently she attends Harrisburg Area Community College part-time, works part-time, and volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center. Usually found reading, she also enjoys being outside, going to coffee-shops and libraries, and playing piano. She dreams of one day publishing a book.
1. Chan, Francis and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell. David C Cook, Colorado Springs, Co. 2011.
2. Chan does address the controversy between the views of annihilation and never-ending punishment in his book. He doesn’t end with a strong stance one way or the other but seems to suggest that it is not the most important issue. As a blog, Radi-call would hold to the view that hell is where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment.
3. Matthew 8:12; Holy Bible, ESV. Crossway Bibles, Wheaton Il. 2005.