This is the second of a three-part review of the soon-to-be published book Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. This post will briefly discuss the structure and themes of the book.
Erasing Hell contains seven chapters and includes and introduction and an appendix that deals with frequently asked questions.
In the introduction, F & P (short for Francis and Preston) make the point that the book is really about God (echoes of Rob Bell’s point) and that by definition God is not easy to understand. They admonish readers to be prayerful therefore as they approach the topic.
In chapter 1, “Does Everyone Go to Heaven”, F & P tackle the question of universalism and whether one can find it in the Bible. They begin with what amounts to the most important point of the book. Here they reflect on the difference between the questions:
“Do you want to believe in a God who would punish sinners in hell?
“Can you believe in a God who would send people to hell?
I think this is worth a very careful pondering. Any one who doesn’t want to believe that God saves everyone probably needs his or her heart checked! So the most fundamental question isn’t “Do you want to”; rather it should be “can you believe”, “are you willing to believe” if that’s what the Bible teaches. What a great question! Before we even begin to read the Bible, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we’re willing to submit ourselves to what we find. The chapter provides a brief overview of universalism and the biblical case for the view is weighed. As you would expect, F & P find the argument wanting.
Chapter 2, “Has Hell Changed? Or Have We”, provides the foundation for discussing the New Testament views of hell by presenting what first-century Jews thought – this would have been what was “in the air” about hell when Jesus and the apostles taught and wrote their letters. The chapter is a brief and surprisingly accessible and solid piece of scholarship. It presents the view on which most New Testament scholars all agree. While there were diverse views among first-century Jews, there is an apparent agreement on a few central ideas about hell. I particularly found the discussion of the myth of the “garbage dump” to be instructive. I hope that this myth will now be laid to rest once and for all.
Chapter 3, “What Jesus Actually Said about Hell”, focuses on Jesus’ teaching about hell. The essential kernel of the chapter is that Jesus did not depart on any point from the view of his contemporaries on hell. Jesus thought what most everyone else did. Perhaps the most interesting point in the discussion was whether Jesus taught a view complementary to annihilationism or eternal punishment, since both conceptions of the final destiny of the wicked can be found in first-century Jewish writers. F & P show that Jesus’ teaching fluxes between these to a degree which makes dogmatism difficult. However, finally they rest on Matthew 25 and suggest that Jesus seems to tip his cap in the direction of eternal punishment.
Chapter 4, “What Jesus’ Followers Said about Hell”, deals with the rest of the teaching of the New Testament on hell. They do recognize that the word is hardly used by the apostles who wrote the New Testament. Still, words alone do not singularly convey meaning. Often concepts do the same. So they work through the letters of Paul, Peter, Jude and Revelation and show that they are consonant with Jesus’ teaching. They note that Revelation is unique in its interest in hell.
Chapter 5, “What does this have to do with me?”, shows that hell is not primarily an evangelistic doctrine. F & P write “Racism, greed, misplaced assurance, false teaching, misuse of wealth, and degrading words to fellow human beings—these are the things that damn people to hell? According to Scripture, the answer is yes. Let’s not miss the very purpose for these lively warnings. God wants us to do more than intellectually agree with the words of Scripture: He wants us to live in light of them” (124).
Chapter 6, “What If God . . .?”, returns to the question which began the book, “Could you believe in a God that . . .” This is a powerfully rhetorical chapter in which F & P go for the heart. They discuss Romans 9:22-23 which asks “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 . . .” They note that Paul doesn’t actually say God does this (a point often overlooked by zealous undergrads in late night dorm room steel-cage theology matches), but “raises it as a legitimate possibility” (131). The rest of the chapter is essentially the same content as the promotion video released a month ago: “I wouldn’t have done that”. It’s powerfully rhetorical.
While some may, object to the line of reasoning, it has a long Christian history. I found this quote of Luther in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship at the end of his chapter on Discipleship and The Cross (ch4):
Things must go, not according to your understanding but above your understanding. Submerge yourself in a lack of understanding, and I will give you My understanding. Lack of understanding is real understanding; not knowing where you are going is really knowing where you are going. My understanding makes you without understanding (91).
Chapter 7, “Don’t be Overwhelmed”, concludes the book with pastoral advice on responding to robust view of hell. F & P encourage greater evangelical urgency, joy and seeking assurance of faith as the legitimate responses.
The “Frequently Asked Questions” section tackle only 6 questions:
- Are the images of fire, darkness, and worms to be understood literally?
- Are there degrees of punishment?
- Is hell at the center of the earth?
- Does the Old Testament word sheol refer to hell?
- What about the person who has never heard the gospel?
- Did Jesus preach to people in hell between his death and resurrection?