Jeff teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado, pastors Atlas Church (Greeley), and is the author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan, 2008) and Everything New (2012).
Hell is making us all think really hard about God. In order to push our thinking I am working through a few big ideas in Dr. Preston Sprinkle and Francis Chan’s recent book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and What We Have Made Up. I have deep admiration and respect for these two men. They strike me as kind and thoughtful, and their book is worthy of our careful reading and engagement.
In the ad for the book, Chan said, “When we make statements like, “Well God wouldn’t do this would he?” Do you understand that at that moment you are actually putting God’s actions in submission to your reasoning?” And Dr. Sprinkle, in a recent comment on this blog, said, “I almost get the sense that, according to your posts, [taking God at his word] is not necessarily a good thing if his word doesn’t sit well with us. But this seems to be a crazy high view of our intellect.” These two statements summarize well an attitude many of us have when reading the Bible. Isn’t the Bible written to common people like me? Isn’t the message clear? If I read the Bible with a right heart aren’t the Bible’s truths easily understood and unavoidable?
In order to advance its most important claims, Erasing Hell applies such a perspective to the traditional interpretation of passages on hell. It says, “Scripture is filled with divine actions that don’t fit our human standards of logic or morality…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. We serve a God whose ways are incomprehensible, who thoughts are not like our thoughts” (135).
Lumping together both what the authors see as the “incomprehensible” horror of divinely mandated genocide and the “incomprehensible” goodness of the crucified Jesus, the writers say, “It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we 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 [created beings] to do” (136).
Is this right? Can the intellect be set aside? Can we avoid putting God’s word/actions/character in submission to our reasoning when reading the Bible? I don’t think so. Let me give an example of why we must think hard about *how* we read the Bible, or else we will lose the proper understanding of the Bible.
In American Christianity, one school of thought says that the Bible ought to be read as a narrative. That is, we engage the scripture as the ever-moving story God is telling about himself. Another school of thoughts suggests we read the Bible as a legal document—that the binding truths articulated in the flow of the text apply to all people at all times. Still another school suggests we read the Bible through our stories, our situation, allowing the language to be God’s personal word to us. Of course, these schools can read the Bible in similar and complementary ways, but they will eventually hit some disagreements. For example, when asking whether or not women should speak in church, those affirming the narrative-reading may say that passages restricting the speaking of women were teachings for a specific community, in a specific city, that had specific problems. The legal document Bible reader may object that rejection of such passages is unacceptable for it is a clear teaching in the text. The one reading the scripture exclusively in light of their own situation may go either way depending on the women in her community and how much they annoy her.
How we choose to read the Bible deeply affects what the Bible says. There are no theory independent readings of the Bible. Our theories will move the text despite our best efforts. So what should we do? This is where the intellect is vital and to minimize it in our arguments is to leave the meaning of the scriptures susceptible to those with a bully pulpit, immense charisma, or more sinister still—our own misguided desires for the text to say something it does not (as Sprinkle rightly cautions).
Since arguing about “how” we ought to read the scripture is both good and unavoidable, we can reject the claim that “As soon as we [erase eternal conscious torment], we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for [us] to do” (136). This is a self-defeating misstep. The authors are asking us through reasoning about God’s actions to reject reasoning about God’s actions.
As such, those who affirm the unavoidable role of the intellect in Bible reading and reject Erasing Hell’s conclusions might say: I see an argument clearly that affects my reading of scripture as significantly as the arguments for valuing author’s intent, or reading the Bible as narrative, or even the arguments for seeing the scripture as God’s inspired word. The argument goes something like this:
1. If God exists, he is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative.
2. If God exists, he knows the future of any world he actualizes.
3. A being who is exceedingly generous, compassionate, and creative will not actualize a world he knows will culminate in the everlasting incarceration and torment of a human soul.
Given 1-3, If God exists, he will not actualize a world in which a human soul will suffer in torment for eternity.
Because the intellect is unavoidable in our reading of scripture, and because eternal conscious torment is logically inconsistent with God’s attributes in the argument above—it seems obligatory to reject the traditional interpretation of passages showcasing hell. If such arguments are valid, the Bible *must* be teaching something different than eternal conscious torment, or else the Bible is not displaying the God who is real.
There is a lot to commend in Erasing Hell—the advocation of annihilationism, the first and second century analysis of non-biblical texts, the pastoral heart and care for the damned, the honest wrestling with a massively difficult topic that has real consequences. All these are praise-worthy! And given the arguments above, I can conclude my review with the same hermeneutically-informative line as Erasing Hell.
“Will not the judge of the earth do what is just?”