This video, released last week and currently gone viral (as of this writing it’s received almost 114,000 views in four days), stars Francis Chan. It’s a commercial for his new book, Erasing Hell: What God Says About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up, due out in early July. Erasing God is clearly meant as a refutation of Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
Slickly produced by David C. Cook, Erasing Hell‘s Christian publishing house, there are a great number of things about this video that I don’t like, most of it having to do with its almost astounding pretentiousness: the all-white, faux-heaven set; the astral, Muzak-from-heaven background music; the posing pretending to be pondering; the fact that it’s all about how Francis is prayerfully writing this book, when the cover of the book itself shows that it was, in fact, written by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. (That “and” is everything. In displaying the name of a book’s co-author, publishers have four choices: don’t show the name anywhere in or on the book; show it only on the book’s copyright page; show it on the book’s cover in such a way that it reads [Author] with [Co-Author]; or show it on the book’s cover so that it reads [Author] and [Co-Author]. “And” signifies maximum involvement of the co-author. In fact — and I know this because I’ve been in book publishing for years, and have myself co-authored five books — if on a book jacket you see and before the name of the co-author, you can pretty much bet that’s the person who really wrote that book. Whether or not that’s true in this particular case, it’s at the very least disingenuous of Mr. Chan to not once so much as mention Mr. Sprinkle’s name.)
But the primary problem I have with this video is that while in every last way pretending to be about practicing love, it’s really about instilling fear. What Chan is really saying here — as subtly as it’s hidden beneath his humble, searching, open-minded attitude — is, “Be afraid. Being wrong about hell has terrible, terrible consequences. It’s not something about which you can afford to be mistaken.” (Hence the very title of the video: “Hell: We Can’t Afford to Get It Wrong.” It can’t get more fear mongering than that.) [Update: It's now eight days later, and I see they've changed the name of the video.]
And this is exactly where he, and every other Christian leader who preaches that hell is real, gets it so extraordinarily and harmfully wrong.
Evangelicals who believe in and preach hell fail to realize that it does not matter whether a Christian is right or wrong about hell. Because every Christian, regardless of their beliefs about hell, is entirely safe from going there.
Christians who believe in hell go to heaven; Christians who don’t believe in hell go to heaven. No Christian argues that. All Christians agree that if you are a Christian—no matter what you believe about hell—you go to heaven when you die. Nowhere in the Bible does it say anything about the proper understanding of hell being a prerequisite for admission into heaven.
I think it’s reasonable to say (and it’s certainly been my experience writing about Christianity for The Huffington Post) that nothing keeps more people shunning Christianity than does the doctrine of hell as a literal place. People just can’t get on board with a God so cruel and unfair that he would condemn to eternal physical torture anyone who, for any reason whatsoever, dies without first believing in him. Most non-Christians don’t see the Christian god as loving and all-powerful. Due primarily to the doctrine of hell being real, they see him as an egomaniacal psychopath. Most find it simply baffling that anyone could believe in a God so insanely punitive.
And so they reject Christianity.
And thusly (according to the evangelical mindset) do they doom themselves to hell.
Now let us take great care to ensure that we’re here employing flawless logic.
If rejecting the Christian God condemns people to hell; and
If a Christian who is wrong about hell goes to heaven anyway; and
If preaching about hell significantly contributes to people rejecting Christianity;
Then why in God’s name would any evangelical ever preach or “sell” hell? There’s no reason to. It can only hurt.
A Christian preaching about the reality of hell is: A. Doing nothing whatsoever for Christians; and B. Significantly contributing to non-Christians remaining non-Christian.
This can only mean that any Christian who preaches about hell being real is broadcasting to the world that he or she cares more about being right than they do about actually saving anyone from hell.
If evangelicals sincerely want to do God’s work, and sincerely want to save people from hell, then they need to either radically rethink their concept of hell, or, at the very least, remain entirely quiet on the matter.