Sometimes, I start reading books at random and finish them before I even realize it. It doesn’t happen often, in fact, very rarely. However this is what happened between yesterday and today.
So, most of you remember a certain book that came out around two years ago by then Pastor Rob Bell known as Love Wins. A lot of people did NOT like this book. It raised suggestions regarding God, the afterlife, heaven, hell, and who goes where after death. It was not well received among orthodox, conservative, and Reformed circles (for a certain amount of good reason, in my opinion). Many took it upon themselves to write books and blog posts in response, some rather harsh, denouncing Bell as a heretic, others chiding his opponents, telling them not to fuss so much.
Then there’s Francis Chan. Chan I can’t say is super well known in evangelical circles, but he has gained a decent reputation through such books as Crazy Love and Forgotten God. In the wake of responses to Bell’s Love Wins, Chan produced Erasing Hell. This book is not an all-out critique/slander of Bell’s work, as some pastors have produced, but more of an honest questioning of the tenets of universalism/inclusivism and an attempt at making a case for biblical support for the punishment of the wicked in the life to come.
What Chan wished to do in writing on the subject of Hell was take very seriously the implications of such a doctrine. To downplay, or, as some pastors might do, reject a belief that God does indeed punish those who have rejected Jesus Christ is put a lot at stake. If they’re wrong, they’ve told a lot of people not to worry about a very real place. On the other hand, if there is no hell, and we spend our lives telling people there is, we’ve made them worry greatly about things that aren’t there, putting needless burdens on them. So Chan worked very hard to take the existence of Hell very seriously.
Chan’s not the best with scholarship and exegesis, though he’s not the worst, either. To supplement his writings, he employs the help of Preston Sprinkle, a man with a PhD in New Testament Literature, to take care of some of the burden of research, with great results. Chan initially begins with a critique of universalism (which he doesn’t label Bell as an adherent to; he just questions some of Bell’s writings). From there, he spends about 3-4 chapters examining the NT (the OT speaks very little of Hell, if at all) in the context of first-century, Judaic writings (4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 1 Enoch, etc.), using it to demonstrate that Jesus and his followers shared the views of their contemporaries on punishment for the wicked in the afterlife. The rest of the book consists of the implications of his findings (there definitely is a Hell, and the wicked are punished there for their rejection of God).
I gotta hand it Chan; he’s done well in his work, but there is a question or two that comes to me while reading. For example, the Judaic writings he looks at have a certain amount of political undertones to them. He mentions the story of seven Jewish brothers being tortured and killed by Greek overlords, and the last brother warns them of the wrath they’ve invited upon themselves in the life to come (more or less telling them to go to Hell). There’s a lot of “God will wipe out the invaders” ideas throughout these books, and I do wonder how much those ideas really lend to the credibility of a Hell in the afterlife.
It’s a well exegeted task, and I have to hand it to Chan for his work. While I don’t think he explored the culture of the first century as well as he could have, he handles a serious issue with the care and attention it deserves.