I had some trepidation about even reading Erasing Hell, let alone reviewing it. Part of that stems from a desire to not continue to tread the same ground, over and over again. The rest of my uneasiness came from another (greater) concern: Am I spending too much time thinking about hell? Worse, am I turning thinking about it into another academic exercise that doesn’t really have any impact on my life?
If you’re concerned about that tendency in your own life, you’ll be thankful to read Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. Here, Francis Chan and co-author Preston Sprinkle offer a foundational understanding of what Scripture actually says about hell while explaining why it actually matters.
In case you were wondering, yes, this book is a direct response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Chan and Sprinkle interact heavily with the former work, carefully addressing the significant issues raised in its pages in Chan’s now-trademark conversational style.
The Terror of False Hope
One of the big questions in the Love Wins controversy centers on whether or not Christian universalism and the opportunity for post-mortem salvation is defensible from Scripture. The authors quickly move through a handful of the major proof texts offered in defense of universalism to focus on to the larger issue of post-mortem salvation. In their search for proof texts in its defense, they found exactly none.
“No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus,” they write on page 35. “And that’s frightening . . . because the idea of an after-death conversion is the most important ingredient for the Universalist position. It makes or breaks the view.”
Chan’s horror that anyone would offer the possibility of post-mortem salvation without explicit biblical reference is palpable, particularly when some passages explicitly speak against this view (see Luke 13:22-30, Hebrew 9:27 among others). Indeed, throughout the book, Chan’s emotional investment into the subject matter forces us to confront our own attitudes toward doctrine. He not only believes but feels the truths of Scripture deeply, in a way that sometimes I find lacking in my own life. It’s not an appeal to emotionalism vs. intellectualism, but it’s the fruit of head knowledge that has become heart knowledge.
Hell, First-Century Jews and the Garbage Dump
Have you ever noticed how there are some things in Scripture that you never really pay attention to until someone points them out? An area like that for me is Jesus’ teaching on hell. He speaks repeatedly of the judgment to come… and no one questions Him on it. It’s as if they had a pretty solid grasp of what He was talking about. Chan and Sprinkle suggest a reason for this:
The authors offer several passages, ranging from second century BC to first century AD Jewish sources that clearly indicate a strong belief in hell. “In fact, so ingrained was the belief in hell among first-century Jews that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to distance Himself from these beliefs if He didn’t hold them” (p. 49). Jesus was certainly not one to shy away from necessary controversy, yet the fact that He didn’t on this point is telling. He did not distance Himself from these doctrines because He had no need to—He believed them, as did His contemporaries.
This was probably the biggest “Oh yeah…” moment I’ve had reading a book in a good long while. Not because it necessarily taught me anything completely new (although it certainly gave me a greater understanding of the context in which Jesus lived and preached), but because it gave a greater appreciation for what is clear within the gospels. Jesus believed in hell, as did those to whom He preached.
Chan and Sprinkle likewise proceeded to debunk a common argument used in the debates surrounding hell—gehenna. Most of us have heard (and possibly even written or preached) that gehenna was the town garbage dump. However, the authors share, this is a myth that gained traction c. 1200 AD in the writings of David Kimhi, who incidentally, lived in Europe, not Israel—and “even [he] saw it as an analogy for the place where the wicked will be judged” (p. 60). The Hinnom Valley was, according to 2 Kings 16:3, the place where the apostate Israelites offered child sacrifices to the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal; by Jeremiah’s time, it became synonymous with the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast. But there’s no evidence it was ever used as a garbage dump.
Let God Be God
Throughout Erasing Hell, Chan and Sprinkle return to a consistent theme, that of letting God be God. “God has the right to do WHATEVER He pleases,” they write. “And whether or not you end up agreeing with everything I say about hell, you must agree with Psalm 115:3. Because at the end of the day, our feelings and wants and heartaches and desires are not ultimate—only God is ultimate. . . . Expect then, that Scripture will say things that don’t agree with your natural way of thinking” (p. 17).
Nowhere in the book is this better exemplified in chapter 6’s discussion of Romans 9:22-23. As they look at this uncomfortable text of Scripture, they repeatedly come back to the reality that God can do what He wants.
I often hear people say, “I could never love a God who would…”
Who would what? Who would disagree with you? And do things that you would never do? Who would allow bad things to happen to people? Who would be more concerned with His own glory than your feelings? Who would—send people to hell? (p. 132)
The absurdity of this idea, that God is somehow answerable to us, when we look to Scripture is clear. And it should cause us to weep at our own arrogance. This was a difficult passage for me to read as I don’t like to think that I am guilty of this, but I know that I am. I hate the idea of hell, yet it’s there. I’d love for it to go away, but it won’t. And all I am able to do in light of it is submit myself to the reality that God is greater than I am—and my questions, while not unimportant, must be submitted to His Word.
Pleading For Repentance
Prior to reading Erasing Hell, I had some concerns about how the authors’ would present their case. What would be their tone? I suspect many of us would admit that there have been times when our tone has been full of truth, but perhaps lacking in love. And perhaps the best way to describe the authors’ tone would be to say that it felt as though they were urgently pleading for repentance—both to those of us who have erred in turning hell into a mere intellectual exercise as opposed to a life-altering doctrine and to those who have rejected hell (and perhaps even Bell himself). In this the authors show that they are living in light of the book’s closing words:
God extends mercy to us all now, He wants us to know Him now, He urges all of us now to be reconciled to Him through His Son Jesus Christ. This door is open now—but it won’t stay open forever. (p. 150)
The urgency of this plea cannot be overstated, neither in the tone of the book or in our need to extend God’s mercy through the proclamation of the gospel. Our responsibility, if we embrace the historic understanding of hell as presented in Scripture, is not to spend our time in endless debates. Our responsibility is to plead with those who are separated from God to flee from the wrath to come. Our responsibility is to plead with those who confess faith in Christ yet emphasize His mercy at the expense of His judgment to examine the Scriptures with fresh eyes.
Chan and Sprinkle are right when they write that people’s destinies—their eternal destinies—hang in the balance on this issue. We dare not take our responsibility lightly. I am extremely thankful for this reminder from Erasing Hell; I trust that as you read it, you will be as well.
Title: Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up
Authors: Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle
Publisher: David C. Cook (2011)