Photobucket(Note: I read the Kindle version of the book, so I haven’t tried to reference page numbers here.)

If you have any connections to the world of evangelicalism, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. The reactions of the book have ranged from somewhat gentle critique and interaction (see Ben Witherington III, Roger Olson, or Scot McKnight) to people calling Bell a false teacher (see, Mark Galli, Al Mohler, etc.). In addition to countless blog posts, tweets, and Facebook meltdowns no less the half a dozen (and counting) book have been released or are going to be released in response to Bell.

Now personally, I’ll start be laying my cards on the table. I read Love Wins the day or two after it was released. I liked the book quite a bit. But, honestly, after reading I couldn’t see what all the hoopla was about. Bell explores the concepts of heaven and hell, the Kingdom of God, and salvation in a way that is pretty much consistent with his earlier books and his sermons. Now, I shouldn’t say I was totally surprised by the reactions – after all, hell is sort of the third rail of evangelicalism. People approach the subject at their own risk. But there wasn’t really anything in the book that people like C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, or other writers have been saying for years. Bell’s popularity certainly surpasses theses writers in the general church-going crowd (With the exception of maybe Lewis), but still what is the big deal?

Enter Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle and their book Erasing Hell. I had heard this book was coming out not long after reading Love Wins. Chan is somewhat of a rising star in evangelical circles. He’s about Bell’s age, and he’s written a number of books that have sold well – Crazy Love and Forgotten God. I have not read Chan prior to reading Erasing Hell, and my only experience with him was when he led our “small” group at one of the Passion conferences a few years ago (small being around 600 or 700 people). Given Chan’s ties to Passion and some of the neo-Reformed movement folks, I’m not surprised to see that he has a problem with Love Wins.

As far as the book, Chan (and Sprinkle – it’s not always clear who is actually writing) begins the introduction by stating how important it is that we get the doctrine of hell correct. He says multiple times that it’s something that we can’t get wrong. Getting it wrong puts us at risk of sending others to hell or even puts us at risk. To his credit, he also states that we can’t let tradition or our feelings dictate what is right as far as what Scripture says about hell. Personally, I find fear-based or slippery-slope framed arguments to be inherently weak. Yes, there is an element of pragmatism that guides the formulation of doctrine, but it simply doesn’t seem to me to be a fair statement that a Christian’s walk or zeal to evangelize is ultimately driven by what they think of hell. If it is, then I think there are other bigger issues that need to be flushed out.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Does Everyone Go To Heaven”. From the get-go I have issues with this chapter. First off, the simple fact that Chan boils down the Christian walk to the phrase going to heaven seem like a misstep to me. Did Jesus or the Apostle Paul ever use the term “going to heaven” as the goal of our faith? Not to my knowledge. There is a real dearth of good teaching on eschatology in Christian circles, and Chan doesn’t even attempt to talk about it all here.

Continuing in Chapter 1, Chan quotes several passages from Bell’s book. And this is perhaps my biggest complaint about the book. The way Chan interacts with Love Wins is simply dishonest. Now, I would like to give him the benefit of doubt here and think it’s not a matter of him being purposely dishonest, but nonetheless, the quotes he gives are out of context, and they don’t fully portray Bell’s thoughts. It is actually pretty easy to find paragraphs in Love Wins that make Bell sound like a universalist. The thing is that if one doesn’t read carefully or follow Bell’s train of thought to the end, they end up missing his point. For instance, Chan states, “Bell suggests that every single person will embrace Jesus – if not in this life, then certainly in the next.” Chan does add an end note on this saying that Bell says this actually isn’t what he believes (which raises the question of why Chan states it as a fact in the body of the text in the first place), but he also says in the same note that “it would be hard to say that he’s not advocating it”. Now, to me, it was clear after reading Love Wins that Bell isn’t advocating universalism, and in interviews he has repeatedly said he’s not a universalist. That is enough for me to take him at his word. Apparently Chan knows what Bell believes better than Bell!

Throughout the rest of Chapter 1, the book goes on to refute Bell’s supposed universalism. They mention some specific passages in Matthew and Revelation, and, needless to say, the interpretations offered are different than what Bell puts forth. For instance the open gates to the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Chan doesn’t really offer an answer to why they are said to be open. He just states that the fact that they’re open doesn’t mean people on the outside will have a chance to get in. Fair enough, I suppose.

Chapters 2 and 3 are Chan’s attempts to answer the question of what the typical first century Jewish belief was about hell. Apparently, Preston Sprinkle has a PhD in early Judaism, so I had high hopes for this chapter. They soon fell flat, though. In order to prove the case that hell indeed is a place of torment and torture, and may be an eternal place, several verses from the apocryphal books Maccabees and the book of Enoch are cited. The argument goes something like – Jesus used similar language when speaking of judgment as these books do, and Jesus didn’t go against what these books are saying, therefore He affirmed this views. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, I have a hard time believing that there was one unified view among Jews of what happens to the wicked when they die in the first century. Like now there were different theological camps in Judaism, and these things were things that were debated back and forth then as they are now. Certainly knowing some context is undoubtedly important, but the way they present the context here is so simplified that it comes across as a little too convenient for their argument. Also, the one thing that Chan fails to mention here (although he touches on it in future chapters) is that Jesus did contradict many of the commonly held paradigms about judgment while He was on earth. Namely, He says that those who most at risk of judgment are those who were thought to be God’s chosen people. Jesus never lets us get to comfortable with thinking that judgment of the wicked is something we can keep at arm’s length. One thing worth noting here is that Chan does admit that the Biblical narrative isn’t entirely clear as to the duration of hell and punishment. He does leave the door open for annihilationism. This is a bit of a departure from a typical neo-Reformed view.

Chapter 4 is a brief discussion on what the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers had to say about hell. Chan has to stretch a bit here, as he equates every mention of destruction or death by Paul to mean hell or post-mortem punishment. He also spends time describing what equates to a typical Calvinist view of the wrath of God – we are awaiting the wrath of God unless we repent. He makes it clear that he believes the wrath Paul is talking about is retributive, not simply corrective. Chan also think that many people in the church simply don’t like this idea, so they choose not to talk about it. That may be true of some people, I suppose, I though it does not take a long time online to find people relishing in the idea of God’s wrath. There are a lot of books and commentaries written about what the wrath of God is, how it functions, the purpose, etc., and the view that it is retributive punishment is not a universal view. For instance, a good case can be made that wrath is simply God letting people experience the outcomes of their sinful desires. It’s something that is built into the way the universe works. The case isn’t as cut and dry as Chan makes it seem.

Chapter 5 is a chapter I mentioned earlier. In the chapter, Chan tries to deal with the fact that the vast majority of instances where the New Testament speaks of judgment it is in the context of believers. In fact, Chan says of Revelation, “This isn’t an evangelistic tract written for unbelievers – the hell passages here weren’t designed to make converts and scare people into the Kingdom. They were designed to warn believers to keep the faith in the midst of adversity”. And, actually it’s hard to find a lot to disagree with in this chapter. I would say a lot of the same things. The warnings of judgment that Jesus, Paul, and the other NT authors give aren’t for unbelievers – they are to the church. I find this fact simply hard to square with what Chan says elsewhere in the book, though. Elsewhere, Chan makes a point to say that it is unbelievers who risk facing the fires of hell.

In Chapter 6, Chan attempts to offer something of a theodicy (an answer to why bad things happen or why there is evil in the world). He starts with Romans 9:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?

It isn’t surprising that Chan takes the Calvinist view of this passage – God creates some people to be damned and some people to be saved, and we are in no place to question Him. Now, getting in depth in this passage is more than I want to do in this review, but there are other ways to interpret this. The view that God creates some people destining them for hell is simply not a view held by all theologians. I would say that at present it’s held be a minority of them, but I suppose it depends who you ask. Again, I don’t want to get too sidetracked with this, other than to say, I think Chan is wrong here. I believe God desires all to be saved, and I believe He loves all people.

Chan continues in this chapter to cite various Old Testament passages – Job, Ezekiel, Lamentations – talking about how we cannot hope to understand God’s ways. Now obviously there is some truth in this. God is God, and we are not. God runs the universe, and we don’t. However, I think the line of reasoning that Chan is taking is flawed. The Christian view of God and his ways can be somewhat informed by these OT passages, but our primary source of revelation about the Father is Christ. Christ supersedes all our previous notion of what God is like. Christ assures us that the Father isn’t unknowable. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Jesus said that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father. We needn’t be afraid that God is erratic and arbitrary.

In closing, Chan assures his readers that although he has talked about some things that can be quite terrifying, they have no reason to fear. If we repent, we can avoid hell. Again, point taken, but it makes the point he makes in Chapter 5 a bit puzzling. One the one hand we are to fear warning, but on the other have assurance that God has mercy for us now. Now, I will agree that there is always some amount of tension between justice and mercy, but the road that Chan goes down to have these two hold hands is simply incomprehensible to me. And that’s my general perception of the book. Chan has written a book that on the surface seems to be an attempt to give reader clear answers about heaven and hell. At the root, though, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Is God truly knowable? Is my salvation really secure? These are not little questions.

Comparing Erasing Hell to Love Wins, which is sort of what we’re asked to do, I’d have to say that Love Wins is a much more compelling book. It all comes down to this – what do we believe God is like, and what is the story that we find ourselves in. Bell gives readers answers to these questions – whether you agree with him or not. He enables people to have vision of a salvation this is bigger than hell avoidance. He paints a picture of Christ who is making all things new, who isn’t abandoning His creation, and who dealt with sin once and for all on the cross. I find the story that Chan presents in Erasing Hell much harder to grab onto, and I have a hard time seeing it as inspiring or compelling.

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6 Comments(+Add)

1   Paul C
August 10th, 2011 at 11:11 am

Phil, you have long been known as a Bell-apologist, so for you to write this review and come to this conclusion

I’d have to say that Love Wins is a much more compelling book

was not exactly the surprise of the century.

That said, there’s a few things I find interesting.

John Stott, an annihilationist from what I gather, just died and the worthiness of his life was celebrated across almost all blogs that have long advocated the existence of hell. I found that strange, especially because of their treatment of Bell (who I consider to be false in every sense of the word, but that’s my opinion).

Annihilationism was the belief of the Jews in the OT. There’s not a single scripture depicting a concept of hell.

To go back to my old argument, the two final destinations highlighted in the NT were not heaven and hell, but life and death.

Even the “lake of fire” depicted in Rev 20 & 21 are clearly identified (in both passages) as the “second death” (or unrecoverable state; out of existence).

The apostles never preached on hell even once. Paul wrote 13 letters. Acts covered almost 30 years of ministry. Nary a mention?

So, while Bell is way off (hedging with universalism), so is Chan and the viewpoint taken from traditional Christianity rather than the scriptures.

2   Chris L
August 10th, 2011 at 4:58 pm


I agree with you that you really need to be careful using early Jewish sources – particularly in placing them with who taught/believe certain things. It is also, I believe, valid to make some arguments from silence (so long as you note that caveat and its accompanying uncertainty). You are very correct that there was no “unified view”, so you have to pick and choose carefully.

With that said, it seems like Sprinkle/Chan, in choosing Maccabees and Enoch as prooftexts, are doing the equivalent of quoting Catholic Catechism to describe Reformed theology. And even so, they ignore the additional rabbinic sources which flesh out the views of the afterlife. Enoch, in particular, describes Tartarus (a mashup of Hellenistic eschatology with Judaism by the Hasmonean/Maccabee family), where fallen angels were tortured in the underworld.

After the Maccabees threw out the Ptolemaic Greeks, the hasidim, “pious ones”, moved back to Israel from the diaspora in Babylon, because they would be free to worship God in the Temple again, free of outside oppression. The hasidim located themselves in the Galilee region (Capernaum, Magdala, Cana, Nazareth, etc.), and shortly became quite upset with the Hasmonean family’s co-opting of the priesthood, their adoption of Hellenism (which they saw as Jews winning the battle against the Greeks, but losing the war by accepting their culture), and their ultimate selling-out to Rome. So, you have these two primary streams of thought, with Jesus coming out of the hasidim culture (which also brought forth the Pharisee and Zealot movements).

The Sadducees believed there was no physical resurrection, and that the spirits of the Righteous would be with God and the rest would cease to exist – though some believed the most wicked would be tormented for a period.

The hasidim believed that there was a physical resurrection, and that 1) the Righteous would immediately go into the presence of God for eternity; 2) the “unrighteous” (tax collectors, Gentiles, etc.) would go through a period of punishment – up to a year – and then enter the presence of God; and 3) The “wicked” – a small number of people who actively opposed God and His people – would either be annihilated (per the school of Hillel) or possibly punished for the rest of the age.

In either case, the Jewish views of the afterlife don’t look anything like the “classic” view espoused by Calvinist and (to a lesser degree) Evangelical Christianity.

It looks like Sprinkle/Chan chose sources from the Sadducee POV (which still don’t agree with them, other than the destruction/punishment of the “wicked”), but Jesus, when given the choice of views, chose that of the Pharisees (who believed in the resurrection) over the Sadducees (who did not).

So, if we want to go to the first century and make an argument from silence, based on the theological stream Jesus lived and taught in, we’d have to say that the afterlife will result in annihilation of the most wicked, who reject God, and a route to salvation – through the Messiah – for the righteous and for the unrighteous masses. I’m not saying that I agree with this, but if Sprinkle/Chan are going to be honest in their going back to the first century sources and arguing from silence, then they’d come to a radically different conclusion than their predetermined Calvanistic one…

3   Chris L
August 10th, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I also thought it was interesting that, for such a “careful” analysis, that a whole lot of questions/issues were totally ignored in the Scriptures that were cited.

For example, in discussing Matthew 25 & the Parable of the Sheep & the Goats, their description was that Sheep = believers and Goats = non-believers. Maybe they have a different translation that I do, but my NIV says that the difference between the sheep and the goats was not a theological test of belief, but one of demonstrated compassion to the poor. Granted, that brings up all sorts of difficult questions about the relationship between belief and action that Calvinism doesn’t deal well with…

4   Phil Miller
August 10th, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I’ve read some reviews that have praised Erasing Hell as an apologetic rather than an attempt to actually change people’s minds. Meaning that Chan and Sprinkle are telling their audience that’s it’s OK for them to continue to believe what they’ve been told. And I’d say that’s mostly accurate. I just think that the way in which they are trying to say that the present sort of “evangelical mainstream” belief about hell is analagous to what has been the majority view throughout history is just dubious. I’d say there’s been ebs and flows regarding the specifics throughout the years, and if there really were a concensus, well, I’d suspect we wouldn’t really be talking about this particular issue as much as we are now.

Also, I should add, it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine when Reformed folks refer (explicitly or implicitly) to their particular version of Christianity as the “historic, orthodox” faith.

5   Phil Miller
August 10th, 2011 at 6:04 pm

For example, in discussing Matthew 25 & the Parable of the Sheep & the Goats, their description was that Sheep = believers and Goats = non-believers.

Yes, this…

Even if we grant that the points about the Jewish belief in hell being a certain way was correct, I don’t think Chan ever really fully addresses the radical nature of what Jesus was saying regarding the judgment he was talking about. The people who are at risk for this judgment – the unrighteous – are the chosen people! Chan attempts to address this somewhat, but it’s hard to say that God can do what he wants (in the sense of being capricious) and tell people they can have complete assurance of their salvation at the same time. Also, it’s a hard sell to say that judgment that Jesus was talking about was specifically for the sake of retribution, not correction or discipline, when the people who are facing judgment are the Elect.

6   Ron Krumpos
August 10th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

In 2011 world population will reach 7 billion (vs. 3 billion in 1960). There are now approximately 2.2 billion Christians. Chan and Sprinkle seem to be saying that 4.8 billion people may be facing eternal hell.

Concepts of afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Not all Christians agree on what happens after this life, nor do all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other believers. Rebirth, resurrection, purgatory, universalism, and oblivion are other possibilities…none of which can be proven.

Mystics of all faiths have more in common than the followers of their orthodox religions. True mystics realize that eternal life is here and now; it does not begin after mortal death. The age of Earth is said to be 4.5 billion years, of the Universe 13.7 billion, yet few humans live to be 100. This lifetime is a fleeting moment.

Scriptures are subject to interpretation; people often choose what is most beneficial for them.