Jeff Cook on Francis Chan’s book

Dress it up however you wish, Erasing Hell is a response book to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, yet despite replicating Bell’s style in their cover art and promotional video—the primary problem in my mind with Erasing Hell is that the authors do not speak to the same audience.

Recall the motivation behind Bell’s book, “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that’ You are not alone. There are millions of us.” (viii).

This is primary. Bell wants to speak to a large number of people who reject the Jesus faith because of the way Christians have interpreted and displayed hell.

Bell’s not alone in caring for such people. Many of us have personally rejected Christianity or have friends and family who will not consider our God because he chooses eternal conscious torment for the damned. The hell described by Chan and Sprinkle is not difficult to believe in conceptually (like the trinity); it is not difficult to believe because of apparent inconsistencies (like the inerrancy of scripture); eternal conscious torment is difficult to believe because it makes the character of God look repugnant—and that is a bridge too far for some. Many of us make the same move when rejecting Allah, Zeus, Vishnu, Aphrodite, or Mammon. We’ve decided such God’s are not worthy of worship—even if they were real. In the same way, Bell’s audience thinks that the God you love is not worthy of devotion—be he the creator God or not.

And something needs to be said to such people.

Lay out whatever faults you will, Rob Bell has stepped up for the sake of the person who might believe, but can’t. Does Bell get it right all the time? Arguments have already been made in multiple places (including this blog) objecting to some of his conclusions. However, Bell’s audience has not disappeared simply because a few PhDs stride forward and say, “You know that’s really not the best way to translate ‘kolasis.” Until those responding to Love Wins take the hard next step and—in an apologetically informed, evangelistically minded way—address Bell’s audience with a sensible, compelling portrait that makes hell attractive and rationally viable, they have not entered the conversation at hand. Though some of Erasing Hell is strong (I particularly liked chapter 2), this is the principle failure of Chan and Sprinkle’s book.

The authors primary message is easily identified throughout. It says, “I feel sick. I would love to erase Hell from the pages of scripture” (14). But “we need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how he is going to deal with people” (131). For “God is perfect and right in all he does” (133) even if his “divine actions don’t fit our standards of logic or morality” (135).  

My friends, if you care about those you think will burn forever—that kind of apologetic for hell fails. In the language of our skeptical friends, it reads, “The God over here can do whatever he wants (be it fiery torment), to whoever he wants (be it your 4 year old), for as long as he wants (let’s say, forever).  And when he does it, the rest of us will shrug confused shoulders and cry by your side.”

Instead of engaging in creative apologetics and evangelism, Chan and Sprinkle have chosen to circle their wagons, grip their reading of scripture, and pitch ideas they hope will keep themselves (and presumably the masses) holding to a belief that they consistently describe as nauseating.

Jeff Cook 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).

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