Book review: Love Wins and Erasing Hell

Hello friends!

As I previously mentioned, while in Africa I took some time to read Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Love Wins by Rob Bell back to back, which provided some interesting insight to this theological discussion by two of my favorite authors/speakers/pastors out there.

Before we dig in, a few thoughts:

#1) Let's be civil
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm discovering more and more the importance of civil discussion and debate among us in the Christian world. I know that both of these books have raised some eyebrows and some temperatures in the blogosphere lately, and I'm sure that my words here will be no different. I only ask that if we're going to wade into a discussion in the comments here that we do so lovingly and with grace and kindness and respect. Anything less isn't worthy of our calling to the Way.

#2) Let's watch the "H" word. 
No, not hell. That word we'll probably use a lot here. I mean heretic. I've seen that word thrown around a lot in this discussion, and I'm honestly quite appalled by it. There are times when we're meant to label something heretical, or someone a heretic, but I think we've taken to using it far too much in our time. Really, I'm seeing it used for groups of people who have a disagreement with a particular tribe church or denomination. If this person doesn't line up with our doctrine statement, we throw the "H" word at them.

In my humble opinion, these are two throughly dedicated guys who took a hard look at the Scriptures, and came to two different decisions about them. Neither is outside the realm of Orthodox Christianity (just ask C.S. Lewis, Augustine, or Gregory of Nyssa). So while we might disagree on some points, let's be careful with the name calling and labeling.

Now, on to the books. Let's start with Francis Chan.

For as much as some people are saying that this book is not a direct response to Love Wins, it sure acts like one. Rob Bell is quoted in almost every chapter, but in a way that kind of looks to me like Chan was working on this book for a while before Bell's came out, so they added those quotes at the last minute. I think Chan believed what he believes well before Bell's book arrives on the scene, he's just hoping on the hype train (who could blame him?)

This book is a summary of what has been the typical classical evangelical Christian teaching for the last 100 years or so, mainly that those who do not accept Jesus Christ in this life are doomed to some sort of punishment or destruction in hell. Actually, Chan isn't quite sold on conscious eternal torment or just a simple end of life. But either way, in Chan's view, hell is eternal. No second chances as prescribed in Love Wins.

What I liked
1) I really liked the heart Francis Chan had in the writing of this book. He says accurately: "It forces me back to a sobering reality: This is not just about doctrine; it's about destinies. And if you're reading this book and wrestling with what the Bible says about hell, you cannot let this be a mere academic exercise." Paragraphs just like this one litter the book, and make you realize that Chan understands that people won't appreciate what he's suggesting, and neither does he. He just understands it as truth. For as cold and unwelcoming as the discussion about heaven and hell have been lately, Chan is heartbroken and gentle, and we need more people like that in the world.

2) Francis Chan did his homework for this book, which is what led me to believe that this was written or at least started well before Love Wins hit the shelves. An untold amount of research and bible study went into this book, and I for one think that more books could benefit from this. Rather than just opening our mouths and spouting our opinions, we ought to make sure that we're taking a hard look at the scriptures. Anything else is just opinion, which is worth while but not all that weighty.

What I didn't like
1) There was some false advertising in this book right from the start. In the introduction, Chan says "I'm not going to hang on to the idea of hell simply because it's what my tradition tells me to believe. And neither should you." He follows that up with saying "...if it's true, if the Bible does teach that there is a literal hell awaiting those who don't believe in Jesus, then this reality must change us." The introduction makes it sound (as least to me) that Chan intends to check tradition at the door, and rely squarely on the scriptures. This is typically Chan's M.O., and honestly I looked forward to it. But then through the book every scripture was read in light of a theologian or particular theological background, as though their way to read it was the only way to read it. I found myself saying "That's nice that they feel that way Francis, but I'm interested in how you read it."

Don't get me wrong: Tradition and theology are critical in our Christian beliefs, and leaning heavily on them is important and good. But not if you tell me in the introduction that this is more about the scriptures than it is about your tradition. This is probably more my own disappointment rather than a flaw in the book, but there it is all the same.

2) There was a footnote that actually made me physically upset to read. It's a note on Matthew 25:31-46. The footnote (#3 in Chapter 5 specifically) says "In the context, Jesus is talking about impoverished Christians, not any poor person. This is clear from Jesus' description of the poor as 'these brothers of Mine.'" I could not disagree with this interpretation of this scripture any more. I've been pouring over this passage for a long time, and never came to the conclusion that it was meant for Christian poor folks only. First of all, caring for people and mission work are two of the finest ways to bring non-Christians into the most wonderful Way of life that's out there. Secondly, Jesus didn't really have an intention to start a new religion, did he? So why is it that he would give a teaching in which the people to be affected by it were in a particular religion? That doesn't seem to make sense to me. Lastly, Jesus had a heart for everybody, including Gentiles (see the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5). In all my readings of the Gospels, I've never seen Jesus putting fences up around who can get help and who can't. I love you Francis, but I think you got it wrong here.

3) Lastly, it's not the best writing in the world. I won't hold that against him, but it was kind of hard to work through at times. The sections surrounding Love Wins in particular seemed rushed, and so the writing takes a noticeable dip there. But hey, you guys put up with the garbage that I write, and this book is way better than that!

First of all, it's important to note that this book has an incredibly different goal than Erasing Hell. The later is a theology book, meant to clarify a particular doctrine statement. Bell outlines a different agenda in the introduction of Love Wins:

"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.'"

So rather than having the direct objective of clarifying a particular theology, Bell intends this book to be an encouragement to the disenfranchised who NEED to see Christ in a different light if they have any hope of getting behind Him. Now obviously to do that Bell includes some theological statements and doctrines, but I think it's important to note that it's meant for another purpose.

Bell's idea is that heaven and hell are choices we make, both in this life and in the life to come. He affirms what Presbyterians have long stated, that God's love is irresistible, and that given enough time, everyone will come to know that love. Even if it's in the afterlife.

What I liked
1) Rob Bell is not afraid of complexity. This book makes it clear that salvation is quite simple, as it is found in Jesus Christ and in Christ alone (anyone who denies this about Bell's book hasn't read it), but the way that salvation is worked out is a rather complex thing. What does believing in Jesus really mean? Is it saying a prayer? Is it a lifestyle? Is it what you do? How can you tell who believes in Jesus and who's just saying they do? It's a complex discussion, and if we're honest, it requires a lot of extra thought on our end. I need a faith that has such complexity. I need something that goes way beyond surface comfort and happy feelings. I need a Holy Spirit who will take me deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole with every scripture I read.

2) Rob Bell uses scripture as much if not more than Francis Chan to build his argument. Somewhere along the way people started saying that Bell has either a low-view of scripture, or that he doesn't place himself under it's authority. I know I'm one of the biggest Rob Bell fans on the face of the planet, so perhaps I'm biased, but I really truly believe that he built a position entirely on Scripture here in Love Wins. You may not like his interpretations, or the conclusions that he comes to. But that's a different discussion. Like Chan, Bell has absolutely done his homework, and it shows.

What I didn't like
(Yes, there are a few things about a book Rob Bell wrote that I don't like. I'll give you a second to recover...)

1) Unlike Chan, I had a hard time with Bell's attitude in this book at several places. It's almost as if he can feel his critics coming, and so he develops this downright snarky attitude in places that I can honestly do with out. Granted, I don't know what it's like to be the subject of every blog post and the bullseye for every sermon in the country for a couple of weeks, so perhaps I'd develop a snarky attitude too. But given how much I desire to have a respectful and honest debate about these books, I was disappointed to say the least about the tone taken in certain places in Love Wins. (Note, this is hard to quote in the blog, as it usually involves a long paragraph followed by a snarky comment at the end. As I've been advocating all along with this book, it's probably better for you to read it for yourself and see what I'm talking about)

2) Chapter 7 deals heavily with the Prodigal Son story found in Luke. To try to summarize an entire chapter in a few lines or less, when you get to the end of the Prodigal Son story you find the older son miserable outside the party being thrown for the younger son. Bell's assumption then is that "In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other."

Now, this gets messy, because in addition to believing in real afterlife heaven and a real afterlife hell (again, anyone who says he doesn't hasn't read the book), Bell also believes that heaven and hell are happening here on earth. In that sense, it makes sense that heaven and hell could be rubbing elbows in the very same place based upon the kinds of choices people were willing to make about their own stories. But this is confusing at best in this chapter, and I think it could lead to a bit of confusion. I'd have liked to have a little bit of clarification on this position. But then again, I didn't write the book.

Wrapping it all up. 

So what can we learn from these two books?

Two very serious, very dedicated Christian men have read almost exactly the same scriptures, studied them, prayed about them, and came to two radically different conclusions. What does that say to us? That one must have prayed wrong and there for got it wrong? Or does it mean that the Holy Spirit wants to stir the pot, and help us debate it among ourselves for a bit? (Anyone who doesn't see the Holy Spirit as a rouser of rabel isn't seeing the whole picture)

My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between the two extreme views put forth by these authors, and I don't know what that looks like. But that's the beauty of a situation like this, it invites us to discover and dig into God's word for ourselves. Rather than picking one of the sides and defending it tooth and nail, what does it look like to find the holes in both positions and try to sort out for ourselves where the truth lies?

And so that's what I'd like for us to do here at the J-Blog. Where do these authors stand on these issues, and how is it different from where you stand? Remember to answer that question in a way that explores our faith, rather than defending it. I think that will make all the difference. To help, I'm humbly asking that no one comment on this post unless you've read Love Wins, Erasing Hell, or both. Opinions are great, but opinions based on rumors can be rather toxic to a good conversation.

May God bless the conversation.




Ron Krumpos said...

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.