Review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell (Part 5)

Chapter 3: What Jesus actually said about hell?

I hope in these posts I don’t sound nit picky or petty. I am just trying to point out both the strengths and weaknesses of what I have found in C&S’s book. There is little doubt left as you read this book that they are writing this in response to Rob Bell. He is quoted or referenced and responded to repeatedly in the first three chapters. On one hand Jesus covered more passages about hell than C&S. On the other hand I appreciate C&S for pointing out the verses that are about the concept of hell rather than only those verses that use gehenna, tartarus, etc. We are talking concepts here, not just picking a word or two and only looking at those verses. So I kind of feel torn because I wish they had included many of the verses Bell did in chapter 3 of love wins but I am glad they hit the verses Bell conveniently left out.

C&S break down Jesus’ description of hell into three categories (p.74):

1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

Hell is a place of punishment after judgment:
He starts off mentioning that Jesus used the word gehenna 12 times in the Gospels but then his very first example is Matthew 25 where the word is not even used. These pages read kind of awkward as he transitions into the next verse he wants to cover he write, “Another place the word hell is used in the context of judgment is Matthew 5.” (p.75)…kind of awkward when the verse you didn’t cover didn’t have the word in it. Sorry for nit picking here…those kind of things just bug me for some reason. His point in citing these verses is that hell is a place that comes after judgment. That stands in contrast to Bell and others who basically have landed on hell being the consequences of our sins here and now.

Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament:
His main text here is the parable of the wheat and the weeds from Matthew 13:30-43 where Jesus says that the wicked will be thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (13:40-43 & again in 13:49-50). Other verses like Matthew 18:8-9 talk about the fires of hell as well. Still other verses talk about hell as a place of darkness (Matthew 22:13). There is no doubt that Jesus taught hell is a place of fire and darkness. The question for those who are of the Universalist perspective would ask is yes he said that but what did Jesus mean? He gets into that more in the next section.

Hell is a place of annihilation or never ending punishment:
This is the big controversial point for Universalists. Does hell last forever with no hope of escape or does a loving God use hell to rehab people into a second and third and millionth shot at eternal life in heaven? The question for C&S is not whether hell is a temporary place to prepare people for heaven, a sort of fiery purgatory…the question C&S pose is whether hell is about total annihilation or eternal punishment. That is a very good question that I wish they could have devoted more time to (You can always check out Fudge’s book The Fire that Consumes for a pretty thorough take on the annihilation view).

One of the problems we have in Bible translation is that things aren’t always as clear cut as they appear in English. There are two words in question in this debate on eternal punishment. The first is what does “eternal” mean in passages like Matthew 25. The second is what does the word “punishment” mean? Sounds kind of like the Clinton, “Depends on what the definition of is, is” kind of moments…I know. But it is actually a very legitimate question that I don’t have room here to cover but will come back to in another post.

All-in-all this was a good chapter where C&S lay out the reasons for their convictions on the reality of hell. What I appreciate about them is that they are willing to take God at his Word on this even if things don’t totally make sense to them. I do wish they had spent more time working through some of the texts, responding to what others have said about these things, and really engaged this issue in a deeper way but there is only so much you can do in a book like this.

Review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell (Part 4)

Chapter 2: Has Hell Changed or Have We?

Chan starts chapter two with various views people have come up with of hell over the centuries. He mentions everything from Origen to AC/DC. His points is,

“But if the truth is what we are after, we need to stick with what Jesus actually said. We also need to try to understand Jesus’ statements in the context of the world He lived in. We need to enter Jesus’ world, His first century world, His first-century Jewish world, if we are going to figure out what He meant when He spoke of hell.” (p.49)

There are a few things I really appreciate about those three sentences and a couple of problems that I have with what they imply in the broader context of the book. First, Chan is right…we do have to take Jesus seriously. The problem is, taking Jesus seriously and coming to the right conclusion don’t necessarily happen all at once. In other words, there are many people who have taken Jesus and context very seriously and studied it diligently and who have come to differing conclusions on these matters. So coming to the right conclusion does need to come through taking Jesus and context seriously but we must be aware that even that can have limitations.

So Chan goes into a cursory review of a few early Jewish writings: Enoch, Baruch, 4 Ezra to name a few). There are several problem with this. First, Chan assumes that if you review what Jews contemporary with Jesus were writing about hell was the common conception of hell at that time. That is not necessarily the case. He didn’t go into what these writings were and the problems inherent with dealing with and interpreting them. These books are what is called Pseudepigraph. That means that they are written by someone claiming to be or posing as someone from the past. That means that they author is not even putting their name on it and is fictitiously naming it after someone else. That is a problem. Second, these books were written in a highly symbolic manner with lots of big imagery and imagination. To say that what these books say about hell was THE VIEW of Jesus’ day is not necessarily accurate. So the big problem here is that C&S assume that if someone was written by a Jew around the first century that whatever it says about hell must have been the view of the day. I just can’t go along with that. It doesn’t mean it is impossible I just think they should have been more careful with that. Last,  these books are not inspired. What Chan is trying to show here is that Jesus was bucking the trend of the day to say hell was a place of judgment but that is what the view of the day was and he didn’t argue with it.

Next C&S take on the Rob Bell quote about Gehenna being a garbage dump (p. 56ff) in verses like Matthew 23:15. He lays out basically the same argument I made here on this blog in my review of Love Wins to show Bell used some poor exegesis there. So I won’t go into that here. Overall I don’t think this chapter really accomplished answering the question of whether hell changed or we did. It started out posing the question but then never answered it, ever. So I am not sure how this chapter made it out from the editor in this kind of shape. It really needed about five less pages on 4 Enoch and Baruch and about five more pages answer the question they started out with. So has hell changed or have we? Chapter two sure doesn’t give an answer to that question.

Ten Questions I Have for Christian Universalists

I have been studying hell for the past several months and wanted to share a few questions I have for those who say either there is no such thing as hell or that hell is a temporary place designed to bring us to God. I hope none of this comes across as uncaring. It is not intended to do that. These are just questions that have crossed my mind that I wonder how people who are of the anti-hell persuasion would answer. If anyone has an answer they feel is appropriate, please share. I am here to learn…that is why I am asking questions.

  1. If hell is there to correct us so that all ultimately end up in heaven, wouldn’t it have been a lot more humane for God to just stick us in hell the first time around rather than have us live this life and then have hell too?
  2. How do you teach pathways out of hell when scripture repeatedly teaches that there are no pathways out of hell (Luke 16:26) ?
  3. How can you teach both an eternal heaven and a temporary hell when the same language is used of both places often set side-by-side. If you teach a temporary hell why not teach a temporary heaven? At least be consistent.
  4. How can you teach an inclusive heaven but exclusive hell when scripture teaches the opposite (narrow and broad were Jesus’ words)?
  5. When you ask the same question that was asked of Jesus in Luke 13:23, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” How can you come up with a different answer than Jesus but then claim Jesus has the same belief as you do? See 13:24ff
  6. How do you teach that people can pound on God’s door from hell and God allow them out of hell when Jesus laid out exactly that scenario and taught exactly what God would do given those circumstances (Luke 13:22-30) and it is opposite of Christian universalism?
  7. If there is no hell, why did Jesus die for our sins? Chad Holtz weighed in on this recently. His answer was in two parts:
    1. Jesus did not die to save us from an eternity in hell after death.  Jesus died because hell cannot stand the presence of God.   Our sin killed Christ.  All of us nailed him to the cross.”
    2. “The question is not, “Is there hell?”   The question is, “Does hell win?” – There are several problems with Chad’s line of reasoning here. This is framed all wrong. Scripture never postures hell against God. Scripture postures God against the forces of evil and darkness in the world. In fact, in Revelation 20 hell is a place used by God to judge death, sin, the devil, the beast, Hades and those not in the book of life and all are cast into hell. My question is, who is doing the casting? If it is God, then is hell God’s enemy or are sin, death, and Satan God’s enemies? Hell is not judged. Hell is a place of judgment. Matthew 25:41 seems to say that hell is prepared or created by God so you end up in one of those Luke 11:14-28 moments where people were accusing Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the devil. Jesus taught a house divided against itself won’t stand. That is the problem I have with the question “Does hell win” if scripture teaches that hell is something either God created and/or uses for his own purposes.
  8. Why do people make the hell issue a “God’s power issue”? It always seems people are trying to prove that the existence of hell and an all powerful God are mutually exclusive. If I am interpreting Revelation 20 accurately it seems to me God is the one who puts people in hell (as we also see in Matthew 25 and many other places). So people are in hell by the power of God. It is not that the existence of hell would prove God has any shortcoming in the power department.
  9. Why turn hell into something that we only experience here and now when that doesn’t have any scriptural basis at all? Are we just coming up with whatever we want to here or will the hell discussion actually include solid exegesis/interpretation?
  10. What questions do you have that could be put here as #10…I couldn’t have an un-catchy title that only had 9 things could I?

Universalism Makes Hell the Greatest Evangelist of All Time

Here is one of Rob Bell’s explanations of one of the Universalists’ arguments against hell as an eternal place of torment,

“And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes…At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God…Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late’? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: ‘Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.” Rob Bell, Love Wins, 107-108

This quote makes hell the most effective evangelist that has ever existed! I don’t read that in scripture but that is what is being said here. The point some universalists make is that a loving God could certainly never turn anyone away. And so like Hinduism, we get chance after chance until we all finally get it right. The point came up in our discussion of hell in Bible class this morning that of course people will want to choose God once they are five seconds into the hell experience. It only makes sense once you have seen that God is real and that Jesus is the way that you would knock furiously on the doors of heaven, if that were possible, pleading for mercy.

What is amazing to me is that Rob never cites what Jesus taught on this exact scenario in Luke 13. Someone comes up to Jesus and asks him the universalist question, “Will only a few be saved?” Jesus gives us the answer to that question. Again, I am puzzled why this is never brought up in Love Wins,

22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” – Luke 13:22-28

Seems pretty clear to me. Christian Universalism makes hell into the greatest evangelist of all time. But scripture never, ever teaches that hell is a place of conversion. In fact, Jesus also said that once someone is in hell it is impossible for them to cross over into life (Luke 16:19-31). Hell is not an evanglists whose purpose is to win people to Christ. Hell is a place of eternal punishment where God makes things right toward those who stood in rebellion to His will (Matt 25:31-46). The question for me is not will love win, will God get what God wants. The question is can we trust what God has to say on the matter or will we explain it away in a manner that is cognizant of our culture’s avoidance of pain and punishment?

Review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell (Part 3)

Chapter 1: Does Everyone Go To Heaven? (continued)
One thing Chan and Sprinkle (from here on referred to as C&S) get right that Bell missed was that we are dealing with concepts and not just specific words. In chapter three of love wins Bell writes,

“I want to show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word ‘hell.'” (p.64)

The problem with that approach is that you can’t just study something in scripture by flipping open a concordance, finding each time a word appears in English, and then doing a word study on that word. Words represent concepts and often concepts are spoken of without the use of some of the specific words we normally think of being related to it. In the hell discussion, Bell talks about specific verses that have “hell” in English but leaves out many verses that are talking about final judgment and hell as a concept because the word “hell” is not used.

What about those passages that say there will be a second chance?
In love wins, Rob Bell talks about this. To be fair he is laying out what some people have said about a second chance but he does seem to lean in favor of it by the end of his description,

“And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes…At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (p.107)

And this…

“Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late’? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: ‘Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.” (p.108)

Well, scripture does talk about exactly that and tells us exactly what God will do in that scenario. Bell didn’t bring up these verses because “hell” is not mentioned specifically but Chan does because it is important that we discuss concepts and not proof text our words.

22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

– Luke 13:22-30

Does it get any more clear than that? And that is one of the better arguments for Universalism!

Last, I am a little surprised C&S didn’t bring up 1 Peter 3:19 in this section as some people say it is about Jesus giving the dead a second chance. That is not what that verse is about but it would have been nice for them to mention it and give the background of that verse and why it is about Jesus’ proclaiming victory over the powers of darkness while in the grave. All in all I appreciate that Chan appeals to context in these verses. I just think he needs some better framing questions for the discussion and not put the debate in the same terms as Bell did about God getting what He wants, the power of God vs mercy of God, etc. I just think that still misses the point of what hell is all about.


Review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell (Part 2)

Chapter 1: Does Everyone Go To Heaven?
Chan starts this chapter with this question, “Do you want to believe in a God who shows His power by punishing non-Christians and who magnifies His mercy by blessing Christians forever?” (p.21) He concludes that we may not want to believe this but can we believe this. Chan openly says that he does not want to believe in a God described like that but then he writes 200 pages about how he does. I am not really sure what I think about how the discussion is framed by that question. Is that like saying I don’t really want to believe in a God who would have His own Son killed on a cross and yet I believe that is exactly what God did and am thankful for it? Get my point?

Maybe that is not the right question. This question makes the hell discussion about two things: power and mercy. The question is worded in a way that pits the two characteristics of God against each other and I think it sets out a false dichotomy from the very beginning that isn’t really a fair place to start. My guess is Chan is still trying to recognize or identify with his audience at this point, just my guess. I don’t think hell is primarily about God’s power and I don’t think heaven is primarily about God’s mercy. I think both heaven and hell are more about righteousness and justice than they are about power. Rob Bell framed the hell issue as a power issue in love wins with questions like, “Does God get what God wants?” But to me it misses the point. I think we make it a power issue because we are a people obsessed with power. We fail to make it about righteousness because we are not a culture that has quite caught on to the righteousness fad yet. Maybe I can get into why I believe it is more about righteousness and justice later.

Chan says, “I want to believe in a God who will save everyone in the end.” (p.23). Just what does that mean? Does that mean Chan wants God to force a reconciled relationship upon the unrepentant and rebellious? Does that mean Chan wants God to force His love upon those who reject it? Just what does that statement mean? I think he is trying to say he wants to believe in a God who is merciful. Well the truth is God can be merciful and people still end up in hell. So the hell discussion is not bound up by the level of God’s mercy or God’s ability to be merciful. It misses the point, again.

Universalism:
Starting on page 23 Chan gives a decent synopsis of Universalism in Christian doctrine. He mentions the key players like Origen Talbott, and MacDonald. He gives a nod to Rob Bell. From there he gives a short primer on the different types of universalism to make sure it isn’t being completely broad brushed and from there he launches into a discussion of whether or not universalism is scriptural. What I like about how he and Preston Sprinkle deal with several scriptures that could on the front end seem to support universalism is that they actually look at context. Ignoring context was one of the biggest problems I found in Love Wins so I hope Chan keeps this up through the book. He lists these scriptures, giving more explanation on Phil 2:9-11, 1 Cor 15:22 and 1 Tim 2:4:

  • Phil 2:9-11
  • 1  Cor 15:22
  • 2 Cor 5:19
  • Col 1:19-20
  • 1 Tim 2:4

Again, Chan does a pretty good job working through these scriptures in context. But when it came to 1 Tim 2:4 I really had some issues. First, remember the quote from the last post from the introduction. That quote was about trying hard not to read into scripture what we want to find. He says we should avoid twisting the scriptures to find what we want to find. I think that is exactly what happened in his interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4. I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong…but that is how it appears to me. Here is what the verse says,

“who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

As I was reading his explanation I felt like I was reading Love Wins due to all the twists and turns to come to a conclusion in line with his view that hell is real and that people really will go there. First he references Bell’s question, “Does God get what God wants?” He says, “And this would set up a rhetorical slam dunk. Of course God gets what He wants! Otherwise, He’s not God. Or if He is God, He’s not very powerful.” (p.30).

Here is where things get crazy. He continues,

“But hold on a second. This question of God getting what He wants passes over two other important questions about 1 Timothy 2:4: (1) What’s the meaning of ‘all’ and (2) what does the word want mean in this context?”

In other words Chan’s take is…we can still conclude that God gets what he wants (all people to be saved) if we can just make sure that all doesn’t mean every single person. Seriously, that is his line of reasoning here…”God is on a mission to save all types of people.” (p.31 – emphasis mine) Chan’s conclusion is that God doesn’t want to save all people, rather all types of people. I have many problems with his line of reasoning here. One of them is that the existence of hell is not a challenge to God’s power. You don’t have to prove that “all” doesn’t mean every single person in order to jive 1 Timothy 2:4 with God still being all powerful. Is the conclusion, because God doesn’t really want all people to be saved but just all types of people, really advance the discussion on hell very far? Or does it open up 12 more cans of worms that Chan just glosses right over? What does “all types of people” even mean in a practical sense…some black, white, asian, hispanic, etc? Some short, tall, average? You know what this interpretation really does? It really makes God less compassionate because it says that there are some people that God really doesn’t care to save. Doesn’t it? I just can’t accept that.

I am not very far into this book yet but I am already feeling the same objections that I felt when reading Love Wins: reading your view into the text and twisting it to make it fit and asking the wrong framing questions. Maybe that will get better in later chapters. That is enough on chapter one for now…any thoughts so far?

Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell – Introduction

Francis Chan starts Erasing Hell with an introduction that could have been an appropriate introduction for any of a number of books on difficult and controversial topics. First, he addresses the fact that this is not a pleasant issue. It is a difficult issue that has ramifications that are far reaching and highly significant. Next, he says that we have to put what we have heard aside and really take a good look at scripture on this issue. He mentions several things that he heard over the years in church that he has changed his mind on and says he is open to his mind being changed on this issue as well. Next, he addresses the problem of making up or minds first and then twisting scriptures to make them say what we want them to say,

“Part of me doesn’t want to believe in hell. And I’ll admit that I have a tendency to read into Scripture what I want to find–maybe you do too. Knowing this, I’ve spent many hours fasting and praying that God would prevent my desires from twisting Scripture to gratify my personal preferences. And I encourage you to do the same. Don’t believe something just because you want to, and don’t embrace an idea just because you’ve always believed it. Believe what is biblical. Test all your assumptions against the precious words God gave us in the Bible.” p.15

I hope he sticks by that throughout the book! Last, he puts God where God needs to be…right in the middle of the conversation. Like Chan says, sometimes God is not easy to understand but we still need to trust that He knows better than we do. It seems to me Chan is trying to make himself as credible as possible in this introduction. It is like he is saying he is tempted to have a horse in the race but he will take him out just to make sure his conclusions are fair. I am not sure if that is completely possible but he is making an attempt at doing that. Not only that but he is fasting, praying, studying, and willing to throw out any and everything if he finds something else in scripture. Last, as a just in case, God is hard to understand sometimes…so the truth of something is not contingent upon our complete understanding of the matter.

A couple of thoughts. I appreciate the compassion that comes through in his writing. He seems like a guy who genuinely cares and that is an important quality on a topic that can come across harsh and abrasive, especially in text. Second, just because we fast and pray does not guarantee we come to the right conclusion or somehow ensure that God will reveal anything to us that gives us an edge. There have been many genuine people who really tried hard to understand things that they still got wrong. I know that because I am quite sure that describes myself on at least a few things. Last, I appreciate Chan seeking the truth rather than seeking to confirm his own ideas, his traditions, or what he has heard his whole life on the subject.

The last thing I want to mention is the lack of press on this book. When Bell’s book Love Wins came out there was all kinds of hoopla. People came out with a vengeance. Not so with this book. Maybe it is because people perceive this book is going to toe the line with more conservative doctrines on hell or maybe they feel like the Bell controversy was hashed out enough via various blogs, websites, etc. I am not certain why there has been so little said about this book unless I just missed it all. But I look forward to reading Chan’s thoughts on the matter and will share a few thoughts here along the way.

Any of you reading or have read Erasing Hell?

Erasing Hell vs. Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Francis Chan’s book on hell came out a while back called “Erasing Hell“. This follows in the wake of Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” that some say proves Bell is a universalist. I am not so sure that he is but I can see how people come to that conclusion. Eoes anyone else think it odd that Bell would have a book called Jesus Wants to Save Christians and then follow it up with a book where God might really just save everyone anyway? Also, has anyone noticed the similarities in the covers of Chan’s new book with Bell’s previous book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians”?

Love Wins Review

I have uploaded my review of Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” in pdf. You can download it here rather than go through all the different posts.

Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part 10)

Chapter 7: The Good News is Better Than That

This chapter has one of the best takes on the prodigal son I have read…

Anywhere.
By anybody.
Hands down.
End of discussion.

Okay…enough Rob Bell formatting. But the point remains…I had to read this chapter again. What made his take on this well known story so good was his focus on the stories of each of the characters and how those stories related to each other. If I didn’t know any better, I would bet Bell had studied narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is about how we define ourselves by the stories we believe are key to our lives. We all have stories that run through our minds about who we are and how people relate to us. They can be positive or negative but either way they are powerful. The goal of narrative therapy is to take someone who has problems or issues, see how the underlying story that runs through their head is exacerbating or influencing the problem and help that person rewrite their story in a new, positive and powerful way.

Bell points out that each son had a story in their head about the Father. The younger son’s story that runs through his head about his Father says that once you lose your worth you are no longer a son. You might be taken back as a slave but never as a son. The older son’s story believes that he has to slave away through his obedience in order to earn what the Father has. In both cases the Father is telling them another story. He is redefining their story about who the Father is through his actions and words. He is not a task master. He is good and kind and loving and mercifully unfair. The question is, whose story are they going to believe…the one in their head or the one the Father shows them and tells them?

So the question comes to each of us…will we trust our version of the story we have in our minds about God or will we trust God’s version? For example, if you grew up in legalism, will you accept that even if God shows you it is a false narrative? Or will you trust God enough to replace that broken story with one that is whole? Good stuff.

The only thing I thought was lacking about this chapter were a few of the implications about heaven and hell and God that he drew from this text. His point is that the older brother was living in his own sort of hell even in the midst of a party for his brother. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party.” (p.176) As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t have that in mind (not that I am smart enough to figure that out…just giving my opinion) but Bell sure finds it there. He is trying to avoid the heaven is here and hell is there teaching (see middle of p.177). Instead he is saying that they can and do exist right in the middle of each other based on which narrative we choose to engage in and perpetuate. But then he goes right on to say that if you choose God and his love or refuse his love it will take people in two different directions. How can it be both ways? Am I missing something?

There is a certain irony here because Bell’s point is that we have to let the story shape our view of the Father and yet he is taking the story and forcing it into his own preconceived ideas and application of what heaven and hell are all about when that is not at all the context of the story or the point Jesus was making. It is kind of like the last chapter where he made such a big deal out of Jesus and the rock in Exodus 17…it is a stretch at best. Things get taught that were never intended by the text. I have done that myself before…that is why I am decent at spotting it when it happens 😉 What is even more ironic is that he mentions people do this very thing, “We shape our God and then our God shapes us. A distorted understanding of God, clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination, can leave a person outside the party…” (p.183).

Now, about God, he paints the picture that God is either a radical and reactive guy who is loving of you one moment but if you don’t jump through certain hoops he will destroy you or that God is a God of love and mercy. Period. So God is either a father who would be arrested for abuse in our society or God doesn’t really ever have wrath and sin has no penalty, even though elsewhere he admits that is not really the case.

It seems like much of my disagreement in this book with Bell is when he puts something out there in a very profound way, even an objectionable way and then hedges back against it as if that is not really what he was teaching. It gets messy at times.

Last, Bell offers a needed corrective to our view of God when it comes to salvation. Some Christians seem to teach that sin brings about God’s wrath and so it sounds almost like Jesus came to rescue us from God. (see p.173-175, 182ff). We need Luke 15 to help shape our view of who God is, how accepting he is of those who turn to him, and the value he sees in us, even in our sin. That really is good news!