Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

When Love Wins came out I wrote an 11 part review that pretty much expressed my dissatisfaction and aggravation with the book. So when I picked up Rob Bell’s newest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” I was pretty skeptical. The cover only confirmed my suspicions. I am not much of a design guy and things like this don’t usually bother me but this cover is an eye-sore. It is just all over the place and I just knew that the book would be too.

You really can’t judge a book by its cover…This is a really good book. Even in light of all the past aggravation I have no reservation in saying that. I know others have said it is bad. Rick Ianniello posted a review by Timothy Tennent entitled “Farewell Bell” that blasted the book and others have said the same. I am afraid that preconceived ideas and the new media of Bell saying he is for gay marriage is muddying the waters on how good this book really is if you just picked it up and read it, not knowing who Rob Bell is…just for what it actually says about us and about God and about how we talk about God. That doesn’t mean I have zero  complaints or disagreements. More on that later.

As mentioned in a previous post, this book is the result of Bell’s own faith struggles and the conclusions he has reached through wrestling with his doubts and questions concerning God, faith, religion, etc. Bell puts his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture saying that many view belief in God as a “step backwards”. This book is written to help people understand how that isn’t the case at all. This book is written to help Christians and non-Christians alike understand God in deep and profound ways. It is written to get us back in tune with God and with ourselves and with others. It is written to give us a glimpse into the complexities of everything from life to emotion to aesthetics and beauty to physics…God is not a step backward. Walking with God is a step forward. Bell shows us that from scripture and from science.

This book is popular level theology, anthropology epistemology, eschatology and apologetics all wrapped up and wrapped together with personal stories. In this book, Rob Bell explicitly affirms his belief in some very important Christian doctrines including the reality of God, the reality of sin, our need for repentance, reconciliation and confession. He affirms the human condition and the power of sin and our need for reconciliation with God. What is more, he affirms the reality of the resurrection. The post I linked to above says that Bell does not clearly affirm the Resurrection in this book,

“As noted earlier, Bell tells the story of his own growing doubts about the credibility of the Resurrection (p. 12), and only brings it up again late in the book when he says, “In Jesus we see the God who bears the full brunt of our freedom, entering into the human story, carrying our pain and sorrow and sin and despair and denials of God and then, as the story goes, being resurrected three days later” (p. 145). Using the phrase, “as the story goes” leaves the reader with the impression that this is what Christians teach, rather than an historical event upon which the whole faith rises or falls. Either Bell no longer affirms the Resurrection or he has failed to understand its true significance. Either way, it is very troubling. Throughout the book, Bell consistently gives us a pre-resurrected Jesus, carefully choosing texts which connect Jesus to the deeper spiritual consciousness which keeps our “reverence humming within” (p. 15), but carefully avoiding the radical exclusivity of Jesus’ teaching as well as the post-resurrection confidence in the cosmic supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

Let me give you the rest of what Rob wrote right after the “as the story goes” comment. Here is the very next thing Bell wrote on that page,

“For the first Christians that was the compelling part, the unexpected twist on Jesus’ life, the ending that is really a beginning. They saw in Jesus’s resurrection a new era in human consciousness, a new way to see the world being birthed, a way in which even death does  not have the last word…it isn’t over, the last word hasn’t been spoken–a savior dying on a cross isn’t the end, it’s just the start. And so when I talk about God, I’m talking about the Jesus who invites us to embrace our weakness and doubt and anger and whatever other pain and helplessness we’re carrying around, offering it up in al of its mystery, strangeness, pain and unresolved tension to God, trusting that in the same way that Jesus’s offering of his body and blood brings us new life, this present pain and brokenness can also be turned into something new.” (p.145-146)

In that quote Bell affirms the resurrection. He affirms the divinity of Christ. He affirms that this is not just about how early Christians saw it but that it comes back to us and how we live and interact with God in light of the resurrection…pain and defeat aren’t the last word for us either. I really don’t see why Timothy was so troubled by the section on the resurrection unless he just read part and got frustrated and didn’t get the rest of it.

What I do think Timothy got right was that what this book lacked was pointing us to Christ through scripture. It left me with the impression that Bell puts his own intuition on level with scripture if not slightly ahead of scripture. That bothers me a bit…we have to realize, though, that you aren’t going to put down every single thing you believe in the pages of any given book. If I had to ask Rob one question based on this book it would be about his view of Scripture’s place in the life of a Christian.

Last, I the only other criticism I have of the book is that it ended very poorly with some decent conclusion but horrible supporting evidence in regard to aesthetics, intuition, etc (like when he was trying to talk about the intangible connections between people and things and mentioned that we all exert a gravitational pull on each other, therefore we really all do affect and influence each other…good conclusion, terrible support). Also, in various places in the book Bell almost sounds like a pantheist and New Age. I know he wouldn’t support that but the book almost sounds New Age at times in talking about cosmic and spiritual humming and energy. I could have done without that…I think it really distracted from his overall point. On the whole, I was blessed by reading this book and found it very engaging. I actually just had a discussion with a friend who shared with me some of his doubts and I pulled a few thoughts from this book to help him see it more clearly and he was very thankful for the conversation.


What We Talk About When We Talk About God – Rob Bell

RobBell-GodFor whatever reason I ended up with a review copy of Rob Bell’s new book “What we talk about when we talk about God” and wow…it is not what I expected. In fact, from what I have read so far…it totally makes us for his book “Love wins”. Kidding there. I am going to do a fuller review in a future post but I want to make you want to read this book, not because some publisher asked me to do that but because I appreciate what Rob Bell is doing here and I believe it is extremely relevant. Here is what happened with this book…I don’t know if this violates some sort of word count limit or not but I find all of this so hopeful and helpful that I want to share it with you so that you can tell if this is something you might be interested in reading. Here is why Rob said he wrote this book,

“One Sunday morning a number of years ago I found myself -face-to-face with the possibility that there is no God and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.

Now I realize lots of people have questions and convictions and doubts along those lines–that’s nothing new. But in my case, it was an Easter Sunday morning, and I was a pastor. I was driving to church services where I’d be giving a sermon about how there is a God and that God came here to Earth to do something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could live forever.

And it was expected that I would do this passionately and confidently and persuasively with great hope and joy and lots of exclamation points!!!!!

That’s how the Easter sermon goes, right? Imagine if I’d stood up there and said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think we’re kinda screwed.”

Doesn’t work does it?…

That Easter Sunday was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

This book, then, is deeply personal for me. Much of what I’ve written here comes directly out of my own doubt, skepticism and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning-to be honest-everything…What I experienced, over a long period of time, was a gradula awakening to new perspectives on God-specficially, the God Jesus talked about. I came to see that there were depths and dimensions to the ancient Hebrew tradition, and to the Christian tradition which  grew out of that, that spoke directly to my questions and sturggles in coming to terms with how to conceive of who God is and what God is and why that even matters and what that has to do with life in this world here and now” (p.11-14)

Wow…there are so many people who are in that boat or agnostics (fastest growing “religious” group in America) who will benefit from walking along side Rob Bell through this book.

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.

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”?