Monday, July 25, 2011

Erasing Hell: my review

Love Wins and Erasing Hell are two books which should be read together. If you've read one, read the other.
My soundbite analysis is that I agree and disagree with parts of both.
Now here are some thoughts......

A few months ago Rob Bell kicked up a storm. Bell wrote for people like me who really struggle to accept a concept of hell where people are tortured in an everlasting conscious punishment.

Bell asked questions that people were just too scared to ask.
He explored alternative options, alternative possible beliefs.
But he formed no conclusions.
He deliberately left things hanging.
It was refreshing. But very frustrating.

Now, if Bell kicked up a cloud of dust and left the debris hanging, Francis Chan tries to reach up into the mess and pull down some clarity. He writes for Bell’s doubting audience but does so with a greater scholarly emphasis – he looks at passages in greater depth, in a more reliable style, and attempts to grapple with different points of view.

Chan describes how Jesus spoke about hell as a place of judgment after death and used imagery of fire - an everlasting fire. But in all but one example it is the fire that is everlasting, not the punishment. In all but one example, it is possible to take the view that people die in the fire; hell is a place where people die, not a place where people suffer for eternity.

According to Chan (pg 82) the only place where Jesus talks about an ‘everlasting punishment’ is Matthew 25:46 - those who do not feed the hungry and thirsty, in this life, on this earth (see v.35-44), ‘will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.’ There is then a debate about whether this really means what we think it means.

I think that Chan shows that the issue of hell is just as complicated as Rob Bell described. Chan concludes, ‘The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with absolute certainty.’ (pg. 86)

Then to my astonishment, much of the rest of the book appears to assume that hell is an everlasting conscious punishment. Chan relates to my doubts, struggles and bewilderment – he acknowledges that it’s difficult to believe in a God who could punish people forever – and yet he ultimately leads his readers in a prayer of repentance, repenting our arrogance for trying ‘to make God fit my standards of justice and goodness and love.’ (pg 139) The conclusion is to ‘submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine.’ (pg 141) ‘Though God acts in ways that seem unloving by our standards, they are not unloving by his standards.’ (pg 161)

This conclusion leaves me just as frustrated as Rob Bell’s book did.
We seem to have gone back to square one.