Sunday, January 22, 2012

Does Love Win? Or are we Erasing Hell?

After seeing how everyone denounced Rob Bell's Love Wins, I had to read it. I had already read Bell's Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Came to Save Christians. I like Bell's writing style. I was especially drawn to what he wrote in Velvet Elvis. After spending a lifetime coming from a religious tradition that says, "we are the final word in how to follow Jesus" the idea that as our understanding of God and the Bible grows, changes, and matures, so does our faith - as does how we come to God.

Back to Love Wins. The first time I read it, I loved it. It's an easy read and I finished it in a couple days. This is the exact quote of my Goodreads review:

Regardless of where you fall in your conclusions of what the Bible says about Heaven and Hell, the questions raised by Bell in this book are questions thinking Christians should be asking…
You see, the thing I love about Rob Bell's writing is that he never says, "this is what I believe, and I want you to agree with me." And that's a habit our ears have a hard time breaking, because that's the spiritual writing we're so used to. But Bell's writing says, "Maybe you need to challenge what you've been taught about this; maybe we should be asking questions about what we've always thought; maybe we should be discussing these things." Bell is all about "wrestling with the text."

So I wondered, even after I read it, why everyone was all up in arms about Love Wins. Bell never says he doesn't believe in Hell, or that there's not a Hell, or that everyone is going to Heaven. He questions all our traditional teaching about Hell, asking if this is what the Bible really says. Asking if the way we preach Hell is truly Biblical, especially when we often use it to attack, and it's driving people away. And what if "being saved" isn't just about looking forward to a life after this one, but it's also about how we live the life we currently have?

According to, Love Wins came out March 15, 2011. And Francis Chan's answer to Love Wins, Erasing Hell, came out less than four months later. I can't help but wonder how much of it he had written before Bell's book came out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After reading Love Wins a second time, and hearing people saying how good Erasing Hell is as an answer to Love Wins, I had to pick up the latter book.

I know that the back of Erasing Hell says,

Like you sometimes [Chan and second author Preston Sprinkle] don't want to believe in hell. But, as they write, "We cannot afford to be wrong on the issue"...This is not a book about who is saying what. It's a book about what God says...It's not a book about arguments, doctrine, or being right.
  But this is obviously a direct answer (attack?) to Love Wins.

Everything about the book seems to scream, "Rob Bell is wrong, and I'm going to show you how I'm right."

The title of the book is even:  

erasing hell: what God said about eternity, and the things we made up

And the arrogance pervading this book starts on the first page of the introduction where Chan suggests that reading this book is "necessary".  

The funny thing is, as much as this book claims to only be true to what the Bible says, there sure seem to be a lot of inconsistencies, logical problems, and things that just don't make sense.

The book labels Rob Bell as a Universalist on the 4th page of the 1st chapter - using a quote taken out of context. To be fair, the book later admits the quote is taken out of context - but that's in the footnotes. A cheap shot. But then this same passage is taken context a second time in the same chapter.

And while reading it, I seemed to come across a lot of arguments along the lines of "Rob Bell doesn't come out and say this, but this is what he means" and "Rob Bell says this, but he doesn't really mean it".

When I got to chapter 2, I was already bothered by a lot of what I read. Chapter 2 spends a lot of time describing what many 1st Century Jews believed, rather than discussing what the Bible says. Then it says "Bell suggests that when Jesus used the word 'hell' (gehenna) He referred to a garbage dump outside Jerusalem...", giving the reader the idea that this is Bell's idea. Only later do we learn that this idea has been around for 1,000 years. Then it says "Much of what Bell says about hell relies upon a legend from the Middle Ages." I was confused at the phrase "Much of what Bell says about hell" because Bell only talks about Gehenna for a little over one page! 

Then in Chapter 3, Erasing Hell suggests that Matthew 25 is talking about "believers" vs. "unbelievers". (This is where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.) Wow. Way to put words in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus separates those who helped and cared for other people from those who did not. And this really gets to the crux of "Love Wins". The point of the book isn't to say "There is no hell" (even though Chan says that's what it says) or that "No one goes to hell", but to revisit the way we preach hell at people. As I mentioned above, to try to question and discuss whether or not we've actually held a Biblical view of hell. To consider the importance of alleviating suffering and bringing heaven to this earth. To be careful how we use the idea of hell to exclude people. Which is exactly what Chan does here by completely changing what Jesus says. 

And by the time I got to chapter 3, I got tired of writing my thoughts down, so I just kept reading.

Over and over, Chan talks about how he desperately wants to believe there is no hell, but just can't because God says there is. This gets extremely patronizing, because the words he's putting in Bell's mouth: that Bell takes what he wants from the scriptures and ignores the rest. And in a final challenge in chapter 6, Chan lifts up the straw man "Rob Bell doesn't like or believe what God says about hell" and strikes it down rather summarily. 

Chan asks, "Are you sure you're on the right side?" Really? Is that the point of Jesus coming to redeem mankind - so that we could choose "the right side"? Are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus so we can try to get everyone else "on the right side"? Or are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus because it's a better way to live? Because God is sovereign and deserves our love and devotion? Because it's better to love than to hate? Because it's better to serve than to take? (Um...see Matthew 25 to see what Jesus says on the subject.)

Ultimately, it's not our job to tell everyone who doesn't go to church that they're going to hell. It's not our job to judge everyone who has died and determine where they went. It's our job to bring a message of love and hope to the world. Just because there's a hell, doesn't mean that's the first thing out of our mouths when we preach the "good news" of Jesus.

And this is (what I think is) the summary of Love Wins, taken from Chapter 6: 

First, we aren't surprised when people stumble upon this mystery [Jesus], whenever and however that happens. We aren't offended when they don't use the exact language we use, and we aren't surprised when their encounters profoundly affect them, even if they happen way outside the walls of our particular Jesus's gathering...We are not threatened by this, surprised by this, or offended by this... 

Second, none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will. 

Third, it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people's eternal destinies...

Chan says some great things in this book. I think it's a great essay on what the Bible says about hell. And Chapter 5 is a great thesis on the things we miss as Christians (Jesus condemns those who attack each other with words, he condemns racism, and not helping the poor.) But it's hard to overlook the rest of it.

Why do I always feel like an apologist for Rob Bell? Because I believe everything he writes? Everything he says? Because I want to be his disciple? No. Because I believe he's calling us to think, to challenge, to dialogue - and I think that these things have been squelched enough - and that squelching has turned people from God. I think Bell's message is important - that we need to examine ourselves and be sure that what we believe truly comes from God. We can't do that without wrestling with it - and that's all Bell is asking us to do.