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

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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.

0 Responses

  1. Even if those books aren’t necessarily THE VIEW on hell and are largely exaggerated, doesn’t it give us an indication of how exactly the people of the day were talking about and formulating their view on it? It seems that although they weren’t inspired, they still indicate a revolving idea of hell that predates Jesus. Accurate or not, and contrasting with what Bell says in his book, there seems to be a clear indication that ideas about hell were not exclusive to the prophets and OT writers we most often read and refer to, but that it spilled out beyond that.

    1. Charlie,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I am certainly not saying it is impossible for them to reflect a first century Jews points of view on hell. I am just saying we really cannot put too much weight on that or to say since anonymous writers in 300 BC to 70 BC said this and that about hell just shows us that Jesus is consistent with what everyone else was saying. Maybe, maybe not. The truth is, what Jesus has to say about hell is more important to me than what the author of Enoch or Baruch thought. Jesus didn’t always fall in line with the teachings of his day so his consistency with them is not that important to me. I guess that being the main line of thinking in this chapter didn’t really impress me that much.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your response. I have not done enough research into the literature of that time period to accurately rate its validity, but I trust your assessment. I definitely don’t think we should put more weight on that or place it as equal to the teachings of Jesus, but they are worth looking in to in some capacity, just my opinion. And to your point, I completely agree. Too many people have disregarded Jesus’ words on hell (literally or metaphorically), judgment, and wrath and replaced the message with one that sounds so much better and more inclusive. Chan’s statement in his book that he “doesn’t want to believe in hell” is consistent with the struggle that most of our society and even in Christian circles deal with at some point. When in doubt, I trust the Lord’s words and teachings.

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