Chapter 4: What Jesus’ Followers Said About Hell
In “Love Wins” Rob Bell appeared pretty thorough when he said he was going to tackle every occurrence of the word “Hell” in the New Testament. The problem was concepts are more important than individual words. It is entirely possible for to talk about hell without using the actual word in a given verse. In discussing Paul’s view on hell they cite a statistic that Paul talked more about God’s wrath and judgment more times than God’s mercy, heaven and forgiveness (p.98). If you turn to the end notes at the back of this chapter they give you a breakdown of the frequency of various terms and conclude that terms of wrath amount to over 80 times in Paul’s letters while “mercy”, “forgiveness”, and “heaven” occur 55 times total. So that statement is true if you limit Paul’s discussion of the positive workings of God in the world to those three terms but if you include just one more word, “life”, into the mix (the opposite of “death”) you have 76 more occurrences that outnumber the times he talks about things like death and destruction. Statistics like this don’t really mean much and what is really frustrating is that Chan is trying to counter Rob Bell’s tactics by talking concepts rather than just specific words but ends up making some of the same mistakes himself.
One thing I really like about Francis Chan is that he really tries to read the Bible and believe what it says through pretty simple interpretation…not many twists and turns and trying to fit things into predetermined outcomes and doctrines. He writes, “Just because some have swung the pendulum so far in the direction of wrath and judgment, let’s not swing it back too far the other direction and do away with what Scripture emphasizes. God is compassionate and just, loving and holy, wrathful and forgiving. We can’t sideline His more difficult attributes to make room for the palatable ones.” (p.101). I talked about that pendulum swing on at least a dozen occasions when I reviewed Love Wins. Here is one that falls in line with what C&S are saying,
“At the end of it all there were some good take away points about kingdom living and whether or not we are living lives that actually embrace God’s calling on us here and now. But in swinging the pendulum so hard it seems the pendulum knocked over several other biblical concepts and ignored many contexts, that seemed to be teaching the opposite of the points he made, along the way. It is hard to find balance when someone writes a book in reaction to theology/views they disagree with.” – LINK
It is so important that our theology is biblical and not reactionary to the theology we are combating against. One of the most important points in this discussion is that we never will completely figure God out. So we have to have humility about these things. We can’t erase a doctrine by cleverly manipulating a couple of scriptures. The judgment and wrath of God are all over both Testaments and just because they don’t sit well with us doesn’t give us the right to explain them away or ignore them.
A second point C&S make in this chapter is that in Paul’s writing God’s wrath is not corrective. It is retributive. In other words, God’s final wrath and judgment are never put in the context of turning hearts to Him from hell (corrective punishment). Instead the punishment is aimed at destruction of those who reject God. That is one of the points on hell that people have the hardest time with. It is hard to fit loving God together with vengeful God. One of the things that conflicts me a little about this book is how C&S take the retributive purpose of hell seriously and make bold statements about it only to backtrack and say things that would indicate to me that their real desire was that it just wasn’t so. Here are a few examples:
“I would love to think…that the Bible doesn’t actually say a whole lot about hell. I would love to star at my friend’s face when he asked that question we all fear – ‘Do you think I’m going to hell?’ and say, ‘No! There is no such place! Jesus loves you and wants to heal your pain and turn your sorrows into gladness!'” (p.108)
“While much of our church culture believes that talk of wrath and judgment is toxic and unloving, Paul didn’t seem to have a problem with these things. In fact, Paul believed they were essential truths.” (p.100)
“I really believe it’s time for some of us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself.” (p.102)
Doesn’t that verse say that at the very heart and soul of Chan’s thoughts is that he really would erase hell if he could? Am I missing something there? I am not really sure how we take hell seriously but wish it away at the same time. I also don’t understand how C&S can say that God’s ways are higher than our own and it won’t always make sense but we have to believe and teach what we find in the Bible but, on the other hand, if I had my way I would take hell out of the Bible altogether…but I guess I will go ahead and preach it anyway. It keeps feeling like, in an attempt to ease people into the message, they keep making statements that negate other statements. If hell is God’s will and it is real and His ways are higher than our own, why wish it away? Why not instead conclude, I may not completely get it or how it all fits together but it is real and so let’s deal with it, teach it, preach it, warn, admonish, etc.?
Hey Matt, really enjoy hearing your thoughts on this book. I think that Chan is hitting on something very near and dear to us as a culture when he hints that he would erase hell if he could. We have for so long either preached complete hellfire and brimstone or the complete love of God that we have become accustomed to mixed messages. It seems to me that Chan is in touch with maybe some things that he had been taught in the past and that many of us struggle with, than the humanistic side of (at least some of) us wants everyone to be included and no one to suffer punishment. I certainly won’t contend with the Word of God, now or ever, but I know most have done just what Chan has said, explicitly or implicitly, that deep down, we don’t want it to be there, but it is. For him to struggle with it throughout this book is essential to the message he’s trying to convey. Too often have we tried to be nice about the message of the gospel, ignore this hell stuff, because it’s “not our place to judge” (our culture has shoved that down our throat so much). I think that was his point on p. 108. It’s tough to look someone in the eye and say that because their trust isn’t in Jesus, they’re on the highway to judgment.
You have most likely hit the nail on the head with this. It is a good explanation of what he is doing here. The wrestling has more to do with identifying with his audience than with making his point about the reality of hell.