Over the past few weeks I’ve undertaken reading “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan. I took my time reading through this book for a couple of reasons. First, and to be quite honest, I was more interested and consumed by another book. Secondly, I didn’t want to rush through reading a book that was in response to “Love Wins” after all of the hype that was stirred by that book and around Rob Bell. Before I even begin to give my review of “Erasing Hell” let me first say that I applaud any healthy dialogue and critique of theological viewpoints and their advocates, which I believe that Chan was trying to engage in this book. Now on to the review.
(Keep in mind that this review is not meant to be an argument for against either Love Wins or Erasing Hell or the theological arguments of these particular writings. It is intended to be a critique of Erasing Hell as a theological book, and yes, part of my theological framework will influence how I viewed some of the material in this book but not the overall argument.)
In comparison to “Love Wins” I felt that “Erasing Hell” was better documented. The author utilized fairly extensive footnotes in citing passages and thoughts than Bell did in “Love Wins”. (This is partially due to Bell’s inclination to remain ambiguous and raise questions but is definitely a weakness in theological discussion.) Chan also did a good job at presenting his interpretation of texts and theological thoughts in the book. He, as well, was clear about his emotional struggle with the texts and with the emotional burden that he feels regarding the subject matter. Beyond that I feel that I didn’t find much compelling about the book.
First, I feel that in the seemingly rushed effort to release the book that the quality of writing was lacking. Chan is known for his compelling thoughts and ideas surrounding ministry and I have enjoyed his other books but this one lacked the passion and thoroughness of his previous writing. The nature of the book seemed to be more about getting a response out than actually writing about something that he deeply felt passion for and was compelled to write. The book, in my opinion, was a reaction and any time you are operating in reaction you are not operating within your wheelhouse.
Secondly, as a devout Free-Will Theist, it was obvious that Chan’s Reformed viewpoints influenced the way he read the texts. In particular, Chan emphasized Hell as God’s punishment. Punishment was the stressed theme and at times the book leaned toward God determining who he was going to punish. This is contrary to the Free-Will belief that we choose heaven or hell in how we respond to God and that hell is the consequence of our own freely chosen actions.
These first two issues that I had with the book are really fairly minute. They are simply my opinions based on the way I responded to the book and my own theological lens through which I read. However, it is important to stress the fact that I recognize this because my main problem is that there was no acknowledgement of Chan’s theological lens in this book and therefore the book asserted that his interpretation of the text was the proper interpretation. It was only in footnotes that any ambiguities of interpretation were noted. (See ex. 1 below) This move to cite any uncertainties in interpreting the text was strategic and somewhat manipulative. Not only does this occur with theological views but also with the critiques and responses to “Love Wins”. Chan puts forth an argument in the main text against a espoused view within Bell’s book but then doesn’t clarify that Bell does not necessarily hold that view until you read in the footnotes. (see ex. 2 below) Most people don’t take the time to read the footnotes and that presents a huge problem when writing about theological issues for the lay person. It is important for an author to stress the spectrum of interpretation not just their own view.
In referring to hell, Chan refers to 2 Peter and Jude and briefly mentions their descriptions of the place but only cites the adjectives not the entire passages. Yet in the footnotes he says: “As with Paul, I don’t think Peter and Jude are very clear about the duration of hell. On the one hand, both books are laced with language of destruction, which in itself suggests annihilation. On the other hand, the phrase punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7,23) could refer to ongoing torment, though as we have seen before, it doesn’t have to.” These ambiguities should be mentioned in the main text not left to a footnote but instead Chan utilizes what is most advantageous to his argument in the main text while leave the ambiguities to the rarely read footnotes.
Chan cites Bell and Bell’s opinion regarding universalism in this way. “With creativity and wit, he sets forth a similar position, though he avoids the label universalism. Nevertheless, Bell suggests that every single person will embrace Jesus – if not in this life, then certainly in the next.” Chan goes on to provide a passage from “Love Wins”. However, in the footnotes Chan clarifies. “In his book “Love Wins”, Bell never actually comes out ans says that this is what he believes. TO BE FAIR (emphasis mine), he is not explicilty arguing for this position but listing it as a valid view that would help explain a lot of the tension that we feel when thinking about the hard realities of hell.” Only in the footnotes does Chan bring up the ambiguity in Bell’s writing and that there is not a solid stance from Bell that he advocates for universalism.
The flaws that I have seen within Erasing Hell do not so much have to do with the position held but rather the way in which the position is argued. There is a trend within Reformed Theology, in particular the Neo-Reformed movement to neglect to highlight any likelihood of the legitimacy of other positions and I believe that is a highly arrogant and dangerous position to hold. While I don’t think Chan has gone so far as to write off other interpretations, and thankfully he never espouses that Bell is a heretic, his writing style within this book definitely leans towards only providing information that is useful to his position which in the end does not make his argument stronger, it merely makes it appear that either it was poorly researched or that he was trying to hide something.
Overall, Erasing Hell is an interesting read and provides insight into yet another theological view surrounding eschatology. If the book had not been done out of a response to “Love Wins” I feel that the quality would have been far better and the argument would have been made in a better way.
My intent in this review was not to promote or refute the position but to provide a critique of the book itself.