Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Hells Bells! Francis Chan Erases Hell, and Refutes Bell, in New Book

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For someone who doesn’t actually believe in hell, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about it lately, a prurient pastime that I’ll leave others to psychoanalyze. In the last two years there have been some fascinating books on the subject, my favorite of which is Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell. That book is the best I’ve found at tracing the development of the doctrine of hell through the Bible and church history, as well as proposing an alternative understanding of what is meant by eternal punishment.


As I’ve written recently for Patheos, I also greatly appreciated Rob Bell’s compassionate and thoughtful book on hell that came out earlier this year. Not everyone felt that way, however, as you can see from the fiery discussions here and here.

Erasing Hell, which was published on Tuesday


This week, evangelical writer and pastor Francis Chan throws his hat into the ring with a brief but deliberate refutation of Rob Bell’s work. Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We Made Up is Chan’s answer to Bell’s brand of Christian universalism, or the belief that God will save every person. Tragically, says Chan, this isn’t the case; plenty of people are going to be a-roastin’ and a-toastin’. Forever. “For those who follow Jesus, there is everlasting life in the presence of God,” he promises. “But for those who don’t follow him, there will be punishment.” (38)


In contrast to some other conservative Christians who have written about hell (I’m especially thinking of Robert Jeffress’s gleeful Hell? Yes! from a few years ago), Chan seems genuinely choked up about this. Consider this scene where he’s sitting in a busy Starbucks looking with wonder and distress at all the people around him:

The place buzzes with life. Meanwhile, I sit here reading passage after passage after passage, which all say that some of those people are going to hell. It sickens me to say that, and I can’t explain how conflicted I feel right now. There are at least a dozen people within ten feet of me right here, right now, that may end up in the agony I’m studying. What do I do? Do I keep writing? Keep studying? Should I bag this whole book thing and start building relationships with them? How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? (72)


A number of things bothered me about this book (not the least of which is the oral writing style with its plethora of italicized words, exclamation points, and rhetorical questions). One is that Chan and his co-author Preston Sprinkle, a Bible college professor who helped Chan with the historical and biblical background, claim that since Jesus didn’t go out of his way to challenge first-century Jewish understandings of hell, he obviously agreed with them. (82) It’s hard to prove an argument of absence. Isn’t it possible that we have no record of Jesus reformulating hell because the idea wasn’t significant enough to the Gospel writers for them to record? As Chan and Sprinkle admit, there isn’t much about hell in the Old Testament. (50)


Another flaw lies in the book’s discussion of Matthew 25, that discomfiting and wonderful scripture about the sheep and the goats. “The sheep (believers in Jesus) and the goats (unbelievers) are divided into two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives.” (82) Fair enough on the last point. But did I miss the doctrinal litmus test that the authors seem to think happens in this passage? Nowhere does Jesus mention belief as a pre-requisite; it’s all about action. “Believer” doesn’t mean squat if the people have not visited the sick and clothed the naked.

And of course the idea of Jesus as an angry dispenser of eternal punishment gives me pause:

…the wrath of Jesus [as depicted in 2 Thessalonians 1] is retributive and not corrective. In other words, the wrath wasn’t intended to correct the behavior of those opposing Christ to make them fit for salvation. Rather, the wrath is an act of—dare I say—vengeance. (102)


One of the things I greatly appreciated about this book is that even though it gives every appearance of having been hastily put together as a response to Rob Bell’s work, it never engages in the kind of knee-jerk heckling that some even hastier Christian responses have generated. Chan never questions Bell’s sincerity, never says Bell couldn’t possibly be a Christian if he holds such progressive beliefs, never anathematizes Bell in any way. What’s more, I think the book actually takes pains to present Bell’s ideas in context and not caricature them.

Conservative evangelical Christians deserve civil, high-minded arguments like this that don’t stoop to attack and turn off the very people they’re trying to persuade. If there is such a thing as a loving book on hell, this is it. I may not agree with it, but I laud the achievement nonetheless.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Larry Ogan

    Pastor Chan and other self described righteous humans, upon standing before God and his son, our Savior Jesus the Christ, will be surprised when they hear the words, “You got lot of splaning to do Lucy”.

    Fortunately for all of us God is not out to punish us or set us up to fail. Yes Justice must be served but that is followed by Mercy. When I read the following scripture it changed my life and my understanding of the nature of God.

    Isaiah 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

    God is willing to reason with a rebellious sinner like me? I stand all amazed.

  • Jana Riess

    Amen and amen.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment chris

    I think Matthew 25 it’s also good to note that the other 2 parables are dealing with believers. The sheep/goats seems to be the capstone if you read it in context.

    The parable of the Virgins were all invited to feast with and were waiting for the Bridegroom. So they must have believed in him to some degree. The parable of the Talents they each knew the Master and were given blessings from him. And in the Shepherd goats, the sheep and the goats each reacted with knowledge about the Lord. The goats did not say, “Who is this Lord we were supposed to serve?”

    So I think they are all dealing with believers. In fact, Jesus only came and talked to the (supposed) believers. So I agree with your disagreement of their interpretation of believers and infidels. I suppose could agree with them, if they were classifying those who “believe” as those who actually go and do in addition to merely confessing.

    I’m always a bit curious, how mere belief is considered adequate in light of “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” I realize on one hand the (inaccurate) criticism of LDS that we can never do enough to accomplish our own resurrection, and ultimately we need the power of the atonement to bridge that gap. I think everyone who is LDS understands that (even though we’re often lambasted for the opposite).

    But how can the opposite be true that belief is what matters? (again, with the caveate that “true belief” would have to entail action)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson


    I saw Chan’s book in Barnes & Noble last Saturday, and decided to buy and read both the Bell (thesis) and Chan (antithesis) books. (Maybe a pastor named Dell can offer a synthesis.)

    Jana, your review of Chan’s book is spot on. Both Bell and Chan offer their views on hell in very conversational tones. Frankly, I appreciated the fact that Chan actually footnoted the sources for his statements. (Maybe I am just too much of a lawyer to take seriously an argument from someone who doesn’t cite the authorities for his assertions.) Yet even with the footnotes, Chan’s book reads like an extended conversation.

    Bell’s presentation is even more conversational in format, with so many verbal tics–short sentence fragments, one to a line, implying dramatic pauses in the style of a conversation–that I kept wondering when he was going to get to an explicit claim and set out the case for the other side in detail, so he could refute it if nothing else. I kept feeling as I read Bell’s book that I had to play the role of the devil’s advocate (pun intended) because Bell was not going to acknowledge the full arguments on the other side. When I got to the end of Bell’s book, I was not certain that Bell had made any assertions that were specific enough that he could ever be held accountable for actually having a specific position. I was not sure I agreed with him, because his assertions were so amorphous. For that reason, I also think some of the scathing criticisms by pastors, about Bell and his book, are a gross overreaction, which manifests a sort of defensiveness about the concept of hell that makes me think they are less certain of their position than they claim to be.

    Personally, Chan’s repeated expressions of concern about the dire consequences of the reality of hell, which he holds to, began to ring hollow for me. I felt that, if he were really so concerned about how it would affect people who were NOT REALLY THAT BAD–including his own grandmother–that he could have given those people the benefit of the doubt concerning the meaning of many of the Bible passages he quoted. At the very least, he might have offered his thesis about the real permanence of unlimited retributive suffering for those who fail to meet the (sort of undefined) threshold for being a follower of Christ, with the caution that, while the Bible is not (in his view) fallible, he is just an imperfect human being, and so there is a chance his conclusions are in error.

    As to the details of Chan’s argument, it seemed to me that he glossed over a lot of basic stuff in the Bible that runs counter to his argument about death foreclosing all opportunities to declare for Christ and get out of hell. He doesn’t deal with the passages in I Peter 3 and 4 about Christ visiting the “spirits in prison” between his own death and resurrection, so the dead can judged like the living, except for a short statement in an appendix. He argues that those verses don’t mean what an ordinary reading of them appears to mean. And he completely avoids addressing the fact that those passages were the source of a millenium-long belief among Christians (abandoned since then) in the “harrowing of hell”, namely that Christ sprung at least some people out of hell, including some of the “disobedient” in the days of Noah who were NOT saved from the flood, people who rejected God’s prophet, and certainly did not embrace Christ before drowning.

    Another example of Chan giving a biased interpretation of a Bible passage is his reference to Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 15:22, (which was turned into a thumping chorus by Handel). In arguing that the words “all” do not mean what they plainly do mean (that they refer to all mankind), he does not address the context of that verse in I Corinthians 15:20-29:

    20 But now is Christ risen from THE DEAD [the collection of all people who have died, by definition], and become the firstfruits of THEM THAT SLEPT. [Pretty much everyone who has died]

    21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of THE DEAD [basically, anyone and everyone who had died belongs in this group].

    22 For as in Adam ALL DIE [yup, that applies to ALL human beings], even so in Christ shall ALL be MADE ALIVE.[The whole point of the parallel in these verses is to point out that the resurrection wrought by Christ is just as universal as the death wrought by Adam. EVERY person who dies does it because of Adam, and EVERY person who dies is going to be resurrected because of Christ. The cure is just as extensive as the disease.]

    23 But EVERY MAN [Again, that is pretty clear. Everybody is affected by what Christ accomplished.] in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. [Okay, so Paul is saying there is a sequence in which the resurrection happens. It started with Christ. The next stage of the resurrection will take place at Christ’s second coming to earth, when “they that are Christ’s” will be resurrected. But that is not the end. All the people who are NOT “Christ’s” are left. What happens to them?]

    24 THEN cometh the END [There is another stage coming], when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down ALL rule and ALL authority and power [Does “all” mean “less than 50%” as Chan argues it does in verse 22? It would make Christ’s sovereignty pretty incomplete.].

    25 For he must reign, till he hath put ALL ENEMIES [Does this “all” mean “all”? Or just a few of Christ’s enemies?] under his feet. [Christ will reign on earth from “his coming” until his final victory.]

    26 The LAST ENEMY that shall be DESTROYED is DEATH. [His final victory is over death–by resurrecting the remainder of mankind. If Christ did NOT resurrect 100% of mankind, how could he claim he had “destroyed . . . death”?] . . .

    29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? [The only way to interpret this verse in context is that the Corinthians knew that some people were being “baptized FOR the dead” in anticipation of the resurrection, the only point of it being to transform people who were already dead into people who would be “Christ’s at his coming”, to convert their resurrection from the one at the end of Christ’s reign on earth to one at the start of that reign. So not only are ALL people, including non-Christians, going to be resurrected, but some of those non-Christians would be given a chance to become Christians and be ressurected earlier, with the righteous.]

    Again, Chan does not address the whole passage, whose meaning is plain, and takes verse 22 out of context and uses completely unrelated verses to argue that sometimes “all” does NOT mean “all”, and then he makes the unsupported leap of logic that because it MIGHT NOT mean “really, really all men”, that it absolutely does NOT mean “all men”. This kind of misdirection is evidence, in my mind, that, despite all of his repeated protestations that it is constantly breaking him up emotionally to think about the infinite suffering of most of God’s sentient creations, he does not care enough about them to admit that there is a reasonable argument on the other side. Maybe he THINKS he is doing all he can for them, and is just being overcome reluctantly by the inexorable weight of the evidence, but if that is so I don’t think he has good insight into his own thinking process.

    While Chan argues against the possibility of mortals getting a “second chance” after death to embrace Christ [and shows some resentment toward the idea that people could skate on living righteously and make up for it after they die], he does not address the more urgent question of whether the great majority of humanity, who have never heard of Christ’s name in their entire mortal lives (except maybe as a swear word in an American movie) are going to ever get a FIRST CHANCE to accept Christ and be saved from infinite suffering, which would be imposed on them for the gross sin of being sent–by God!–to be born in the wrong country or century, through no fault of their own. If I Peter 3 and 4 and I Corinthians 15:29 are slim reeds upon which to rest an answer to this apparent injustice, those verses are just as infallible as the rest of the Bible, so their lack of mass has nothing to do with their veracity and reliability.

    One has to deal with this question, about the salvation of those who have never heard the Gospel, or consider the possibility that God is not really as loving as he easily could be (a congitive dissonance that, in one of his more perceptive comments, Bell points to as a reality among some pastors). After all, what does it cost God to give such people a chance to accept Christ during what is, for some of them, thousands of years between their death and resurrection? Is he too busy? Certainly THEY are not.

    And if you conclude that God’s justice AND mercy, as taught throughout the Bible, make it likely that such people get a FIRST chance, then the need for God to deny others a SECOND chance on the same terms starts to break down.

    Obviously I, as a Latter-day Saint, am predisposed to the basic themes of Bell’s book, that God is providing every possibile opportunity for every human being he created to accept his Son and thus escape infinite suffering that has no clear purpose, certainly after the first century or so. As a Mormon, I have lots of justifications for believing this, in addition to the Bible. But I also think that Bell could have made a more cogent case for his viewpoint, one that speaks more to logic and the authority claims of the Bible. And I think Chan is cutting corners when he makes his exclusivist argument, distorting the meaning of some of the Bible passages he cites, some of which, I think, can arguably be understood to mean the opposite of what he argues they mean.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jim Scott

    Chan says, “There are at least a dozen people within ten feet of me right here, right now, that may end up in the agony I’m studying. What do I do?”

    Oddly enough, Chan is apparently forgetting that as a Calvinist he believes that God has already decided who would and who would not spend eternity in the torments of hell. And here he acts as if he can actually do something about that. Isn’t that more than just a little contradictory and hypocritical? Why yes, it is.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Will

    In response to Jim Scott above:

    As far as I’m aware, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination does not mean that the Gospel does not need to be shared.

    We are saved by grace through faith, and faith ‘…comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.’ Romans 10:17.

    People are awakened to faith through hearing the Gospel shared – this includes people predestined to salvation (if one believes in that). So Chan isn’t being hypocritical to his views – he is making the point that it is his mission to help bring God’s elect to faith the way that God has ordained – evangelism.

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