Francis Chan on Hell

Unsurprisingly the debate around Rob Bell’s Love Wins is still popping up every once in a while in the evangelical world. Francis Chan is another influential evangelical leader and he weighs in with some opinions in his new book Erasing Hell as well as in this video:

As tends to be the case with evangelicalism in general, there are some things here that I really like and some things that I really don’t. I wholeheartedly endorse the main message being a plea to humility. But am I the only one who thinks that, especially near the end, he is primarily saying that Rob Bell and friends need to be humble? He starts off sounding humble himself but it loses it a bit to me over the course of the video. I do greatly appreciate that he is at least attempting to be humble in this video and in his book.

The whole part that annoyed me was starting with Isaiah 55:9. First of all, the context of that verse is really interesting. In context, it is telling Israel not to be so arrogant as to exclude other nations from God’s love. And in this video it is being used to defend Hell which is fundamentally saying that God excludes some. He goes on with a bunch of examples of how we wouldn’t do the violent things God does in the Bible. So when he uses Isaiah 55:9, instead of its context of a radical love of God including everyone, it is being used to say that God’s retributive justice – violent, often even unfair justice, not restorative justice – is just something that we have to accept. I don’t think we do have to just accept that. I don’t think that is the God I follow. I’m not necessarily saying no Hell, but not because God’s angry justice is higher than mine but because his love is higher than mine. Some of the other verses are yanked out of context, too, and the ones that often bug me are the various Revelation passages. It takes a lot of twisting to think that Revelation is meant to be a violent destruction of the world and eternal torment.

The title of the video is interesting: “We can’t afford to get it wrong.” I went back and forth on whether I agreed with that or not. I personally believe that Scripture says extremely little about Hell – as Chan puts it in the video, it isn’t nearly as obvious as we tend to think it is – and that you can argue for eternal torment Hell, or soul death Hell, or universalism, or other options, and have about an equally strong (or perhaps more accurately, equally weak) biblical argument. Maybe you’ll do the hard study of Scripture and conclude that there is an eternal conscious torment for non-Christians. Maybe you’ll conclude soul death. Maybe you’ll conclude universalism. Or maybe you’ll conclude somewhere in between like Rob Bell’s Love Wins proposes. So I still respect any of the views and that is why from one perspective I don’t really care if I’ve got it wrong.

I also don’t accept the usual evangelical argument that all that matters is making sure people (starting with myself) get to Heaven because this life isn’t important. I actually had an evangelical staff at a non-profit campus ministry tell me that once when I withdrew from a summer project with them and said that there are other things I think God would rather me doing like poverty work. He basically said, “well that’s ok, but it doesn’t really matter like our get-people-out-of-Hell ministry does.”  I honestly think that if that was what God was going for, she would have been a lot more obvious about it in Scripture instead of constantly telling us about how to live this life and things like “do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 5:34). I’m obviously not objecting to thinking about questions of afterlife, but I don’t think that’s really what God wants us spending all our time worrying about and proclaiming to others.

But that took me in another direction in which I do agree in one sense, that how we think of Hell and eschatology in general is always a subset of how we think of God. If we are cheering for God to eternally torture non-Christians, we need to stop and try to figure out why we think that way. What idea of God are we basing that on? Whichever side we take, I can guarantee you that with so little Scriptural evidence, whatever you decide, there is a reason deeper than just “what the Bible says” for why you think so. Many who believe in eternal torment do so because they have an image of God as violent and subject to some rule of his character that says he must do so. Many others believe the latter part but grieve that fact as they think God does, not accepting that God is actually violent by nature. Others think that God cannot possibly be conflicted in his nature and is fundamentally love so he must accept everyone no matter what. Others think that God doesn’t force his opinion but always – even after death – allows us choice so we can still always go either way (Rob Bell’s view as I understood it). Others have the same ideas of God’s need to be separated from non-Christians but don’t see the need for torment so they think the souls of non-Christians simply cease to exist. Others think torment is necessary as a sort of purification but that once that purification is complete, everybody ends up in Heaven. And so on and so on. My point for all of these views is this: no matter which one, it is not nearly so much a question of how to interpret the rare verse in the Bible that may or may not be talking about Hell as it is a question of God’s character.

And that is incredibly important to discuss and we really can’t afford to get it wrong because we have wreaked havoc on our world based on our interpretations of God. What if God didn’t command the Crusades, that her character really isn’t that violent and tribal in defending Christendom? We caused a lot of damage because of it. Or what if God cares about the environment? We’ve messed a lot of that up too, believing that God is going to destroy it anyway. Or what about how God views women? We’ve seen a lot of sexism – still do – in the name of God. Of course if those interpretations of God are right, then those effects are all part of what she wants for us anyway. My point here is not that those are wrong ideas of God – although I personally think each of my examples are – but that our ideas of God’s character is not just an academic pursuit. It radically changes our entire world. So yes, the Hell debate matters, not because we need to worry about our neighbour’s eternal fate and make sure to scare them into a different one, but because how we think of God changes everything.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.