Even before the book was released (?) people were asking me what I thought about Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. There was a lot of controversy about this book, and people who know I like Rob continually tried to engage me in conversation about the book. I declined to engage until I'd actually read it. Weirdly, after the book was released, people had moved on to other issues and the questions stopped. It's amazing how fickle the world is. A month or two ago I got around to reading it, but I didn't post about it at the time. My impression after I finished it was that it was an important book, but it was only the opening statement in a long conversation about hell.
When I saw that Francis Chan was releasing a book called Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up I realized that Francis was the perfect guy to respond to Bell's book. If you've ever heard Francis speak, he is emotional and deeply in love with our savior, and he's also very intelligent and a good writer.
Since Rob's book raises a lot of questions, and Erasing Hell seeks to answer some of those questions, I decided to review these books as a pair.
Love Wins is a typical Rob Bell book, and I mean that in a good way. It is written to engage your mind, and if you don't stop and reflect it's a pretty quick read. I didn't read it quickly, because I found myself stopping and reflecting a bit. Completely lost in the controversy over this book are some excellent thoughts on the nature of salvation in the first few chapters. After sharing the scriptures that talk about how to be saved Rob asks the question about how you are saved:
"Is it what you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you're going to do,
or who your friends are,
or who you're married to,
or whether you give birth to children?
Or is it what questions you're asked?
Or is it what questions you ask in return?
Or is it whether you do what you're told and go into the city?"
Thought provoking stuff.
Another one of the really strong points of this book is a focus on the very real "hell on earth" we have created in a world steeped in sin. This focus on the here and now challenges the reader to recognize that the gospel isn't just about "where we go when we die" but what we will do here, now, for the people around us. "It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray: 'Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'"
In the chapter on hell, Rob makes a very big point that Gehenna, the greek word translated "hell" was, in fact, a city dump during the time of Christ. Unfortunately for Rob and the reader, this is simply not true. In Erasing Hell, Francis Chan writes "In fact, there is no evidence for hundreds and hundreds of years after Jesus that there was a garbage dump in the Hinnom Valley in the first century. Nor is there any archaeological evidence that this valley was ever a dump...In fact, the first reference we have to the Hinnom Valley, or gehenna, as a town dump is made by a rabbi named David Kimhi in a commentary, which was written in AD 1200."
This is not 100% of Rob's argument, but it is a pretty big error. But then as we get back to the text, it's important once again to read what Rob says, not what other people say he says: "There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously."
The part of this book that causes such heartburn is that Rob appears to be embracing a form of biblical universalism. Rob asks the question if it is possible to repent and be saved after death. He seems to believe it is, but admits there is no way to be certain. "Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? These are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom love requires."
You aren't going to learn everything you need to know about Love Wins from this blog, you really need to read it and interact with it on your own. But lets move on to erasing hell.
Francis Chan is the perfect guy to write a response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. He is gracious, humble, loving, and someone who I don't believe would ever be drawn into a war of words with another individual. One of the reasons I was eager to buy this book was a photograph that someone took this spring and posted on facebook of Rob Bell and Francis Chan together at an airport, smiling. As I looked at that photograph I thought that it was a perfect example of how we are called to righteous disagreement with one another. They both love Jesus and can love each other, even if they have disagreements over theology.
Another reason I think Francis was the perfect guy to write this book is that he gets the importance of this discussion. "I'm scared because so much is at stake. Think about it. If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place I convinced them did not exist! If I say there is a hell, and I'm wrong, I may persuade people to spend their lives frantically warning loved ones about a terrifying place that is not real! When it comes to hell, we cannot afford to be wrong."
Francis does an excellent job of presenting the "other side of the story" from Rob's book, clearly illustrated with scriptures and well reasoned. Although not written only to respond to Rob's book, Francis answers many of Rob's more controversial points. One of the things I really like about Chan's approach is he makes no attempt to demonize Rob or "call him out" for where they differ. At one point he writes "To be fair, he is not explicitly 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. But he presents this position in such favorable terms that it would be hard to say that he is not advocating it." This kind of careful discussion is what we need more of in this world.
I don't really need to go point by point through Chan's book to tell you that it is an excellent and worthy read. It's not just about hell, but also about the nature of God. Chan (along with his co-author Preston Sprinkle who did most of the research) does an excellent job of detailing what the bible teaches about hell.
I think both books are valuable to read and understand. I would start with Love Wins, and then read erasing hell. I believe that both books are edifying and will draw you closer to God if you let them. On the theological end of things, I find myself landing with Chan most of the time where these books differ, but it's not about being "of Francis or of Rob" but being of Christ in the end.
God is good!