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Erasing Hell

What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up

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In March 2011, Rob Bell, an author and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, published Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. While Bell claims that he is not a controversialist, his book has inspired many well-known evangelicals to respond strongly against his universalist perspective on eternity (though Bell himself argues against being categorized as a universalist, saying that it is too broad a term to correctly identify anyone).

This summer, Francis Chan—pastor, international speaker, church planter and best-selling author of Crazy Love and Forgotten God—worked with professor and writer Preston Sprinkle to write Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up. Although this is evidently a response to Bell’s book and universalists, Chan said in a Christianity Today interview that as he researched and wrote, the book became less about Bell and more about hell—the bigger issue. Erasing Hell is a humble exploration of the biblical reality of the afterlife, written in an endeavor to encourage more discussion on such an essential doctrinal field.

Chan and Sprinkle’s book first explores the problem of optimism. They affirm that they understand the painful, perhaps hurtful, reality of hell. And they understand that eternity in hell does not seem to mesh with our comfortable understanding of the personhood of God and our human concept of justice. But Chan and Sprinkle point out that nowhere does the Bible hint at, hope for or suggest that there might be a second chance—or any amount of chances—to accept Christ after death. This, they claim, is “frightening,” because it is the very notion that universalism is contingent upon. Admittedly, many universalists agree that while it is not in the Bible, it is in line with the very character of God. Chan and Sprinkle address this issue as well, but not before giving a brief overview of what hell meant to the chosen people of God and those whom Jesus was speaking to, and what it should mean to us today. In truth, the problem with optimism is the severe gravity of the destiny of our souls. We cannot afford, Chan and Sprinkle resoundingly enforce, to be wrong.

Chan has a knack for explaining volumes of research (done by Preston Sprinkle in this case) in a simple, intuitive way. Actually, if any complaint can be made, it is that the book does not present itself as a theological text, despite its extensive footnotes, appendix and index. As Chan and Sprinkle delve into the mysteries of the afterlife, not only explaining how the concept of hell has evolved over time but also how culture has influenced the way Scriptures are read, they also shed light on common misunderstandings about hell. In this manner, they successfully navigate many different interpretations of biblical passages addressing eternity, in a serious and humble posture. They recognize the gravity of the statements they are making about eternal damnation.

Surrender to the sovereignty of God is essential, they say, for any perspective one will take on the matter of eternal life—or any doctrinal statement. Are we content to let God be God? What if God were to send all the unbelievers to hell in order to maximize His glory in saving those who believe? What if God were to give second chances in order to further illustrate His grace? What if God’s understanding of grace, justice, mercy and love is higher than ours and beyond our limited comprehension? Chan writes,

I often hear people say, “I could never love a God who would . . .” Who would what? Who would disagree with you? And do things that you would never do? Who would allow bad things to happen to people? Who would be more concerned with His own glory than your feelings? Who would—send people to hell? (p. 132)

While much of Chan and Sprinkle’s book presents a straightforward approach to Scripture, it also surprisingly suggests the possibility of levels of punishment in hell. Yet, if all sins are considered equal in the sight of God, and if we are sent to hell for our failure to accept Christ as Savior and Lord, it doesn’t make sense for our punishment to be contingent upon our sins or our amount of corruption. To their credit, though, Chan and Sprinkle do not present dogmatic views on controversial issues such as levels of punishment, torment versus annihilation or literal verses figurative language referring to fire.

Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle present a book with firm exegesis and strong questions for further discussion and consideration. While obviously a response to a current controversy, Erasing Hell is also a response to a strain of universalism in Christian history. It will last as an apologetic work attempting to rectify an apparent problem. Additionally, it will serve to motivate the greater Body of Christ to evangelism and missions worldwide!

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