Erasing Hell Chapter 3 and 4

Derek Ouellette —  July 4, 2011 — 19 Comments

In summary of chapter three, Chan and Sprinkle compare the gospel records of what Jesus had to say about hell with his Jewish contemporaries which they looked at in chapter two. What they discovered is that Jesus was in fundamental agreement with them:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgement
  2. Hell is described with imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

That last point is the most interesting. Which was it? Did Jesus affirm annihilation with many of his contemporaries, or never-ending punishment with most of his other contemporaries? Chan writes,

“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty” (pg. 86).

The authors observe that most of what Jesus says about hell could be interpreted in terms of annihilism, or at the least, not against it. Yet one passage, Matthew 25:31-46, functions more or less as the linchpin for hell as never-ending punishment for these authors. To quote another reviewer of this same chapter, “If we were to vote on whose exegesis [of this passage] is better and whose conclusions then are sounder [Rob Bell or Chan and Sprinkle), F & P would win by a landslide.” Absolutely true.

Chapter four follows three in asking the next logical question: were Jesus’ followers also in fundamental agreement with Jesus and their Jewish contemporaries? Given the scope of the New Testament, it is surprising that the chapter is so brief, but the endnotes are very helpful and more technical.

The authors look at Paul reminds us that his attitude toward divine judgement, using words like “death”, “be destroyed”, “wrath”, “vengeance”, “perish” and others makes him more reminiscent of soapbox doom-sayers than most Christian pulpit-preachers. They observe:

“To put this into perspective, Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy, or heaven combined.” p.98

The punchline to this study (after looking at Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 too) is that

“while much of our church culture believes that talk about wrath and judgment is toxic and unloving, Paul didn’t seem to have a problem with these things.” p.100

Next this chapter takes a brief look at 2 Peter and Jude observing:

“2 Peter 2 alone looks like a chapter out of Dante’s Inferno, while the book of Jude reads like a medieval tract written to scare peasants into unwavering church attendance and a steady tithe.” p.102

Finally they launch into a discussion of the book of Revelation, the key texts being 14:9-11, 20:10-15 and 21:8 and conclude that hell is depicted here as an “ongoing… state… of punishment… for all who don’t love Jesus” (p.106).

This is what these authors believe the New Testament teaches about hell. That it is a “vengeful” place of ongoing punishment for those “who do not know God”. The question becomes, now what? And it is here where I relate with this book the most:

“What causes my heart to ache right now as I’m writing this is that my life shows little evidence that I actually believe this.” p.107

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s not just an intellectual exercise or a matter of academic engagement. It’s real. Mother used to tell me that actions speak louder than words. You can tell what someone really believes by what they do. Sometimes I look at my own life in relation to the Christian message and wonder how much of it I really believe. Do I think that the Bible teaches hell as a place of never-ending punishment? Yes. But do I believe it? Sadly judging by my evangelistic apathy, it seems that I mostly do not.

At the start of chapter three Chan tells us that as he writes he is sitting in a busy Starbucks. Looking up from his computer he observes all of the people laughing, chatting, flirting, texting, some looking sad and alone, others joyful and living life. And as he studies what the Bible says about hell, he’s struck with the observation that according to it, “some of these people are going to hell.”

Sometimes I do that too. Sometimes while walking the mall on a busy Friday evening I intentionally observe the hundreds of people I pass, I look at their faces, I wonder what their lives and relationships are like, and I reflect on the Christian message and what it says about those who in the end are found outside of Christ, and wonder if I really believe this stuff.

If I did, shouldn’t I do more to prevent that from happening?

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/Commonplace_Holiness/Blog/Blog.html Craig L. Adams

    Actually, as Chan contemplates this it says it makes him sick. That’s what it does to me. It makes me feel helpless and depressed. And, it skews my relationships with people. If I befriend someone, is it because I am actually concerned and interested in them, or because I secretly believe they are a hell-bound sinner. It makes me see everyone as a condemned sinner first.. So, already, I am adopting a judgmental attitude toward the other person — and I haven’t even gotten to know them. If anything, this is an argument of sorts against the doctrine of Hell — because of the way it shapes Christian character for the worse.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I realize the force of the existential argument and in many ways I am right there with you. Only I wonder if it has to be that way? Does it necessitate a skewed relationship? Does it rule out a genuine concern and interest in them? Does it necessitate an immediate judgmental attitude toward them? Does it necessitate a character for the worse?

      I hope not because if so what does that say about Jesus and Paul’s apocalyptic urgency in their message (to say nothing of John the Baptist and others). I hope Jesus does not have a character that has been shaped for the worse.

      • Brian MacArevey

        A few things…

        First, I appreciate the fact that C&S appear unwilling to take a dogmatic stance for ECT, and against Annihilationism, even though they are more or less persuaded that ECT is the biblical teaching; I disagree, but I can respect that.

        The second thing is more of a question, since I haven’t read the book. After concluding that Jesus affirms ECT in the Gospels, do C&S immediately jump to the conclusion that when Paul speaks of wrath/judgment, that he too is speaking of ECT? I was wondering whether or not they are simply assuming this, or if they give any exegetical basis for this conclusion.

        Third (I guess this is another question of sorts), the quote you gave from page 98 seems like a serious stretch to me at first glance. How come proponents of ECT always seem so anxious to conclude that the bible is much more concerned with judgment than with grace? I just don’t see that at all; especially with regard to Paul’s epistles!

        Fourth, I totally agree with Craig. :) I, personally, don’t think that it is possible to have authentic, non-judgmental relationships with people and simultaneously believe in a typical exclusivist doctrinal system; especially one that includes ECT. To accept this viewpoint, I believe is to be doomed to a lifestyle governed by manipulation and ulterior motives, rather than love for the sake of the other. I also agree with Craig that this viewpoint is detrimental to Christian ethics.

        • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

          Hey Brian,
          I’ve come to respect differing perspectives on the nature of hell a lot more over the past few months, especially the view of conditionalism. Anyways, let me address your four points:

          As to your first, I couldn’t agree more. As to your second, no, they assume nothing about Paul’s belief in relation to Jesus. As to your third, that particular passage isnot a matter of what we “see” or “sense” or “feel” or “want”, it’s a matter of pulling out a concordance (and other study helps) and doing a word-count. They don’t show the “anxiety” you sense proponents of ECT exhibit. As to your fourth, if your statement was true than perhaps Jesus, Paul and John should have worked on their Christian ethics a bit, no? :)

          • Brian MacArevey

            Derek,

            which words are we counting? I am also not sure that this is a legitimate way of determining whether the emphasis of the NT is upon grace or judgment. Do you? It seems to me that the mere presence of Jesus in the Gospels tips the scale in favor of grace. No?

            I guess your response to my last point is perfectly logical when looked at from your perspective. :) Of course, I am not convinced that Jesus and Paul shared your perspective.

            Though Paul and Jesus assume the guilt of everyone, they are more interested in convincing the insider religious folks that they are just as guilty as the outsider sinners; and this in order to show that God is just in showing grace to all, including the outsider sinners.

            At least that’s how I see it.

            • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

              Thanks for your gracious response. Remember that the quote in question is in relation to the words of Paul and not the New Testament or Gospels at large. One thing I sense from this book is that the authors are not trying to defend or prove the traditional view of hell, rather they are genuinely trying to understand what the N.T. writters say on the subject. In any case you should read the book.

              As to your second, I agree completely and glad you got my point.

              • Brian MacArevey

                I might read the book Derek. From all that I have heard, it sounds like a pretty decent read. I am glad to hear that they seem to approach the issue with humility, without simply rejecting alternative viewpoints out of hand, and without being totally dogmatic about things that are not very clear. By the way, I am enjoying your review :)

        • Craig L. Adams

          Chan establishes to his own satisfaction that the Gospels teach Eternal Torment & then assumes that that is what the terminology means in Paul. But, he is honest about the terms that Paul uses.

          • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

            I’ve re-read the section on Paul an am confused how you came to that conclusion. When I read it my impression was that they didn’t even establish a Pauline teaching on the duration of Hell, except, perhaps in end-note #4, and even their they don’t pretend to settle the matter and admit Paul’ ambiguity. In fact the only direct observation they make in relation to the Gospels as to Paul is to point out the discontinuity between them.

  • Traeshawn

    Personally, when it comes to the question of a real loving relationship with a person while also holding to a view that considers Hell as a place of eternal punishment I’ve often thought of how many people Jesus let walk away. The rich young ruler for instance, Jesus told him what he must do and let him walk away sad. Jesus didn’t run him down and keep trying to convince him of anything. The great multitude that walked away from Him, again, he too (Jesus), turned and walked away from them as well. But perhaps I’m stretching those passages to serve my own purpose, just my two cents. My “evangelistic apathy” I will admit is fueled by this but I can’t help but think there’s a lesson to be learned in Jesus letting people walk away from him.

  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/Commonplace_Holiness/Blog/Blog.html Craig L. Adams

    Well, gang, it’s no secret that I am deeply conflicted on the issue of Hell, so any feedback is bound to be helpful. In the early days of my faith, I was taught that as a born again Christian I needed to see other people as Hell bound sinners — and that it was my responsibility to do something about this! This was an oppressive weight of responsibility and guilt that, as a basically shy and introverted young person, I found intolerable. I just couldn’t bear it anymore. And, many of my stupidest and most embarrassing “evangelistic efforts” date from this period of time — when I was witnessing in a futile attempt to relieve some of that guilt. I was very impressionable in those long-ago days, and took on whatever burden of guilt people were trying to lay on me. But, finally, I had to pray to be relieved of the awful, sickening vision of everyone-around-me-burning-in-Hell-and-I had-to-do-something-to-rescue-them. It’s an old, old pain that got resurrected by the Rob Bell / Love Wins controversy. There were times when I was was reading the various blog posts on Hell & heresy & Bell that I felt actually physically ill.

    So, I was very encouraged & relieved to see Chan admit that the thought of those around him burning in Hell sickened him, too.

    And, I do think that John the Baptist and Jesus and other early Christians found a balance that I never found. They saw people as made in the image of God, valuable in and of themselves, yet bound by sin. And, yes, they were able to walk away when that was appropriate.

    The Everybody Is Going To Hell & You Better Do Something About It teaching that I received as a young Christian was poison to my soul. I haven’t forgotten that.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for the autobiographical tale Craig. It’s remarkable how much I relate with the road you’ve plowed before me. It also stands as a reminder that often baggage is attached to belief systems, and my own baggage coupled with my Wesleyan emphasis on divine love, mercy and grace, prods me strongly to reject the traditional view of hell, to accept Conditionalism or possibly even “Evangelical Universalism” (both views I have grown more sympathetic toward over the past few months).

      But God help me if I ever end up in a place whereupon accepting Conditionalism I feel I can justly pass judgment upon everyone who has ever held to the traditional view. That would be hypocritical of me, to judge them of being incapable of having genuine relationships with the unsaved and to judge them of needing to grow in Christian ethics. All I have shown would be that it is I who needs to grow in Christian ethics and apply some humility to my own system.

      All belief systems “lead” somewhere. All belief systems have consequences. The goal is to accept the whole biblical testimony and to find balance or to put up a hedge. As you point out, Jesus, Paul, John and others found that balance. May we affirm what they believed without falling into the imbalance highlighted in these comments.

      I’m still trying to find that balance. I value the wisdom you have learned from your experiences and accept any guidance you can offer.

      • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/Commonplace_Holiness/Blog/Blog.html Craig L. Adams

        I appreciate the response, Derek. I can’t respond at length right now, but when I say conflicted that’s really what I mean. There’s a whole other side of this (for me at least), and the issues on the other side have to do with justice, and right and wrong. I like Chan and I like his book — and I’m trying to sort out what I agree with and what I don’t. (I think he’s onto something in Chapter 5. But, I’ve got major issues with Chapter 6.) But, over-all I appreciate what he’s trying to do with this book. And, because the book is actually informative (not just opinion) it should prove helpful to all of us who struggle with these issues.

  • Miana

    “The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty” (pg. 86).

    Doesn’t it ALARM you that Chan would even say this?! Does he not read the same Bible we all do? Hell is for eternity whether you call it everlasting or eternal. By saying he can’t claim that Hell is for eternity is heresey! People who have picked this book up have turned to that page and NOT bought it because of this. For a pastor to even dare write this is alarming at the very least.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Derek,

    I agree, and would not want to judge people for holding to the ECT view. Until about a year ago, that was my view. How hypocritical would it be for me to condemn those who believe it! That said, I do believe that those who hold to an exclusivist view point (which, as far as I’ve experienced, is almost always accompanied by belief in ECT) have serious problems with regard to their ethical understanding and action. That is my opinion. You are not saying that it is judgmental or condemning for someone to arrive at that conclusion are you? Just trying to understand some of your comments better… :)

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I believe you are not trying to judge, but listen to this statement: “To accept this viewpoint, I believe is to be doomed to a lifestyle governed by manipulation and ulterior motives, rather than love for the sake of the other.”

      Am I doomed to a lifestyle of ulterior motives? Am I in capable of loving others for the sake of loving others? You don’t know me personally, but hopefully you’ve read me enough to know that I am a pretty gunine fella and so I don’t think you would affirm that. So yes, I believe that statement comes off as judging with a big brush all ECT folks, though unintentionally. Now having said that, it would not be judgmental to reword your statement to say something like, “I believe that logically someone cannot have a genuine love for others without ulterior motives if they believe in ECT.” I would respect that comment and respecfully disagree. :)

  • Brian MacArevey

    Okay :)

    I can definitely see the need to re-word; and I am sorry for coming off as condescending. I do not know you personally, but from what I read here, I think that you do genuinely try to follow the Lord Jesus, to be gracious, and to listen to opposing views. My judgment comes in large part from my own experience and from being an exclusivist who held to ECT, and who was entirely unable to reconcile exclusivity with free gifts of charity which accurately model the cross of Christ.

    I wonder whether it is possible to do a work of charity for the sake of that work of charity alone, and for the sake of the other’s well-being alone, if one is doing that work of charity in order to move someone towards making a decision for Christ. Of course, the exclusivist sees the latter as a greater good, but from the perspective of the outsider, that work of charity will usually appear as an act of manipulation, something done in order to get them to join their club, and submit to some form of authority.

    I’m not sure what you think, but I think that the perspective of the outsider matters a great deal, and I am not sure that exclusivists can provide a viable solution to this conundrum. In my experience, exclusivists tend to brush off the mindset of the outsider, chalking it up to sin or something like that; but I am not so sure. I think that we should think about the possibility that this whole approach distorts the gospel.

    I am not trying to be rude with that last comment. I am as guilty as anyone of misrepresenting Christ. Maybe you can offer a better solution to the problem than I have come across as of yet. All I can say is that, even as a Christian, I have been in the position of the “outsider”, and I can tell you, from my perspective, the approach of the exclusivist (though they were sincere in their belief that what they were doing was both loving and in my best interest) came off as entirely unloving, in their own interest, and it looked nothing like the cross.

    Derek, I am open to conversation here. As you do, I only want to be a better Christian.

  • Josh
    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks Josh! That was very helpful. I think Chan is spot on with this statement:

      “I told Rob that some of the stuff that he writes needs to be heard, and the people who need to hear it won’t hear it because of the tone and some of the other things that he writes. He didn’t think that was the case.”

      Sometimes it’s not what is said, but how. Thanks for the link.