Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Erasing Hell - Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle

I have been waiting to form an opinion about Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins, which I read last year, until I read this response.  Neither book has gone without buzz in the Christian community.  Erasing Hell has garnered particular attention in my circle of friends because Preston Sprinkle taught at the university I attended and now work at.  In fact, a lot of my friends had class with him.  His bike kept getting stolen, leading to a campus wide joke.  In this book, it is Sprinkle's research combined with Francis Chan's story-telling that argues for the existence of hell.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding this and Bell's work, let me give you an abbreviated version before I share my thoughts.  Last year, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Baptist Church in Michigan, wrote a book entitled Love Wins.  The general concept of the book is that God will, in the end, love people enough that He will offer those who have rejected Him in this life a second (or endless) chance to accept His gift of love.  In simpler terms, Bell suggests that there is no place of eternal suffering which we call hell.  Chan and Sprinkle, in response to Bell's book, wrote Erasing Hell, an exploratory study into what Scripture has to say about hell.

The first thing that I noticed about this book is that its message is backed by immense amounts of research and history.  Sprinkle and Chan did not mess around when it came to defending their point.  To me, their earnest tone was honest and forthright.  They understand what a tough subject this is and are just as hesitant to tackle and accept it as the rest of us, yet they also recognize what how crucial their subject matter is.  As they point out, this is not one of those theological debates where, in the end, it does not really matter who is right.  Rather, this debate is literally one of life and death.  Their intense study of Scripture and other historical documents and knowledge show how seriously they took this task.  

One of my fears about reading this book is that the authors would attack Rob Bell overtly for his stance.  It can be so easy for us to lash out at those we disagree with.  Yet, unsurprisingly, Chan - who also authored Crazy Love - and Sprinkle write respectfully of Bell's work and their tone is never one of attack.  Even when they are directly disputing points Bell made in Love Wins, they handle themselves with grace and tact, a feat which, though I am certain was not easily accomplished, fits perfectly with the heartfelt tone of the book.  Bell gets his first mention on page 23 and from there is brought up on a regular basis; this is fitting since Erasing Hell is really a direct response to Love Wins.  

I do not want this post to turn into repetition of all the book says.  There are, however, a few quotes that I want to highlight for you that were challenging to me.  Take them as you will.  
"Don't believe something just because you want to, and don't embrace an idea just because you've always believed it.  Believe what is biblical.  Test all your assumptions against the precious words God gave us in the Bible." (page 14)*
I agree with this statement whole-heatedly.  My time spent studying at a Christ-centered university solidified this for me.  I have come to realize in the past six years (since graduating high school) that there were a number of things that I believed simply because they were traditionally taught in my church growing up.  While they were not wrong or evil beliefs, they should not have been faith-defining, die-on-this-hill type issues.  Teaching on hell is not one of those issues for me in particular.  However, it is always good to approach an subject with a fresh mind, ready to accept the words of the Bible as they are.
"I now speak against this idea of simply praying a prayer as fire insurance - I just don't see it anywhere in Scripture." (page 15)*
This is another huge one for me.  This is how I was raised.  Get the people down the aisle at whatever cost, get the numbers, get the card filled out.  I have seen so many people with the mentality that as long as the "convert" prays the prayer, they are good.  We do no follow-up with them.  When they join our church, we judge them for their clothes, their lifestyle, their sin - whatever it is that they needed saved from in the first place.  I have seen "new believers" walk away from the church just as quickly as they signed up because of this attitude.  Now, this is another topic entirely, but I think it bears mentioning.  If we are truly concerned about saving people from hell, we should be working with them to change their life, not just repeat a prayer after us at a youth rally or special service. Does God work through those things and bring people to Him in that way?  Absolutely.  Does mumbling a few repeated words after someone save you?  No, I do not believe so.  Salvation comes from the heart; it comes from a true and fervent belief that Christ has saved you from your sin and from the punishment of an eternity apart from Him.  To me, a true belief like that is going to have implications in the way people live their lives.  And we, as those who know Him already, need to be discipling them and teaching them and loving them.  We should never just get them to prayer a prayer and then send them on their way.  Ok, soap-box over.
"Paul's point is not that Timothy is to pray for every single person who ever lived, and neither is it that God has decreed that He will save everyone.  The point of 1 Timothy 2 and other passages like it (e.g. 2 Peter 3:9) is that God is not a bigot; He's not a racist; He loves to reverse social-class distinctions because His love knows no boundaries.  The gospel has broken down all ethnic and socioeconomic barriers through the cross of Jesus Christ, as Paul says elsewhere (Eph. 2:11-22)." (page 33)*
Amen.  This one speaks for itself.  Salvation is available to anyone.
"One day, Christ will come back and there will be an amazing worship celebration - with African bongos, Indian sitars, and an ensemble of Mariachi trumpets - where every tribe, tongue, nation, and color will bow the knee to their King and celebrate!  If this sounds irritating, then go back and read Matthew 8.  It's written for you." (page 120)*
Love this image!  There is absolutely nothing that thrills my soul more than looking forward to the day when every follower of Christ has the chance to see Him and worship Him together.  If worship services with several thousand are powerful now, imagine rejoicing with millions.  To describe it as epic does not even scratch the surface of my imagination. 
"No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus." (page 35)*
This book was so challenging to me.  At times like the one above, it was very uncomfortable to read.  I have dear friends and even family members who, if Chan,Sprinkle, and millions of others throughout history have interpreted Scripture correctly, will be spending eternity in torment.  It can be so easy for us to dismiss the idea of hell because we do not want to deal with its reality.  We brush it aside so that we can continue with life and not "push" our beliefs onto others. Yet, if we take God at His Word, there is no second chance for the ones we love.  What are we doing about that?
"Would you have thought to rescue sinful people from their sins by sending your Son to take on human flesh?  Would you have thought to enter creation through the womb of a young Jewish woman and be born in a feeding trough?  Would you have thought to allow your created beings to torture your Son, lacerate His flesh with whips, and then drive nails through His hands and feet?  Parents, imagine it. I'm almost sure I would not have done that if I were God." (page 135)*
"It's not about figuring out all the mysteries of God, but embracing Him and cherishing Him - even when He doesn't make perfect sense to us." (page 137)* 
This quote cannot capture the point Chan is trying to make here.  This chapter of the book deals with the struggle between our desire for a loving God and the reality of a just God.  God is both.  God is complex.  We cannot understand Him.  Chan and Sprinkle work their way forward through the Old Testament, listing off circumstances that we consider atrocities and struggle to reconcile with the God we know.  They point out that they would have done none of those things.  As I read, I resounded more and more with each one.  Then, the paragraph above.  Clearly, we know nothing of God.  He is GOD.  His ways are higher than ours and He does not do things according to our plan - hallelujah!  We cannot understand Him and, yes, there are parts of Him that we would rather apologize for than accept, yet He is who He is.  At the end of the day, I can only trust His plan and support it because I believe that He is sovereign.  I do not have to reconcile that with who I want Him to be.  I only have to accept Him as He is.  (Sidebar: Don't those last two sentences that sound like marriage?  Lately in my life, God has been presenting me with more and more parallels between my relationship with him and marriage. It's like He's trying to prepare me for something. 185 days!)

So there you have it.  My thoughts on Erasing Hell.  Really, though, I still feel as though I have only scratched the surface.  I implore you to read this book, particularly if you have read Love Wins.  We cannot change God or His Word to fit into our ideal worldview.  Our only option is to study Scripture and pursue Him with ardent desire.  This book was such good exercise for my brain, but also for my soul.  

Pages: 208
Date Finished: April 18, 2012

*All pages numbers were taken from the Kindle edition of Erasing Hell

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