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Erasing Hell, What God said about eternity, and the things we’ve made up

By Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

David C. Cook, 2011

While I occasionally read books soon after release, more often I am behind the times – reading a book several years after the hoopla. Erasing Hell was written by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in response to the book Love Wins by Rob Bell. Remember all that commotion? But the topic remains a debated one.

Chan’s writing style is paramount in the book, his typical heart-felt passion or genuine care/concern comes through. Chan recruited Sprinkle as his co-author to bring a more academic voice to it. Yet the book is for laypeople. It does touch on issues that would typically be reserved for academic books but appropriately introduces the issues and reserves details for endnotes at the end of each chapter. It is actually a brief book for such a topic, 150 pages, and this includes the endnotes that some people may skip over. There is an additional 11-page appendix that answers seven FAQ’s about hell.

I’m sure some have criticized the book as “not enough” but the authors had a purpose in mind. As they state in the appendix, they realize the issue of hell raises many questions but they wanted to keep the book focused and a reasonable length. Therefore, while some things were discussed in detail, others were brushed over. (I can relate with my own book – there were times I wanted to go deeper but decided against it for similar reasons of brevity and focus.) So…don’t expect this book to be something not intended by the authors.

But let’s finally talk about the book…It begins with a brief overview of Christian universalism, and their concerns with it. They address 4 New Testament passages that can be used to support universalism, and explain how these passages are mis-used. They also emphasize that the Bible does not teach there is a “second chance” after death for salvation.

The 2nd chapter explains typical Jewish beliefs about hell at the time of Jesus. This context is important as these beliefs are what Jesus and his audience would have been familiar with. The Old Testament does not contain much about the afterlife, but the typical belief was that after the wicked die, they go to a place called hades or sheol (not the same thing as hell) where they await judgment day. After judgment day, they are thrown into hell as punishment for their sins. There are brief excerpts from Jewish writings in the time span of second century BC to first century AD, and this punishment is described in ways such as: pit of torment, fire, blazing flames, darkness, place of destruction. While there were different Jewish views on its duration, the existence of a place of punishment for the wicked was nearly universal.

The point Chan and Sprinkle are trying to make is that if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in a place of punishment for the wicked, then Jesus would have needed to clearly and deliberately argue against it. Jesus was certainly not afraid of going against some commonly held Jewish ideas. But Jesus taught similar things about hell as his Jewish contemporaries.

This is covered in the 3rd chapter, entitled “What Jesus actually Said About Hell.” Note that I have referred a couple times not to “hell” but to a “place of punishment for the wicked.” There is purpose here. The concept of something can be clear, without using the word itself. For example, in Matthew 25 Jesus states that believers are awarded everlasting life, while unbelievers awarded everlasting punishment. The word hell is not used, but the concept is there. Same for other passages where Jesus used images such as fire and darkness.

The book delves a bit into the word gehenna, translated as hell 12 times in the Gospels. Apparently Rob Bell sometimes refers to hell as simply “hells on earth” – that is, tragedies we suffer in this life – rather than it being a place of punishment after death. And Bell suggests that when Jesus used the word gehenna, he was only referring to a garbage dump outside Jerusalem where Jews threw their trash. Chan and Sprinkle point out several problems with this.

“First, it is misleading because it confuses the source of an idea for the idea itself. Just because Jesus’ description of hell may have been inspired by the image of a burning garbage dump (if it was) doesn’t mean that he is referring to the actual garbage dump when he uses the word gehenna.” (page 59)

Note if it was. Chan and Sprinkle argue that the “gehenna is a garbage dump” idea is inaccurate and the theory stands on very shaky evidence. There is no evidence from the time of Jesus that the Hinnom Valley (gehenna) was the town dump. This is a legend from the Middle Ages, from the writings of a rabbi in 1200 AD.

The Hinnom Valley in the Old Testament was where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. When Jeremiah began to preach, the Hinnom valley started to take on a metaphorical reference for the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast. For first-century Jews, this place would have been a fitting analogy for God punishing the wicked in hell. When Jesus used this vocabulary, his contemporary listeners would not have missed the point.

There is a section that covers whether hell is a place of annihilation or eternal punishment. I appreciated the honesty of Chan and Sprinkle here. They look at different verses, and then summarize: “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.” (page 86) But Chan and Sprinkle warn us not to miss the point! Despite some uncertainty about hell’s duration, it is nonetheless spoken of as a terrifying destiny.

Since this review is already pretty long, I’ll be brief with the last chapters. Chapter 4 covers what other New Testament authors (besides Jesus) said about hell. Paul never used the word hell, and some who are opposed to hell will emphasize this. Yet, again, the concept of something can be there without using the word itself. Paul did refer frequently to the fate of the wicked in “unpleasant” terminology such as: perish, destroy, wrath, and punish.

The final chapters get a bit more practical or personal. Such as chapter 5 entitled “What does this have to do with me?”  The topic of hell can become nothing but fodder for debate and we miss the point. We can forget about Jesus, and living a holy life for Him. Some Christians will fight hard to defend the literalness of Jesus’ words about hell, but soften his words about other things – like helping the poor. Another chapter addresses Romans 9. If we all need mercy, and God grants it to some and not others, who is responsible – us or God? Another can of worms, but I thought they handled it well in one chapter.

Chan emphasizes that this wasn’t really a book he wanted to write, but it was necessary. If you are excited about a book about hell, you have a problem! It is a topic that many of us may want to avoid and feel uneasy about. Some of us are apologizing for God, as Chan says in one part of the book. But we shouldn’t be apologizing for God. While we should not be excited or eager to talk about hell, neither can we ignore this hard truth. If Rob Bell’s book (or others) have made you doubt hell, this book is a “good” place to begin. I recommend it.