Tuesday, June 7, 2011

If You Erase Hell, You Don't Have a Gospel

Francis Chan has joined the conversation about hell, spurred on by Rob Bell's "Love Wins." In the book, Chan apparently looks at the scriptural view of eternity and "the things we've made up." Take a look at the video introduction that Chan gives. It's pretty good. Chan has said some things in the past that haven't sat well with me, but he's also said a lot of stuff I agree with. Most notably from this short clip, when talking about things like hell or eternity, Chan says that people often say things like, "I could never believe in a God that..." or "My God doesn't..." fill in the blank. Chan notes that when people say things like this, they're actually subverting God's knowledge with their own reasoning. In other words, they're saying that they know better than God (or, as Ray Comfort would say, they've fashioned a god in their own image - one that is acceptable to them). But, like Chan says, God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways. So when something like hell doesn't seem to make sense, we need to remember that that's to be expected for a lot of theological topics. God simply doesn't think the way we do (you can read the Relevant Magazine interview with Chan here).

I first heard of Chan's literary endeavors by way of the Huffington Post. John Shore, their religion blogger, wrote this post completely slamming Chan "and his ilk" for their views on hell. Shore says that in reality, all anyone who talks definitively about hell is doing is fear mongering. They're just trying to get their way by using fear. Shore says that most people who reject Christianity do so because of the doctrine of hell - they can't believe in a God that would submit anyone to eternal punishment. Shore further argues (using "flawless logic") that, since Christians can't have certainty on an issue like hell, and since a Christian can be wrong about hell and still go to heaven, and since the doctrine of hell turns of so many would-be believers, then "evangelicals should shut-up about hell."

There are an immensity of flaws in Shore's so-called "flawless logic." First, it assumes that John Shore's understanding of hell is universal. He makes conclusions based on what he believes and applies them to everyone. Admittedly, this is hard to get away from in any argument, considering we all have our own beliefs and think and operate out of them. Even conclusions I draw about hell (as you will see further down this post) are based on my own beliefs (but I think I have good reasons for believing them). So to ever insist that your thinking is "flawless" is arrogant and almost certainly incorrect, to say the least.

Secondly, it presupposes that a person can be wrong about the existence of hell and go to heaven. This is a significant theological presupposition. Can a person not believe in hell and still rightly believe the gospel? My first inclination would be to say that no, a person cannot be truly saved without believing in hell. To not believe in hell and eternal punishment for sin would be to not fully understand the gospel. If Jesus came to earth to die and save sinners from God's wrath and eternal punishment for sin (which, admittedly, is my own theological presupposition, but is one that is shared by orthodoxy and history), then believing in hell is part of believing the gospel. If there's no hell, then why do I even need to be saved? For a better life? For inner peace? Nope. None of those things pan out (using flawless logic, of course). And what do I need to be saved from? Why do I even need a Savior? A little bit of logical thinking through scripture and the logic of the gospel demands that hell be a reality. The gospel doesn't work - nor is it worthy of believing - if there is no hell.

Thirdly, Shore implies that Christians should preach a palatable message to the masses, rather than something that might turn them off. According to Shore, since people are so turned off by the doctrine of hell, we shouldn't say anything about it. Well, the problem with this is that the gospel, by nature, turns people off. Again, I think I have orthodoxy, tradition, and history - let alone scripture - on my side here. Nowhere in the Bible is the gospel described as something that is easy to accept. It essentially tells those who would believe it that they've pretty much been wrong about everything in their life up until now, and that they are worthless sinners, deserving of eternal punishment. Who wants to hear that? That's not much of a warm and fuzzy! The good news though, of course, is that Jesus came and died to take the punishment you deserved so that you could live forever with God. But in order to believe that good news, you first have to admit to and believe the bad news. Believing the gospel takes an inhuman amount of humility, so no, it's not easy to hear, and yes, it absolutely turns people off. But to tweak the message to make it easier to receive is to distort the meaning of it. Yes, people are turned off by hell. That's kind of the point.

Another thing that got me about Shore's article is that it did exactly what so many people criticized conservative evangelicals for when Rob Bell's book came out. There were an incredible amount of Bell supporters that blasted anyone who dared critique Bell, his book, or his ideas before the book actually came out. There were people accusing others of attacking the man without engaging in edifying debate, and not hearing him out before condemning him. Well, it looks like that rule only goes one way, considering Chan's book won't come out until July. Hey liberals: since you're so concerned with hearing people out before they're criticized for their ideas, I'd like John Shore's head on a platter, please. Oh wait, that's not going to happen.

I wish that someone would write a book talking about the essential nature of the doctrine of hell to the overarching message of the gospel. That's what we need to understand. Actually, such a book probably already exists, but it most certainly wasn't written by a hipster in Christian pop culture, so it will therefore get absolutely no attention. That's a shame. But we don't really need Rob Bell, Francis Chan, or anyone else to write a book for us about hell. God already took care of that. Let's read that book and come up with some ideas about hell. What we read should cause us to think seriously about hell. What I like about Chan's approach is that it takes this topic seriously. He says that if there's even a possibility of hell, we've got a lot of thinking and praying to do, which I think is a good suggestion.

1 comment:

Linda Fischer said...

Good post, Joel. Totally agree. haven't read Chan's book, but I can tell you from what you've said, I'm more in agreement with him than I am with Bell!