God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2011
203 pp., 12.99
Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up
Preston Sprinkle; Francis Chan
David C. Cook, 2011
208 pp., 14.99
How to Talk About Hell
Rob Bell, as you may have heard, sympathizes with those who have left the church because of their discomfort with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Alas, he seems to lack sympathy for people still in the church who believe in a God who sends unbelievers to hell.
"How could that God be good?" Bell asks. "How could that God ever be trusted? How could the gospel be good news?"
Bell's critique has been a shot across the evangelical bow, sparking continuing discussion and a mini-publishing boom in response. Two books that answer Bell charitably and forcefully are God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins, by Mark Galli; and Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up, by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. Both books agree with Bell that our understanding of hell hinges on what we make of God's character.
Chan can relate to Bell's discomfort with the traditional doctrine. "I have been embarrassed by some of God's actions," Chan admits in Erasing Hell. "In my arrogance I believed I could make Him more attractive or palatable if I covered up some of His actions. So I neglected speaking on certain passages, or I would rush through certain statements God made in order to get to the ones I was comfortable with. The ones I knew others would like."
Galli, after counting 86 questions in just the first chapter of Love Wins, questions the fruitfulness of humans putting God in the dock. Christianity Today's senior managing editor reminds readers that
the really important question is not the question we ask God but the question he asks us … "Who do you say that I am?" The answer to that question is revealed on the cross. And until we embrace this answer, none of our questions even make sense, none of the questions raised in Love Wins can be properly addressed, and none of the answers the Bible supplies will satisfy. Until we comprehend who God is, all our questions are like chasing after the wind.
Chan, a pastor and author of the popular book Crazy Love, and Sprinkle, a New Testament scholar, agree that we must be willing "to embrace a God who isn't always easy to understand." (Erasing Hell, though co-authored, is written in Chan's voice.)
Both books bend over backwards to express appreciation for Bell's role in bringing the uncomfortable doctrine of hell out into the open. To avoid the "tendency to recreate Jesus in our own image," Chan and Sprinkle carefully examine what the Bible actually says about hell, suggesting that as faithful readers of Scripture we need to "soak ourselves in the Bible's own culture."
First, Chan and Sprinkle address Bell's contention that hell isn't an eternal place of torment for unbelievers after they die but is instead a catch-all title for the many "hells on earth" that people create. They call Bell's description of the biblical hell (gehenna) as a literal garbage dump outside Jerusalem "misleading and inaccurate." They demonstrate that Jesus' contemporaries "believed that hell was a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God's judgment," using "imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament," and "a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment." If Jesus had a different view, they tellingly write, "then He would certainly need to be clear about this."
However, I find the authors' discussion of the possibility of annihilation—largely based on the biblical word for destruction—to be unconvincing. Destruction need not imply nonexistence. After all, a wrecking ball can destroy a building—leaving a large pile of rubble where the structure once stood—without vaporizing it. Couldn't God also destroy sinners without making them disappear?
An online dictionary defines destroy as meaning "to reduce (an object) to useless fragments, a useless form, or remains, as by rending, burning, or dissolving; injure beyond repair or renewal; demolish; ruin; annihilate." Annihilation is perhaps a possible conclusion about God's judgment, but not a necessary one. In any case, these authors firmly reject Bell's hope for a postmortem change of heart and say that fearsome suffering begins at death and ultimately awaits the unsaved on Judgment Day.
After marshaling the evidence, contra Bell, that hell is much more than the misery we create for ourselves on this earth, Chan confesses his own reluctance to believe it and preach it, admitting that his view of God needs expanding. "I really believe," Chan says, "it's time for some of us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself."
Galli agrees that the dominant metaphors for hell in the Bible are fire, darkness, destruction, and exclusion from God's presence—though he says the exact nature of hell is unclear. Both books look at the account of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 and note that if the "eternal life" Jesus talks about lasts forever, then so does the "eternal punishment" (at least in its consequences). Galli makes the further point that it is Jesus who "is revealed to be the one through whom judgment will finally take place."
Chan and Sprinkle excel in asking the "So what?" question. If hell is real, then what does it mean for our lives? Do we really believe? How do our lives point to our true eternal destination? Bell often presents people who believe in a literal hell as arrogant. Chan, however, is painfully introspective, asking whether he really cares about the people at the local Starbucks whose eternal destinies hang in the balance.
Neither God Wins nor Erasing Hell takes on Bell personally, leaving the question of whether he is a universalist to others. Galli simply discusses what Love Wins says. Chan and Sprinkle mainly engage Bell's specific arguments in the notes. But while Bell styles himself as a radical who is uprooting conventional theological notions, Galli sees him as thoroughly evangelical—and thoroughly American, at that.
Bell asserts that life in God is about "stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest." In a brilliant insight, Galli notes that Bell is portraying God not as the Sovereign of the universe but as the Agent who gets things done for us. "I don't want to disparage all this, because as far as it goes, it is pretty good news," Galli writes. "God does marvelous things in our lives. But this is not the gospel. It leaves us trapped in self." And this self-absorption seems a particularly American trait. "This problem is pandemic in evangelical Christianity," Galli observes. Echoing John Piper, Galli reminds us that God himself, not the stuff he gives us, is our ultimate good.
Another problem pandemic in American culture is the deification of individual choice, and Galli says Bell falls in line here, too, noting that Love Wins treats the human will as if it never fell.
Given such emphatic differences in our understandings of God, human nature, and scriptural interpretation, is there a way forward for evangelicals—including, I greatly hope, Rob Bell? How might love win in this situation? The answer, like our understanding of the afterlife, is necessarily clouded.
As many have noted before, evangelical religion is non-hierarchical. There are no popes or councils offering a definitive word on theological controversies. If you don't like your church's teaching, you are free to start a new one, one that emphasizes what you think are the key points in the biblical story. If a Christian publisher doesn't feel comfortable with your book, you are free to take it elsewhere.
What about dialogue or debate? Might Wheaton College or Fuller Seminary, evangelical institutions where Bell has studied, organize a gathering—something we evangelicals are always good at? But Bell has proven himself to be maddeningly elusive when others have attempted to pin him down on precisely what he means—in print or behind the camera.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying. If Scripture is still a cornerstone of our movement, then doctrine matters, and so does clarity. But the last thing we need is a heresy trial (or the semblance thereof, conducted by self-appointed inquisitors). We could do worse than to take note of Galli's appendix on charitable engagement in God Wins. Freely airing our differences, and our agreements, in a public forum might be the best way to lovingly honor the Lord we all claim.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker), and coauthor, with Jerry Root, of The Sacrament of Evangelism (Moody). He blogs at stanguthrie.com.
1. Bell asks these questions in the promotional video for Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011). They also appear in Love Wins.
2. For more on questions, see my study All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker, 2010).
3. In a subsequent online conversation, Galli and Chan both express a "leaning" toward belief in annihilation rather than conscious eternal punishment while agreeing that the biblical witness leaves us with "agnosticism" on this point.
4. See John Piper, God Is the Gospel (Crossway, 2005).
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.