Calvinists and Hell: A Love Story

Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up

Calvinists seem to be really into hell.  I mean, really.  And, apparently Rob Bell is the new Dan Brown; his latest book is spurning a cottage industry of books from every yahoo with a Master’s Degree from their pastor’s basement.

Here’s an interview with Francis Chan about his Erasing Hell, a book written in response to something Rob Bell doesn’t do in his book.  And as I’ve said before, Bell’s book isn’t original in its arguments.  Check out Von Balthasar (or really, Origen), CS Lewis, or as my buddy Nick pointed out, Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? for better fare.

I don’t know much about Chan and he’s not currently on my reading list.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have valuable things to say, though I’ve become as suspicious of megachurch pastors as I am of the head chef at McDonald’s; when you’re serving that many people, the quality has to be in question.

Can you judge a book by a back cover?  I won’t go so far as to do what Bell’s opponents did – brand him a heretic and a universalist before the book was even released – but though I’m sure Chan is a well-meaning writer and a gifted speaker, I think I can smell some unpleasantness here on the back:

“Like you, sometimes [the authors] just don’t want to believe in hell.”  I don’t “believe” in hell.  I believe in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Hell describes life – here and into eternity – without that God.  But hell is no more central to my faith than it is to the Apostle’s Creed or, for that matter, the teachings of Jesus.  I believe in the Kingdom, in the triumph of grace, and the love of God for all.  Hell? I can’t ignore it, but I can “dare to hope” that that not many of my brothers and sisters get a bird’s eye view.

“It’s a book about what God says.”  If God already said it and it is that clear, why do we need a separate book?  If it were that simple, then Rob Bell never would have written a book whose sales incited such jealousy in the industry whose arguments so incensed Chan and Sprinkle.

The cover can’t be ignored either: “What God said about eternity, and the things we’ve made up.”  This is a convenient subtitle.  It indicates off the bat that whatever the authors are going to claim is straight from the mouth of God – itself an interesting take on biblical interpretation – and anything else that someone would say is purely and simply made up.  Sorry, Isaiah, it turns out that my thoughts are God’s thoughts (see chapter 55).

At the end of the day, hell is something so horrible and the ways of God so strange to my own that I think we cannot but leave room for questions, mystery, awe, and wonder.  Drawing easy lines about who will and will not be with God in the end to me misses what, to me, is a fundamental thrust in the Scriptures: God is constantly blessing those purported to be “outsiders” and calling those who think they are right with God to account.  (For instance, Jesus entrusts his message to tax collectors but calls the holy people vipers.) Hell seems to be a possibility most of all for those who know and heed not.  Those who think they have God figured out are constantly wrong, and their arrogance puts them at distance from God.

Let those with ears, hear.  May I be one of them.

15 thoughts on “Calvinists and Hell: A Love Story”

  1. There is only one condition previously required to those who desire admission into these societies, – a desire “to flee from the wrath to come . . . J. Wesley, 1743

    Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus in Matthew 13:40-42

    1. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” – Romans 5:18-19

      “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” – Romans 11:32

      Prooftexting is fun!

      I’m well aware of the one condition for admission into Wesley’s societies. But Wesley also shaped his movement around the radical Arminian claim that God’s grace was for all. His ministry at the edges of society backed up this claim, at a time when the church of England was not exactly on fire for evangelism.

      And nowhere did I say I don’t believe in hell, which seems to be the thrust of your quotations sans commentary. I just don’t think it’s as simple as the “turn or burn” theology I got from fundamentalism at a young age. I like Lewis’ version in The Great Divorce: hell is getting what you want, if what you want is to be left alone by God.

  2. Your post sounds awfully like Rob Bell. Seriously.

    I’ve not read anything by Chan, but I know a lot of Evangelicals love his _Crazy Love_. I’m grateful for him and Bell, as I think they help thoughtful Evangelicals identify doctrines that are not as biblical as they are often preached.

    I’ve heard that at one point Chan left a megachurch (18,000?) to pursue ministry in India and China. Maybe he’s more like the chefs at Olive Garden that go to Italy for training. (My cousin, a server at Olive Garden, assures me that that is a false claim, incidentally.)

  3. Looking forward this book. I’ve read Chan and listen to him speak via the net and I think I get an idea of his humility and Love for God. Lived in a small home, lives a humble life style, drove a scooter to work, and a man who seems to really seek after God in a refreshing real way. He sets a good example…

    Some just don’t care for mega church pastors which seems really unfair.

    The topic of hell is certanily a tough issue and goes againt our sense of fair play. What in the world is eternal punishment all about and it seems to go against all what we discover of Gods love and Grace. But why in the world is Satan around in the first place. And whats with Jesus dealing with demons in the NT and they themselves asking Jesus why He was tormenting them before their time? Lots of issue with hell. Is it a place, seperation from God’s love forever, or is it just a terrible story to get people to act right….

    It will be interesting to hear Chan in this book. I’m sure it wil be worth a read. I might add, many it seems, that lean toward universalism do at times take Scripture and speak it way out of context and the narritive to suit themselves. But then lot’s of folks do that….

  4. If there is no eternal hell, then there is no eternal heaven. Are we not made in the image of God? (ie…we were made to be eternal?)

    If those that reject the free gift of salvation cannot be reconciled through Christ in this life, and ‘it is appointed man once to die then judgment’, where should those unrepentant go?

    You may not believe in hell, but Jesus did. He spoke more about it than anyone else.

  5. Where did I say I didn’t believe in hell? I just don’t understand the neo-Calvinist fetishistic love for it. I don’t understand why they find it silly to ask, “What exactly do we mean by ‘hell’?” I don’t understand why some find the idea that many will perish less offensive than the idea that many might be saved.

    The main point is that there is strong Biblical foundation to view God’s judgment as first and foremost a danger to “insiders.” It was not the tax collectors Jesus went after – more often that not, it was the religious folks. That scares the hell out of me. Literally.

    1. Yes, I see your point completely; Christ came and lived a perfect life, suffered on the cross for the sins of many, and was resurrected so that when people put their faith and trust in him, he could bash them repeatedly on the head….all the while giving the unrepentant a free pass. Glad I don’t go to your church. PS: religious does not = saved.

  6. “To whom much is given, much is required.” That’s somewhere in the Bible, right? The point is that, surely, those who have heard the gospel and thus had the chance to reject it might be in greater danger than those who have never had the opportunity to reject it. At least, to my mind it make sense that God could have more trouble with the preached-at backslider than the ignorant Buddhist. I’m not saying “free pass,” I’m saying that perhaps there are degrees of accountability. And the very point that religious does not = saved reiterates all of this. What does it mean to be saved? James says that faith without works is dead. What about all the ‘Christian’ slaveowners in the 1850’s who went to church on Sunday – maybe they even read the King James Bible, went down the Roman Road after reading a tract, and prayed the sinner’s prayer – and then beat and raped their slaves upon returning home?

    I kind of wish you were in my church. We need people to push us. I doubt either of us is on track to change the mind of the other, but it’s fun.

  7. Jesus evidently had a ‘fetishistic’ love for it, as he spoke more about hell than anyone else.

    And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matt 10:28

    And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—Mark 9:45

    And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. Rev 20:15

    Show me the separation between the Bhuddist and the Backslider that rejected the gospel?

  8. Being ignorant of the gospel and rejecting the gospel are, categorically, not the same thing.

    The larger point is that judgment is God’s business, not mine. I think the question “what happens to a Buddhist when they die” is not up to me to answer. I do think a Christian – who, theoretically, loves our neighbors? – should at least hope that God would be merciful to many. You can call that “liberal” if you like, I suppose, but I just think it’s hoping for grace.

    Something like CS Lewis’ take in The Great Divorce is very appealing to me. Of course, he was an Anglican, so he probably isn’t saved…what with all the higher criticism and women clergy in that denomination.

  9. I’m not interested in what other men ‘think’ or ‘hope’ about salvation, justification, sanctification, and glorification. It only matters what the scriptures say. Jesus said that He was the only way, the only truth, and the only life. (JN 14:6)

    Outside of placing your faith in Jesus, there is no salvation. Whether or not that is merciful isn’t up to you are I, as we didn’t write the bible…God did. So being a liberal doesn’t make you not a Christian, I never said that. But liberalism is that slippery slope that leads unbelievers into a belief that the bible is subjective, that Jesus was just a man, and that God doesn’t really send people to hell.

  10. I understand that 2 Tim 3:16 is the classic prooftext, but it’s also circular reasoning. Paul, writing some of the earliest material in the NT, could not possibly be talking about the Bible as we understand it. He was talking about the received Hebrew canon, the Tanakh.

    Perhaps a better question is “Who decides what is Scripture?” I’m all for the notion that the Bible is the inspired Word, the infallible rule of faith and practice. But which Bible? The Catholic one? The Greek one? The Ethiopian Bible with over 80 books?

    To whit, there is no one Bible “authorized” by the church. Of course we use the Protestant canon, and the current fad is the NRSV. I like the old RSV better, but I use a wide variety. The New CEB is interesting, kind of an in-between the NIV and Message.

    Every translation is also an interpretation. I love the KJV, but the people who claim it is the only legit translation are bat-poop crazy.

  11. Apparently, God determined this. I mean, if He can speak the universe into existence, I’m sure He can make sure which books were included.

    The human process of collecting the books is another story.

    The Hebrew text was canonized as early as 270BC under Ptolemy Philedelphus II when he had the septuagint translate all the “OT” into Greek. Furthermore, that was ratified in 90AD by the council of Jamnia.

    The NT was first canonized by the Apostles themselves. Paul confirmed Luke’s writings (1 Tim 5:18, Deut 25:4, Luke 10:7), Peter confirmed Paul’s (2 Peter 3:15-16).

    The Early Church fathers Polycarp (disciple of John), and Iraneaus (disciple to Polycarp) confirmed that John wrote the Revelation around the time of Domitian.

    The Muratorian Canon was compiled by 170AD, and only excluded Hebrews, John 3, and James.

    By the 4th century, we have confirmed the same NT that we have today, except that the Roman Catholics would come to include the Apocrypha, where weren’t scriptural either to the Jews, nor to Jesus. (see Matt 23:35, when Jesus mentions all those killed between Abel and Zachariah son of Barachiah). That effectively excludes the time period the Apocrypha was written.

    The only reason the RC church thinks they can include the Apocrypha, is because they think they canonized scripture.

    As to the Translations, you can go back and match up what we read in English with the original Greek and Hebrew. The Dead Sea Scrolls confirm probably one of the more controversial books, Isaiah, as virtually the same as what we read today.

    So, your excuse that “we can’t know” is pretty lame, esp coming from a pastor.

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