Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle.
Title of Review: Good Book; Insufficient Contra Universalism
I originally posted this review on Amazon.com. I noticed a few typos there, and have revised as many as I noticed. (Perhaps I will get to revising the typos on my Amazon review of the book as well.) I have also expanded parts of the review in ways I considered useful. Again, maybe I will find time to update the Amazon review, as well. At any rate, questions, comments, and constructive criticisms are welcome, as always.
I’ve held to a form of what I call “eschatological christological universalism” (“ECU” for short in this review) for almost a year now. A couple of essays, one by David Bentley Hart (God, Creation, and Evil) and another by George MacDonald (Justice) hit me hard enough to make me consider revising entirely my previous two views of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) and annihilation, the views that Erasing Hell advocates. Since then, I’ve familiarized myself with the views of Origen, J. A. T. Robinson, Jürgen Moltmann, Robin Parry, Thomas Talbott, William Barclay, and as many other Christian universalists as I could find both in print (such as Moltmann’s seminal work on Christian eschatology, The Coming of God and its argument for ECU on pages 235-255) and on the Internet. Having re-read much of the entire Bible–particularly the parts dealing with hell in the latter Hebrew prophets and the Christian New Testament–I have found no compelling reasons to revise my belief in the ECU position.
One of my friends from college, who does not favor ECU, recommended this book to me about a week ago. He told me that he does not see ECU in the Bible. “If the Bible is an argument,” my friend said, “I don’t see it ending with the salvation of everyone.” He said I should read Erasing Hell to challenge my views. Because I believe deeply that one should seek the truth–which is in Christian thinking synonymous with the figure of Christ (John 14:6)–and follow it, I decided to order the book and let its pages challenge me.
What I love about Erasing Hell is that it is written on a popular level in a way that is well-researched and backed by contemporary scholarly literature. If Love Wins–a similar book by Rob Bell, which I have also read–had an Achilles heel, it was its lack of reference to scholarly literature and its largely superficial interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. (I am not sure that any serious Koine scholar–except perhaps William Barclay–would consider it responsible to give the Attic Greek “kolasis” its classical definition as a remedial punishment.) By recruiting a formal New Testament scholar, Preston Sprinkle, who has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Aberdeen; and by conversing with several other leaders in the field (including no less than Simon Gathercole from Cambridge University!), Chan demonstrated an academic–and indeed, spiritual–eagerness to address the important and emotionally disturbing issues of hell and divine punishment. Indeed, this was the shining strength of the book, and I confess that for this reason, I actually prefer Erasing Hell to Love Wins, even though I’m a universalist. Erasing Hell simply brought more scholarly flavor to the hell debate.
Having said these things, I will briefly discuss what I believe to be the strengths and weaknesses of Erasing Hell.
Strength 1: Erasing Hell is pastoral
I love the very pastoral leanings of Erasing Hell. Chan and Sprinkle are quite forthright about their own desires. They admit to sympathizing with universalism and wishing that all people would be saved. I appreciated this a lot. They also made it clear that the issue of hell is not about “who’s in” and “who’s out.” It’s about where we stand in regards to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Strength 2: Erasing Hell is well-researched
I mentioned this a bit in my introductory statements, and it’s worth repeating. For a popular, entry-level book, Erasing Hell is extremely well-researched. I remember being disappointed that Love Wins did not have any real bibliography. Erasing Hell, on the other hand, had a bibliography of at least twenty sources, including scholarly giants like Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, I. Howard Marshall, Douglas Moo, Gregory K. Beale, and Craig S. Keener, all of whom are extremely influential and credible New Testament scholars. These references and names demonstrated to me that Chan and Sprinkle were certainly not fooling around.
In addition to citing these big names in New Testament who do not favor universal salvation, Chan and Sprinkle did an impressive job of addressing the ideas of some scholars who have favored universalist eschatology. Perhaps the biggest names in “evangelical universalism” are Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry. Thomas Talbott wrote The Inescapable Love of God. I also remember reading a debate one time that Thomas Talbott had with John Piper that was very interesting. (For the record, I think that Talbott’s case was better by far.) Talbott has also debated William Lane Craig in the form of scholarly articles, so he’s definitely a loud voice in Christian Universalism. Robin Parry wrote a book called The Evangelical Universalist under the pen name “Gregory MacDonald,” which Chan and Sprinkle also cite. (The pen name is derived from Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald, two figures often claimed to have supported universal salvation.) It meant a lot to me, as a universalist myself, that these prominent figures were cited. I considered it a compliment to my own position.
But perhaps the real academic treat in Erasing Hell is its extensive treatment of the ancient texts of the Bible and the Second Temple Judaism contemporary to Jesus and the early church. Chapter two of the book was completely devoted to painting a first century picture of hell (Gehenna) through the eyes of Second Temple Judaism. Honestly, this chapter was probably my favorite part of the book. Since I’ve believed in universalism (ECU) for a while, I pretty much know what all of the relevant biblical passages regarding hell and divine punishment do and do not say. Nothing that Chan and Sprinkle said in regards to the biblical literature was news to me. (In fact, I will address some of the weaknesses of their position and arguments later in this review.) The really new information that I received came from this chapter about Second Temple Jewish concepts of hell. It was fascinating and enlightening. Thumbs up for Chan and Sprinkle here.
Finally, Erasing Hell did an overall excellent job of addressing the linguistic issues of the original Greek of the New Testament. The words aion and aionios (conventionally translated “age” and “everlasting,” respectively) were both addressed. (They did concede, as was correct and appropriate, that aionios does not always mean “everlasting.”) Kolasis was also dealt with in a way I found to be responsible and convincing. Once again, great job Chan and Sprinkle.
In conclusion to strength 2: with an impressive bibliography, extensive references to the primary and secondary literature, and an excellent treatment of the relevant linguistic issues, Erasing Hell established itself to my mind as one of the finest entry-level treatments of hell out there today.
Strength 3: Erasing Hell is Hopeful
The concluding chapter to Erasing Hell was timely and appropriate. After advocating a dogmatic–I mean “dogmatic” in its formal sense; not whatsoever in a derogatory sense–position in favor of an eternal conscious torment (ECT) or annihilationist perspective on hell (the fact they were open to annihilation is itself worthy of respect), they closed the book with a chapter called “Don’t Be Overwhelmed.” Here, a decidedly hopeful outlook was offered for the reader from 2 Corinthians 5. “Be reconciled to God.” Chan and Sprinkle rightly offer the comfort of God in the face of what is arguably (inarguably?) a cosmic moral evil: the permanent loss of any creature from God. How can we trust a God to be loving who sends people to irreversible punishment, whether ECT or annihilation? (Chan and Sprinkle lead by example here.) I am so glad that they ended this heavy book with a meditation on hope; the Christian God has come to overflow us with hope (Romans 15:13).
Having covered what I believe to be the three most important strengths of Erasing Hell, I will now address some of its weaknesses. To my disappointment and despite its many virtues, Erasing Hell contains dramatic flaws.
Weakness 1: Erasing Hell’s case Contra Universalism is Insufficient
It seemed to me that Chan and Sprinkle could not imagine the possibility that hell and judgment could co-exist with the salvation of all creatures. This reminds me of Emil Brunner’s response to Karl Barth’s universalism, which is cited by Jürgen Moltmann in his essay “The Restoration of All Things” in his book The Coming of God. Brunner insisted that the Bible teaches judgment, but not universal salvation. Moltmann points out (to my mind correctly) that Brunner ignores the possibility that the salvation of every person and demon (including the Devil) could actually result from their judgment. In my opinion, Chan and Sprinkle do not sufficiently engage with this possibility. (Honestly, I really wish they had referenced Jürgen Moltmann. To my mind, Moltmann’s argument for universalism is by far one of the most compelling. Hans Urs von Balthasar also has some very interesting thoughts on universalism.)
I suspect that there are some important reasons, however, why Chan and Sprinkle do not consider universalism seriously as an option. For one thing, the universalists they do cite, like Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, have espoused some views that even I as a universalist myself would consider strange. Talbott thinks that the Apostle Paul clearly taught universalism in his surviving letters. (If Paul did teach universalism, I do not believe he taught it clearly. The closest he got to it is all too easy to interpret otherwise.) Parry similarly suggests that Revelation teaches universalism. The problem with this is that most evangelical scholars can (and do) easily write these approaches off. (To be honest, I currently do not believe that the Bible teaches universalism in straightforward terms, but that universalism is a logically and aesthetically necessary corollary of the gospel, whose alternatives are by comparison totally incomprehensible.)
Anyways. What I am trying to say is that evangelical theology, exegesis, and culture is currently framed such that universalism is a contradiction of terms. It is little wonder that Chan and Sprinkle, steeped in the conservative evangelical tradition as they are, cannot take universalism seriously.
In my view, it ought to be emphasized that tradition does not equal authority. (Paul Copan seemed to say something like this in his book on Old Testament ethics.) Just because the Bible does not clearly teach universal salvation–or biological evolution, for that matter–does not mean that they aren’t true.
To borrow one of Chan’s phrases, what if God is far bigger than we ever imagined, with an even better sense of justice? What if God really desires to save all in Christ? Perhaps Paul’s comments in Romans 11 about the pleroma of Jews and Gentiles, about imprisonment and mercy (11:32) ultimately lead to universalism even if Paul himself was not aware of that at the time of his writing the letter to the Romans. What if the Second Temple Jewish beliefs about hell with which Jesus superficially agreed–how are we to presume, as Chan and Sprinkle do axiomatically, whether or not Jesus did in fact agree with the contemporary Jewish concepts of hell’s duration and finality?–are undermined by the gospel of his absorption of hell (Godforsakenness) onto himself on his cross? Did not Jesus say in Matthew 11:19 that “wisdom is justified by her deeds?” (He did not say that universalistic positions on hell are justified by his clarity on the subject.) Wisdom is justified by her deeds, and it is impossible for me to imagine how Christ’s greatest deeds on the cross and in the tomb are not in themselves a total justification for his complete victory over death and the powers that hold sway over all creation and, consequently, all creatures.
Weakness 2: The Axiom of Clarity
As I mentioned above, Chan and Sprinkle assume axiomatically that if there is an element of the 1st Century Jewish belief in hell that Jesus did not share completely, he should have made any divergence whatsoever that he may of had totally explicit. Let us quickly test this axiom.
One might say in passing that Jesus may ought to have made many things he said more explicit. For example, why not explain to the Young Ruler that he is actually God (Mark 10:18)? (This would have spared some disagreements I have had concerning this verse with friends who rejected the Incarnation of God in Jesus.) Jesus could have clarified what his cryptic statement in Mark 9:49 about everyone being “salted with fire” might mean, too. Perhaps he could have also explained the proper meaning of some of his more confusing parables (I’m thinking especially of the two stories–which I interpret as parables–concerning riches in Luke 16). And to continue with Luke 16, maybe Jesus could have justified the fact that in this parable his Sheol (“Hades” in Greek) had torments when literally none of the Old Testament concepts of Sheol include the presence of torments. (How many a good interpreter has been stumped by Luke 16:19-31!) Apparently, Jesus does not mind being a little (perhaps very?) vague every once in a while. That Jesus should be super clear on hell is an axiom I do not feel comfortable–or honest–adopting.
In addition to this, the Gospels indicate that Jesus was clear about some things that weren’t grasped at the time, like his passion and resurrection. Perhaps he was clear about hell, but nobody grasped it enough to present it the way that he did. (Although I consider that unlikely, I think it is nevertheless logically possible.) Furthermore, what if Jesus, much like the Torah (as Paul Copan argues in Is God a Moral Monster?), was okay with using the contemporary moral language to make a divine point, and is not therefore endorsing the moral reasoning of his day for all time but rather using it to support the purposes of the gospel?
The possibilities are almost endless, and none of them should be ignored by axiom alone, as I estimate Chan and Sprinkle have done. In summary then, I think that this axiom of clarity was a fatal flaw for the book’s argument as a whole, and as I said, I am not at all convinced it is proper to adopt it.
Weakness 3: Erasing Hell gets Basic Philosophical Theology Wrong
Perhaps the first siren that went off for me came in their treatment of what I would call God’s ideal will (which they called “moral will”) and God’s permissive will (which they called “decreed will”). They did not say that God’s permissive will is permissive (which is hugely important), but rather called it his “decreed will” which he “makes”–makes!–to happen. In addition to turning Christian theology into an exercise in nihilism, this failed distinction does irreparable damage to the actual biblical testimony to the divine character. Consider, as two examples, 1 John 1:5 and 4:8. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, emphasis mine). “God is love” (1 John 4:8, emphasis mine). If the Bible does not qualify its statements on hell, it certainly does not qualify these statements on the divine essence, either.
This overall critique of poor philosophy can be applied to the book as a whole, in my opinion. (Which is fine, because the book is not really meant to be a philosophical treatise, but rather a biblical and historical exegesis.) I believe that Chan and Sprinkle mean well, but fear that they may be replacing the light and easy yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:30) for something else.
Weakness 4: Erasing Hell gets Romans 9 Wrong
I was quite disturbed that Chan and Sprinkle turned Paul’s question in Romans 9:22-23 into an entire theological premise. (One might indeed say that entire veins of Christianity–such as Calvinism–are built of off treating these two verses as a moral premise. This is of course to nauseating effect.) The whole argument of Romans 9-11 is in my opinion to refute the question that is raised in 9:22-23. By the end of the argument, it is clear that “all” are vessels of wrath and “all” are intended to be vessels of mercy (Rom. 11:32). One might of course argue whether “all” means both Jews and Greeks or every individual Jew and Greek, of course; but it is flirting with theological nihilism to suggest (as Chan and Sprinkle in fact do) that God does not desire the salvation of every individual on at least some level.
Romans 9-11 is a beautiful and christologically informed argument born from Paul’s Christlike desire to rescue all of his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” (God is not the limiting factor in their salvation.) Taken to its conclusion, Romans 9-11 is not a justification for what would otherwise be “the potter’s” repugnant desire to destroy people. Indeed, it is the thief–the Devil–who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10); it is the Devil, and not God, who is caught in those nasty habits. “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 NRSV).
Conclusion: Erasing Hell is a Fantastic entry-level book for the Hell Debates
I know I’ve written a lot here (perhaps too much), and that my own position might be confusing in light of some of my comments. In gist, I am still an eschatological christological universalist and this book has not convinced me that it is necessary to leave universalism to find Christ. (In fact, I remain convinced that universalism is a logical corollary of christology.) But what this book gave me was a rich meditation on Second Temple Jewish beliefs on hell and the Bible’s own comments on divine punishment and a beautiful introspective spiritual wisdom from two men whom I trust love God with all their strength. I cannot thank Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle enough for writing this book, and hope that they will not be offended by my criticisms above.
If you’re new to the hell debates, there are a few names you really need to learn. They are:
Jürgen Moltmann (Protestant)
Karl Barth (Protestant)
J. A. T. Robinson (Anglican)
Hans Urs von Balthasar (Roman Catholic)
Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic)
Kallistos Ware (Eastern Orthodox)
David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox) .
Jürgen Moltmann has written the best argument for universalism I’ve ever read in pages 235-255 of The Coming of God. I consider J. A. T. Robinson’s argument for universalism to be one of the best, as well. Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart both have some great thoughts, too. I have not personally read Ware or Rahner, but am aware of their presence in the universal salvation discussion. (The Beauty of the Infinite is David Bentley Hart’s attempt at a miniature systematic theology, and it is excellent.)
Some of these authors are not entry-level. But as far as entry-level books go, I can think of none better than Erasing Hell. Thank you Chan and Sprinkle for being brave, for following the evidence where it led you.
~ Christopher Thrutchley Jr.