hell raiser: francis chan and “erasing hell”

A few months ago I watched this video and I’ve been meaning to write something on it, though I’ve had it on the backburner for a while.

The video is a preview/advert for Francis Chan’s now-released book, Erasing Hell. I should note I have not read the book, nor do I plan to in the near future (PhD studies… they ruin everything). For this reason I do not know in any definite way what Chan’s view is on the subject of Hell, nor is it directly relevant to this post. I should also note that I am not interested in discussing the content of the book, but only of the video.

The video begins with an air of humility, including the use of biblical metaphors to demonstrate how much lower we are than God, just as clay to the potter. So far so good.

Chan talks about needing to avoid being both heartless and careless on the subject of Hell. Also good.

But then Chan moves into a discussion about wanting to, “just present all of the facts, everything I can think of in this book (the Bible), and let you decide.”

Suddenly I’m a little more suspicious.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to presenting arguments. In fact I do so all the time on this blog. I defend my points of view vigorously in subsequent debate; that’s how I test my points of view against those presented by others. If the point of view presented by my opponent is better than my own I change my view. This has happened countless times in my life, as I’m sure it has for you.

My problem is not that Chan presents an argument; my problem is with the hermeneutical arrogance and naivety of Chan’s method.

Chan goes on in his video to say he himself is concerned with “arrogance”. He quotes Isaiah 55, where it is said that God’s ways are higher than ours.

“God wouldn’t do this, would he?” is the imaginary question about Hell that Chan asks, imitating what can only be described as his theological opponents (which has been implied enough by now to be people like Rob Bell). Chan’s point is that we cannot base our thinking about God on what we would do. Good point.

But the arrogance of implying that one’s opponents have doubted the standard evangelical doctrine of Hell based solely on their own desire is astounding. It is as if the Bible is dead clear on the issue, and anyone who doubts it is unjustifiably questioning God, while those who hold the standard view are more faithful to God.

At this point I smell biblical literalism and selectivity. These suspicions are demonstrably true in the next five cases of biblical issues presented by Chan which he uses as examples of God acting contrary to modern sensibilities:

1. The curse put on Adam and Eve. Chan unquestioningly assumes that the Adam and Eve story is literal, and that God’s actions should be viewed historically. Many Christians believe this of course, but it is debated and not self-evidently true.

2. Exodus 32, where Moses tells the Levites to kill those in the Israelite camp who had sinned. This is of course a difficult story, but to simply take it on face value is to make an interpretive choice about the text prior to reading, resulting in a conclusion ultimately at odds with Jesus’ later commands about nonviolence. (I have written about certain episodes of violence in the Bible on this blog, so I won’t say more here, though I do have planned soon a post on Old Testament violence.) There is of course much debate about such violent Old Testament passages.

3. The story of Job and his suffering sanctioned by God. Again Chan makes an assumption, this time that the story of Job is historical despite its apocalyptic nature as a text. This is again debatable, though Chan gives no sense that there is a debate at all.

4. The atonement. Chan assumes a certain interpretation of the death of Jesus, namely a particular version of penal substitution. For anyone at all acquainted with this issue you will know there is major debate about this particular understanding of Jesus’ atoning death.

5. The final scenes of the book of Revelation. Chan assumes that the Revelation account is meant to be somehow taken literally, despite its obvious apocalyptic symbolism and the well-known interpretive debates regarding the book.

That's a really white room.

None of this is to say Chan is necessarily wrong about these issues; that’s not the point. My point is that there are very serious and widespread debates about all of these issues and episodes, though Chan bypasses them, as if the stories are simple and clear, and as if his interpretation is simply the correct one. That the examples he gives are so questionable is a serious flaw.

Ultimately Chan seems to assume that the Bible is simply an objective account of God’s timeless will without having been affected at all by human transmission. Moreover he assumes a biblical ethic that requires no interpretation, that is simply and plainly visible in the text.

But a simplistic hermeneutic and literalistic exegesis leads to major issues. Indeed if we adopt Chan’s method why not go about doing what God apparently commanded in the Old Testament in terms of violence? This is, after all, what the text seems to endorse at face value.

Some will argue, “that is Old Testament, but we are living in a New Covenant.” Though I agree, that way of looking at the Bible is an interpretive choice; we don’t have to make that divide between Old and New Testaments if we don’t want to (just as many people pick and choose from the Old Testament as they see fit without any consideration for the criteria for doing so. See my post on Walter Wink and homosexuality in the Old Testament for more on this.)

Can you see my point? We all make interpretive choices; we cannot escape them. To imply a person can read the Bible plainly “as it is” is naive.

Speaking about the Bible Chan says, “I don’t want to draw any conclusions that aren’t there, I don’t want to read into it too much. I just want to present this fairly, and I don’t want to misrepresent Him.”

The problem with such a quote is at least twofold; 1) it implies critical engagement (“reading into the text”) leads to conclusions that aren’t there, and; 2) it implies others have misrepresented God in their hermeneutic, that somehow Chan is being more humble, more fair and more accurate than others before him, without any evidence to say why.

I suppose this is what we should expect given the subtitle of Chan’s book, “The things God said about eternity, and the things we’ve made up.” It is as if anyone who has had a different viewpoint to what Chan concludes has “made it up”.

Looking beyond Chan’s initial gestures toward humility we actually find an arrogant and naive conservatism. In fact what is presented is almost a form of fideism. Chan seems remarkably negative about our ability as humans to reason, and rightly so – humans are prone to being unreasonable in the name of reason. But Chan’s perspective is odd in light of his claim that he wants to, “just present all of the facts, everything I can think of in this book (the Bible), and let you decide.”

It seems pretty clear that Chan will need to utilise reason to structure his argument as best as he knows how from his reading of the Bible in order to pull together supposed facts to present to us in order that we would use our own reason to decide what is true and false.

Hmm… this talk of facts is strangely reminiscent of a modernistic hermeneutic which esteems reason and certainty above all else. How ironic that Chan employs the very approach he warns against.

Maybe I’m being overly critical of Francis Chan. What I’m not doing is saying that everything he has ever said, done or otherwise is bad or useless – I’m sure he is a good man with good motives who has helped many people.

But this does not make him correct, humble or wise on this issue of Hell or biblical exegesis. Chan’s video reveals an inconsistent and naive hermeneutic which circumvents any complex historical or exegetical debate. I am, however, happy to be corrected in regards to the book, as I realise how truncated videos can be.

By the way, I argue what I have here whether Francis Chan ultimately agrees with my own perspective or not.


Posted on August 12, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Eschatology, Hermeneutics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Had issues with Chan when I first saw this video for the same reason you did; it comes across as ‘lets be reflexive about Rob Bell’s ‘theology’ but we certainly won’t be reflexive about our own’.

    Ultimately I think the whole thing kind of reeks of “I’m trying to compete with Rob Bell” but I think he’s missed the point: people don’t like Bell because of his pretty videos; they like Bell because his theology requires less cognitive dissonance.

  2. As soon as he started saying things like “have you ever stopped for a moment to think about whether God’s view of justice is more developed than yours?”, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “have you ever stopped for a moment to think about whether the picture of God that is presented at various places in the Bible is thoroughly contextual to an ancient worldview?”

    Oh…and I thought it would have been great, when the camera zoomed back for a wider shot, for it to have been revealed that he was actually sitting on a toilet. The room just looked way too white! Anyway, he’s set himself up for some good parody opportunities ; )

  3. Peter – I agree, though I don’t think it’s all Chan’s fault. I reckon Zondervan have lined him up to play the alternative role to Bell in their marketing. BASIC is similar to Nooma in a number of ways, but aimed at more conservative folk.

    I agree that one of Bell’s points of attraction is asking hard questions about the dissonance in contemporary Christianity and coming to a sense of mystery-laden resolution.

    Josh – That’s one thing I didn’t include in my post, but that I completely agree with you on. I wonder how “right” the Bible can be said to be on hell anyway, given that it never comprehensively addresses the topic. Maybe the biblical authors were smart enough to know that they just didn’t know…

    How’s the Isaiah 56 work going?


  4. That project is still kicking along : )

    It’s the same old problem, though, of trying to argue that there are other ways of reading texts that people have come to treat as “magical documents” – totally free of any sort of context.

  5. Well I read the book today and while I don’t find the book arrogant, it is an outright defence of the standard evangelical doctrine of Hell.

    It does not so much address the debates about hell as give one side of this debate – which is fine except the fact the book is kind of presented by the writers as an honest look at all sides with the writers looking to give up there preconceived notions and make a study of the topic.

    Without pulling the whole thing apart…

    While it criticises universalism for selectively reading the text he does a bit of this himself.

    In chapter two when they looks at “Jewish beliefs” about hell they clearly assume that the only interpretation of many biblical texts is literalism but then they reject a literal interpretation of the text that they disagree with (as used by Rob Bell) by claiming it is is metaphorical.

    As a defence of their position – it is a fine book but it is a little disingenuous in its presentation.

  6. I should add the writers do some excellent work in “Chapter 5: What Does This Have To Do With Me?” by taking the evangelical doctrine of Hell and reflecting on it through Matt 25 to place the debate back on how Christians should respond to this. Agree with their interpretation of hell or not there is a challenge here for all or us.

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for that input, It’s good to have someone comment who has read the book. It sounds like a number of the issues present in the video carry across to the book.

      It’s interesting re: the stuff about Matthew 25. My PhD is actually in Matthew – so far I’m not convinced that the references at the end of the chapter are to hell, though clearly this is the majority position.


  7. Hey Matt,

    I’m working as a geologist these days and don’t really get the time to go to church because I’m out in the middle of nowhere. But being able to read these blogs every now and then is like going to a church that actually thinks about the world and puts God in real world context. Just want to thank you for making me think. Also for just being real. It’s hard to find people who are willing to ask the big quetions and be real rather than hide behind theologies. Thankyou for being one of those people who really makes a difference just by being honest. 😀

  8. Just a follow up comment with regard to this, Matt: I’ve always found it hilarious that while canonical scripture seems pretty vague on the whole eternal pit of fire conception of hell (and in the few verses where its explicitly ‘hell’ and not hades or something else, it doesn’t mesh with Church doctrine — Lazarus and the rich man reeks of Pelagianism if you read it literally as proof of hell), while the gnostic gospels (particularly the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Apocalypse of Peter) are far more explicit about there being a literal, everlasting torment waiting the unsaved.

    It should be far more of a concern to people like Chan that gnosticism is more consistent in advocating for his arguments than canonical scripture is.

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