Archive for the ‘Theology’ category

Erasing Hell – Review

April 15, 2012

Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity and the Things We’ve Made Up

Erasing HellAlthough it is not explicitly stated, Erasing Hell is a calculated response to Love Wins, a controversial book released by Rob Bell in early 2011 (my review). Erasing Hell has a lot of quotes from Love Wins and draws attention to Rob Bell and another of his books, Velvet Elvis, several more times. Erasing Hell was also released at the height of the brouhaha surrounding Bell’s book.

Erasing Hell is really a well-written book. It is an easy read that flies by. This being the first book of Chan’s that I have read, I would definitely pick up another. His writing style is a dream to read.

There are, however, some issues that were hard to overlook. The first is with responding to Love Wins, which was clearly written to those who have left the Church, find themselves disenfranchised with the theology of a wrathful God, or are heading in that direction. Erasing Hell, on the other hand, presents arguments that are directed at Christians who are already firmly attached to conservative theology. Having made the transition from conservative to liberal theology, Chan’s arguments would not have held me very long.

Francis Chan (as most good writers) presents his arguments as solidly proven fact that are far beyond dispute. The problem with that is most of his points are, indeed, arguable. Some quite readily. Take the example of annihilationism, which is thrown out by the authors without much discussion, but is, in fact, quite defensible and is seen by many as without the problems that plague eternal conscious torment, the theory promoted wholeheartedly by this book.

By ‘All’ You Really Only Mean ‘Some,’ Right?

In chapter 1, Chan writes,

You’ve got to figure out from the context what “all” means. For instance, when Mark said that “all the country of Judea” and “all the people of Jeruselem” were going out to be baptized by John (Mk 1:5 NASB), he certainly didn’t mean every single individual in Judea – man, woman, and child. “All” here simply denotes a large number of people.

I will confess, I’m not exactly sure what to do with this reasoning. It sounds plausible but I intend on looking at this issue and logic more carefully soon. Perhaps I will devote a post just to this topic. If you have any insights or further questions about it, let me know.

Kingdom Theology vs Salvation Theology

Another major problem that I have with Erasing Hell (and many books by other conservative Christians) is that, in my opinion, they have a poor grasp of Kingdom Theology. I think that everyone has heard it said that Jesus did not come to say ‘the Kingdom of God is ready when you die,’ rather, he proclaimed, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ Francis Chan seems to suggest that we need to get it right in his life so that AFTER we die, we can enter into God’s Kingdom.

To put that idea forward is to totally miss the point… Jesus came to usher us into a Kingdom life NOW. To start reaping the rewards NOW. To begin to share that fullness NOW. With everyone single soul on Earth. Now, not later, not after we die, but right NOW.

Jesus totally shook up our understanding of how this universe works. So much so that the line between “Earthly reality” and “Heavenly reality” has been blurred. What I have not understood, and may never understand, is how people can feel, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our bodily death is the end of our ability to live for and choose God.

The Heart of the Issue

Chapter 6 is where this book gets really good. Everything comes together at a focal point. This single point is the crux of Chan’s process. No matter what you think about any of the previous theology, assuming that there is a God who made the universe, our planet, and every one of us, surely He then has the authority to do whatever he pleases, right? Is God always in the right solely because of his unsurpassed intelligence and power?

I, for one, will make a stand for God always being in the right. That said, what Erasing Hell proposes for God appears morally flawed. Therefore, either God is not in the right or it is Chan who is incorrect in his assumptions. Chan makes room for this possibility, though:

What would you do if [God] chose to… create vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction…? Refuse to believe in him? Refuse to be a “vessel of mercy”? Does that make any sense? Would you refuse to follow Him? Really? Is that wise?

This, to me, is an incredibly disturbing series of questions. God is worthy of belief because of his inherent goodness. This willy-nilly destruction simply because, “it pleases God,” is the reason we reject Zues, Vishnu, and Mammon. It is also the reason history looks negatively at people like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

To suggest that God is so without mercy, so bent on joyful destruction is to paint him into such a repulsive personality that He’d probably prefer the company of those ruthless dictators and gods.

Erasing Hell is a must read for anyone wrestling with the idea of eternal conscious torment for unbelievers but it must be advised that it should also be tempered with a reading of Love Wins and purified with much prayer and soul searching. I am glad that I read Francis Chan’s book but I cannot bring myself to root for the God that he portrays.


A Better Atonement

March 25, 2012

Tony Jones‘ latest book is actually a collection of recent blog posts in which he discusses theories of atonement, that is, how we as humans are reconciled with God. The eBook brings all of these relevant posts together along with some new matierial.

In this book, you’ll find three sections. First, a discussion of the doctrine of original sin and why we should reject this. Second, a defense of an actual bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. Lastly, Tony takes a tour of several historical theories of atonement, discussing each in turn before suggesting his preferred theory.

I appreciate that he includes “a caveat: It must be noted… that atonement is not, nor has ever been, a topic of Christian orthodoxy.” Pointing out that none of the ecumenical councils dealt with atonement to clarify proper understanding and thereby not limiting the Christian faith to a single interpretation.

I have spent a fair amount of time in recent months studying atonement to resolve issues I have been thinking about. If you have questioned the theology or the rationale of the mainstream western belief in penal substitution I would highly recommend picking up this book. Right now it will only set you back $2.99 and if you have an Amazon Prime membership you can borrow it for free.

Survivor Spirituality

October 30, 2011

For the last two years my wife and son and I get together with my parents every Wednesday to watch Survivor. Every season there is someone who makes an attempt to play the game ‘like a Christian.’ This year there is a kid named Brandon who, while doing the same thing, has gone off the deep end. His insistence on playing Survivor without lying or backstabbing (which includes keeping secrets because that is deceptive) not only drives me nuts as a Survivor fan but is also worrisome as a Christian.

Brandon also happens to be Russell Hantz’s nephew. If you don’t know who that is it can suffice to say that he may be the most deceptive scummy cast-member to ever play the game. Despite my dislike of Russell, I much prefer seeing him rather than his hapless nephew. The major problem is that Survivor is not a game that is supposed to be played ‘like a Christian.’

It is rather like saying, “I’m going out to play football with my buddies but, unlike them, I will play like a Christian and not hit anyone.” Or playing poker ‘like a Christian’ and not being deceptive about your hand. First, I don’t think that God even cares about who wins a reality game show. Secondly, I think that if you’re going to play Survivor ‘like a Christian’ then that means you should play by the rules. Fortunately for Christians who have their head operating correctly, that means it’s OK to lie and deceive and even knock someone down in a physical challenge.

Rob Bell – A Parable of Salvation

March 22, 2011

Love WinsLast time, we talked about the technical theology stuff. Is Rob Bell a universalist? Having read Love Wins twice now I have put together a short story, a parable if you will, that I think illustrates Rob’s theology on salvation as laid out in his book. I do not know Rob Bell and have no idea if he would agree with this description so please know that this is my own work. Let me know what you think.

John sat quietly in the hard wooden chair and reflected on his life. He had not been a good person. He had done terrible things in his thirty-eight years of life. He had seen worse.

Life in his inner city neighborhood was hard. Hellish. Not that John believed in hell. He had seen the people on the street corners with their signs and yelling at people through bull horns. He had also seen them leave. He had seen them take off their expensive jackets so when they climb into their SUVs they don’t get too warm when the heated seats turn on. One day John approached a man driving through the neighborhood. He shot the man and took his car and his money. One man died so that John could have a little more. This was how things worked where John lived.

Two men entered the room, interrupting John’s thoughts. They looked at the IV line running from his arm and at some equipment. They pushed some buttons and John felt a cold rush in his arm then a warmth taking over his body. His eyelids felt heavy and he nodded off into sleep.

Vaguely aware of blackness all around him John tried to open his eyes but couldn’t – or maybe he could but there was no light. John was aware of emptiness. He extended his arms groping for walls or even a floor but could not feel anything. John felt a complete loneliness envelop him. He felt cold. He felt vulnerable. Then, as if his whole body went numb, he felt nothing.

When he awoke John was not tired but confused. He was laying on cold dirt unaware of how he got there. He looked around and saw trees, a forest all around. Then he saw it in the distance. A city. He saw the warm glow stretching into the sky. Then he realized that he felt the warmth when looking at the city light, but when he looked he also felt shame.

Deciding to wait for morning, John laid back down and tried to doze. Morning never came and it never got any warmer. He didn’t know how long he’d been waiting but it seemed timeless. He saw no moon or stars. He saw nothing to eat but he wasn’t hungry. He walked around the forest but saw no one else, he was utterly alone. It could have been weeks or months but there was no way to keep track of hours or days.

John walked toward the city, his shame growing as he came closer to the open gate. When he thought he could stand no more he was there. He stepped in fearing immediate and whole rejection. A man nearby smiled as he approached. “We’ve been waiting for you, John,” the man spoke.

“You know my name but you can’t know the things I have done. You would not welcome me if you did.”

“Do you not know? Your wrongs have been paid for.”

“But, I was never a Christian.”

“Christ did not die for the sins of people who have said the right things,” the man explained, “he suffered for you because he loves you and he wants to have a relationship with you.” Gesturing outside the gate from where John had just come. “Of course, not everyone is ready to accept that gift. There are people wandering alone in the forest. You’ll never see another out there as it is a place of darkness but you are always welcome here. It is your choice. God will never forsake you.”

Rob Bell is not a universalist, strictly speaking. I think that he is a fairly open Christian inclusivist. Based on Love Wins, no one comes to the father except through Christ does not mean you must be a Christian or a member of a church or even a good person. It means the saving power of Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection is the reason you don’t have to be alone. God loves you so much that he is willing to send his son to die in order that you will be reconciled to him and spend all of eternity in relationship with God in paradise today or when you are open to returning home in humility.

Is Rob Bell a Universalist?

March 20, 2011

Lately there has been a lot of back and forth about Rob Bell‘s new book Love Wins. Much of the negative commentary on the book are hinged on Rob’s theology being universalist. Generally, universalism is the idea that all souls will be reconciled to God. Some believe that means eventually and some believe that means whether you want to be reconciled or not. Either way it is a stark contrast from Christian exclusivism which is the “traditional” “conservative” view and teaches that unless you believe and receive in this life and before your earthly death you will be going to hell. There is another view as well, inclusivism, which has to do with a loophole in salvation theology for those who have never heard the gospel message. (Really, it’s more complicated than that, but this will suffice for now)

Rob Bell and his publicist seem to be skirting the universalist label for some obvious reasons. If it is shown that he does not subscribe to universalism then much of the negative commentary is easily shrugged off. On the other hand, because universalism is largely considered unorthodox even the wide and diverse historical orthodoxy argument won’t do much to dig him out.

Of course, Rob Bell has a very loyal following in Grand Rapids and around the world. That may likely grow with universalists seeking him out. Either way, I doubt he’ll ever hurt for people to contribute financially to his ministry and to buy his books.

More thoughts on Rob and universalism next time. Probably Tuesday or Wednesday.

Love Wins and So Does Rob Bell

March 19, 2011

I, for one, have been greatly enjoying the back and forth on the Internet lately on Rob Bell‘s new book, Love Wins. Well, perhaps, ‘enjoying’ is not really the right word. I think it is terrible that people react to rumors and speculation by condemning a respected leader but, I suppose, that is nothing new.

I think that Jimmy Spencer’s recent article is spot on. He says we are, “witnessing something big right now… a new split in Protestant Evangelicalism.” This split will be over the basic tenants of bringing the Kingdom of God to the people of the world. Is it about serving or about warning? If you haven’t yet seen Rob’s NYC interview from the 14th you really should. At the 45 minute mark Rob talks about serving and he comments, “Ultimately, at the heart of the Christian faith is this Jesus who keeps talking about being a servant… not here’s how you get everyone else to think and do things like you…”

This is one of several threads that run through Love Wins. Each of those threads are controversial but none of them are new. Even if you read history books of the early Christian Church you will find these themes discussed. The main difference is that those arguments were often won by the sword and, as much as they may want to, the sword is not an acceptable debate tool in the 21st century world. I couldn’t help but wonder when, on page 183, Rob makes the following point, “We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do.” It is almost as if he foresaw the hot discussions swirling around the blogosphere in the two weeks between the promotional video release and the swiftly advanced book release date.

Does Love Wins go against orthodoxy? If you subscribe to the hardline conservative American gospel it does, absolutely. Other orthodoxies less so to varying degrees. Ron Martoia recently blogged about Rob’s book and wrote, “is there such a thing as THE orthodox position? And if we think there is just who said so?” There are obviously differing views on how to spread the good news of Jesus to the world and Bell addresses this multiple times throughout Love Wins: “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.”

For me, though, the biggest chapters are six and seven. Again, like Rob and others have said many times, there is nothing new in these two chapters. That said, Rob is a master wordsmith and there are few writing about God who can say these things as well as Rob Bell. I won’t be sharing the precise statements that I think were huge for me. Partially because I don’t want to skew your own reading and partly because I don’t want to spoil the surprise that is the end of this book.

If you haven’t yet, get a copy of Love Wins and start reading. It is not a long read but it is very good.

Love Wins

Who is Jesus?

November 6, 2009

Who do you believe Jesus is? Is there a right answer? When asked, Peter declares Jesus to be the son of God. Ok, most churches acknowledge that but they are still divided further. I am aware of at least seven different theological ideas of Jesus. Each one has a slightly (or sometimes hugely) different focus on the life and work of Jesus as well as how he saves the world. In America we largely hold the conservative protestant view that Jesus saved through his death on the cross. Other well-established Christian faiths, however, teach that the resurrection alone was the saving work. Some teach that it was Jesus’ incarnation and entry to the physical world that allowed salvation.

Brennan Manning asks, “How would you describe the Christ who is the still point of a turning world for so many people…?” I think that our description constantly changes as we grow and I wonder, if it does not change maybe that is an indication that we are not growing.

Personally, I would love to be able to understand more about how others see and understand Jesus. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how a church can reach out to other denominations within Christendom and, possibly more important, to those of other faiths. How can we reach out, not for the purpose of conversion but to partner as fellow faith-groups to help our community. How powerful could that be?