Chan would love to erase hell out of the Bible, especially after watching his grandmother die, convinced she would be in torment for eternity. He struggled with it.
He decided to write a book about hell. It scared him because so much was at stake. "Too many people were at stake." (15) He prayed and fasted to prevent his own desires from twisting Scripture to gratify his own personal preferences.
Chan says his book is much more than about hell. "Its a book about embracing a God who isn't always easy to understand, and whose ways are far beyond us; a God whose thoughts are much higher than our thoughts; a God who, as the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things...has the right to do WHATEVER He pleases." (17) Since His thoughts are infinitely higher than ours, "Expect, then, that Scripture will say things that don't agree with your natural way of thinking." (17)
With that introduction, Chan moves on to distinguish what we want to believe and what we could believe, given biblical evidence. He looks at universalism as well as what the "will of God" means. He investigates Jewish literature to get a sense of the concept of hell around the time of Jesus (which Jesus and N.T. writers did not "correct").
I was surprised that, "there's no evidence from the time of Jesus that the Hinnom Valley (gehenna literally means "Valley of Hinnom") was the town dump." There is no "archaeological evidence that this valley was ever a dump." (59) The first recorded suggestion is from a rabbi in the thirteenth century, and then only as an analogy. Chan shows that Old Testament passages reveal that the Israelites engaged in indolatrous worship there, sacrificing children to Canaanite gods. It became a fitting analogy for God's place of judgment. Jesus lived and taught in the era of this understanding of gehenna and "His views stand in line with the dominant first-century Jewish view of hell." (74) Chan thoughtfully goes through Jesus' comments on hell. "Jesus chose strong and terrifying language when he spoke of hell. I believe He chose to speak this way because He loves us ans wanted to warn us." (86)
Chan then reviews what the New Testament writers said about hell. While Paul never used the term he did address the fate of the wicked, writing of eternal wrath, indicating "God will severely punish those who don't bow the knee to King Jesus." (103). John's vision of wrath in Revelation is terrifying and is "forever and ever."
Chan reminds his readers that the threat of hell is important to Christians too. Jesus threatened hell to those who curse their brother (Matt. 5:22), to those who thought they'd end up in paradise but, in fact, didn't know Jesus (Matt. 7:22-23). James writes about the use of the tongue and Revelation speaks to being lukewarm.
Chan works through Rom. 9:22-23, "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" to show His mercy and glory. He reminds us that our perspective is not God's. Out thinking is inferior to His. "Everything about Him and all He does is perfect." (133) It may be impossible for us to figure out God but we must not submit Him to our reasoning. God is not embarrassed by His actions. "It's time to stop apologizing for Him and start apologizing to Him." (138) "...[W]e need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it." (146) He urges his readers to make sure they are reconciled to God and are not in danger of hell.
Chan is hard hitting but he is humble. This prayer will give you an idea of his heart:
"Please forgive me, Lord, for wanting to erase all the things in Scripture that don't sit well with me. Forgive me for trying to hide some of your actions to make you more palatable to the world. Forgive me for trying to make You fit my standards of justice and goodness and love. You are God; You are good; I don't always understand You, but I love You. Thank You for who You are." (139)
Chan writes, "As I have said all along, I don't feel like believing in hell. And yet I do. ...I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine." (141)
Chan's book is slim, a mere 150 pages (less when you subtract the pages of footnotes). Add to that an appendix of FAQs and a bibliography. Certainly you have the time to read such an important book.
Right away, we need to address the fact that this book was written as a response to Rob Bell's book "Love Wins." In fact, without Rob's book, this book does not have much to contribute. Typically an author is inspired to write a book about something that they are passionate about, something that they feel needs to be said. And arguably, Francis Chan is passionate about the scriptures and about orthodoxy, and about doctrine, but because the book was written as a "response" it feels like "the other half of the argument" as you read it.
When Love Wins came out, I did read a lot of the criticism that followed, I felt it was wise to see what 'the other side' was saying; and I will say that Chan's book is the most thorough, most considerate of the responses I have read. I do recommend that those who have read Love Wins go back and read this volume.
Second, this book is not a typical Francis Chan book. Those of you who loved Chan's earlier works should notice that this book is co-authored by Preston Sprinkle who I am sure did a lot of the leg work and study. When you read the book, it certainly has Chan's "voice" and is peppered with his stories and passion, but this book does not have the same caliber feel as his earlier two works.
Third, like most of Bell's critics, Chan fails to understand why Love Wins was written and who Bell's audience is. Chan's book is concerned with letting the reader know that Hell is a real place and that Jesus preached Hell as a real and literal place and that his audience would have first and foremost heard Christ's Hell as a real and literal place - and I don't think Bell would disagree. Chan even admits (unlike most critics) that Bell actually admits to Hell being a real place in Love Wins, but he admits it in the end notes of his book and not within the main text. (oh, that's another thing I didn't like - I hate books with end notes).
Fourth, Chan argues against universalism - another "rookie" mistake of Rob's critics. A closer reading of Love Wins reveals that Rob does not argue for a "sweeping arm" that eventually brings everyone into Heaven. Rob makes it perfectly clear in his book that many people will "choose hell" and never enter glory.
I did appreciate Erasing Hell and felt it was a great companion volume to Love Wins, but if I were grading this, I would hand it back to Chan and ask for a rewrite. Chan failed to truly address the main thesis of Love Wins and was only concerned with arguing that Hell existed - and that not everyone will go to Heaven. The bottom line is, years from now "Love Wins" will still be in print and be relevant because it has something to offer as a stand alone work - and "Erasing Hell" will be erased....
Erasing Hell speaks well to the discussion on whether everyone eventually goes to heaven. The authors do an excellent job of comparing popular thought to what scripture has to say about the existence of hell, and who goes there.