Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell

Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell

Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell

Chan and I agree wholeheartedly on a few things, and this is one of them – what God wants, God gets.  In the opening pages of Chan’s “Erasing Hell“, he makes the point very clear:

God has the right to do WHATEVER [emphasis not mine] He pleases.  If I’ve learned one thing from studying hell, it’s that last line.  And whether or not you end up agreeing with everything I say about hell, you must agree with Psalm 115:3.  Because at the end of the day, our feelings and wants and heartaches and desires are not ultimate – only God is ultimate.  God tells us plainly that His ways and thoughts are infinitely higher than our (Isa. 55:9).  Expect then, that Scripture will say things that don’t agree with your natural way of thinking.

Now, I must break this down and really examine it for what it is.  Chan is concerned that people might decide for or against the doctrine of eternal torment based on feelings instead of truth.  He warns his readers against siding with their “natural way of thinking.”  In some circumstances, this is good advice.  God has a way of turning things upside down, saying and doing things we don’t expect.  For example, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day all agreed with one another that the Messiah was going to become the King of the Jews.  They expected the Messiah to pat them on the back for being so holy and give them high status, high paying jobs once He took over the world.  Yet, Jesus called the religious leaders, “You serpents!  You offspring of vipers!  How will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?” and then submitted Himself to their murderous rage.  – This great Plan of the Ages is not at all what might make sense to normal people in a “natural way of thinking”.

Things are not always as they seem.

I’d like to flip Chan’s words around and say something else that rings true.  Just as one ought not depend on feelings in order to reject the doctrine of eternal torment, one must also not suppress feelings in order to embrace the doctrine.  Feelings are there for a reason, like the check engine light in a car.  If you check the engine and all is well, then there could just be a problem with your light.  But the only way to find out is to open the hood and take a look.

Another thing we ought to consider about Chan’s statement is that if God has the right to do whatever He pleases, then is it possible that God has the right to save everyone?  Without the church’s permission?  (Gasp!)  Does this go against “your natural way of thinking”, Chan?  Which is more difficult for someone who is in a high position of respect or authority among Christitans, to hold on to an uncomfortable doctrine and keep the good status and position with the church or openly declare a doctrine as false and get shunned out the door?  Seriously.  If Chan wants to give warnings about not trusting your feelings, then this self-preservative instinct should certainly be in the mix of things to consider.  Let’s look at what Chan stands to lose:

Francis Chan is the best-selling author of books, Crazy Love & Forgotten God, and the host of the BASIC series.  He has also written the children’s books Halfway Herbert, The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village and Ronnie Wilson’s Gift.  Francis is the founding pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, and is the founder of Eternity Bible College.  He also sits on the board of directors of Children’s Hunger Fund and World IMpact.  Francis now lives in Northern California with his wife, Lisa, and their four daughters and one son.

Please don’t hear what I am not saying.  I am not accusing Chan of picking the success of his Christian-based children’s books or all of his church friends over the truth.  I’m fairly certain, based on what he says, that the one has little to do with the other.  But has Chan considered this as part of his warning against feelings?

If you haven’t read “What I Like About Chan’s Attitude” yet, you might want to give it a look, especially if this blog seems like a bunch of negativity.  I’m not poking holes in the guy, I’m pointing out some of the fundamental holes and errors in his book.

I remember doing some early research on church history (this was going on before I realized Jesus succeeded in His mission as Savior of the whole world) and seeing that Origen taught universalism.  I glossed straight past it.  Do you know why?  Because it was accompanied by an explanation about how Origen’s beliefs were condemned as heretical.  That’s how my mind worked before God’s five year overhaul.  I figured that if church leaders all agreed that his teaching was bogus, then it must be true.  I never even bothered looking up the word, “universalism”, until years later.  It wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.

Fast forward to the time when all the pieces were starting to fit, when I discovered how much political corruption was taking place in the upper tiers of the church heirarchy, when I knew that the people in positions of authority who had the power to decide if other people were heretics were not these holy, nearly-infallible leaders I had imagined them to be.  I picked up the very same book, and read the very same words, but this time, I saw the reference in tiny print to see the notes section in the back of the book.  So I turned to the back of the book and discovered that Origen’s teaching on universalism was not considered heretical until HUNDREDS of years after he died.  Doesn’t that sound a bit suspicious?  What took them so long?  Furthermore, why was this information tucked away, instead of right there next to Origen’s name in the chapter?  Were current Christian publishers not also wondering why it took them so long to condemn universalism?  If so, why are they being so cryptic about it?  If not, why not?  This was a turning point in my research, because I began second guessing all the experts, checking and double checking everything they claimed.  I didn’t trust them any more.  I had to know and learn for myself, instead of taking their word for it.

I noticed that Chan employs this same technique of segregating, and thus deemphasizing vital information.  In the main text of the book, readers see this:

The most famous proponent of universalism was an early church leader named Origen (ca. AD 185-254), who seemed to teach this, though his views were very complex and not always consistent.2 Origen’s beliefs were later deemed heretical,3 but this didn’t stop others from embracing the view that everyone will be saved – though advocates were always in the minority.  In fact, for over 1600 years, hardly any major theologians argued that everyone will be saved.

First of all, notice the numbers 2 and 3.  I bet you can guess what they are.  2 is a reference to a couple of experts who wrote about Origen (not to Origen’s actual writing) and 3 is this:

Origen’s views were deemed heretical at the fifth ecumenical church council held at Constantinople in AD 553.  However, a great deal of politics drove this council, as well as other early church councils, so we shouldn’t consider Origen’s views heretical based solely on the decisions made at Constantinople.

This is some very important information that should not be tucked away, separate from the body of the chapter.  If one just reads the chapter, then he or she will not get the full picture.  Did you catch that?  Chan admits, that “a great deal of politics drove this council, as well as other early church councils”.  The early church was hijacked by power-hungry “Christians” who made decisions based on political motives!  Chan also admits, “…we shouldn’t consider Origen’s views heretical based solely on the decisions made at Constantinople.”  In other words, we CANNOT TRUST that the decisions made about what is now considered “orthodox” doctrine were accurate.  Why on earth does Chan not say this in the main text of his book?  It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Pay no attention to the notes sections of theological arguments.

Let me give you some additional information that will hopefully help clarify the situation.  Chan says Origen “seemed to teach” universalism.  The words “seemed to” imply that he may or may not have taught universalism.  Here’s an Origen quote.  I encourage you to read more of Origen’s writings (not experts writing about Origen’s writings) so you can decide for yourself what Origen taught:

 If then that subjection be good and salutary by which the Son is said to be subject to the Father, it is an extremely rational and logical inference to deduce that the subjection also of enemies which is said to be made to the Son of God, should be understood as being also salutary and useful; as if, when the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole of creation is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist. This subjection, however, will be accomplished in certain ways, and after certain training, and at certain times; for it is not to be imagined that the subjection is to be brought about by the pressure of necessity (lest the whole world should then appear to be subdued to God by force), but by word, reason and doctrine; by a call to a better course of things; by the best systems of training; by the employment also of suitable and appropriate threatenings, which will justly impend over those who despise any care or attention to their salvation and usefulness. […] I am of opinion that the expression by which God is said to be “all in all,” means that he is “all” in each individual person. Now he will be “all” in each individual in this way: when all which any rational understanding cleansed from the dregs of every sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think, will be wholly God; and when it will no longer behold or retain anything else than God, but when God will be the measure and standard of all its movements, and thus God will be “all,” for there will no longer be any distinction of good and evil, seeing evil nowhere exists; for God is all things, and to him no evil is near. […] So, then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be reestablished in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that, when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, he who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but he himself is “all in all.” And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be “all in all.”  […] transforming and restoring all things, in whatever manner they are made, to some useful aim, and to the common advantage of all […]

Furthermore, isn’t it important to know that the reason Origen’s views are considered “complex” and “inconsistent” is that most of his writings were destroyed?

Now let’s examine the last bit of what Chan writes in his very brief survey of universalism and the conclusion to his drive-by look at Origen.  Chan writes, “In fact, for over 1600 years, hardly any major theologians argued that everyone will be saved.”  Think about this.  What is Chan’s point?  Is the fact that hardly any major theologians publicly endorsed universalism proof that universalism is just a sad by-product of wishful thinking?  I think the real question that readers ought to ask is, “Why?”.  Why did it take hundreds of years for church leaders to oust their universalist brothers?  Why did 1600 years of near silence regarding universalism pass, and now, suddenly, the subject is on the table again?  I can answer that question, and so can everyone else, if we only stop and consider it long enough.

If you lived in an environment where challenging the church-government meant your children could starve and you could be tortured, would you?  Have we Christians forgotten about our bloody past? Have we forgotten that little nine year old children were put on trial for witchcraft?  Have we forgotten that their younger siblings were tortured in order to get them to testify against their parents?  Have forgotten how they were forced to watch their parents burn?  Have we forgotten how elderly people were roasted to death?  Have we forgotten that heresy was punishable by death?  What about the torture, mutilation, humiliation, and mass murder?  Do we so easily set aside the words of religious leaders, that anyone whose view of God did not agree with the church’s official view should be “burned without pity”?

Yet accusers were protected in anonymity.

Have we forgotten how the church grew rich and fat by forceful seizure of the property of heretics?  Will we no longer take into account that church leaders, so ravenous with power, sometimes exhumed and burned the bodies of those who were posthumously declared heretics?  Were they trying to send a message, or what?!  And to whom do you think that message was being sent?  To those “missing” people Chan talked about, those theologians who would dare argue anything, let alone universalism in the bizarro-church.

Perhaps the subject is on the table again now, because the church no longer has the power to make your family pay for your torture fees.  They can no longer shave your head, pour vinegar up your nose, and strip you naked.  They are not allowed to place your head in a skull crushing device and turn the handle until your brains become a gooey mess sliding down your neck.  There are laws now which protect theologians so that they don’t have to worry about being tied up and dropped from various heights.  The church no longer has the power to stretch your limbs until they pull out of socket, hack you with a mallet to crush your bones, make you wear metal boots in which to pour molten lead, skin you alive, and they can no longer place a device called a “heretic’s fork” on your neck to keep you from telling people how awfully you were treated on your way to your execution.  Forced salt ingestion and denial of water, the spiked prayer stool, sleep deprivation, fingernail removal, the list goes on and on.

How dare Chan say, “In fact, for over 1600 years, hardly any major theologians argued that everyone will be saved.” without also reminding us of the horror these theologians might have faced if they were not silent!

This blog is entitled, “Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell.”  But Chan certainly erases the Hell on earth created by church leaders in his glaring omissions.  One of the reasons Chan and the majority of churchianity cannot erase the doctrine of eternal torment is that it has been ruthlessly and thoroughly and emphatically defended for over well over a millenia.  This kind of horror doesn’t just disappear in a few generations.  In the scope of human history, it wasn’t really that long ago that the church lost it’s strangle hold on the world.  Ungodly fear and awe of so-called institutional church authority is a real-life nightmare from which His children, for the most part, have yet to awaken.

Next blog: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell (Part Two) – theological monkey paintings.


  • Lanny A. Eichert September 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Dear all you loving Amazing Hope wonderful people, please just tell me WHERE you expect UNBELIEVERS to be the minute after they physically die?

    All I need is a simple answer. Will they be ushered immediately into hell? Or if elsewhere, then where? I mean, where do people WITHOUT this Amazing Hope go when they die? Don’t they all go to the same place?

    This is the opposite question to that I asked in the previous blog, so read there admin’s answer and respond to both, please.

  • Mary Vanderplas September 27, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I agree with your point about not ignoring or suppressing feelings when it comes to making judgments about the truth of something. And I like your analogy. Granted, feelings can and do often reflect sinful self-interest, so they are not the only guide or the most reliable one for discerning truth, but, as you say, they “are there for a reason” and therefore are not to be ignored. In the case of the doctrine of eternal torment, a large part of the revulsion for me and I think for many others is that it is totally incongruous with the Bible’s teaching concerning God’s love for all (and his desire that all be saved). The revulsion has a basis in divine revelation concerning the character of God, in other words, and is not simply a reflection of human desires and self- or other-interest.

    I agree, too, that a case can be made that embracing the doctrine of eternal torment is more apt to be motivated by self-interest than is rejecting the doctrine (and not the other way around, as Chan presupposes), given that in the fundamentalist circles in which Chan travels this teaching (eternal torment) is considered orthodox. And your words are a good caution for any of us who are more concerned about preserving reputation and status than we are about discovering truth.

    You make some good points about Chan’s (and others’) treatment of Origen’s beliefs about universal salvation. Insofar as their readers are led to believe that Origen was condemned as a heretic in his lifetime because he subscribed to universal reconciliation or that his condemnation in the 4th century at a major ecumenical council is sufficient grounds for rejecting the doctrine of universal salvation (or even that his condemnation reflected the early church’s unanimous rejection of universalism), they are misled. The fact that political motives entered into the decision-making of the early church leaders doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that everything that was decided about what was accepted teaching was false or questionable. It means only, in my view, that the church’s teachings, as its leaders, were not and are not infallible and that therefore the teachings need to be examined in light of scripture (“reformed and always reforming according to the word of God,” as we say in my tradition).

    Regarding Chan’s expressed viewpoint that Origen “seemed to teach” universalism, I think he’s entitled to be less than certain based on his reading of the extant writings of Origen that Origen’s vision of universal reconciliation meant that in the end every person will spend eternity in fellowship with God. The text you cite speaks of universal salvation. But there are others that suggest a separation between believers and unbelievers and different fates for the two. I am inclined to believe that Origen subscribed to universalism, but I can’t say with absolute certainty that he did. In any case, I agree with your point about the need to read his writings and not simply what others have written about his beliefs.

    You raise some good questions about Chan’s observation that “for over 1600 years, hardly any major theologians argued that everyone will be saved.” I don’t doubt that, as you imply, there have been believers in every generation since the church’s inception who held to the teaching of universal salvation and that many of these persons were kept from “coming out” for fear of being condemned as heretics and subjected to all manner of brutality, as you graphically describe. And I think you are right to remind us modern Christians of the suppression and abuse that took place throughout much of the church’s history by those in power – in the hope that we will learn from the evils of the past, repent of our own sins in this regard, and walk in the light of love and openness to the truth. Still, though, I am not as convinced as you are that universalism was all that widely embraced throughout the centuries of the church’s history. I think that if many theologians did not argue that everyone will be saved in the end, it has more to do with many not subscribing to this doctrine (in light of the scripture’s teaching concerning a final judgment) than with many holding it but being afraid of the repercussions of admitting it publicly. This certainly isn’t to defend the suppression and brutality against those who didn’t subscribe to accepted teaching that prevailed in the institution historically. It is only to say that I don’t see universalism as being widely accepted for reasons having more to do with what the Bible says than with any intentional efforts on the part of church leaders to brainwash or threaten people into rejecting it. In any case, even if you are right that more people are awakening to the truth of universal salvation today because the institution that embraces the doctrine of eternal torment has lost much of its power to control and oppress, the real question remains, in my view, whether the doctrine of universal salvation is true in light of what the Bible teaches about our final destiny.

    Thanks for an interesting, challenging blog.

  • admin September 27, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    What did the scriptures say prior to the Latin Vulgate? When did the scriptures become canonized? (Rhetorical questions.) I believe universalism was the prevailing view before these things occurred. Not that this is “proof”, but how likely is it that the earliest paintings of Jesus, found in the catacombs where Christian Jews were hiding, most likely during the first century destruction of Jerusalem, which show Jesus with a goat over His shoulders and a lamb at His side, would be displayed by the Emperor Justinian? It only took a few hundred years for universalism to become viewed as the “dangerous” doctrine, which gave the masses “permission” to sin. Once the political scene was set, it was only a matter of time until it became considered heretical, replaced by the “leaven of the pharisees”.

    • Mary Vanderplas September 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      It isn’t clear to me what you’re saying in asking the rhetorical questions – that there were other, specifically universalist writings circulating in the early centuries of the church that did not “make the cut” because official leaders considered them heretical? that the Latin Vulgate contains distortions of the Greek manuscripts reflecting the theological biases of the translators? The canon as we have it contains both texts that speak of universal salvation and texts that speak of final judgment and separation. If it was the case that translators intentionally distorted the text, they didn’t remove or obfuscate all the references to universal salvation. And what of texts such as 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and 5:1-11, in an undisputed Pauline letter, that speak of eschatological judgment? I have a hard time imagining that the New Testament is filled with errors that reflect the influence of translators who were out to promote their anti-universalist views. For me, the issue remains what to make of the fact that the Bible contains both universal salvation and final judgment texts.

      You are right, I admit, in what you say about the development of orthodoxy in the imperial church in late antiquity. (My earlier comments were glib and inane.) Imperial Christianity used the categories of orthodoxy and heresy in an effort to forge theological unity in the empire and to deal with ideas that challenged the political and ecclesiastical status quo. While I am not convinced that universalism was “the prevailing view” in the early church, later “replaced by the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’,” I think you are right to assert that it didn’t stand a chance because it was categorized as heresy – demonic error that, for the safety of the empire, could not be tolerated. And it makes sense that it likely would have been more widely embraced if it weren’t for the threat of violence against those who dared to embrace a deviant view. The existence of early paintings of Jesus suggestive of his wide embrace of humanity is interesting, though I don’t think that this is sufficient evidence for arguing the prevalence of universalism. In any case, you make a good point about imperial Christianity’s intolerance of universalism and suppression of anything that suggested this doctrine, making it nearly impossible for the doctrine to gain a hearing through the centuries.

  • admin September 28, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Augustine tried to say that aionios means “nothing but” forever, but when Orosius called him out on it, he had to acknowledge that he was wrong. After that he insisted that it always meant forever when it was used in conjunction with the judgment.

    Justinian decided to redefine the existing doctrine (to snuff out whatever resistance remained in his mission to force feed the sheep the ET doctrine), and found himself at a loss for words, since aionios was not a strong enough word to convey the eternal significance he needed for the eternal torment doctrine. So he used the word ateleutetos (endless) in conjunction with aionios (pertaining to the ages).

    That’s how aion and derivatives came into popular usage as a word to denote eternal significance. So in my opinion the “final judgement and separation” texts to which you refer are not as final as they seem. Why else would these proponents of eternal torment be so eager to put aion on steroids? Why did that word get ignored (understood properly, actually) for the first few hundred years of Christianity, and then suddenly it became such a source of contention when the Latin translation was written?

    It’s all connected.

    • Mary Vanderplas September 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm

      The fact that aionios was translated “eternal” (in Latin) in connection with eschatological judgment doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t understood as meaning “eternal” before this. That the proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment wanted to “put aion on steroids” most likely was a part of their agenda to establish this doctrine as orthodox (and any softening of it as heresy). And they were wrong in doing this, I believe, if for no other reason than that there are more than a few universalist texts in the Bible. But this doesn’t mean, in my view, that aionios should be translated “of the ages” in texts that speak of the judgment that will take place at the end of history. In Matthew 25:46, “eternal punishment” is a counterpart of “eternal life.” Translating aionios as “age-during” doesn’t seem to fit here. The issue for me is how to hold on to both sets of texts, acknowledging the tension between them (as well as renouncing distortions that fail to do justice to the character of God), while hoping and praying that in the end every lost person will be saved. I may be wrong about the meaning of aionios in these (judgment) texts, though. It may be that the biblical writers intended to convey that judgment will be confined to a set period of time and that the final “final word” will be salvation for all.

  • admin October 3, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Isn’t it possible that Jesus gives “life of the ages” or “age-abiding life”, because the ages is where death has (had) sting and isn’t (wasn’t) swallowed up? Isn’t the fact that we are called immortal or incorruptible enough to indicate that the life he gives is without end? Is it possible that we miss out on understanding something about how God operates within the ages by labeling ages eternal? If an age is eternal, and there is more than one age, then this means there are multiple eternities, hence multiple realities. I suppose this is possible, but is it probable? – especially in light of several scriptures which describe the the age of ages, the culmination or end (result) of the ages as we know it? As long as there is death, then we need to be rescued from it. When death is swallowed up in victory, there will be only life. “Everlasting” hope is a hope that is never satisfied. If it were satisfied, then there would no longer be need for hope.

    • Mary Vanderplas October 3, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      As I read the New Testament, “eternal life” isn’t simply life without end – i.e., endless extension of the life of this world. It is, rather, “life of the age to come,” a whole new order of being that partakes of the transcendent, eternal realities of God’s kingdom. And it isn’t just something we enter or receive after we die, but something believers receive/participate in already now, though not in its fullness. In my view, we are in danger of “miss[ing] out on understanding something about how God operates within the ages by labeling ages eternal” only if we temporalize God’s eternity, making it a remote segment of our time or an endless extension of time. The New Testament affirms that the eternal realities of God’s kingdom are already now breaking into this present world and that at the end of history this transcendent, eternal world of God’s kingdom will prevail. Thus, “eternity/eternal,” properly understood, doesn’t conflict with an affirmation of God’s involvement in this age (or in any ages that may precede the final end and inauguration of the ultimate future). Nor does it conflict with the reality of Christian hope as that which is ultimately fulfilled, since the meaning is that it is focused on the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. I don’t pretend to know how it will all work out, or even to be sure that something more akin to what you are saying (if I understand you correctly) won’t be the way things are. But I don’t see that translating aion/aionios as “eternity/eternal” must mean sacrificing God’s involvement in our present or future or sacrificing the fulfillment of our hope.

  • Lanny A. Eichert October 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    I suppose this is possible

    Quit foolishly supposing.

  • Lanny A. Eichert October 3, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Alice, I thought in your long ago posts you related ages follow ages one after the other and that eternal life outlasts all the ages, extending beyond the last age. What is this now: revised thoughts? Foolish supposings?

    • admin October 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm

      It depends on what scripture you are referring to when you say eternal. There’s age abiding life (aionios), death, and pruning, and there’s God everlasting (aidios) power and there’s life without end in scripture, as well as other references about immortality, incorruptibility, etc. Jesus warned about the teachings of the Pharisees and in His own teaching referred to aionion kolasin (age-abiding chastisement). Compare to Josephus’ account of Pharisaical teachings: eternal imprisonment (eirgmos aidios) and endless torment (timorian adialeipton) and other words that differ from those Christ used.

  • Jackson Baer October 4, 2011 at 12:34 am

    We will be known for our love for one another…


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  • stu January 19, 2013 at 12:11 am

    Even though Augustine who was deficient in his command of the Greek language and who adamantly opposed apokatastasis, admitted that belief in Christian universalism was common amongst believers in his day. How far we have come from early church belief as the enemy has distorted the true gospel through the centuries.

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