But the foolish children of men do miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in their confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow. The bigger part of those that heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell: and it was not because they were not as wise as those that are now alive; it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape. – Jonathan Edwards
When I read Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, I experienced grief over how many people would read the title and the back cover and think that there might actually be some good news in the book. Instead, what they get is a repackaged and modernized version of Jonathan Edward’s infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Chan is very careful with his word choices, and he does a good job of being at least minimally respectful toward those who may disagree with him, but his message boils down to the same fundamental fear as that of Edwards. Chan writes,
The thought of hell is paralyzing for most people, which is why we often ignore its existence – at least in practice. After all, how can we possibly carry on with life if we are constantly mindful of a fiery place of torment? Yet that’s the whole point – we shouldn’t just go on with life as usual. A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel […] We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled – as with all doctrine – to live differently in light of it.
Many Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus talks about hell more than any other subject in scripture, because they heard this from a trusted friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around… no, wait, that’s an REO Speedwagon song. My point is that if one has studied the etymology of the word “hell”, then one ought to be embarrassed to make such a claim, since the word “hell” did not even exist in the first century. But that’s another blog for another day. Today I would like to take a look at one particular claim Chan makes at the beginning of chapter two of Erasing Hell:
The only way we’re going to understand what Jesus said about hell is to soak ourselves in the Bible’s own culture. Breathe its air. Feel its dirt. […] So to this world we turn. What we find in this context is that hell was seen as a place of punishment for those who don’t follow God. In fact, so ingrained was the belief in hell among first century Jews that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to distance Himself from these beliefs if He didn’t hold them.
The obvious question is, did Jesus “go out of His way to distance Himself” from the beliefs of the Jewish religious leaders in the first century? Instead of offering peripherals and conjectures, I’ll let Jesus speak for Himself.
When Jesus healed a paralytic, He prefaced the healing with the words, “Child, thy sins have been forgiven.” This did not rest well with the scribes, who asked, “Who is able to forgive sins except one – God?” Jesus replied, not to them, but to the paralytic, “[…]the Son of Man hath authority on the earth to forgive sins.” His reassurance was not given to the religious leaders, but to the common sinner. To me, Jesus is saying that the scribes have totally underestimated Him.
When the Pharisees saw Jesus having a friendly sit-down dinner with sinners, they asked the disciples, “Why – that with the tax-gatherers and sinners he doth eat and drink?” Jesus overheard and replied, “[…] I came not to call righteous men, but sinners to reformation.” To me, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have no idea who “qualifies” to sit at His table.
As Jesus and His disciples were traveling through some cornfields on Sabbath Day, the disciples were picking and nibbling along the way. The Pharisees took note and accused, “Lo, why do they on the sabbaths that which is not lawful?” Jesus came to their defense by reminding them of a story from their own scriptures, about David. The modern-day equivalent of this story would be that David and his buddies have the munchies and decide to raid the church-room where the bread (or those little wafer things) and wine (or grape juice) is stored for communion or mass! Jesus’s concluding remarks shut them right up, “The Sabbath for man was made, not man for the Sabbath, so that the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath.” To me, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have misinterpreted/mistranslated the scriptures.
Jesus went to the synagog, where there was a man with a deformed hand, and Jesus knew that the religious leaders were watching to see if He would heal the man on the Sabbath Day (break the rules). Notice that Jesus is the one to pick the fight, so-to-speak, by saying to the man with the hand, “Rise up in the midst.” He didn’t say, “Come over here, where we can meet privately.” He didn’t do His dealings behind closed doors with the good ole’ boys, smoking and joking in the safety of anonymity – He made a point to distinguish Himself and His Truth from the teachings of the Pharisees. He said, while everyone was watching and listening, “Is it lawful on the sabbaths to do good, or to do evil? life to save, or to kill?” I am totally pumped about what happens next:
And having looked round upon them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their heart, He saith to the man, “Stretch forth thy hand;” and he stretched forth, and his hand was restored whole as the other; and the Pharisees having gone forth, immediately, with the Herodians, were taking counsel against him how they might destroy him.
Jesus clearly threw down the gauntlet, and the Pharisees reacted accordingly. To me, Jesus is demonstrating that the Pharisees see the true power of God as a threat to their current understanding and practice.
Some scribes and Pharisees found fault with the disciples because they didn’t do the regular ceremonious hand-washing. The modern-day equivalent might be that someone goes to church and asks the pastor a question in the middle of the sermon instead of calling the church office to make an appointment with the pastor. Basically, the disciples didn’t bother with religious protocol, and it really annoyed the religious elite, who asked, “Wherefore do thy disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but with unwashed hands do eat the bread?” Jesus called them hypocrites and gave them a painfully honest answer, saying among other things, “[You are] setting aside the word of God for your tradition that ye delivered […]” To me, Jesus is teaching the onlookers (and us) that through religious protocol and practice, hypocrites deliver a different message than the one that comes from God.
When the Pharisees picked a fight with Jesus, demanding He perform a miraculous sign for them, Jesus, “having sighed deeply in His spirit” turned them down, flat. He then warned His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.” To me, Jesus was warning that many of the decision-makers in religion and politics use their positions of prestige and authority to spread corruption.
I could go on and give many other examples of Jesus butting heads with the first century Jewish religious leaders, beliefs, and practices, but instead I will offer some anticipated opposition to this blog, that is, Jesus never explicitly addresses “eternal torment” or “hell” in any of these examples. If I may speak for the person who holds this perspective, it is likely that he or she might say, “Show me, in a very specific way, how Jesus distances Himself from the first-century Jewish view of hell.” And to this I respond, all in good time. Chan delves into this in chapter three, and since I’m on chapter two right now, I’ll conclude this blog with this final observation:
What are the reasons for Churchians’ rejection of the Glorious Truth of the Amazing Hope we have in the Victorious Savior of the all mankind? How do they justify their mistreatment of those who have Amazing Hope? By totally underestimating Jesus Christ, by selfishly and judgmentally deciding who “qualifies” to sit at His table, by misinterpreting/mistranslating scripture, and by seeing the true power of God as a threat to their current understanding and practice. Through religious protocol and practice (all the while breaking their own moral boundaries), they deliver a different message than the one that comes from God concerning His intentions toward mankind, namely, eternal torment in Hell.
Next blog subject matter is NOT: What did the first-century Jews believe? since Chan covers this in his book, but the next blog asks: What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?
*Scripture references are from the gospel of Mark.
Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Abomination