Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus Didn’t Get the Memo

Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus Didn’t Get the Memo

Francis Chan devotes most of the word count in chapter three of his book, Erasing Hell, to painting a picture of a Jesus Who defends Chan’s version of the first century view of hell.  In the previous blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Everlasting Sneeze, I played pretend with Chan.  I temporarily allowed for the possibility that Chan’s inaccurate portrayal of the first century view of hell was actually true, and analyzed his argument in light of this pretense.  I did not examine each of his “proof texts”, but examined the method in which the proof texts are communicated, that is, with important and necessary information being relegated a place in the notes section of the chapter, which Chan openly assumes few people read.

Chan’s argument, as is stated in chapter three, “What Jesus Actually Said About Hell,” of his book, Erasing Hell, is as follows:

Jesus grew up in the world of beliefs described in the last chapter.  He would be expected to believe the same stuff about hell that most Jews did.  And if He didn’t – if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in hell – then He would certainly need to be clear about this.

That last line is very important.  Better read it again.

In other words, if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against it.

In reality, Jesus had very little to say about the doctrine of eternal torment in hell.  People who read Chan’s book or the widely available mistranslations of scripture are under the impression that Jesus mentioned hell often, and that he described it as a place of everlasting torment.  I beg to differ.  Chan’s proof texts rely on mistranslation and misrepresentation of the words of Jesus Christ.  Just as I have chosen not to examine Chan’s proof texts one by one, I also choose not to examine all the proof texts that make his argument look ridiculous.  I’ll refer readers to just one text, from Matthew 16, and let readers do their own homework.

In A discussion on universal salvation and endless punishment, Erasmus Manford and John Steele Sweeney write:

It is not correct that Jesus employed the same terms the Pharisees died when speaking of punishment.  Jesus applied aionios to punishment; but the Pharisees applied aidios – two different words.  Josephus gives the opinion of the Pharisees in these words: “But the souls of the bad are allotted to an eternal (aidios) prison, and punished with eternal (aidios) retribution.”  Now Christ used another word to express the duration of punishment.  He said, “aionios punishment,” “aionios damnation,” and Paul said “aionios destruction,” but NEVER, NEVER “aidios punishment,” “aidios destruction,” “aidios damnation.”  Josephus often uses the word aionios, the same word that Christ and his apostles apply to punishment.  He writes of the […] “everlasting (aionios) reputation of Herod;” of the “everlasting (aionios) worship” in the temple of Jerusalem; of the “everlasting (aionios) imprisonment” of John.  This is the same word that Christ and his disciples used when speaking of punishment.  Josephus did not mean endless by it; neither id they mean endless by it.  You see, then, that Christ did NOT apply the word to punishment that […] the old Pharisees did.  That is a remarkable fact, and proves that Jesus did not mean endless punishment, when he spoke of aionios punishment.  He did not use the word the Pharisees did, and he did not mean what they did.

Christ not only condemned the life of the Pharisees, but he condemned their doctrine.  Said he to his disciples, “TAKE HEED AND BEWARE of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which was explained to mean “the DOCTRINE of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  […] The Sadducees believed that God would annihilate men, and the Pharisees believed he would punish them endlessly, which is still worse; but Jesus condemned BOTH DOCTRINES, and told his disciples to “BEWARE” of both.

This is exactly the kind of information Chan refers to when he writes, “What about the word aionios?  Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here.”  It is as if Chan believes that people who do not subscribe to the doctrine of everlasting torment have been given the same platform and opportunity within the confines of orthodoxy as the proponents of everlasting torment.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Throughout history, the minority theologians who bring important hell-opposing information to the attention of their majority-theologian peers are systematically ridiculed, their information is labeled heretical, and they are treated as wishful thinkers who have rejected Jesus Christ and pulled the hell-opposing information right out of their asses.  For a recent example, look at Rob Bell, the author of Love Wins (Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, began as a response to Bell’s book).  And Bell doesn’t really even plant his flag – he just hints at the possibility that hell isn’t what orthodoxy has made it out to be.  Imagine what the backlash would have been had he declared with full confidence that Jesus is the Savior of all.

Now, I’d like to turn Chan’s argument on its head.

Earlier, I wrote, “In reality, Jesus had very little to say about the doctrine of eternal torment in hell.”  Jesus spent most of his time talking in parables about the Reign of God.  Jesus knew the masses of listeners could not understand, yet, this was His approach.  Why is that?  Wouldn’t Jesus take advantage of the platform He had to clearly and deliberately warn people about how to avoid eternal torment in hell?  Why would Jesus use different words (not eternal) in reference to punishment than those normally used to indicate “eternal”?

If we attempt to answer these questions, our options are limited.  Unless, of course, we are willing to do away with all that we’ve been taught and start from scratch. The main concern of the first century Jews was earthly Israel’s position in the world, not the afterlife.  And this is another blog for another day, because it involves a long history lesson.

If Chan is right, that Jesus did not argue against hell, that he argued for it, then guess how much of Jesus’s recorded words are devoted to “aionios punishment” and/or “Gehenna” compared to other subjects?

Why would Jesus bother talking about how we treat one another or divorce or the Sabbath if He had such an urgent message?  Why would He purposely speak in parables that He knew people wouldn’t understand if the everlasting torment of multiple billions of human beings were at stake?  What the hell was wrong with Jesus?  What was He thinking!?  Evangelical missionaries, evangelists and lay people memorize and use the Romans Road when sharing the good news (that 10% of humanity may avoid everlasting torment in hell), so why doesn’t Jesus?  Did He not get the memo?

Of course I’m pushing this concept to the point of ridiculousness here, but I think you understand. Jesus came, in His own words, “to seek and save the lost.”  Clearly, His idea of seeking and saving the lost differs dramatically from that of orthodox evangelicalism.  Eventually, I will examine each of Chan’s proof texts as a natural part of setting the record straight on www.whatgoddoes.com, but until then, I encourage every reader to “test everything, hold on to what is good.”  And I’m confident that once you’ve done your homework, you will not be holding on to Chan’s invalid and unsound argument.

Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Screwed Up Math

  • Lanny A. Eichert June 18, 2012 at 4:07 am

    Didn’t it ever dawn on you that Jesus came, in His own words, “to seek and save the lost” who know they are lost and FEW know that. Jesus came to save THE FEW, not the many.

    When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. {Mark 2: 17} who know they are sinners and FEW know that.

    I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. {Luke 5: 32} FEW, FEW, FEW

    Jesus came to save just the FEW, never the many.

    • admin June 18, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      If we follow your logic to its conclusion, then we can say that the many (the non-few) were already righteous and had no need of a Savior.

      • Lanny A. Eichert June 19, 2012 at 1:03 am

        Thank you for revealing how incapable you are at logic. Your whole site is full of silliness that leads to destruction in the eternal Lake of Fire.

  • Mary Vanderplas June 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I agree that, contrary to popular pictures of Jesus preaching eternal torment, the Jesus presented in the Gospels in fact does not say a lot about hell. I don’t think, however, that the words in Matthew 16 warning against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees can be taken as clear indication that Jesus rejected their beliefs about the afterlife. In the first place, Matthew gives contrasting pictures of Jesus’ response to their teaching: on the one hand warning against it (see also Matthew 23:16 – “blind guides”) and on the other hand lifting these leaders up as authoritative teachers whose teachings should be observed (23:2). In the second place, the warning as stated in Matthew 16 is non-specific, which means that it could just as easily be that what Jesus had in mind was the Jewish leaders’ approach to interpreting the Torah, emphasizing legalistic attention to detail to the neglect of the weightier responsibilities of justice, mercy, and love (Matthew 23). Nothing is said in the context about their beliefs about the afterlife, which of course doesn’t prove that this isn’t what Jesus was referring to. However, in light of Jesus’ other words about the Pharisees and their teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, it seems more likely that he is referring to their interpretation of the Torah.

    I think you make a good point that if Jesus had believed that the majority of humanity will be consigned to eternal torment, he would likely have spent more time than the Gospel accounts indicate that he did explicitly talking about the dire consequences of not believing. However, that he did talk about the future and that what he said reflects Jewish apocalyptic thought of a resurrection of the dead and a great judgment involving rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked is hard to deny (though the fact that he frequently talked about the first being last and the last first in the coming kingdom suggests that his ideas about who will get what defied conventional expectations). It is also, in my view, hard to deny that he shared the anticipation of eternal reward and eternal punishment that was a part of apocalyptic thought (e.g., Daniel 12:2), though it can’t be ruled out from his use of aionios that he meant punishment that belongs to the future age, not punishment that lasts forever (either meaning is possible). Even if it is the case that the Pharisees consistently used aidios in reference to punishment (which I haven’t been able to confirm), in contrast to Jesus’ use of aionios, I don’t think it can be legitimately argued that “this proves that Jesus did not mean endless punishment.” The only thing it “proves” is that Jesus used a different word, a word that can also mean “without end.”

    I like what you say, though, about Jesus’ mission being to seek and save the lost – not to warn people about eternal torment at the hands of an endlessly vindictive deity.

  • Michelle June 20, 2012 at 4:18 am

    Here’s another Christian Universalism book some of you might be interested in. “What the hell: how did we get it so wrong”, by Jackson Baer.


    Here’s an interview with the author:


    That says a lot about UR too:



  • Michelle June 20, 2012 at 4:37 am

    A long way on the road of theology:


  • Delayed « www.whatgoddoes.com December 7, 2012 at 3:16 am

    […] Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Invalid Argument, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Everlasting Sneeze, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus Didn’t Get the Memo, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Screwed Up Math, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Bad Analogies, Why […]

  • Ross S Marshall July 8, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    This is a “straw-man” argument. Notice Jesus RARELY ever argued critically against doctrinal differences. In fact, as many a wide-spread false doctrines there were spread about during His days, he would have spent ALL His time, and the Gospels we have would be filled with nothing but. As it is, He spoke more off to the side, disregarding false doctrines, and whether you taught an eternal Hell or not, made no difference to Him. He came to teach a simple gospel, and do a simple job- die for all our sins. He was not sent here to “correct doctrine.” By the fact He left this one issue somewhat nebulous, means He left it up to us to fight it out. So,…. STOP making arguments from “silence.” Jesus did say, “When I rise up from the Earth, I SHALL DRAW ALL men unto Myself.” You cannot be more clear than this.

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