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

Check out Frank Viola’s blog for today. The comment section is pretty hot too.

http://frankviola.org/2012/05/24/calvinismarminianism/

And if you want my two cents, watch this vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCMyWA1gLXQ

BTW, I’m NOT sorry about the music :) If you don’t like it, turn the volume down…

“If you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily.” – Chinese proverb

 

I don’t remember who said it, nor do I have an exact quote, but the idea is something like this: The world is a reflection of the state of the Body of Christ.  A 1986 (!) article Frank Viola posted on his blog reminds me of that concept.  I was taught from an early age, in a fundamental-turned-evangelical church climate, that the world will get worse and worse, that Jesus will rescue all the Christians just before the #@!* hits the fan, and everyone left behind will get what they deserve.

I suspect that this point-by-point future-predicting theology may not be entirely accurate and that God intends to establish His Kingdom in the same way yeast works through dough, that is, consuming very little energy and multiplying in a slow and steady manner that mimics human respiration in a repeating cycle of oxidation and reduction.  It happens quietly, almost imperceptibly.  Someone might be inclined to question whether the yeast is actually working at all.  In unnaturally leavened bread, which rises very rapidly, the enzymes in the dough are destroyed. Consequently, the habitual consumption of unnaturally leavened bread is partly to blame for the current obesity epidemic, it is a contributing factor in candida and anemia, and may be responsible for a host of additional health problems.  But, hey, it sure does come in a flashy package, complete with misleading phrases like “enriched” or “multi-grain”.

From a spiritual point of view, this is very interesting: the yeast DIES as the dough is baked, and when the yeast dies, the little air pockets in the bread stop expanding, resulting in the bread’s pleasant texture and taste.  Perhaps the body of Christ needs to die to its own idea of Ecclesia in order to function in the world the way Jesus described.  He said that the reign of Heaven “is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour it permeated every part of the dough..”  It seems to me that believers (myself included, for over a decade, at least) have been unnaturally killing the dough.

On a more positive note, the reign of God might work in the same way God Himself works: After we learn Who God is not, it is much easier to learn Who God is.   I learned, through my own long season of spiritual obesity and spiritual health problems, who the church (Ecclesia) is not.  It is not a building, programs, rigid claims on orthodoxy/heresy, hierarchy, etc.  I’m still discovering who the church (Ecclesia) is.  I’m not the only one who makes this observation.  A blog entitled, “Organized Religion is Dying” by Tyler Jones represents the mindset of a slew of Christians around the globe, who notice that organized religion doesn’t play the central role in culture that it once did.  He suggests, “Let’s host a funeral”, because this just might be a blessing in disguise.

The blog begins to move in the wrong direction when Jones writes, “legalism is dead” and “we have nothing to fear”.  Why?  Because legalism is most certainly not dead.  It is as active as unnatural leaven.  That’s part of the reason WHY fewer and fewer people in their 20s and 30s attend any church at all.  When Jones writes “we” have nothing to fear, he is correct, so long as “we” refers to “followers of Christ.”  If every church in the world folded, the followers of Christ would still be followers of Christ with nothing to fear.  The reign of God is firmly established, and it would, of course, continue to expand. To my surprise, Jones concludes the blog by suggesting that we plant “thousands of new churches” and revitalize “hordes of existing churches.”

If the death of organized religion is a blessing, why the hell would we want to keep it alive?  Sure, it can make the dough rise in a manner that people notice, but what if God’s not making quick-rise bread?  What if God intends to leave His ministers of reconciliation right here on this Earth for a very long time, to reconcile the world to Himself?  What if He plans on letting His reign work through this three-measures-of-flour-world until His reign permeates through every part of the dough?

Jones writes:

Churches that live, teach, and believe the Gospel are prevailing; not even the gates of Hell can stand against gospel-centered churches! [...] Someday, we will look back on this period of history and realize we witnessed an amazing transformation. We will have watched as thousands of churches closed due to the fact that the core of their existence was based on legalism instead of the Cross of Christ.

I have a lot to say about that (especially the gates of Hell bit), but that’s another blog for another day.  For now, it will suffice to conclude that eventually, just as believers have chosen to abandon abusive, legalistic environments, they will also choose to abandon abusive, legalistic doctrines like eternal torment in Hell.  They will recognize that a gospel-centered church, should be, according to the definition of “gospel”, a Good-News-centered church.  And when believers discover that the gospel-centered claim is a farce, when they finally let it sink in that the gates of Hell, according to orthodox doctrine, stand against not only the church, but Jesus Christ Himself, then there will be another mass exodus.

And when the dust settles, there’s the church, there’s the steeple, open the doors, where are the people?  Don’t assume that they are no longer viable as ministers of reconciliation in the reign of God.  They are being a “blessing in disguise”, yeast that accomplishes its purpose in God’s time and God’s way, no need for a flashy package or misleading phrases.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Rob Bell’s gospel.”  But I can tell you I’ve heard it too much.

The good news of our Savior is the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of Rob Bell. Bell doesn’t exclusively OWN the good news, he hasn’t pulled a strange “new” gospel out of his ass, like some kind of fruity psycho-spiritual inventor. I know that the subject of semantics may seem petty, but if we examine the phrase “Rob Bell’s gospel”, we’ll find that it isn’t petty at all.

It reminds me of a time I did a consumer survey, a few months prior to Subway’s ad slogan, “Eat Fresh”. The surveyor asked me, “What do you think about when I say, ‘Subway: Eat Fresh’?”

I replied, “I think that Subway has fresh food.”

Then she asked, “What do you think about other fast food restaurants when I say, ‘Subway: Eat Fresh’?”

I replied, “I think that the other restaurants have old, stale food,” even though the slogan never actually addresses other restaurants. Words can be used as weapons, and in the case of Subway, the weapon is subtle – subconscious manipulation.

Likewise, in choosing and arranging words just so, “Rob Bell’s gospel” implies that it is a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And since I believe that popular culture is actually a step closer to the revelation of Jesus Christ, the gospel-as-God-intends, it is important to be aware of propaganda techniques that serve to undermine the validity of Bell’s observations regarding our need to rethink this Hell thing – rethink it in the light of the glory of the Savior of the world.

Consequently, if Bell’s message is the revelation of Jesus Christ, then it is, by definition, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps people who use the phrase, “Rob Bell’s gospel” do not intend to be subversive, but as Confucius says, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”  So now that one knows, it would be best to only use the phrase if one intends to imply that Bell preaches “good news to you different from what [the apostles] did proclaim to you.”  But, please don’t put on a pretense of impartiality and employ that phrase.  To do so is to be a hypocrite, and hypocrisy is the one negative character quality that Jesus spent quite of bit of time forcefully and publicly denouncing.

It would be better to simply say, “Rob Bell’s Heresy.”  That way, people clearly know where one stands.  Hey, it’s ugly, but it’s honest.  The reason a lot of people are not so bold with the H-word is that they fear being viewed as dogmatic or tyrannical.  But what if that is what they actually are?  It would be better to have the heart exposed to the light than to keep it hidden away.  At least in being exposed to the light, one might be more inclined to heed the words of Christ, “First clean the inside of the cup [...] that the outside also may be clean.”

 

*PS to regular readers – Lately, I’ve been getting burned out on reviewing Chan’s book, Erasing Hell.  I’ve also been inspired by Frank Viola’s blogging style, tips, subject matter, etc.  So, I’ll continue the Chan series, but I’ll break it up a bit with some blog ideas I’ve had on the shelf for quite some time now.  Thanks for reading!  And remember your comments (pro or con) are always welcomed and encouraged.

 

 

 

What did the first-century Jews believe?  This is a question I did not intend to address, since Francis Chan uses an entire chapter of his book, Erasing Hell, to address the first-century view of Hell.  But, when I considered the information Chan omitted from this chapter, the question became a speedbump in the road.  Consequently, I must slow down a bit.  In a lengthy introduction to what would otherwise be a very concise blog, let me tell you what Chan did not include in chapter two.

 

His bullet points about the first-century Jewish view of Hell are:

1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.

2. Hell is described in images of fire, darkness, and lament.

3. Hell is a place of annihilation.

4. Hell is a place of never-ending punishment.

Food for thought: Of these four views, which one is the most horrifying?  I’d pick number four, for sure.  Of these four views, to which do most Christians believe/adhere as “orthodox”?  I’d guess numbers one, two, and four.  But you probably won’t get shunned out of church for believing number three, unless, of course, you bring it up too much in Sunday school (aka, “causing division”).  Are these four views of Hell the only views among first-century Jews?  No!

WARNING: The following information is very relevant, and I am surprised and disappointed that Chan did not expound upon it in chapter two of his book. There was a large sect of Jews, mentioned many times in the New Testament, who did not believe in Hell at all.  In fact, according to the first-century historian, Josephus, Sadducees believed that “souls die with the bodies.”  They did not believe in the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, or rewards or penalties after death.  That’s why the Sadducees posed particular questions to Jesus, in an attempt to stump Him.  For example, they posed a hypothetical situation to Jesus in which a woman’s first husband dies, she remarries, then he dies, and so on, until the wife goes to her grave, having been married seven times.  The Sadducees asked, “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”  Rather than mumbling and fumbling absurdity, Jesus replies, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”

Furthermore, among first-century Jews were the ordinary people, the crowds that congregated to hear Jesus, but were not included among (and even shunned by) the Sadducees or Pharisees.  The New Testament and other non-biblical records give us glimpses of them from time to time, but their beliefs are not as explicitly explained.  This people-group that outnumbers all the religious sects combined, are not represented at all in Chan’s argument.  I’m not blaming Chan, because he would have to rely on assumption and conjecture to explain their beliefs, but I do think that it is worth mentioning that the majority of the Jewish population in the first century is not included in Chan’s summary of the first-century Jewish view of Hell.

Now that I’ve cleared the bump in the road, let me pick up where I left off in the previous blog, “Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Jesus, Lord of Distance“.  Considering the fact that we only have enough information about first-century Jewish views on Hell to give a Swiss cheese answer (i.e. chapter two of Erasing Hell), I asked a different question, one that we actually have enough information to answer accurately and fairly:

“What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?”  

The source of first-century Jewish beliefs, obviously, is debatable.  A knee-jerk answer is “the Old Testament”. But the Old Testament is silent about Hell.  And the Sadducees only believed portions of the Old Testament.  Plus, there were likely those who did not believe any of it but played along with the social-religious formalities.  Maybe if we narrow the question a bit, we might actually be able to find an answer.

What is the source of first-century beliefs in Hell?

Chan asks, “Is Hell a garbage dump?”  The reason Chan asks this question is that Rob Bell, in his book, Love Wins, addresses the subject of the Greek word, “Gehenna”, often (mis)translated, “Hell”.  Bell asserts Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, where people used to burn their trash.  He concludes, “Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it.”  Instantly, Jesus’ references to Gehenna seem less horrifying.  A less horrifying hell means less fear.  For those who use fear as a tool to influence or control the beliefs or behaviors of church members or potential church members, a less horrifying hell means less influence and control.  Less influence and control could lead to declining church attendance.  Consequently, the offering plate would be lighter, and clergy or support staff might actually have to take pay cuts or lose their jobs altogether.  We can’t have that now, can we?

In response to Bell, Chan writes,

The whole theory [of Gehenna as a garbage dump] actually stands on very shaky evidence.  Some commentaries and pastors still promote the idea, but there’s no evidence from the time of Jesus that the Hinnom Valley [...] was the town dump.  [...] In fact, the first reference we have to the Hinnom Valley, or gehenna, as a town dump is made by a rabbi named David Kimhi in a commentary, which was written in AD 1200.

First, I must applaud Chan for doing his homework.  Great job.  Let’s suppose that Kimhi was very wrong when he wrote about the origins of the analogy that compares the judgment of the wicked to Gehenna.  Let’s suppose that Gehenna was never used as a garbage dump.  Let’s suppose, as Chan suggests, that for first-century Jews, Gehenna references were “a fitting analogy for God punishing the wicked in hell.”  If this is true, then do we, by default, have to assume that when Jesus references Gehenna that He speaks in agreement with such a view?  Does Jesus use the word as a “fitting analogy” for eternal torment in the flames of Hell?  Is this really what Jesus teaches?

First, we need to consider what Jesus explains about Himself to the Jews:

The works that the Father gave me, that I might finish them, the works themselves that I do, they testify concerning me, that the Father hath sent me.

What kind of works did Jesus do?  What did it look like when Jesus performed His Father’s work?  He healed people.  He brought dead people back to life.  He made a point to spend time with religious outcasts.  He exhausted Himself traveling and teaching about the Reign of God.  In obedience to the Father, Jesus allowed Himself to be put to death for being the King of the Jews.

Jesus also said:

And the Father who sent me Himself hath testified concerning me; ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor His appearance have ye seen; and His word ye have not remaining in you, because whom He sent, him ye do not believe. Ye search the Writings, because ye think in them to have life age-during, and these are they that are testifying concerning me; and ye do not will to come unto me, that ye may have life; glory from man I do not receive, but I have known you, that the love of God ye have not in yourselves. I have come in the name of my Father, and ye do not receive me; if another may come in his own name, him ye will receive; how are ye able – ye – to believe, glory from one another receiving, and the glory that [is] from God alone ye seek not? Do not think that I will accuse you unto the Father; there is who is accusing you, Moses – in whom ye have hoped; for if ye were believing Moses, ye would have been believing me, for he wrote concerning me; but if his writings ye believe not, how shall ye believe my sayings?

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Jesus went out of his way to distance Himself from the behavior and teaching of the Jewish religious leaders.  He called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and said, “[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.

Let’s get this straight.

1.  Jesus tells the Jews that they “are in error because [they] do not know the Scriptures or the power of God”, the same power that He demonstrated through healing the sick and raising the dead (not setting them on fire).

2. Jesus pointed out that the Jews spend a lot of time studying scripture, thinking that they have all the answers, but without understanding the love of God, they can’t understand what they are reading.  That’s why they would not believe what Jesus said.

3. Jesus specifically warned people that the Jewish religious leaders were teaching their own inaccurate ideas about God.

With this in mind, let’s read what God (the Father who sent Jesus to do what He does and say what He says) has to say about the practice of people throwing other people (their own children) into the fire of Gehenna.  Keep in mind that this was written at least 600 years before Christ spoke of Gehenna and at least 1800 years before Kimhi’s commentary:

They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of [Gehenna] to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

Notice that God defines the practice of burning people in Gehenna as sin.  Also notice that God does not make such commands, nor does He conjure up such horrifying ideas.  He calls the burning of people in Gehenna an abomination.

If Chan is right, that Jesus taught eternal torment in Hell, the implication is that God commits sinful acts and abominations by sending people to Hell (Gehenna).  In fact, He uses His power to take the sinful acts and abominations to a whole new level in that He is able to make the torment of His victims continue eternally, not just for a short time as was the case in Judah’s sin. Does that sound accurate to you?

Isn’t it possible that one who holds to the doctrine of eternal torment “search the writings” but don’t understand God’s love, therefore, don’t understand the writings?  Jesus asked, if the “writings ye believe not, how shall ye believe my sayings“?  Here we have writings that tell us the intentions of God and God’s very negative reaction to the idea of burning people in Gehenna fire.  Are we to discard or “believe not” the teaching of the Father in exchange for our own traditions?  Are we to assume that Jesus taught something that completely contradicts the will of His Father?  Jesus demonstrated the work and words of the Father to us, directly, in flesh and blood.  Let’s set Chan’s and traditional Christianity’s version of God (think eternal torment in Hell, angry, vengeful) next to the version of God Jesus demonstrated to us (healing the sick, raising the dead, selfless sacrifice, love).  Do the two versions seem at odds?  Which one should we keep?  Remember, Jesus specifically warned people that the Jewish religious leaders were teaching their own inaccurate ideas about God.  Isn’t it possible that the religious leaders of our day are also teaching inaccurate ideas about Jesus and the message He was giving us about the Father, about the Reign of God in which He will “reconcile all things to Himself, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross”?

 

 

*Because of the length of this blog, the next blog will answer the second part of the question, “What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?”

**Francis Chan includes this small note in the notes section following chapter two: The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in an afterlife, certainly wouldn’t have believed in hell. Why not include this in the body of the chapter, since not everyone reads the notes sections of books?  It reminds me of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Fear Not