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