Reading about hell is never pleasant, which is why Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins begins with an appropriate statement:

If you are excited to read this book, you have issues.

It’s unfortunate that the current state of evangelicalism would necessitate the writing of a book that outlines the historically orthodox perspective on heaven and hell. But Chan and Sprinkle are right: “When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.” The gravity of the issue is what grounds Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. This is a serious, somber book written for laypeople.

Chan and Sprinkle should be commended for writing a book on a difficult topic and challenging us to interpret the Scriptures without letting our emotions drive our exegesis. The big takeaway from the book is that we are bound to what Jesus said about hell and judgment. Scripture is our final authority, even when we sometimes dislike what it says. Furthermore, the authors want us to live according to the implications of Jesus’ teaching, not merely believe doctrine for doctrine’s sake.

Chan and Sprinkle should also be commended for the respectful way in which they engage Rob Bell’s arguments. In contrast to Bell’s smug, often sarcastic approach to mocking the historically orthodox view, Chan and Sprinkle remain seriously devoted to the topic at hand. The result is a respectful contribution to the discussion, one that digs deep into the biblical texts, expounds them within context, and then offers conclusions based on Scriptural teaching.

But though this book is a perfectly appropriate response to Love Wins at one level, it misses the point at another level. Before I proceed any further, allow me to explain why I am about to break one of the cardinal rules of book reviewing. A good book review appreciates and critiques the book that is written, not the book that the reviewer thinks should have been written. I’m about to break that rule.

In appreciating this book for what it is, I am largely in favor of it. It’s a careful, biblical study on the doctrine of hell. Sure, I’ve got quibbles here and there. I thought the book could have probed a little further than just saying, “Jesus says there’s a hell, so we’re going to believe that, even if we can’t understand it.” Steadfast devotion to whatever Jesus says about judgment and hell, despite our emotions or lack of understanding, is commendable, of course, but the Bible goes further. In its portrait of God’s glory and majesty and its gritty view of the heinous nature of our sin, the Bible offers many hints that deserve exploration, particularly as to why eternal hell is not only included in the Bible, but is integral to the storyline. Chan and Sprinkle tell us what the Jesus says about hell, but not why this doctrine is necessary. Still, I appreciate the authors for writing a lay level book about this difficult subject.

Now, on to my breaking of the book-reviewing rule. I wish this book had been something else. On its own, Erasing Hell is a helpful book. But as a response to Bell’s Love Wins, and as a contribution to the conversation about the character of God, it falls flat. It’s not the kind of book that needed to be written.

Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And like I said above, at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that? Of Edwards, Tim Keller writes:

Reason tells me about the truth, but I really cannot grasp what it means; I can’t understand it without art. Edwards said that unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means. If you cannot visualize it, you don’t have a sense of it on your heart.

Chan and Sprinkle have put forth a historically orthodox understanding of hell, demonstrating the biblical foundation for their views. But Bell challenges this understanding by seeking to appeal to a more beautiful vision of God. The tragedy of Love Wins is that the character of God as described by Bell isn’t, in the final instance, much more than a glorified vision of 21st century man.

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.

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86 thoughts on “Erasing Hell: The Wrong Book at the Right Time?”

  1. Tom Farr says:

    This is a great review. I loved the book myself, but I agree with your assessment that the book should have focused on the beauty of truth more.

  2. Joe Blackmon says:

    I imagine Chan’s book is a good read and a useful resource in dealing with the folks that have been led astray by Rob Bell’s book. However, I for one am so thankful for Rob Bell, his book, and what he teaches.

    Before Rob Bell’s book, there were people in churches who believed what he believes but wouldn’t admit to it. Now, it is amazing the flurry of people falling all over themselves to defend Bell, his book, and his heretical teaching. In so doing, they prove that they aren’t Christians because they have rejected the gospel.

    Separating the sheept from the goats has never been easier. Just ask someone what they think about Bell’s book. Their response will tell you clearer than almost anything else whether they believe the biblical gospel. Those who reject Bell do believe the gospel. Those who defend Bell have rejected it.

    1. RN Nutrition says:

      Wow… so you believe that anybody who rejects Bell believes the Gospel? I disagree. There are many false gospels that one can believe, and simply rejecting the one Bell adheres to, does not mean you automatically believe the true Gospel. I know Mormon’s who would reject Bell’s gospel.

  3. Clay says:

    Trevin – You say “we grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium”. This comes across as a very condescending statement. I read this as you saying that only those who agree with your take on the “issues” truly grasp them, and that everyone who is attracted to Bell, or Young or whoever, is only attracted to the medium. While I don’t think this is completely the case – I believe there are substantive issues that people believe Bell has more right than the other side – I do think many see a certain beauty in Bell’s and Young’s writings that are not present in most western/reformed writings. Which to me begs the question, if the western/reformed vision of God is not inspiring beauty and art, is there something fundamentally wrong with that vision?

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    Clay,

    When I say “we grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium,” I mean “traditional evangelicals grasp the issues as stake and are defending them well.” I am not saying that those who disagree with the historically orthodox position are somehow not able to grasp the issues, as if there is an intellectual deficiency of some sort. Far from it. I think Rob Bell grasps the issues too, only he has mastered the way the communicate his vision in a way that resonates with many today.

    Regarding your last statement, I don’t think we want to determine truth based on beauty. One could argue that Paradise Lost (and Paradise Regained) by Milton are exceedingly artistic, as well as Dante’s Inferno. Some of the greatest art ever created was done according to the traditional view. (Think Sistine Chapel.) That’s not to say that Milton and Dante are right in all the particulars (they’re not), but it goes against your statement that something is wrong with the traditional Christian vision of God and eternity.

    1. Melody says:

      I think you make a very good point. I have often wondered why “Christian” films are so painful to watch craft wise. A bit like eating your vegetables. You try to pretend it is like all the rest desert but really it is just vegetables all dressed up, often with a lot of cheese.

  5. Susan says:

    Take a crack at it, Trevin! Write the book grounded in sound doctrine– bathed in the beauty of compelling truth. I, for one, would love such a read!

  6. Clay says:

    Thanks for the response Trevin. Couple of responses. First, from my admittedly limited observation, the western-protestant-reformed theological system does not inspire much in the way of art or beauty. I don’t think truth and beauty can be separated as two different things, so I stand by my comment that if a theological system doesn’t inspire art, something is fundamentally deficient within that system. (Actually I would say there is a something fundamentally deficient in the whole idea of a theological system, but that’s for another post.)

    Second, I don’t agree with your description of the traditional evangelical understanding of these issues as being historically orthodox. As a soon-to-be catachumen in the Eastern Orthodox Church, I know this is not the case. There is a serious understanding of hell within Orthodoxy based on Scripture as interpreted through the lens of Holy Tradition, but the Orthodox understanding certainly does not line up perfectly with the modern day evangelical understanding. Based on their continuous existence throughout Christian history, the Orthodox Church has a greater claim to being the standard bearer for historical orthodoxy than the modern day evangelical movement, and from what I’ve heard discussed about the book, some of Bell’s ideas are closer to Orthodox theology than the traditional evangelical ideas.

  7. Joe Blackmon says:

    the western-protestant-reformed theological system does not inspire much in the way of art or beauty.

    Handel’s Messiah
    The oratorio’s of J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, etc
    Just two examples off the top of my head.

    Yeah, you’re exactly right. There are no artistic expressions of beauty in western protestantism. Thanks for clearing that up. (/sarcasm)

    Oh, and there is nothing, not even one point, that Bell has right that Christians have wrong.

  8. James says:

    “we are Nixon, he is Kennedy”

    wonderful illustration!

    I agree with you that often we evangelicals have a difficult time wedding our intellectual arguments with winsome beauty.

    I wonder if it is not a result of our tendency to over emphasizing reason at the expense of emotion. We argue that all of our faculties have been affected by the fall. However in practice we operate as though reason has been somehow less affected and emotion has been more affected. We trust our heads more than our hearts and as a result we neglect a crucial part of our being and lose competitions like this with Bell.

    Both reason and emotion are corrupted and both need to be redeemed and used for the advancement of the gospel. One shouldn’t lead over the other, but both work together in a complementary fashion

    As an aside, I have been impressed with much of the material coming out from Desiring God in the past few years . They have put out some beautiful and thoughtful resources.

    http://www.desiringgod.org/store/other-merchandise/job-art-prints-with-poetry-cd

  9. Kevin,

    I am preparing to do some writing. This morning I read through numerous articles on what makes good wriitng. The consensus in these articles is “don’t tell – show”. This is an appeal to ‘tell a story’ – make TRUTH beautiful to use your words. Thanks for this article. It will make my writing more poignant and I pray it will make TRUTH BEAUTIFUL because it surely is.

    In Grace,
    Tom

  10. Taylor says:

    good post. i’ve been thinking about this one all evening, and i have a theory.

    the problem at hand seems to be that hell is not beautiful (ok, you have Milton and Dante writing beautifully about hell, but the doctrine of hell is not beautiful in and of itself)

    so, to combat art with art, which i agree is the issue, we need to focus on the beauty that hell enhances, namely, the kingdom.

    i’m actually reminded of lewis’ White Witch. in the final battle scene, she is turning people to stone left and right as they attack her directly. finally Edmund goes for the wand instead of the Witch, and the tide turns.

    the majority of the authors that have responded to rob have written in a large sense about God’s justice juxtaposed against His love (oversimplification, i know). maybe we should be aiming somewhere else, namely, the kingdom. hell works because its is a place where sin is kept, and as long as sin can’t enter the kingdom, people won’t be broken there.

    if people can’t be broken in heaven, there will truly be

    no more sorrow,

    no more wounding,

    no more hurt.

    the kingdom wins.

  11. Watchman says:

    “We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.”

    This pretty much sums up Evangelical Christianity’s traditional views. They are largely based on aged Reformation-era ideologies. Martin Luther was the Bell of yesteryear. Today, Bell has successfully repainted God for the 21st century post-modern believer. Perhaps Chan and many other prominent “theologians” can learn the significance of relevancy to a culture that is not understanding the messages emanating from today’s pulpit. A message that is largely exclusive and unloving. Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:14) and it seems today’s mainstream Evangelical leans heavily on truth with little grace.

  12. Watchman says:

    “Handel’s Messiah
    The oratorio’s of J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, etc
    Just two examples off the top of my head.”

    Wow! You’re not making a better case for yourself if you have to revert to 18th century talent to find creative beauty in the form of western-Protest theology. I believe we’re in the 21st century now.

    “Yeah, you’re exactly right. There are no artistic expressions of beauty in western protestantism. Thanks for clearing that up. (/sarcasm)”

    Yes. You successfully solidified our point. Thanks. (/sarcasm)

  13. Watchman says:

    Joe – Where precisely has Bell rejected the Gospel and teach heresy? Please, enlighten us.

  14. Trevin Wax says:

    All,

    Thank you for commenting and for continuing the conversation.

    For 5 years now, I’ve tried to make Kingdom People a place where we can have civil, gracious dialogue about theological issues that matter. With that in mind, and since it’s difficult to discern someone’s tone from a blog comment, I do ask that we refrain from sarcasm and mockery as we make our case.

    Carry on!

  15. Watchman says:

    Trevin,

    You are right. Please forgive me. And, please feel free to delete my second and third post where I was a tad bit cynical and largely sarcastic.

    Watchman

  16. Clay says:

    One of the problems in my opinion in some Christian thinking is the equating of Truth with propositional statements about Truth. It seems that many western Christians, esp. of the reformed variety, think that they’ve gotten to the bottom of the Truth when they make statements that are understood as factually correct. I certainly don’t want to downplay the importance of doctrine – doctrine is essential to setting the boundaries for Orthodoxy. But there has to be a recognition of the limitation of language in expressing Truth. Language can point to the Truth, but it cannot fully encapsulate the Truth. The less room there is for mystery within any theological framework, the less capable we are of perceiving Truth and Beauty as fundamental realities. And that’s what I mean when I say something is wrong in reformed theology that makes it a widely ineffective at inspiring art.

  17. Trevin Wax says:

    Watchman,

    No worries. Just wanted to make sure the tone stayed civil. That way, the best conversation can take place.

  18. Joe Blackmon says:

    First of all, he rejects the truth taught in the Bible that hell is eternal, conscious torment. Further, he teaches that someone could be saved without ever consciously trusting Christ–all religions lead to the same place.

    In contrast, all Christians recognize both of those teaching as heretical.

  19. Joe Blackmon says:

    Trevin

    Because I’m pretty much not going to show anything but contempt and disrespect for anyone who claims to be a Christian but supports Bell and his heresies, I think I will just bow out.

  20. Clay says:

    Joe – I think you may be misrepresenting Bell’s position. I haven’t read Bell, so I may be wrong, but I am familiar with some of the sources he draws from. I don’t think the belief is that someone could be saved without ultimately – key word ultimately – trusting Christ. But, many Christians throughout history have been open to the possibility that people will ultimately be able to trust in Christ even if they leave this life with no conscious understanding of Christian doctrine. The Scriptures provide plenty of reason to believe that Christ is drawing and reconciling all to God. And we can certainly hope that souls are responding to His drawing in ways that may not be clear and visible to us. This, however, is not the same as believing that all religions lead to the same place. I would be surprised if that is really what Bell believes. Again, this is not a heretical position and is supportable by Scripture.

  21. Nick Parsons says:

    I think ND Wilson is the person you are looking for. He touches on hell in his book and film, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. His writing is story rich and beautiful. Maybe he is the CS Lewisesque apologist for our age.

  22. Watchman says:

    Joe,

    Can you please cite references. I have read “Love Wins” two times and never once has he made these assertions. Many people are interjecting their erroneous interpretations into what Bell believes. Bell believes that Christ can save all people regardless of their religious beliefs. But, it is only through belief in Jesus that they are saved. Furthermore, Bell claims that Hell (whatever that may look like) is eternal but that God desires to save all men. Bell also claims that there will inevitably be some people who will reject God and spend eternity in Hell.

  23. Dwight says:

    One minor quibble.

    Chan was working on this book before Love Wins came out. It’s not a “response” in the normal sense of the word. It wasn’t written originally to take down Bell’s position. Therefore, your critique kind of falls flat.

    I’ve said for years that Christians need to be engaging in theology in beautiful ways, I wrote my theology thesis on theological aesthetics. But there’s also a place for formal theology. Yes there should be a more aesthetically pleasing response to Bell (as an aside, the “aesthetics” and writing style of Bell’s books drive me insane) but this is not a “response” that was entirely crafted as a response.

  24. Michael says:

    Trevin,

    You absolutely nailed it. I agree on all points.

    I just wish you wouldn’t have made this point in a book review. Using Chan’s book to make this point seems a bit unfair since in the past Chan has written one of the more engaging books on God’s beauty and love with his book Crazy Love.

    It’s a bit like saying your book Counterfeit Gospels is the wrong book to engage it’s subject matter because it isn’t written with the same chipper and upbeat style as someone like a Joel Osteen. That wouldn’t have been fair to you or a fair assessment of your work since I would be imposing on your intentions and purposes with my own.

    I absolutely agree with your thoughts, I just found your example to be cringe worthy since it’s main critique was the book not being something you wished it was, namely a more compelling picture of God’s beauty, something Erasing Hell wasn’t intended to be. That’s not fair to Chan or Sprinkle.

    You make a fantastic point and I hear what you are saying. We do need to be more compelling and engaging with both our words and our words. Other than your example, I agree completely.

    Keep up the great work Trevin.

  25. Maim says:

    Trevin,

    Even though I’m conditionalist and disagree on this doctrine, I truly appreciated this post. I think you’ve got a great point. The beauty of God’s glory sought after in Reformed theology should be seen frequently inspiring all mediums in wonderfully stylish and appealing ways just like Rob Bell does with his books. You really hit the nail on the head with “We are Nixon, he is Kennedy.”

    Imagine a book called “Love Wins,” except instead of presenting the Universalist view, it proclaims the justice of God, the brokenness and sinfulness of man, and the overwhelming love of God to redeem people who don’t deserve it, and there will be no more evil. I like what Taylor said.

    On a side note, I don’t believe rejecting the doctrine of Hell (i.e. eternal conscious torment) is the straight up sign of heterodoxy. Otherwise, we should never have listened to the words of John Stott, who was annihilationist.

    Best,
    Maim

  26. Nate Jenkins says:

    Great insight! Fantastic insight with Nixon and Kennedy. May God give us more sanctified story tellers.

  27. Good post and insights, Trevin, and I cannot disagree. We (evangelicals) need more beauty. But I wonder…what good is an appeal to the heart unless it makes sense in the head? Do we necessarily need to sacrifice the one for the other? Again…Edwards, Edwards, Edwards.

  28. Trevin Wax says:

    Dwight & Michael,

    I hope I’m not being unfair to Chan and Sprinkle. I love these guys and I appreciate what they’re doing. In the review, I tried to separate my commendation from the book from the further reflections on how to engage a guy like Rob Bell.

    As for “Erasing Hell” being a response to “Love Wins,” I am pretty sure that it was intended from the beginning to be a response to Bell. I could be wrong, but my talks with a guy from David C. Cook indicated that this book was done quickly in order to respond to Bell. Even if it wasn’t, it has been marketed that way.

    That said, the book works well at one level. So I’ve got nothing major against the book. I am grateful for men like Francis and Preston. Likewise, I include myself in the indictment. It’s not about one book. It’s about the fact that within our circles, we haven’t even been having this conversation about aesthetics. That’s the conversation I’m hoping to start, and I hope Francis and Preston will forgive me for using their book as a launching pad if they think I’ve been unfair to them.

  29. Joe Blackmon says:

    Joe,

    Can you please cite references.

    You betcha.

    Bell believes that Christ can save all people regardless of their religious beliefs. But, it is only through belief in Jesus that they are saved.

    “What [Jesus] doesn‟t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn‟t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (p. 154). (bold added)

    “There is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you‟ll be okay” (p. 155).

    Furthermore, Bell claims that Hell (whatever that may look like) is eternal

    From Denny Burk’s review of Bell’s tripe:
    Bell says that biblical warnings about “eternal punishment” are not what they appear to be. He argues that “eternal” (Greek, aion) does not mean “forever.” Rather, eternal denotes “intensity of experience” (p. 91). So when Jesus speaks of “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46, he is talking about a limited period of time of intense pruning that aims to restore the sinner to eternal life. For Bell, hell is not eternal punishment, but temporary discipline. He writes,
    “Failure , we see again and again, isn‟t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (p. 88).

  30. Watchman says:

    Thanks Joe for your response. Here are refutations to your assertions directly from the source himself… Rob Bell.

    Jesus Alone
    Rob shares in “Love Wins” his belief that the only way to God is through Jesus by quoting and affirming Jesus’ statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me”
    [pg. 154]

    Eternal Hell
    “Our ultimate future hope is a restored creation under Christ where God will dwell with us forever on a restored heaven and earth [Rev 21-22]. There are many who accept the invitation of the life of heaven and many who reject the invitation. Those who reject the invitation experience a purifying “fire” of judgment in hell, yet there is hope.”
    [http://marshill.org/files/2011/03/LoveWinsFAQs2.pdf

  31. Trevin Wax says:

    Watchman and Joe,

    Both of you make valid points as to what Rob Bell teaches, but I’d like to redirect the discussion back to the point of this post, namely – the lack of beauty in traditional responses to Rob Bell and the need for artistry, not merely analysis. That is the conversation I am hoping will continue here.

    Thanks.

  32. Bhishma Mago says:

    I commend this critique and what it is calling for. I think reformed exegesis has somehow made us fearful of pursuing creativity. However, it is indeed possible for us to pursue truth through a creative enterprise. The sermons of Jesus for instance were highly poetic. The sermons in most reformed churches today can be very boring. Poetry or beautiful expression does not have to be antithetical to a serious and careful pursuit of truth in scripture.

    1. RN Nutrition says:

      While I agree with Joe… that Bell’s view is not Biblical… and that Watchmen’s rebuttal actually supports Joe’s assertion… I don’t agree with Joe’s view that those who believe that Bell’s opinions are make-believers or pretend Christians. Christians will get things wrong many times… doesn’t mean they are “pretend”… only wrong.

  33. Watchman says:

    That’s okay, Joe. I don’t need your respect. I am loved by God. However, I still respect you and your opinions. Peace.

  34. Charisa N. says:

    I agree w/ Joe. Rob Bell has clearly missed the mark & is leading ppl astray! Just b/c Hell makes uncomfortable doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist! And, by the way, Hell was NEVER meant for God’s most beloved creations to end up in! That was solely created for Satan & his horde of demons! But then sin entered. Therein lies the problem!
    The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was to SAVE US from our sins, so we WON’T go to Hell. Here’s what’s required of us, however: We must accept His sacrifice on our behalf, realizing that WE put God in that position! He doesn’t tempt us to sin. Satan & ourselves are all that’s needed to accomplish that!
    So, when Rob Bell says that Love wins, well, yeah, but only b/c God LOVED us enough to lay down the perfect sacrifice for our sins,so we’ll spend Eternity in Heaven.(Read Randy Alcorn’s book, “Heaven”.)

    We HAVE to see that we are filthy w/ sin first! Then turn to the only One who is perfectly robed to get the job done! THAT is the beauty of it all!

  35. Clay says:

    Something hit me as I was thinking back over this post and some of the responses so far. There is no clear theology of Beauty within western Christianity. I think this is because of a fundamental problem with the way most contemporary western Christians understand the Gospel. Most believe the Gospel is reducable to a logical explanation, a summation of facts. Therefore the only place there is for art or beauty within this conception is as a tool to help someone understand the facts. There is no Truth in Beauty itself. The interaction of beauty and theology becomes about expressing theological propositions in an aesthetically pleasing way. But true Beauty transcends the rational capacaties of a person and directly touches the heart. True Beauty must be perceived intuitively. As Fr. Stephen Freeman says, “God rendered as prose is perhaps the deepest misrepresentation of all”.

  36. Stephen says:

    I especially enjoyed James’ reply!

    I feel you both have rendered soul-feeding responses to the issue.

    Christ’s redemption satiates both heart and mind.

    In order to honor Truth sufficiently, our introspection of Him need attempt to as well.

    Thank you for making my spirit well up in joy within me! Great post!

  37. David Van Lant says:

    Which aesthetic qualities were you referring to exactly? Bell’s appeal is based on sentimentalism and bad rhertoric. He hardly deserves to be placed in the same category as JFK, but hey, step up to the plate and take your best artistic swing at the subject.

  38. Barker says:

    Trevin Wax:

    I think you have some explaining to do.

    It is simply misleading to suggest that Chan’s and Sprinkle’s views on hell represent a “historically orthodox” take on hell, which is pitted against “Bell’s smug, often sarcastic approach to mocking the historically orthodox view.”

    Historically, within the whole scheme of Christian history, the Reformed view on hell is barely normative view of orthodox Christianity.

    Someone here mentioned the Eastern Orthodox Church. To be sure, they have been around for quite a long time (certainly eclipsing the Reformed tradition), and have very steadfastly held to bona fide Christian orthodox teaching and worship. See Jaroslav Pelikan’s multivolume series and JND Kelly’s authoritative book, “Early Christian Doctrines”.

    Bell’s take on hell is *surprisingly* consonant with the Eastern Orthodox view on hell. Therefore, to suggest somehow that he is some kind of opponent or critic of orthodox teaching is just historically inaccurate.

  39. Watchman says:

    Very well said, Barker.

  40. Odukoya says:

    Hello Trevin,

    I have some comments to make about what you have been saying, I believe your right in your general comments about being artistic, and I think it affects the whole issue of how we deal with sin, because we have no grand pervading view of God, many times sin just seems that more alluring though it is not and it seems that pastors fail terribly at times to paint a captivating view of God.
    May I ask though what theological books have you read that you think do the job well.

  41. Joshua Reitano says:

    Very good review – though I thought The Shack failed as both art and theology. But a good critique nonetheless about understanding the medium. One book that might do what you’re hoping for is N.D. Wilson’s “Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl.” The main subject matter is not hell, but it’s a part of the storyline and has a whole chapter. And a beautifully written book.

  42. Trevin Wax says:

    Odukoya,

    I think Timothy Stoner’s “The God Who Smokes” is one of the best-written popular level books out there. He critiques Bell, but in a way that makes the biblical portrait gloriously better than anything else.

    For a more artistic-timeless sense, C.S. Lewis would be an example.

  43. Foppe says:

    “we are Nixon, he is Kennedy”

    So true, never mind our opinions about the facts of that debate as well as the Bell – Chan one.

    For (f)actual content debate about this issue please read (again) Trevin’s review on Christ Alone by Michael Wittmer and the book itself also!

  44. Trevin Wax says:

    Here’s an ancient quote from Irenaeus that is applicable to this conversation:

    Error, indeed is never set forth in its naked deformity,
    lest, being thus exposed,
    it should at once be detected.

    But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress,
    so as, by its outward form,
    to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than truth itself.

    – Irenaeus of Lyons

  45. Aimee Byrd says:

    Okay, so I’m showing my immaturity here, but does anyone find it amusing that “The God Who Smokes” is written by Stoner? But seriously, I love your main point in the article, and the way you delivered it. My favorite part was the Keller quote–so true!! And now I will have to read Stoner’s book…

  46. Trevin Wax says:

    Aimee,

    I have chuckled about that on many occasions. :)

  47. Clay says:

    Trevin – if you’re looking for a traditional evangelical presentation of hell, I’m not sure C.S. Lewis fits the bill.

  48. Trevin Wax says:

    Clay, I wasn’t thinking about hell, per se, but about the ability to communicate Christian doctrines beautifully.

  49. Clay says:

    Oh, ok. I agree with you.

  50. Clay says:

    Trevin – the Irenaus quote is from Against Heresies, which was a treatise against gnosticism as you know. His meaning in that statement has to do with error being disguised within philosophical ideas attractive in his day. It is frighteningly easy to acquire a warped understanding of the revealed Truth of God based on cultural assumptions about reality. The only way to protect against this is to know the Truth as it was revealed to the apostles and protected within Christ’s Body since that time.

  51. Luke Geraty says:

    Excellent discussion!

    I’m inclined to think that the lack of beauty has something to do with the majority of our culture’s social influences, etc. But perhaps that is for another conversation? Not sure.

    I think I first started thinking along these lines when I read Rick McKinley’s This Beautiful Mess. He painted a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God, which really fascinated me. It was like reading the theology of George Eldon Ladd but with color and artistic creativity! I loved it.

    So I like what you are saying.

  52. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    To this beholder of beauty…

    Functional is beautiful.

    And dysfunctional is ugly.

  53. Odukoya says:

    Thanks I will go and read the God who smokes, whilst I have read C S Lewis Narnia books and mere Christianity – which I found where good books which other one would you really say he communicated Christianity Beautifully especially God Captivatingly.

  54. Trevin Wax says:

    “The Four Loves” is brilliant and beautiful, for sure.

  55. Blake Kidney says:

    Beauty is tantalizing, but also fleeting.

  56. Clay says:

    I think it would be more correct to say that our perception of beauty is fleeting. Beuaty is part of God’s good creation. Beauty is not fleeting because its Source is not fleeting. But if I understand your point, I agree that we cannot make idols out of beautiful things. Beautiful things – art, poetry, nature – can only point to True Beauty.

  57. Chris says:

    As I was reading, I was thinking that this also applied to our collective Evangelical response to the Shack, and then, Voila! You mentioned the Shack. I very much agree with where you in what you’ve said in this review.

  58. Gerald Van Iwaarden says:

    I thought Chan’s book was very helpful because it did not directly engage Bell’s book. Kevin De Young did that when Bell’s book was announced. The value of this book is for lay people and those of us who pastor in LDS dominated areas of the inter-mountain west. Most of these people don’t know and don’t care who Rob Bell is and what book he wrote.

    This book will be very helpful in conversing with those that need to get a glimpse of the reality of an Eternity without God.

  59. Paul Micu says:

    In his book, Rob Bell states “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as conscious, eternal torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

    Secondly, in light of Bell claiming he is NOT a universalist, he does say, “Whatever objections a person may have… one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.”

    Thirdly, Bell says he is trying to make a “case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.”

    If I had the opportunity to sit with Rob Bell, here’s what I would say…

    “Rob, I understand what it’s like to consider the all-infinite, all-eternal, all-transcendent God, and to be virtually paralyzed by the mystery of who He is His unmatched holiness. To say that I have God all figured out in my mind and in the palm of my hand with all certitude would be nothing short of foolish thinking.”

    But Rob, the mystery you’re promoting is much different. That which you claim we cannot know with any certainty, completely goes against what God has already made unmistakably clear in His Scriptures. In that, both in Exodus 34:7 and in Nahum 1:3, “the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished”

    And that in Revelation 14, we know that those who worship the Beast, and NOT the LORD will “drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night…”

    You can’t get more eternal than forever and ever!

    And if there is any mystery regarding the judgment of the wicked, if there is any lack of certitude regarding His wrath being poured out on the sinner, it isn’t primarily whether an eternal Hell will have any people in it…

    Mr. Bell, the greatest mystery and deepest uncertainty regarding God’s judgment and His wrath to be shown in Hell is this: If God is utterly holy and I was a rebel loving my sin… THEN WHY HASN’T HE SENT ME TO HELL?

    That’s the question!

    I know my sin, others know my sin, what’s more, is that God, in His perfect omniscience, He knows my sin in its entirety! The question is NOT will anyone end up in Hell, the question is what is stopping you, me, and the whole world from being from being plunged into Hell at this very moment?

    And when we come face to face with the reality of Who God is and what we truly deserve, we find ourselves desperately clinging to the One who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

    We must cling to the Gospel alone.

    This is how Love Wins Rob, when the most Holy and the altogether Sovereign God looks at me in my sinfully pitiful state and instead of exacting His wrath upon me, instead He crushes His Son and is fully satisfied with Him. And all of this, so that He would be glorified, and that I would be His child.

    When the love, holiness, and sovereignty of Almighty God and the utter depravity of sinful man is not understood biblically, you end up with a group of people who are more moved by artistry and passionate pleas than they are with Truth.

    Hence Trevin’s argument…

    However, I don’t think the issue is a supposed cerebral (Chan & Sprinkle) vs. the artistic (Bell). The primary issue at hand is the need to preach, hear, and comprehend the Gospel with all cerebral exposition of the Text and all passionate gripping of the heart so that in light of the true character of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the Scripture, the Gospel of Jesus would arrest the will.

  60. Ariel says:

    “To this beholder of beauty…

    Functional is beautiful.

    And dysfunctional is ugly.”

    Truth Unites…I couldn’t have said it better.

    Although I do believe in the importance of the aesthetic, which do you think God will ask us when we meet him face to face? How beautifully did you say things? Or, Did you teach my word? Let those of us who strive to uphold the truth take aesthetics into consideration as our form of worship. But let us keep art in balance. If i’m going to a small church in a poor country, I’m not going to admonish a pastor for lacking artistry (the poor guy is probably burdened with so much else), but I would be concerned for his theology.

  61. Clay says:

    Ariel – beauty is all around us, even – maybe especially – in the small church in the poor country. The problem I see is not that we don’t try hard enough to make beauty, it’s that we don’t have the eyes to see the beauty that is already there.

  62. Ariel says:

    I agree with you in that scenario, Clay. However in comparing truth and beauty I think truth IS beautiful in its nature, but we do not always see it that way. But what we perceive in our fallen nature as beautiful is not always true. We must be careful not to elevate the two to equal status of importance.

    We have to be careful not to make beauty an idol, but also not to head the other direction, which is just laziness. God cares about beauty, but that beauty which reflects truth. The tower of babel was no doubt beautiful but it reflected a distortion of truth. Whereas the temple (OT) was built by artisans inspired by the Holy Spirit and it reflected God’s beauty and not man’s.

    I think what Travis is saying is that this book erasing hell is excellent in that it exposes truth, but how do we take that a step further as orthodox evangelicals? And I would add, how can we do that without falling into idolatry?

  63. Ariel says:

    not *primarily* man’s

    obviously the temple did reflect man’s beauty in the sense that God has made us in his image

  64. Clay says:

    Ariel – Look to the Eastern Orthodox Church :) No better place on earth to find the marriage of Truth and Beauty.

  65. Brad says:

    Read John Piper to find what you are looking for.

  66. Odukoya says:

    Thanks once again for your suggestions I will try and get a copy of that as well.

  67. Wes says:

    I wonder if the new book “Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?” contributed by Tim Keller, Al Mohler, J. I. Packer & Robert Yarbrough and edited by Christopher Morgan, & Robert Peterson might be more in-line with what you see is currently missing with respect to a proper response to Rob Bell.

  68. Tom H says:

    For those who do not see proof that Bell teaches many heretical things. If you do the research I am sure you will find out that these accusations are true.
    For the sake of space, I thought I would give one example of Bell’s heretical teaching.

    Rob Bell has a very popular film series (name escapes me sorry), that in one episode he talks about Peter walking on water.
    In this lesson he not only contradicts the traditional understanding of this passage, I believe what he said is heretical.
    Basically he said that Peter sank not because of taking his eyes off of Jesus and onto the storm. Rather Bell says that the reason Peter began to sink was because he didn’t have faith in himself. Bell went on to say that God has faith in us, while stating that it is wrong to think that Peter sunk because of a lack of faith in God.
    Think about that, if what Bell states isn’t heresy, I don’t know what is.

  69. Ben says:

    Though I’ve not yet read Erasing Hell, I appreciated your review of it because it highlighted what I believe was the underestimated danger of Bell’s book, a danger that conservative evangelicals ignore at their peril. I read Bell’s book and was horrified at the broad strokes of whitewash that it splashed on Christian History, Bell’s leaps of logic, and his ignorance of all evidence and scholarship that contradicted his own views. In short, Bell’s book was an academic travesty.

    Yet, as you’ve said, Bell has not fashioned himself into an academic; he is an artist. I remember putting down Love Wins and telling my wife, “This book is awful, but the way it is written, people will love it.” And they have. We can say that Bell is wishy-washy–he is. But we cannot say he is not a communicator. Bell knows how to pull the levers and dim and raise the lights of the heart and for this we should be on our toes and chewing on our pencils. As we write against the heresies of Bell and the like, we can continue to produce remarkable exegesis. You’ve said it, we will be Bell here every time. But where we lose, and where we must not lose, it in our delivery.

    Not every Christian author is equipped for this task and that’s just fine. But I’m concerned that some authors have done their exegesis (Praise God!) but have stopped there. We must go further.

  70. Dave says:

    Watchman,

    I have read “Love Wins.” Prior to this book I had been a “fan” of Bell’s because of the way that he made you think. I had seen him misquoted before and read this book thinking that this was the case again. Sadly it was not. Bell is blatently teaching false doctrine. He is guilty of the things (picking and choosing verses) that he accuses others of doing.

    You are right that he does not claim that hell is not eternal, he just claims that it will eventually be empty becasue everyone will have turned to God “in this life or the next.”

    However, you are not entirely correct on the Jesus only reference. Bell does make the statement you quoted, but in numerous places, he speaks of following the teachings of Jesus in relation to others as being enough to fulfil this. He does strongly imply that it is possible to be a Muslim follower of Christ or a Buddhist follower of Christ. This misses the complete teachings of Christ.

  71. Dave says:

    One other comment about Bell. He states (as others here have stated), there have been many that have made the same claims throughout history. This is true. It is also true that there have been false teachers presenting their beliefs as truth since the beginning of time.

    I am currently reading Chan’s book and have found his approach, so far, accurate and thoughtful.

    I am a musician and an engineer. I can appreciate the beauty in art as well as the complexities of logic and the simplicity of truth. I appreciate the article Trevin and the comments from those here.

  72. simmmo says:

    I think Rob Bell does have a point and is well within his rights to question the Western doctrine of hell. The Orthodox Church has a rather different view of hell. Shouldn’t this be considered as historic as well? And from what I’ve heard from Rob Bell, the Orthodox would have very similar objections to the Western doctrine of hell. Western theologians and thinkers such as NT Wright, Greg Boyd and CS Lewis have far more Eastern views of hell. And this is encouraging.

    I might like to ask Trevin what he actually thinks hell is. Do you think that hell is a literal torture chamber beneath the surface of the earth where people literally fry and are burnt but not consumed? And all this is inflicted by God? Is that your notion of hell? This is the medieval version of hell that took over in the West and it should be questioned. It has led many to lose faith and there are other historic alternatives to this very harsh view.

    As for universalism, we can not affirm that this is reality, but we can hope for it. Kallistos Ware puts it very well:

    “But Hell exists as well as Heaven. In recent years many Christians — not only in the west, but at times also in the Orthodox Church — have come to feel that the idea of Hell is inconsistent with belief in a loving God. But to argue thus is to display a sad and perilous confusion of thought. While it is true that God loves us with an infinite love, it is also true that He has given us free will; and since we have free will, it is possible for us to reject God. Since free will exists, Hell exists; for Hell is nothing else than the rejection of God.”

    “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures’ (Mystic Treatises, edited by A. J. Wensinck, Amsterdam, 1923, p. 341). Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil.”

    Source: http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/history_timothy_ware_2.htm

    How radical and radically different from the Western view of hell. I’d argue that had Rob Bell grown up with this understanding of hell, Love Wins would never have been written.

  73. Dwight says:

    One would be wise to get a copy of 23 questions about hell by Bill Wiese. It really lays down Gods truth and warning about this very real one day eternity.

  74. Sam says:

    I’m confused…I I read LOVE WINS, and left with the impression that Bell wholeheartedly believes in Hell. Denying Hell? There was a lot that I’m not buying in the book, but I certainly don’t remember him denying Hell.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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