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.