There has been quite a discussion lately, in the realm of Christian discourse surrounding the publishing of Rob Bell's book titled Love Wins. On July 5th Pastor Francis Chan published a response to Bell's book titled Erasing Hell.
This whole discussion revolving around what Christians understand about salvation (classically called soteriology) has been both fruitful/deep as well as sad/shallow. Here is what I mean.
When Bell's book came out, there were people who judged the book by its cover and had not even taken the time to read it. Incidentally that is a big problem...why is it that Christians are so afraid of reading books that they might disagree with? Do we not have confidence that God can guide us through the more challenging intellectual discussions of our time? Love Wins offers readers a side of the soteriological discussion that blends together the thoughts of thinkers such as N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and Jurgen Moltmann. That is quite a line up of theological heavy hitters.
Bell does this in both explicit examples by way of quotation and in more subtle ways through the use of ideas that are commonly attributed to these famous theologians. And the list doesn't end with these people.
Francis Chan's book Erasing Hell offers readers an attempt at engaging the ideas put forth in Bell's books. My first complaint is the title. I think Chan means it to be a direct reference to Bell's book (which doesn't work since Bell says there is Hell both now and later), but I sure wish Chan would have just titled his book more appropriately for what he actually thought - namely that Hell is for real, in the classic sense that many of evangelical Christians have thought.
I take issue with Chan's apparent holier than thou approach by giving considerable time to describing his prayer/fasting preparation for writing this book. Is he suggesting that Bell didn't do the same just because Bell didn't say explicitly that he prayed and fasted? Is he suggesting that he is going to get the answers right to these questions because he has prayed about it and others haven't prayed about it? And are all of the other people in the discussion going to get it wrong, because they haven't come out and said they are praying in preparation for their books? Honestly, this comes across as arrogant to me. It sounded to me like he was saying he is going to get it right when he says: "We can't afford to be wrong on this question." Instead of entering the discussion that was already happening and simply disagreeing with Bell in an intellectually charitable way, he seems to suggest that his Paul-centric, pseudo-reformed, modern evangelical theological stance (which is confusing and at times logically schizophrenic) is the only proper way to interpret and understand what the scriptures have to say about Heaven, Hell and Salvation.
In reference to one particular text of scripture Chan suggested that we need to be extra careful in our interpretation, but he seems to have disregarded this plea in reference to several other passages of scripture he addresses. For example, he suggests that in Revelation chapter 3 Jesus is directly communicating to the church at Sardis, disregarding the fact that John wrote the book of Revelation. But he makes it quite clear that Paul wrote the 13 letters attributed to him in the New Testament. There is a rather selective form of historical and theological exegesis going on here.
I want to hear what Chan has to say on this topic because I think he is a gifted pastor and writer, but the method can sometimes distort the content, his writing often left me feeling a bit queasy about his exegesis and theological depth. Where Bell engaged and incorporated the thinking of several major theologians, Chan simply had a friend who is a New Testament scholar help him with the research and writing (a scholar by the way who happened to go to the same seminary as he did, which leaves little room for diversity of thought within their approach to the biblical text). It helps you to write a book when you pick a helper who thinks the exact same way you do and then can simply bolster your self-assurance.
What baffles me most, is that I loved Chan's book on the Holy Spirit titled The Forgotten God, but he isn't doing the kind of deep and diligent exegesis here that he did in that book.
In the end Bell's book actually had persuasive weight to it, due to the fact that in allowing space for very thought provoking questions, Bell doesn't come across as arrogant. He simply asks questions and allows some space for reflection on the implications of the questions. Chan's book, while explicit on his beliefs, left very little room for difference in interpretation of scripture. In fact, Chan flirted with biblicism throughout the book, assuming that all we need to do is pick up the bible and we will automatically get it! Of course this disregards stories like Acts chapter 8 where the disciple Philip has to explain the meaning of a text in Isaiah to an Ethiopian eunuch who needed help understanding the meaning. God has given some the gift of teaching in order to help the Church know how to read scripture well. This is important. Even the Gideons who give away bibles by the thousands don't assume you can just pick up the bible and get it! They include a page inside that directs the reader to passages from which to begin, and offers brief explanatory notes on how to read the bible.
I sure wish Chan could have acknowledged that he was simply putting his thoughts out there, and not written his book in such a way that made it seem that he was going to get it right, and others are wrong.