Our local denominational pastor cluster decided to read a book and discuss it together. Somebody suggested reading Love Wins, Rob Bell's recent book about hell and eternity. Somebody else suggested we read Francis Chan's Erasing Hell, which was written as a response to Bell, too; the idea being it would be interesting to get both points of view before having the discussion. And so we did.
Quickly. . .
Rob Bell asks good questions. He asks the questions many Christians are afraid to ask. He challenges long-held beliefs, but in a gentle, winsome, inviting way. He invites people into the discussion in a friendly, folksy way. And he makes you think.
He also tends to shy away from direct answers, which leaves some people feeling irritated. Bell pushes the conversation in certain directions that lead to certain conclusions, but he never flat out says "here's the answer." He leaves it up to the reader to decide.
Still, he challenges the traditional understanding of hell and eternity, making the case that it is both untenable and unbiblical, the idea that the God we worship would torture people in hell for all of eternity simply because they never found Christ in the short time they had on earth. And yes, he does deal with the biblical texts, this isn't just Bell opining on his personal opinions. If you want to listen and stretch, you might find yourself agreeing with much of what he says.
Then again, there's this.
Francis Chan supports a much more traditional understanding of hell. While not agreeing with Dante's vision of flaming dungeons and devils with pitchforks, Chan peruses scripture and sees truth in the common doctrine of hell as eternal, conscious punishment for those who don't receive Christ in this lifetime. He responds to Bell and other non-traditionalists, dismantling their arguments against hell. And he makes it quite personal, as he wrestles with his own seeming lack of passion to share Christ while believing so many are destined for eternal torment.
So here's my take: Reading Bell is fascinating and interesting, in that it requires some thinking to understand where he's heading; it's new territory, which at least keeps things intriguing. And, unless one simply reads Love Wins in order to attack Bell, it does force the reader to rethink their own beliefs on both the scriptural texts and the nature of the God we worship. On the other hand, Bell doesn't deal so well with the larger corpus of theological understandings of hell. He makes it clear that nobody could ever talk of God's glory and hell in the same sentence, when, in fact, our Reformed brothers and sisters do that very thing. A fact which Bell seems to ignore or forget.
On the other hand, reading Chan is like retaking a class in Bible College 101. He simply rehashes the common understandings of the texts and seems incredulous that anybody might interpret them differently. For a subject so important, the book reads like "Hell for Dummies," a quick overview that never really wrestles with possible alternate understandings or readings.
I realized while reading these books that it became a nice example of my last book review, Clark Pinnock's The Scripture Principle. Because in the end, while it appears these two are arguing scripture, it's really a hermeneutical argument. Bell is beginning big picture, trying to understand God and then read scripture in light of who God is. Chan is beginning in the minutia of individual verses and working outward to try to understand what God must be like. Both views have some validity; without saying I agree with the outcome, I will say I appreciated Bell's approach more.
In the end, there are better books on the subject, although these two might be the most accessible. If you've never given much thought to the theology of hell, and would like a quick introduction, these books would be a good place to start. If you really want to be challenged to think through the subject, there are many books that are much more comprehensive.