First of all, I am not advocating for a particular doctrine on hell, nor am I defending Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” which, if you’ve been following me, you would know that I was less than impressed with.
Second, God bless Francis Chan and his humble service to the Lord and the Church. Everything I know of him is very positive and I have to nothing to say to denigrate him or his ministry. I’m going to comment on this video presentation on hell that Chan just released because the dogma of hell as eternal torments deserves a critical look and I think that videos like this ultimately serve to confuse the matter.
At minute 3:32, Chan turns this into an appeal for hell as eternal torments, and not a very good one at that. He does a typical move in argumentation where a proponent of a view sets up a “straw man” and knocks it down, to help build a case for their own view. I’m not saying that Chan is necessarily doing this on purpose. I’m only saying that his argumentation fits this description, and that this type of argumentation only serves to muddy up the waters.
Right before the straw man is erected Chan pulls another typical and even more fallacious move when he quotes Isaiah 55. “God’s ways are higher than our ways…” and then he segues into all sorts of questions, but those questions are ignored or treated as irreverent. “God’s ways are higher than our ways” in this case, ought to be decoded to mean, “God’s ways are higher than YOUR (whoever disagrees with hell as eternal torments) ways… and if you disagree with hell as eternal torments, you must be asserting your faulty reason over God” …as if that’s the principle issue for people who don’t affirm hell as eternal torments. This appeal to ‘God’s mysterious ways’ out of Isaiah 55 is an overly used tactic to put everyone else on their heels so that whatever the person wants to claim to be true can be inserted into the supposed room provided by this sort of argument.
Next, the straw man, goes like this… “Those who think hell is something other than eternal torments are appealing to faulty reason and/or sentimentality.” Easy to knock down! Of course, such dangers as faulty reason or sentimentality do exist and everyone needs to build an awareness of our own subjectivity, influences, and biases, but what cannot be presumed is that those who do not believe hell is eternal torments have based their case on faulty reason or sentimentality. I’m sure that there are some people who do that, but it’s impossible to say what amount of Christians who question hell as eternal torments, base their arguments (if they have any) on faulty reason or sentimentality. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. What makes this a straw man is that Chan picks an easy target in the hell debate and knocks it down to bolster his view. On top of this, since when does reason and feelings not play a role in our navigating through our faith? I think Chan believes that the Bible clearly teaches eternal torments, so no one should fault him for defending what he believes to be true to the word of God, but the manner in which he puts forth this appeal for hell as eternal torments is very weak.
After the straw man is knocked over, he continues to kick it by referencing some Bible stories where God took drastic and sometimes violent (albeit temporal) action against sin, and finally closes with a reading of Revelation 20:10&15. Unfortunately for Chan’s case, pointing to God’s temporal actions against sin in no way assists his case for eternal torments. Yeah, maybe it helps Chan beat down the straw man of some (unidentified) person’s faulty reason or sentimentality, but it in no way strengthens the case for hell as eternal torments. If Chan wants to lay a case for hell as eternal conscious torment, he needs to work critically with the biblical text (including the original language), church tradition (and not just selections of it), experience and yes… reason. He can’t demonize reason and then sneak his own reason in through the back door.
Revelation 20 is a key text for proponents of hell as eternal torments. They read the English translation and say, “Look! There it is, in plain English! Hell is eternal conscious torments!” If it were THAT simple, we wouldn’t be having this conversation among Christians who treat the Bible seriously and believe it to be the authoritative word of God. I can’t, for time sake, develop this much but let’s just leave it at this… When it comes to the book of Revelation, we are separated by about 2000 years, different cultures, a language barrier, church traditions, and all kinds of interpretative issues like genre of text… and that’s just for starters. Of course, this does not mean that the New Testament is unreadable, it simply means that much attention must be given to working through the relevant issues, especially when dealing with something as dramatic and serious as post-mortem judgment.
Chan closes the video coming down on reason again. But not his own reason or the reason of those who think it’s reasonable for God to torment people forever, but the reason of those who don’t think that is reasonable and might have reasons, based upon scripture, to believe that the dogma of hell as eternal torments should not be a dogma at all. He seems to be claiming that it’s their reason that’s irreverent reason… but I’m sure Chan has his REASONS for thinking that! (irony)
I’ll end on a positive note: What Chan has to say at the beginning of this video is very, very good advice. We aren’t just talking about theological ideas. We’re talking about people’s lives – people that God loves and Jesus died for. This is good reason for all of us to pray and listen and obey… and keep the conversation on the up and up.