Chan, Bell & Hell
So technically, he’s not responding to Rob Bell. But of course, we all know that he is, and that’s a good thing. He’s the ideal person, in fact: theologically, he’s conservative, but his age, following and style make him a very winning alternative to Bell, and he lives the sort of life that leftie Christians aspire to (and sometimes criticise rightie Christians for missing). In an American church where the right judge the left for their doctrine and the left judge the right for their lifestyles, Chan has undeniably pursued justice, compassion, sacrifice and radical generosity. When Chan talks in the video about searching the Scriptures and doing diligent study on the doctrine of hell, you think to yourself, you’ve done that. When he urges people to pray and fast about these questions, you think, you’ve done that. That’s not to say that Bell hasn’t, of course; I’m sure he has. But Chan’s emphasis on these things – submission to God’s word in Scripture no matter what, spiritual disciplines, detailed exegesis, the sovereignty of God, the importance of conforming our will to God’s rather than the reverse – is significant, and it does make it look like whatever Bell’s personal convictions on all these are, they do not appear as important to him as they do to Chan. (That’s not just because Chan’s sitting in a room holding a Bible, and Bell’s doing a Nooma-style walk and talk, by the way. If I was filming outdoors in Michigan in February, I’m not sure I’d do a ten minute Bible study either.)
For Bell, the main problem with Chan’s view (also known as the conservative evangelical view, also known as the traditional view) is that a God who willingly sentences people to eternal conscious torment could not possibly be a God of love, and nor could his message possibly be good news. For Chan, the main problem with Bell’s view is that the scriptures appear to present a God who judges people, and kills people for their sin, and throws the devil into a lake of fire, and sends the rebellious to hell, yet who remains not just a God of love and good news, but a God so loving and so good that he becomes the standard for what words like ‘love’ and ‘good’ actually mean in the first place. Laid out logically, Bell reasons:
1. God is love, and the gospel is good news.
2. Eternal conscious torment is unloving, and could never be a part of good news.
3. Therefore God does not send anybody to eternal conscious torment.
4. Therefore any scriptures that suggest he does need to be rethought.
Chan, on the other hand, thinks like this:
1. God is love, and the gospel is good news.
2. The scriptures teach that God sends some people to eternal conscious torment.
3. Therefore sending some people to eternal conscious torment is not unloving, and does not prevent the gospel from being good news.
4. Therefore any arguments that suggest this need to be rethought.
Critics of Bell, naturally, focused in on his assumptions about hell (#2) and his attempt to rethink the scriptural evidence (#4), and as we have already discussed, found them wanting. So it’s unsurprising that the criticisms of Chan, which are already appearing, are doing the exact equivalent: challenging both his confidence in the scriptural evidence (#2), and his attempt to explain how the traditional view of hell is compatible with belief in a loving God (#4). Here’s Jeff Cook, posting at Jesus Creed:
What those who defend the traditional view of hell must do is showcase why a good God *could* think unending conscious torment is the best option for the damned. Otherwise, it seems appropriate for a reasonable person (if they believe a “good” being by definition will not create conditions in which a person will experience torment for countless lifetimes) to either reject that picture of God or reject that view of hell … Regarding hell, what Chan and others must do is show how the traditional view of hell is in any way “just,” and philosophically speaking I have not seen this done well in either academic or popular Christian literature. Many who reject the traditional view of hell (or the Christian God because of it) hold to a principle — “There is no state of affairs in which it is appropriate to incarcerate a human being in a state of eternal, conscious torment.” As I suggested before, this requires a response from those who hold the traditional view of hell; they must show that it is in fact “just” to do so. The response that, “God knows things we don’t” or “God does things we wouldn’t do” is insufficient here. (In philosophical jargon, this is a “phantom argument”). Some kind of story needs to be told that makes initiating eternal conscious torment morally praise-worthy and in accord with what we mean (or should mean) by “justice” … it seems to me that those who affirm the traditional view of hell need to do more than say “this is what the Bible says and we’re just repeating it.” Everyone involved in the debate about hell right now is saying “the Bible says”. What those who affirm the traditional view must show is why that view is worthy of devotion.
This is a fascinating response, and probably resonates with a lot of people (certainly if the comments beneath the post are anything to go by), although there has already been a brief rebuttal on the same site from Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of another response to Bell, God Wins: Heaven, Hell, And Why The Good News Is Better Than Love Wins. Now, I don’t know how Chan will pre-empt such criticisms in his book, or respond to them afterwards, or even whether or not he will. But I suspect he might draw attention to two premises that appear here, that are highly questionable.
Firstly, from where does the idea come that Chan, and for that matter me, “must” show how the traditional view of hell is just, and/or in line with the character of a good God? On what basis does Jeff Cook get to “require” it of anybody to defend a biblical doctrine, or tell us that a story “needs to be told” to get God off the hook? In what way, one wonders, is it “insufficient” to invoke the mystery of God when it comes to eternal realities we do not yet understand? And “insufficient” for whom? For Paul, concluding three chapters on election, faith and the unbelief of many Jews, the suitable response was one of humble submission to a God who knows things we don’t (Rom 11:33-36). For Job, when the questions finally ran out, his considered reflection on the mystery of suffering was that he simply didn’t know what he was talking about (Job 42:2-3). If a doctrine is biblical (and that’s a big ‘if’), then no philosopher gets to require Chan, or anybody else, to defend it.
And this brings us onto the second point, which is the implicit hermeneutical relativism of Cook’s statement, “Everyone involved in the debate about hell right now is saying ‘the Bible says’”. Cook says this, it appears, because Chan is leaning so heavily on the scriptures for his argument that the traditional view of hell is correct. Cook’s logic seems to be: everyone thinks their view is biblical, so saying your view is biblical is not good enough. And so the authority of Scripture disappears down the postmodern drain, washed away by the heavy rain of alternative views and popular debate. What Cook should have said, of course, is that everyone thinks their view is biblical, so detailed exegetical study is needed to substantiate which ones are impossible, which ones are doubtful, and which ones likely. (For those who have followed the debate over the last two months, it should be obvious that the heavyweight responses to Bell, from Kevin DeYoung to Francis Chan, have taken exactly this approach: your interpretation seems less likely than the traditional one, because of x, y and z. That’s exactly how it should be). If a diversity of interpretations means that ‘the Bible says’ doesn’t work any more, then we’re going to find ourselves back in a world of Arianism and Pelagianism before we know it.
Chan’s book is released in early July, and I’m anticipating it will be humble, authentic, biblical and thought-provoking. Here’s hoping lots of people will read it.