Francis Chan: Hail the conquering her…oh!

7 07 2011

I like Francis Chan. He’s very cool, yet doesn’t try to be. He’s typically orthodox, yet still packs a punch. He’s humble, but preaches with authority.

When I heard about his new book Erasing Hell, I thought:

Great – here’s an evangelical guy who is compelling, who won’t just come armed with a thousand verses and an axe to grind, but with a winsome attitude. A guy who doesn’t come across as stuffy and stuck-in-his-ivory-tower-of-academia. A calvinist, like me, but not one of the angry types. A guy who ‘emergents’ may take time to listen to. Surely he will bring us a good antidote to Bell’s quasi-universalism.’

And many others seem to have thought the same.

The blog world is full of people championing Chan’s book, (let us be clear, most of them haven’t read it yet, since it’s only just been released) looking forward to hearing his defence of the standard evangelical view of conscious torment. At least, that’s what they assumed they were going to get…

But read this quote from an interview between Chan and Mark Galli:

Galli: In your book you seem agnostic as to whether hell is a conscious eternal torment or annihilation.

Chan: That was one of the things I was a little surprised by: the language. I would definitely have to say that if I leaned a certain direction I would lean toward the conscious torment that’s eternal. But I couldn’t say I’m sure of that, because there are some passages that really seem to emphasize a destruction. And then I look in history and find that’s not really a strange view. There are some good, godly men—and maybe even the majority—that seem to take the annihilation view. I was surprised because all I was brought up with was conscious torment. And I see that. I see that in Scripture and I would lean more that way but, I’m not ready to say okay I know it’s this one. So say here “Here are a couple of views.” I don’t even remember if I wrote that I lean towards that, but maybe it comes across. I’m still open. And I hope that’s because of my study and not because I’d rather have the annihilation view. I don’t know what was harder, researching or keeping a check on my heart and making sure there are no weird, ungodly motives in everything I wrote.

Galli: I hadn’t thought about it that much, but I probably leaned toward annihilationism and probably still do. But I read Randy Alcorn’s book on heaven again and he made such a strong case for eternal conscious punishment I had to revise one chapter to give that view stronger resonance. In the end, I’m with you: I’m agnostic. I probably lean toward annihilationism, but I’m open to hearing a good argument from either side.

Both men are agnostic on the subject. Galli leans towards annihilationism (the view that people are destroyed rather than consciously punished) and Chan towards conscious torment. And Chan can’t even remember if he said in the book which way he leaned, but he hoped it comes across.

I don’t want to knock Chan for this position; I appreciate the honesty with which he’s arrived there. I don’t think he’s trying to stir up controversy, and he’s certainly never one to put himself on the pedestal in a personality war… He would be horrified at such a thing! What interests me are the questions this raises, and I suspect the answers say more about us than they do about him:

  1. Why did we assume that Chan was going to end up at a firm ‘conscious torment’ position?
    Why did we not just wait to hear his views before assuming he was the answer we had been waiting for? I fear it may be because we may care more about who wades into the fight than we do about the substance of the battle. Bell-fans leapt to defend Bell and assume the best about him because they like him, and because typically they agree with him on everything else, and so assume they will on this too… before they’ve read his work. Has the evangelical world just done the same with Chan? We should always be wary of putting people on pedestals, even people we have good cause to admire. As Rob Bell said, ‘I believe it is best to only discuss books you’ve actually read.’ I do think there’s some value in preempting and prejudging books, but not in trumpeting the author as a knight in shining armour before you actually know what side he’s planning to fight in the battle. “Hail the conquering her…oh!”
  2. Is annihilationism really a more acceptable alternative to universalism?
    By which I mean, before this whole debate kicked off earlier this year, if you had asked evangelicals to assess various views on hell, wouldn’t they have been likely to put annihilation and universalism in the same sort of ballpark: evil, misguided, unbiblical etc… If so…
  3. Why is there not more uproar about Chan’s position?
    People don’t seem to be throwing around the ‘H’ word quite as much with Chan as they did with Bell. (That’s no bad thing… the more people get labelled ‘heretics’ the more I think we may be in danger of redefining the word ‘anyone who sees things slightly differently to me.’) But why not?
  4. Why is it ok for Chan to hedge his bets, but not Bell?
    What struck me about the responses to Bell was the claim that the Bible is clear on this subject, and that offering alternatives and saying ‘I lean towards this one’ (or not even saying clearly which one you do ‘lean towards’; a feature common of both authors!) is unhelpful and unacceptable. Chan, like Bell, has offered us alternatives, and said ‘we can’t really know.’ Obviously, he’s not arguing for annihilationism, and he’s said in the interview that he actually leans the other way; but he’s open to it, and I don’t see the ‘there’s only one plain, clear reading of Scripture’ people jumping up and down on his head. Why are people not lambasting him for raising questions he doesn’t answer, and opening people up to the idea of an un-orthodox view?
  5. Will the evangelical world drop Chan as their ‘poster-guy’once they’ve read his book?
    I suspect not. Sadly, I suspect fewer people will read his book, in part due to the fact that they assume it simply enforces what they already think. And I suspect the pastors who were so worried about their people reading Bell will be far more comfortable with them reading Chan, not because the possibility of annihilationism is more palatable, but for the simple reason that Chan is not Bell. It really might just come down to the fact that we’re looking for a ‘good guy’ in a battle of personalities.
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2 responses

7 07 2011
Andrew Wilson

Another super post – why isn’t this on whatyouthinkmatters??? Are you saving all your best content, I wonder …? ;o)

8 07 2011
Mark Heath

Good post Liam. I haven’t read either book, but I suspect that the controversy with Bell is more his “universalist” leanings than annihilationist. John Stott managed to hold down an annihilationist perspective without losing his evangelical credentials, and CS Lewis remains an honoury member of the club despite depicting a sanitised version of hell in his writings. I see Tim Keller and Tom Wright also as leaning in the CS Lewis direction. Evangelicals want to know that someone is committed to believing what the Bible teaches, no matter what. Emerging church has a kind of hermeneutic of love – we should question any teaching that doesn’t seem loving, and reinterpret/reimagine doctrines that we find uncomfortable. That’s why Rob Bell doesn’t sound like “one of us” to most evangelicals, while Francis Chan does.

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