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.
Related Posts:

Angels, be silent…

2 05 2011

‘Rabbi Yochanan said… “The Egyptian army and the Israelites, waiting to cross the Sea of Reeds, were separated by the Cloud of Glory, which kept the two camps separated overnight. The angels of the heavenly court requested permission to recite transcendent song. The Holy One, Who is Blessed, said to them: “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you are reciting song?”‘
(Tractate Megillah 10b)

Terry Jones: International Marketing Guru

4 04 2011

Well, Terry Jones, you have much to teach us about how to propel yourself to worldwide fame. Who knew that simply putting the word ‘International’ in front of a parochial, minority event, without backing from the government or religious communities, would raise your profile so immeasurably?! I would never have thought to publicise a localised mock trial by the Dove World Outreach Am-Dram Group as an international event, but your superior marketing skills have once again blown me away!

I am in awe of your selfless willingness to step, once more, into the limelight! I am amazed that you can sleep at night, whilst dozens die on the other side of the world as a result of your actions? It was truly sacrificial of you to give up your beauty-sleep in the cause of truth. If there’s any way I can support your campaign, perhaps by donating a packet of Nytol, do let me know.

And Terry, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to encourage you with a little verse from the Bible. Ok, I admit, I’ve added in a few words and twisted it a little, but that’s fine by you surely? I mean, I readily accept I won’t have mangled Scripture with quite the aplomb you have demonstrated, but after all, I am no International Superstar… just an amateur blogger in a backwater village on a small island. It comes from Matthew 7 (that’s in the New Testament, in case you haven’t yet read that far yet):

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not found churches that unwaveringly denounced Islam? Did we not burn their books in your name? Did we not clearly and aggressively stir up hatred against your bride (after all, we’re meant to be a persecuted people, right?!) Did we not withhold your grace from everyone, that they might see the error of their ways? And did we not do it all in your name?’ And then I will declare to them ‘…..’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Fill in the blanks!

See also: ‘Book burners: Give Jesus back his coat’

The Adjustment Bureau

15 03 2011

I nearly didn’t get to see The Adjustment Bureau. Not through some kind of conspiracy. There were no men in hats subverting my plans. I simply couldn’t spell it!

For some inexplicable reason, I always forget to but a ‘D’ in adjustment, and I can never remember the order of that veritable mire of vowels in the word bureau. So after a good few minutes of Googling, I finally landed upon the correct spelling, and went to see it on Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t know, The Adjustment Bureau is a film starring Matt Damon, in which he meets a dancer called Elise, and immediately falls in love with her. Soon after, he discovers that a team of people called The Adjustment Bureau are working to keep them apart, because their relationship is not according to ‘The Plan’ as prescribed by ‘The Chairman.’ The film then follows Damon trying to subvert the plan, in order to pursue this relationship.

The film is good fun, not too serious, and generally enjoyable. There’s a whole load of sci-fi, pseudo-philosophical-theological pontificating on free-will and determinism, and a couple of not so subtle hints that ‘The Chairman’ may in fact be God: He comes to all people in different forms (!) and when anybody talks about him, they gesture towards the sky.

To be honest, it made me think less than I imagined it would. I was expecting a deeply clever, mind-bending film – it was a little light on that… I’m sure if you want to use it as a springboard to debate predestination, open-theism and the like, you can. Russell Moore wrote a good blog post on it, saying that the primary theme is not really the free-will/determinism debate, but rather ‘It seemed to be a retelling of the Eden story, with some sympathy for the Devil.’ I think he’s right.

But the overriding feeling I did have was how sad it is that belief in a Sovereign God leads many to think of a micro-managing, meticulous deity who operates on mechanistic, soulless, thoroughly logical systems, with no kind of emotional engagement. I fear we do God an enormous disservice by painting his grace in such hideous monochrome!

Yesterday morning I sat down to study Ephesians 1, and was struck again by verse 5:

‘In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…’ (Eph 1:5)

Every word of that sentence demands thoughtful engagement, but just a few comments:

In love – Immediately that should guard us against using the language of cold-hard logic. Perhaps I’ve been devious by sneaking those words in… in most English translations they actually fall in verse 4. And that’s the problem! It’s too easy to separate the love of God from predestination, and so we end up with a cold, hard plan etched in a moleskine, whether we like it or not. No, predestination begins with love.

For adoption as sons – There is a purpose to election: it’s not simply that God would be able to micro-manage every bit of our lives; we are given a hope and a future as children of God, welcomed into intimate familial relationship with the God of the universe. And note, there is absolutely no speculation here (unlike Romans 9) of the negative flipside of election, just pure, unadulterated joy!

According to the purpose of his will – Commentators suggest that the word translated ‘purpose’ perhaps more accurately means ‘pleasure’, in which case this verse should read ‘according to the pleasure of his will.’ That blows me away. Predestination is both an act of God’s ‘will’ – his reasoned, decision-making capacity – and his ‘pleasure’ – his heartfelt, joy-fuelled passion. He both ‘decided’ and ‘delighted’ to choose us!

This verse alone ought to stop us from treating predestination as a dispassionate and technical process, whereby God made an arbitrary or mathematical decision about who he would ‘save’, totally devoid of passion.

No, he delighted in election, and so should we.

What they think matters?

19 01 2011

While you’re waiting for me to get my act together and actually write something in 2011 (though I am under no illusions anyone is actually waiting for such a thing) here’s another blog to stimulate the little grey cells:

The Newfrontiers Theology Forum has just launched a blog at This will include full length papers, and regular shorter articles from a range of contributors. I’m looking forward to hearing various thoughts from some of the brightest thinkers in our movement: inspirational posts, meaty articles that engage with current issues, book reviews, apologetics resources, ethical discourses… and the odd piece of satire apparently?! A christian answer to The Onion?! Who’d have thought it.

Get stuck in, enjoy it, comment, follow them on twitter

In the meantime, I might actually think about what I should witter on about here in 2011. Don’t hold your breath.

Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…

Faith and Film

8 11 2010

I’ve been meaning to link to a few articles on faith and film… I was spurred to action this morning by seeing the first post from a fellow Newfrontiers blogger.

Read, digest, feed back.

  • Why are Christian movies so bad? (via The Simple Pastor)
  • The Independent asked the question a few weeks ago: Can the Movies Do God? I was particularly provoked by the final paragraph. If Muslims start producing faith-based films that recommend good values, would I be willing to endorse them?
  • The Telegraph beat them to it with an article a few weeks earlier on the way films are tailored to a Christian audience, and the increasing use of film clips in churches
  • The Guardian ran an article earlier this year on the return of religious themed films, saying “Biblical themes have only ever been one global crisis away”
  • I found this interview with Michael Flaherty from Walden Media fascinating! A great discussion on the Narnia films and the forthcoming Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Very insightful and interesting. (Though I must admit I didn’t enjoy the films one bit, I appreciate very much their aims and ideals. These guys are doing it far better than most!)
  • And there was the recent saga of the demise and revival of the Blue Like Jazz film project through crowd-sourced funding. Whilst in general I have infinitesimally low hopes for Christian film, I have high hopes for this one. The book was outstanding and fresh, and I think this could be an interesting, real, positive, but not-saccharin big screen portrayal of evangelical Christianity

So, a few questions:

  • Have you ever seen a good Christian film?
  • Should we even be making ‘Christian films’?
  • (Maybe you want to step back one stage and ask what differentiates a Christian film from a film made by Christians? Sure, be my guest.)
  • Why do Christians flock to see sub-par films irrespective of personal taste just because they were made by a believer?
  • Is there danger that the Christian sub-culture of low quality, cringe-worthy movies discredits those believers who are trying to make it in the secular world?

Oh… and while we’re on the subject of Christian subculture, I received this email the other day. Somehow it avoided my spam filter!! Take a look, see what you think.  Then check out this article from the BBC Website in 2006. I shall resist commenting further for fear of saying something for which I will later need to repent…