Having stated that I intended to look at the theology of hell, this was my first port of call. The book is predominantly written by Francis Chan, as is stated fairly early on. Preston Sprinkle did some more of the research that went into the book, but Chan’s voice is the one that dominates the narrative.
The opening of the book is an odd mixture of both the sound and the conservative. Whilst the authors sometimes run along the line of thinking that I outlined in my introduction, they also seem to make quite a lot of unjustified assumptions, such as biblical infallibility. What also emerges fairly early on is that this is largely, though not wholly, a reaction against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, a title I intend to read as part of this current study, but have not yet picked up.
The authors start out, then, by looking at the idea of universalism. They quickly come to the conclusion (if they hadn’t already reached it before starting) that universalism is not an idea consistent with christian theology. However, they play a sleight of hand here, by use of the following piece of flawed logic:
A) Universalism stands in opposition to the traditionalist idea of hell as physical place of eternal torment and punishment.
B) Universalism is false.
C) Therefore the correct picture is that hell is a physical place of eternal torment and punishment.
Anyone who has studied logic will be able to tell you from the above statements that A & B, even if proved correct, do not logically lead to C. The authors seem to ignore this however and proceed onwards down what I think is a path that keeps good biblical study in sight, but at arm’s length. I was then left reading the rest of the book thinking to myself, “you haven’t dealt with X properly and you’ve ignored Y.”
For instance, one of the aspects of a study of hell I was looking for was the use of certain terms. While their look at Gehenna is very interesting and threw in an angle I was previously unaware of (namely, that the earliest reference to it being a rubbish dump wasn’t until AD/CE 1200). Yet they all too quickly jump, without reasoning, to interpret Gehenna as hell. Yet the treatment of Sheol is so brief it is shoddy, whilst Abaddon and Hades barely get a look in, particularly with the latter’s link to Greek mythology being ignored entirely.
The tone of the book is incredibly patronising at times. Here’s just an example: “How can I believe these passages yet sit here silently? I know some of you have faced this same conflict. Even as you’re reading this, there are probably people within a few feet of you who may also be going to hell. What will you do? It could be that the Lord wants you to put the book down.” With such annoying passages as that littering the book, I certainly couldn’t recommend it to any non-christian friends. I would also hesitate to recommend it to any christian friends as it is far from a detailed, thoughtful exegesis on a highly important topic.
In writing what seemed to be a study with a pre-determined conclusion, the authors overlook or skim over many a passage that might put a dent in their point of view. For example, when they look at Romans 9, they completely overlook Paul’s use of the word apoleia, meaning destruction. Instead, they carry on with the “eternal punishment” line. In fact the whole idea of annihilationism is rather lost in this book. It gets a brief mention, with the authors acknowledging that there are quite a few mentions of destruction, but these are dismissed by then going, “Oh, look over here. Here’s one passage that fits in with our worldview, so let’s focus on this one.”
It is very telling that the authors only refer only to conservative writers, paying little no attention to voices that detracted from their own view. Yet I suppose that leads fittingly to my conclusion on this book. If you want to investigate the theology of hell then this is essential reading insofar as it is a good example of one line of thinking, but it is far from being an holistic or thorough account. It is an ideal example of an appeal to tradition masquerading as a biblical study; a thoroughly conservative eisegesis.