In the post ‘Being Sure about Stuff that matters’ I have talked about this book. One of the first things that bothered me about it was that Chan repeatedly said ‘we must be sure about this’ or ‘we cannot afford to be wrong’ about the doctrine of hell. Then, later in the book he wrote about Isaiah 55, ‘Your thoughts are higher than our thoughts’ and reflected that we can never know or fully understand God. Unfortunately, he failed to connect these two thoughts. Insisting that we ‘must be right’ about a subject as complex as hell, feels not only impossible but maybe somewhat arrogant.
The book reads as if Chan has pulled a concordance off the shelf and gone through all the references to hell, one at a time. (Be reassured, there aren’t that many) He is thorough in this approach but I felt that although he read each text closely, he failed to read the wider context and didn’t put these references into the whole, big story of God. For example, most of the references to hell come in Matthew’s gospel, there are next to none in the other gospels. It was a pity that Chan never stopped to asked why this was? What was Matthew’s particular point of view? Had he understood that, I think a lot of the references would sound quite different. He didn’t mention the fact that Matthew was a Jewish writer, writing for a Jewish audience. This is incredibly relevant. He has either not read, or disagreed with Tom Wright’s How God became King, which is incredibly helpful on how we should hear the four gospels.
Secondly, he makes the assumption that judgement is always a bad thing whereas in the world of the Bible, judgement is always a good thing: the emphasis is on God coming to set things right, much more so than on God coming to condemn, destroy, punish.
Thirdly, he doesn’t seem to see his own assumptions. For example when he talks about the key passage about sheep and goats in Matthew 25 he repeatedly talks about them being divided on the basis of whether or not they ‘believe in Jesus’. That phrase is NOT in that story! And the whole point of that parable is that they are divided on the basis of their actions. Chan seems to gloss over what the passage actually says.
But my main criticism would be that he doesn’t take into account at all the kind of people we would become were we to think about hell the way he would like us to think about hell. All he says is this doctrine should ‘energise’ us. In my experience, misunderstanding about this doctrine has made Christians anxious, guilty, over-whelmed, paralysed by fear, much less inclined to love their non Christian friend and much more inclined to withdraw from them.
If what he says is true, then the New Testament should be bulging with commands to go out and evangelise and it’s not. Yes, it talks about making disciples and having an answer but what it bulges with are commands to live loving, humble, kind, generous, patient, non-anxious, quiet, peaceful lives. I’m not saying evangelism isn’t important. What I am saying is that the more we stress over it, the more we are tempted to think ‘it’s all down to us’ and it isn’t. Our part is to be the people of God, showing what it means to live under the rule of God, being willing and ready to give an answer to why we have hope in a world that often doesn’t look very promising.
I could say a lot more. I wrote pages and pages of notes. But it would only be worth getting into the details with people who have read it (happy to do that). If you do read it, please be sure to get to the FAQs at the end because it’s only there that Chan who has spoken about fire, and worms, darkness and gnashing of teeth in a way that seems very literal, admits that he thinks these are metaphorical. Personally I think it would have better to have said that upfront.
It is important that any Christian serious about their faith comes to a view about the doctrine of hell but you need to know that this book represents only one view, something Chan himself graciously accepts. There are a spectrum of other views available put forward by thinkers and theologians with good credentials. This is a subject we must approach with grace and sensitivity towards others.