Mark Galli, Francis Chan, and the Question of Hell
Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 8:00AM
Ben Simpson in Books, Christianity Today, Francis Chan, Hell, Interview, Mark Galli, Theology

On July 5, Christianity Today posted Mark Galli's interview with Francis Chan on his latest book, Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up, a work written in response to Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  The interview examines Chan's motivations for composing the book, his views on hell, his thoughts on Rob Bell, his burden of responsibility for representing God and the message of the Bible truthfully, and his discomfort with the idea of eternal, conscious torment as punishment for rejecting Jesus Christ.  Galli also leads Chan to discuss the importance of the doctrine of hell in light of its pervasiveness within the pages of Scripture.

Concerning biblical interpretation, I though Galli (in bold) was able to draw out Chan's thought on method, and on the dominant, overarching themes we often focus on when reading Scripture.  Here is the exchange:

I would say for me the most compelling thing is that it's woven all through Jesus' teaching. You can't possibly talk about him and what he said faithfully and ignore judgment and hell.

Yeah. I read Scripture pretty simply even though I've been through seminary and everything else. I try to read with an open mind and be led by the Spirit. I try to picture myself stuck an island reading it over and over and ask, What would I naturally conclude? What would be the thing about God that I'd be most struck by? I would definitely be shocked and awed by his love, but I'm more stunned by his power, and his seriousness, his holiness maybe even more than his love. I don't want to say his love's no big deal. He loves us but nonetheless the reoccurring theme is about his power, his glory, his holiness.

Two items here are of note.  First is Chan's method, what he describes as a simple approach to reading the text.  Second is Chan's focus, or the primary themes that burst forth from the pages of the Bible as he reads the text.

Chan's description of his methodology indicates that he holds to the idea of the perspicacity of Scripture, an approach held by many evangelicals.  Perspicacity is an uncommon word in our day, but connotes the idea that the message of the Bible can be clearly perceived by the one reading it.  Stated differently, there is nothing within the pages of Scripture that cannot be grasped through careful reflection and open mindedness.  As someone who possesses Baptist heritage, and as someone who continues to believe in soul competency, this idea resonates with me deeply.

Yet, I know all too well that the story of the Bible is deeply complex, and its interpretation comes to us within the context of an existing and ongoing discourse.  We call this discourse the practice of theology.  And, again, as someone with Baptist heritage, the idea of a theological tradition can be difficult to maintain, particularly with slogans like, "No creed but the Bible, no cause but Christ".  And while I respect Chan's method, that being reading the Bible simply, his account is, frankly, too simple.  As he indicates elsewhere in the very same interview, the testimony of the saints throughout time is critical for our own reflection on doctrinal matters, including the question of hell.  I do not intend these remarks to denigrate or dismiss Chan, but rather to remind us all (myself included) that biblical interpretation is a complex and difficult task.

Secondly, there is the question of theme, and here I believe Chan's observation is important.  We live in a time where the love of God is the biblical theme that trumps all, but the definition of love, and what a loving God might be like, is often determined by a sentimentalized account of God and an "I'm OK, you're OK" anthropology.  Chan's insistence that his reading of Scripture causes him to reflect on God's power, glory, and holiness, is a welcome corrective.  Through those lenses, the love of God takes on new meaning, and refuses to be sentimentalized.

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