NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) - Francis Chan, the popular author of "Crazy Love" and "Forgotten God" who has waded into the controversy surrounding eternal punishment, says the conclusions of a book he has written make him sick.
With "Erasing Hell," co-written by Eternity Bible College associate professor Preston Sprinkle and published by David C. Cook, Chan engages the theological firestorm that has been brewing for months over the ideas of controversial pastor Rob Bell.
Bell, outgoing pastor of the nondenominational Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., discards major tenets of historical Christianity in his book, "Love Wins," including the necessity of professing faith in Christ in this life and the doctrines of eternal heaven and hell.
Among other things, Bell suggests Jesus' warnings about hell referred not to an eternal state of punishment but rather to suffering on earth that results from people disobeying God. Bell argues that all people, either in this life or the next, will embrace Jesus and be reconciled to God.
Bell's book drew a storm of criticism from conservative evangelical leaders, including Southern Baptists. But for Chan, Love Wins sparked something different, especially on the topic of hell and eternal destiny.
"[R]eading Love Wins set a lot of things spinning in my mind," Chan told Christianity Today. "Some of it was concern, but some was doubt: Am I sure of what I believe? Let me go back and study."
In Erasing Hell, subtitled "What God said about eternity, and the things we've made up," Chan presents himself as a reluctant warrior on the topic of hell, a Christian deeply uncomfortable - even sickened - by hell's implications, and who would love to erase it from Scripture if he could.
"It's weird to write something that you really don't like," he told Christianity Today.
The former pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., Chan is a nationally known speaker and author and has a wide appeal among younger evangelicals, having spoken at the annual youth-oriented Passion conferences. He also has been a speaker at the Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference.
The introduction to Erasing Hell recounts Chan's grief at the death of his grandmother, who wasn't a believer. He writes that he had brushed aside any thoughts of hell for more pleasant musings, refusing to let a doctrine he believed with his head penetrate his heart. But no more.
"We must weep, pray, and fast over this issue, begging God to reveal to us through His Word the truth about hell," Chan writes. "Because we can't be wrong on this one."
He adds in the book, "I had to figure out if the Bible actually taught the existence of a literal hell. How great would it be if it didn't? Then I would be able to embrace my grandmother again."
With that in mind, Erasing Hell is formulated as a journey through what the Scriptures say about hell and eternal destiny. What Chan finds, he writes, isn't comforting.
In a chapter titled "Does Everyone Go To Heaven?" he examines verses used by those who teach that God will eventually save everyone. First Corinthians 15:22, for example, says that "In Christ all will be made alive" and seems to suggest, some say, that Jesus will save all mankind. But Chan points out that the next verse - "But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him" - indicates Paul is speaking only of believers.
Chan confronts misconceptions about hell, such as the "gehenna" (translated "hell") that Jesus refers as being merely a garbage dump outside Jerusalem (the first references to such a garbage dump, Chan writes, don't occur until the Middle Ages). Regarding the idea that hell is a place of temporary, corrective punishment designed to make people fit for heaven, Chan writes that Scripture depicts hell as divine retribution and that people can't enter heaven after being sentenced to hell.
In the end, Chan concludes the Bible teaches that hell is real, not because that's what he wanted to find, but because this is what the teachings of Jesus clearly reveal. He finds the reality of hell deeply unsettling and says he doesn't want to believe it, but he realizes he has to stick to what the Bible says.
"As I've said all along, I don't feel like believing in hell. And yet I do," Chan muses. "Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with Him, but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part. God is perfect. And I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine."
The process of writing the book, Chan says, has led him to repent of soft-pedaling some of the Bible's statements, and he feels compelled to proclaim the reality of hell.
The final chapter of the book is both an exhortation and an invitation. "It would make no sense for me to write all I have written without at least asking the question," he writes to the reader, before asking, "Are you sure you have embraced the God who can save you from hell?"
He told Christianity Today, "It comes down to God and people. I have to warn people. I don't want people going there [to hell]. And if they ignore it, there's a much more likely chance that they'll end up there."
Chan is not the only one to write a response to Love Wins. Mark Galli authored a book titled "God Wins" while Michael E. Wittmer and Michael S. Horton penned "Christ Alone."
Chan says he believes he's done his best to share where he stands on hell and encourages others to study the issue.
"We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people."
John Evans is a writer based in Houston.