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Loopholes for Hell: A Response to Jeff Cook’s Response to Francis Chan

Give me enough slack and I can get out of anything. I am a master of manipulation. Before you get too smug, let me say this: you are too. It’s called sin. Manipulation is lying for the sophisticated.

I have gone on record saying that I hate the doctrine of Hell. If there is anything in my theology that I could discard—if there was a theological “burn card”—it would be the doctrine of eternal punishment. It causes me great anxiety and disillusionment. I am sorry if that makes some of you uncomfortable, but that is just the way it is. That is me.

That is why I am somewhat jealous of people who can find their way out of this doctrine. That is why, in one sense, I am envious of those who have found ways to adjust or deny the existence of the eternal punishment of the unredeemed. Would that I could follow them, but my conscience will not yield to my emotions and allow me to.

Here we go again…

Francis Chan has a book coming out in July called Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. Though the book has not yet been released, there is a substantive and dramatic video preceding it to get people talking (following the lead of Rob Bell prior to the release of Love Wins). I know of no other Christian author with the popular appeal right now that overshadows that of Rob Bell, so Francis Chan’s contribution to the issue should only serve to intensify this discussion. As well, from what I have seen from the video (and the obvious connotations carried by the title), I imagine that Chan is going to defend the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment in a unique way.

And, just like with Rob Bell’s book, there are people critiquing the book before it comes out. As I said before, I have no problem with this, as the promo videos are meant to provoke thought by allowing us to preview the substance of the book. More copies get sold that way.

Jeff Cook, at Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog), is the first I know of to begin the pre-publishing critique by examining the implications of the video. Check it out here. While Cook opens with some very kind remarks about Chan, as the old saying goes, nothing really counts before the word “but”!

Rational Christianity vs. Biblical Christianity?

The first critique Cook makes is a breakdown of Chan’s statement on the video concerning Isaiah 55:8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways.” I often refer to this as the “doctrinal disclaimer” which can be used for good or for ill. However, Cook’s beef is his perception that Chan is attempting to advocate some sort of irrational Christianity. Cook says, “In contrast to Chan’s claim, we need to rationally wrestle with our views about who God is and what he does, and to fail to do so is sloth.”

However, I get no sense that Chan is trying to use Isaiah 55:8 as a “rational disclaimer” against those who are trying to use their minds. Again, I have not read the book and neither has Cook, but it seems a bit presumptuous to strike with this implied claim of irrationality.

God does indeed call upon us to use our minds and never establish our faith on blind irrationality. About this, Cook is correct. But I think that this critique has a bit of water poisoning to it. I have only read one of Chan’s books, but he does not seem the irrational type. By making such a seemingly blind accusation (i.e., that Chan is irrational), he seems to be suggesting that a belief in Hell is irrational. However, being a philosophy guy, Cook should realize that rationality has no voice in the reality or non-reality of Hell. It is only revelation.

God’s Justice vs. Ours?

Next, Cook seems to imply that Chan is saying (or is going to say in the book) that our sense of justice does not parallel God’s sense of justice. As he puts it, “The idea of ‘justice’ must be the same for God and for us, otherwise the term lacks linguistic value.”

At face value, in my opinion, this is partially correct. I would have put it this way, “Our idea of ‘justice’ most often parallels God’s view of justice, otherwise the term lacks any analogous meaning.” We call this the “analogy of being,” which issues forth in an “analogy of language.” A good way to illustrate this is by our understanding of what it means to love our children. I love my children more than anything on earth. In other words, I know what it means to “love.” When God speaks of himself in such a way (i.e., as a loving father), we are right to believe that our understanding of love parallels what God means. In other words, God’s definition of “love” is not going to be parallel to our definition of “hate;” it should parallel to the affection we feel for our children. We can know objectively what it means to love and have confidence in our conclusions about God’s love for us.

Concerning this, Cook says:

Chan asks, “Do you ever even consider the possibility that maybe the creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours?” Of course it is in one sense, but if God’s concept of justice is radically different from ours, then it makes no sense for us to call God “just” anymore. If we are to talk about “justice” at all, the definition must hold for ants as well as deities, otherwise we are talking of apples and oranges and all such language breaks down.

Again, Cook seems to be reading something into Chan’s statement that I did not see. He seems to be implicitly accusing Chan (and, by extension, all those who believe in the traditional doctrine of Hell) of denying the analogy of being in order to hold on to a doctrine of eternal punishment. In order to qualify for Cook’s “radically different,” those who believe in an eternal hell have to redefine “justice” to mean “injustice”.

As I said, I don’t see Chan saying this at all. In fact, when I watched the video I was impressed with Chan’s carefully chosen words when he said, “maybe the creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours” (emphasis mine). This is exactly what Christians believe, isn’t it?

There are two things to keep in mind in reference to the analogy of being with regard to this issue:

1. God’s justice is more developed than ours. While I know what it means to love my children, this only parallels what it means for God to love us. It in no way should be assumed that it captures the fullness of God’s love. God’s love is actually more than just “more developed” than our love. It is perfect. We can not have a true conception of God’s love without having a full conception of God’s love.

2. Most importantly, while we do believe that people should possess the proper expressions of the image of God and thereby have analogous understandings of concepts such as “love” and “justice,” we are sinners. We are fallen. We are corrupted. And sometimes, even as Christians, we can manipulate God’s revelation for our own desires. If not, how can we give any credence to passages such as these:

Isaiah 5:20
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

Luke 11:35
See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.

Proverbs 17:15
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent–the LORD detests them both.

Amos 5:7
You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.

Malachi 2:17
You have wearied the LORD with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Judges 17:6
In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.

The point I make here is not academic. It is very spiritual. Our sinfulness can and often does cause us to call justice evil. In doing so, we are denying the analogy of being through our fallenness.

Chan was right in the video to preface all conversation about hell with this reality. We all too often have the tendency to conduct our own divine tribunals, placing God and his revelation on the witness stand. And you know what? We are just crafty enough to deem him guilty of not abiding by our sin-tainted senses of morality and justice.

Cook goes on (and I think this is where he is really getting to his own beef with the doctrine of Hell):

“There is no state of affairs in which it is appropriate to incarcerate a human being in a state of eternal, conscious torment.” As I suggested before, this requires a response from those who hold the traditional view of hell; they must show that it is in fact “just” to do so. The response that “God knows things we don’t” or “God does things we wouldn’t do” is insufficient here (In philosophical jargon, this is a “phantom argument”).

I would have to disagree. There is a state of affairs in which eternal conscious torment is appropriate:  in God’s kingdom. If the Bible truly teaches the doctrine of eternal torment (and I believe it does) then we necessarily find ourselves in such a “state of affairs.”

Though I don’t know Jeff Cook, I do know Scot McKnight. I don’t know whether Scot evaluated Jeff’s comments before they were posted on the blog, but knowing Scot, I’d be surprised if he agreed with this one: “The response that, ‘God knows things we don’t’ or ‘God does things we wouldn’t do’ is insufficient here.”  I have one question: When is it sufficient? When is it sufficient to trust God knows what he is doing? When is it sufficient to say that his ways are greater than our ways? When is it sufficient to say that his judgments are greater than ours? If not here, when? This does not prove the doctrine of eternal punishment is indeed true, but the doctrine of our insufficiency to elevate our morality above God’s is. There simply are times when we have to punt our understanding and knowledge to God’s.

While there is a lot more that can be said, I think it is important for us to realize that our faith does take faith. In other words, while our faith in God is not a blind irrational faith, God is at liberty to explain things to us or withhold explanation without explanation. Sometimes our beliefs will be hard to believe.

When I lose sight of this, I turn to a pagan king named Nebuchadnezzar who learned this lesson the hard way:

Daniel 4:34-35
His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

There will be times when we are tempted to hold back his hand in our own sense of righteousness. If not, this passage has no meaning. There are times when God will move his hand (in judgment) and we will think we are doing people a service by holding it back with all our might. But do we really want to be in such a position? Do we really want to be among those accusing God of unrighteousness, saying “Give account for yourself”? Do we really want to accuse God of incompetence and injustice, then redefine him for the sake of our palate?

I am reminded of an illustration of a child, hanging from the balcony as a fire rages in her house.  Her dad calls for her to let go and trust that he will catch her. God calls on us to trust him. A lot of what he has revealed makes perfect sense and parallels how we might do things. Other things leave us on the balcony with the prospect of falling to the hard ground. I actually hope that people who deny eternal punishment are right. But I have no liberty to manipulate my hopes into doctrine. I simply trust that God is infinitely more just, loving, and moral than I am and let go.

I am not saying that I know Cook is looking for loopholes to the doctrine of eternal punishment. I just imagine that this is what he and so many others are doing. Why? Because it is what I am tempted to do. We manipulate the truth and hold on tight to the balcony while God calls on us to let go. The question is, are we willing to let go?

25 Responses to “Loopholes for Hell: A Response to Jeff Cook’s Response to Francis Chan”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides May 25, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    “Again, Cook seems to be reading something into Chan’s statement that I did not see.”

    Good and accurate observation, CMP. You are charitable when you said “seems.”

  2. The four letter word ‘hell’ cannot be erased as long as it remains on our lips. What can be erased is that which it means and refers to. (‘loopholes’?)

    A commonly heard expression from street preachers in my country reads ‘Jesus – Heaven; Unbelief – Hell’. This can be both wrong and right – unknown to him – depending on how one reads these two four kanji letter phrases. If it is meant, as in the old hell-fire preaching style, to say ‘If you believe in Jesus, you WILL go to heaven’ and ‘If not believing, you WILL go to hell’, it’s not a biblical expression. To make it read correctly, on the other hand, one has to read it as ‘Believe in Jesus, you’re in heaven’ and ‘Refusing to believe, you’re (remaining) in hell’. The idea and reality of ‘Heaven and hell’ is not about ‘somewhere and sometime in the future (e.g. after death)’, but it has to be ‘here and now’ in personal relation to Jesus. [book and video yet to see.]

  3. Galli’s response to Cook is also good, and is posted at McKnight’s Jesus Creed

    http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/05/26/mark-galli-to-jeff-cook-to-francis-chan/#more-17103

    This is the way open, honest, and gracious theological discussion should happen. Not the histronics of a few bloggers trying to take down a pastor before his book even came out. Not dismissing someone on twitter. Not calling someone a false teacher of the gospel.

    The Cook, Chan, Galli debate (thus far) should be a model for how Christians talk about deep (and heartfelt) theological issues on the internet and within the academia.

    I still think a lot of people owe Bell an apology, even if he is wrong on hell.

  4. I agree with the brunt of Chan’s message: that our beliefs about Hell should be formed by what Scripture teaches, and not by our suppositions about what we think seems fair or just.

    That being said, I have a few objections. One thing I have little patience for is this suggestion that anyone who disagrees with the traditional view of Hell does so out of pride (Chan) or emotion (CMP). In my experience, the people who make this claim are also the people who have little, if anything, of substance to say when the biblical case for conditionalism is presented to them.

    If I said that the real reason people believe in eternal torment is because they are vindictive and like the idea of endless suffering, I would rightly be jumped on. For some reason, traditionalists find it acceptable to probe the hidden motivations of those who disagree with them.

    The rest of my critiques are quibbles: His appropriation of the potter/clay image from Romans is probably inappropriate, for instance.

  5. “Do you really think that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus goes to hell?” or “How could a loving God who is all powerful let so much evil happen without doing anything about it?” When asked these kinds of questions, we should avoid offering answers without the larger contexts for them. I hope Chan realizes this when writing on the subject of hell. The solution doesn’t help the person who doesn’t understand the problem. The good news of the gospel necessitates the understanding of how bad the bad news actually is. Most People have a lot of fragmentary bits of information without larger contexts (let’s include most Christians in this).

  6. A critique of a critique of a yet to be published book. I think our instant gratification society has just taken a giant leap forward!

  7. I read Jeff Cook’s remarks on Scot McKnight’s blog yesterday. I have not seen Chan’s video yet. McKnight vehemently defended Cook’s remarks as only applying to Chan’s video, not to the book. But it seemed to me that his reasoning in this matter was a bit of a stretch. As was wisely cautioned previously to wait for Bell’s book and not go by the video; so, that should be the wise course with Chan’s video and book.

    We do have some sense of justice but it is skewed by our own self-interest and fallen nature. What do we, as fallen, temporal men, know of eternal justice? Philippians indicates that at the end of the ages, every knee will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don’t think anyone or anything will be arguing about differing concepts of justice at that time. God is not limited by our imperfect concepts of justice or of much else. Knowing God is to know that He is just.

    This may be too simple for the philosophical minds but I find much comfort in it.

  8. @Ronnie

    I think the potter/clay teaching from Romans 9 is intensely appropriate, since it is about God’s saving whom he wills to save. Man does not get to determine who God has mercy and compassion on, only God does. The pot does not get to question the potter. Seems like that is a very appropriate thing to bring up in the hell discussion, don’t you think?

  9. Thomas Atkinson May 26, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    @ Jay Beerley

    No.

  10. Jay,

    No, that’s not at all how Chan applied the verse. Did you watch the video?

  11. For those that think Chan is “irrational” or anti-intellectual, check out his talk at the Desiring God conference titled: Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God.

    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/think-hard-stay-humble-the-life-of-the-mind-and-the-peril-of-pride

  12. Quarkgluonsoup May 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Try to construct a view on “hell” from the ground up: ignore everything you have ever been told, and construct your view on nothing more than what the bible says and implies. Nothing in it implies permanent punishment, let alone fire and brimstone. One commonly cited passage for hell is the Lukan parabale of the rich man and Lazarus. Only the word “hell” here is actually (the only such case in the NT) hades, and Abraham is also in hades, only a higher level of hades (the “Bosom of Abraham”). Revelation only says that satan, the beast and false prophet will be tortured forever. Everyone else who is not saved remains in hades (hades meaning what it meant in the Greco-Roman world of the NT: death) and is annihilated by being thrown into the lake of fire. Really the biggest theological problem I see about hell is that the NT isn’t clear about what happens to nonbelievers. Hell is actually a catholic doctrine, created through allegory (the typical method), later ported into…

  13. Thanks for this response, Michael. I think you’re right on in all of your critiques of Cook’s review. It’s unfortunate that he wrote it so soon and (it seems) with insufficient thought and care.

  14. Amen! How ironic that Chan and this position is called anti-intellectual. Last time I tried to explain the “analogy of being” to my anniallation friend, his open-theist blog buddy said I was arrogant and over-intellectualizing God! To make such a statement seems arrogant to me. To make the statement that God’s justice is injust is infinitely more arrogant!

  15. Through over 40 years of seeking God for understanding through prayer and Bible study, I have built a rational schema of God’s plan. I, too, believe that all will be saved, but I am not an universalist. Isaiah 25:6-8 specifically states that God will swallow up death forever and will wipe tears away from all faces. The reason He will do that is because Christ destroyed the power of the one who held/holds the power of death (the devil) when Christ became sin and died. What is missing from most of the discussion going on is that in the process of being “saved,” all of us will go through the baptism of fire where God will deal with all the deception and evil that Satan has manipulated into our lives. God’s absolute love will prevail because it is greater than any deception, any loss, any death, and any destruction that kingdom of evil has enslaved our world with. I’m believing we will wake up to the power of His absolute love and will take our places as His sons.

  16. To #16 patriciazell

    Nowhere in the Bible it says ‘all will be saved’. It’s a wishful unbiblical idea, called ‘universalism’. You cannot walk with your feet each on a different track.

    God created human beings in His image, giving a freedom to choose for or against His love. No middle ground here, once they hear the offer. Those who choose against will not and cannot be saved. Otherwise, it would make God deny who He is. That sort of ‘god’ is a human projection.

    Salvation, already accomplished and perfected in Christ and His cross, is Christ Himself, and has been offered to all. Whether one is saved or not is entirely upon their acceptance of this offer to receive God’s love.

    People get punished/judged as they live out throughout their own life. Day of Judgment is not for an additional judicial step which God has to go through to decide who gets what. It’s just the day they are going to hear the final sentencing awaiting.

  17. Great response to Cook. One other facet of the distinction between Creator and creature raised in Bell’s Love Wins is his claim that “when it comes to the human heart, God has to play by the same rules we do.” I.e., We cannot bring about love in another human heart without resorting to coercion and manipulation, therefore God is bound by this same limitation and we must have libertarian free will. There has recently been a full length book response to Bell on this point called Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will?, published with Rodopi (www.lovefreedomandevil.com).

  18. After reading in #18
    …. Bell’s Love Wins is his claim that “when it comes to the human heart, God has to play by the same rules we do.” …. , I am getting less interested in spending my precious time to read through the book by Bell.

    Certainly the God on the lips of Bell is not the God of the Scripture, but simply Bell’s own projection – a god created in the image of man – very characteristic of any cult, especially of New Age Church, Emerging Church, Spiritualists, Universalists, etc.
    On the part of the lover, the free will is essential, but on the part of those who are loved, it is only essential when they have been made in the image of God. God created the world out of His love; but only human beings are thus endowed with capacity to receive His love and to love in response. The title of Rodopi’s book interests me and I shall look forward to checking on it.

  19. Ounbbl, I believe you are being a tad bit hard on Rob Bell’s with your characteristic of any cult comment. I am not a universalist but what can the eternal torturing of unsaved souls bring to God….. I agree with Michael in hoping this is not true. I certainly don’t see this as leading anyone into the realm of being classified a heretic or cult behavior.

  20. Hi Jim,

    I will surely post my follow up after spending sometime on Bell. If I need to correct myself about him, I would do apologize by way of the comment on his book at amazon.com.

    I know very well that not all anyone say is wrong, but only the final sentence will push over the clip. Even Satan can write a beautiful book with 99% correct, compare to our politicians who are correct only 50% of what they say. Those who have to heed the admonition of hanging a mill-stone and get better drowned, yes, those are in power (priests, pastors, preachers, professors and publishers}, they may be correct about 80% (that’s my guest).

    Until then, will you be patient with me? esp. since I do LOVE TO love all – including Mormons, JWs, Islam terrorists, Gaddafi, Hitler (too bad, he is already gone), etc., as well as those in D.C. who are such religious Catholics they call and hell-bent on promoting to dispose unborn babies, and all prosperity cult. But angry at hypocrites.

  21. Michael,

    Thanks for chiming in on this very important topic. I find your insight to be very compelling. While I also desperately wish and search for loopholes to the concept of eternal torment, I have yet to find any. I have read the article posted by Jeff Cook over at Jesus Creed (suprised to see it there) and was shocked by what it said. It seems to me that we are seeing a trend of custom-designed deities. When we find something we don’t understand (don’t like) about God, we remove it and say “my God wouldn’t do that.” Instead, we need to understand that God is God regardless of who we want Him to be – while still continuing to search for a better understanding of His truth.

  22. I relate my inability to think that an eternal hell is just to my inability to fully grasp the holiness of God, which I attribute in large part to my impure heart.

  23. Sometimes we need to let the Bible give us our definitions rather than theology books: For example “FOR EVER”

    Ecclesiastes 1:4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth FOR EVER. (also Ps 124:5; 104:5) compared to:
    Isaiah 65:17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. Revelation 21:1 2 pet 3:7-13 etc.

    Or a NT example: Revelation 11:15 … The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign FOR EVER AND EVER.
    1 Corinthians 15:24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have DELIVERD UP THE KINGDOM to God, … 25 For he must reign, TILL he hath put all enemies under his feet.

    The punishment for all unsaved is death, Hell and ultimately the second death which is the lake of fire.

    Does anyone know what the last enemy is that will be destroyed??? 1 Corinthians 15:26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

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