How Francis Chan Points to Biblical Universalism

by Phillip on March 3, 2012

Francis Chan wrote Erasing Hell with Dr. Preston Sprinkle against Rob Bell’s Love Wins dealing with the issue of the nature of hell.1

(Update: Preston Sprinkle has since changed his view away from eternal conscious torment to that of annihilationism. 3/22/13)

In this article we would like to share with you three ways in which we believe Chan, while attempting to oppose a more inclusive view of redemption, unintentionally affirms it.

First Francis openly and honestly reveals to us the rock-bottom desire of his heart, the gut-level yearning of his soul, his deep seated wish: that an eternal hell was not true.

Hear his compassionate heart within the following quotes:

“Do I want to believe in a God who shows His power by punishing non-Christians and who magnifies His mercy by blessing Christians forever?…Here’s my gut-level honest answer: No. No way.”

“I want everyone to be saved. I do. I don’t want anyone to go to hell …I want to believe in a God who will save everyone in the end.”

Regarding eternal torment: “That seems a bit harsh according to my sense of justice”.2

We appreciate Chan’s transparency in relaying how he “doesn’t want to think about it”, how it made him “feel sick”, how it brought him so much anguish to think about his grandmother in hell, and how he would like to “erase it” from the Bible. But this begs the question as to why is there something about God’s character that he’d rather not think about and which makes him sick when in fact we are commanded to love God with all our minds? This should cause Chan, and us, to pause and think.

We believe this reaction within Chan, who is someone we know from his devoted life and testimony loves God and delights in Him, is a God-given emotion revealing God’s heart for those same people Chan is grieving over!  Scripture tells us that He will “give us the desire of our hearts” if we “delight in Him.”  What does that passage mean if it cannot be applied to this deepest and most powerful desire that we have…the desire of good for those whom we love? (And apparently God wants us to love even our enemies and desire their good!)

We ask, how can we be expected to make any distinction between right and wrong if God abides by a different standard than He demands of His creatures?  God tells us to think on things that are lovely, right and good (Phil 4:8) and He tells us to “judge what is right!” (Luke 12:57)  For God to abide by a different standard of what is love would make the Bible meaningless.

Additional evidence which illuminates how Chan inadvertently points to Biblical universalism is his continual reference to Isaiah 55.  Every time Francis meets with the big dilemma of ‘how can a loving God ever torture most of His image-bearers for an eternity’ he appeals to Isaiah 55:8:  “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the LORD.”  Ironically the only verse that he can use to justify his reasoning is actually a verse that has the opposite meaning than he intends!

God is speaking of His ways being so far above man’s in the area of MERCY, not an eternal hell!  The context of Isaiah’s words are:

“Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'”

As Chan attempts to use Scripture to defend his view of eternal conscious torment we are losing confidence that he is being responsible with it. This passage, the only one used to chide us into humble submission to the traditional view, is actually making the opposite point! Apparently it is God’s mercy that will blow our minds not Chan’s depiction of “un-mercy” towards billions of His image-bearers in an eternal hell of torment.

This adds much more weight to his advice to search beyond his book:

“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching…”3

Finally, we must take a serious look at Chan’s treatment of the love of God as it relates to the nature and duration of hell.  First of all, Chan decided not to bring the love of God to bear upon the issue of eternal hell at all!  The Scriptures about His nature as being love are not even mentioned in the body of the book! The subject of God’s love is rather relegated to the last question in the appendix of the book. Then, astonishingly in the discussion of the nature and outworking of God’s love he fails to make any reference to the two defining passages of God’s love: the book of 1 John and 1 Corinthians chapter 13 (“God is love” and “Love never fails”). Neither passage is mentioned! Instead Chan tries to make the case that since God is God He has the right to define love any way He wants even if it doesn’t look anything like the love He has defined for us!  (“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 1 John 3:16) Chan appeals only to God’s prerogative as God.

But to have a discussion on the love of God where the most defining passages on God’s own idea of what love is are omitted is a major clue that something is seriously awry.

While we are not accusing Francis Chan of intentionally avoiding the truth of Scripture to deceive us we are showing that what Chan meant to communicate against a hopeful universal redemption has actually opened up more space in which to view the all-inclusive Good News of Jesus Christ.  To sum up, this was done by:

1) Highlighting our God-given sanctified desire for Jesus to be literally “The Savior of the World.”

2) Revealing to us the true meaning of why God says His ways are higher and wider and bigger.

3) And finally, revealing how theologians often must omit foundational Scriptures to prove the traditions of men.

I believe Chan has written this book out of a sincere heart to save others from a deception that, in his estimation, could send many to an “eternal hell.” But unbeknownst to Chan what he was hoping to accomplish may actually serve to accomplish the opposite. We can see a few things much more clearly because of his book but I don’t think they were the things Chan intended.

Update 3/22/13: Read here how Chan’s co-author Dr. Preston Sprinkle (who in this interview admitted to doing most of the research for the book) has since changed his view leaning toward annihilationism or what is called “Conditional Immortality.” May Chan take to heart this recent shift by his co-author and “continue researching.”

 

Footnotes:

Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

2 Erasing Hell pp 22-23

3 ibid., p 86

 

Amazon Review of Erasing Hell by Peter Hiett:

Jan 7, 2014: I did not want to make a new post on this since Chan’s Erasing Hell is dated and his co-author has since changed his position but for those who think that Erasing Hell settles it for them I wanted to share an Amazon review by Peter Hiett that touches on some of the book’s other deficiencies. As always I appreciate Hiett’s tone of grace and respect:

“The Measure You Give…” by Peter Hiett

I suspect that I would really admire Francis Chan in other venues, but I was surprised at the lack of sound biblical exegesis and logic in this book. A few examples:

How can Chan talk about descriptions of Hell in Ezekiel (p.158), and then claim that there seems to be “no hope for a second chance” (p.38), but not even mention Ezekiel 37:11-14? “Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the WHOLE HOUSE OF ISRAEL Behold they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I will open your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people. And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken and I will do it, declares the Lord.” How could he miss that?

Or after all his talk about Romans 9, miss Romans 11:26, “And in this way all Israel will be saved” or Romans 11:32, “For God consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” or Romans 14:11 “As I live says the Lord every knee will bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” …how does He, how do we, miss that? All these verses come after Romans 9 and complete Paul’s thought. Clearly we can only be saved by Grace through Faith in Christ Jesus, but Chan and his co-authors need to take Scripture more seriously and stop putting Jesus in a little box.

How can Chan say “God is Love” on page 162 and then on page 163 claim “God can withhold love (Rom 9)”? What does that mean? God can choose not to be God? Does the “steadfast love of the Lord” cease? Do His Mercies come to an end? And Romans 9 never says that God “withholds love.” Paul completes his thoughts in the rest of Romans–“that He may have mercy on all.” Have they not read it?

How can he advocate, “A view of God that believes what(God) says, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense to us” (p.108) and then claim that verses like Psalm 22:29, Isaiah 25:8, 45:23, 66:23-26, Zeph.3:8-10, John 12:32, Romans 5:18, 1 Cor. 15:20-25, Colossians 1:17-20, 1 Tim. 4:10, Rev. 5:13, Rev. 21:4…don’t mean what they obviously mean? Perhaps it’s because he is judging God’s Judgments with his own judgment, just what he says we must not do, just what Paul tells us not to do in Romans 11:32-36.

Just because Frances can’t systematize Rev. 21:4 with Rev. 21:8, doesn’t give Frances the right to ignore Rev.21:4 “Behold I make all things New.” And yes we can’t discount Rev. 21:8, “their portion shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur (“theion” in Greek, also translated “divinity”), which is the second death.” Both statements must be true. Impossible for us, but not for God (Matt.19:25-26). God excels at bringing “destroyed” (from “apollumi” in Greek-also translated “lost”) things to life. He is the Creator! He destroys Sodom with “aionios” fire (Jude 7), but he promises to redeem Sodom (Ezekiel 16:53-63) and humble Jerusalem in the process. I wish Frances and his theologian friends took their Bibles more “literally”–not less. I wish we all did.

Frances, I bet you’re awesome in so many ways, but limiting the power and extent of God’s Grace in Christ Jesus should give you pause. “The measure you give is the measure you get. With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged.” John 12:30-33: “‘Now is the judgment of this world…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show by what death he was to die.”… May we all give that Judgment.

God Bless You,

Peter Hiett

Lea June 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm

I am trying to understand Universalism and make it jive with all of scripture. I have not read Mr. Chan’s book yet so I can’t give my opinion on it but I am looking into the concept of the wrath of God and the Judgement of sin.
One of the nagging questions I have is, if everyone is ultimately going to be saved, why feel any urgency to spread the gospel? How and why would the church have grown the way it has if there was no ultimate goal to see people saved?

admin June 16, 2012 at 3:34 am

To further address, “why feel any urgency to spread the Gospel?” I think a powerful motivation is the glory of God’s beauty and majesty that you just have to share with others. That is the natural response to beauty and glory–you must share it in order to complete your joy.

In summmary I see as the motivation to spread the Gospel:

Desire …for all to see and worship God’s glory
Healthy reverent fear …of God’s holiness that “will not be mocked”
Love for others …to be set free from sin and bondage
Compassion …for their suffering
Joy …that must be shared
Partnering with God …in bringing restoration to the world!

admin June 15, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Dear Lea,
I would recommend you pray for insight as you continue searching and reading. If you want to see what is the truth about this God will guide you.

Thankfully the Truth is not something to be argued but rather a Person. Jesus Christ is the Living Word and His “Spirit will guide us into all truth.”

First, the foundation of the entire Judeo-Christian faith is the Shema: God is ONE. He is a community of Father, Son and Spirit but He is ONE God. That means that He is not divided. In other words He is not loving BUT also just. He is both loving AND just and the two produce the same goal: the glory of God through His creation being made fully alive…”all things new.” We are told that every knee will bow and tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the FATHER.

Therefore even the different “fires” spoken of in the Bible must ultimately represent one fire coming form one God with one purpose. We are even told GOD is the fire (“Our God is a consuming fire”). He is both represented by a refiner’s fire, Pentecost fire, baptism fire and He is also the Lake of Fire. But this fire is one fire. It has one purpose because God is one, not two. How the fire is experienced depends upon the state of the recipient. Scriptures say “we will all be salted by fire” and that some will be “saved as through fire” (Mk 9:49, 1 Cor 3:15)

Restoration and re-creation through redemption is His goal bringing everything in alignment with His original intention for His creation. Astonishingly the word “justice” is the same word in the Bible as righteousness. Righteousness literally means “right-useness.” So if you track all judgment in the Bible it eventually leads to a return to right-useness even if annihilated out of this world. Isaiah 61 says He “gives beauty for ashes” and He will “restore the ancient ruins of many generations.” Even Sodom, Assyria and Egypt are prophesied as restored in the future (Ez 16, Isa 19). (See article Justice=Righteousness) And most importantly Jesus Himself said He is “the resurrection and the life.”

Your last question is a common one. When salvation has been for so many a salvation from a “location” rather than a “condition” it blurs the magnificent redemptive scope of the cross and resurrection. There is so much more to salvation than avoiding a location when you die.

Does this doctrine reduce evangelism? We are told by the time of Augustine there were still “very many” who believed in the restoration of all creation. Equipped with the mindset “If He is not Lord of all He is not Lord at all” (Clemet of Alexandria) they swept through the Roman Empire growing at a rate of 40% per decade! (Rodney Stark) Personally this understanding has brought a powerful zeal that everyone know and worship Christ. Instead of a burden too heavy to carry (that I must judge and save everyone) I want them to see Christ as He is because He is so beautiful and worthy of all our worship and praise forever! I also want them to be saved from having to experience the pain the prodigal son experienced “in a far country…till he came to his senses.” God’s judgment is “not safe but it’s good.”

Hope that’s a helpful start…there is much more about all these things in more detail here and in the links provided.

grace and peace to you

Tom September 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Lea, here’s another excellent answer to your question … Why spread the gospel? —

“Many have e-mailed to warn me of the dangers of believing and promoting [Christian] universalism. Two closely related dangers have been stressed. Some focus on how important Christians will think it is to spread the gospel if they accept universalism, and warn that belief in universalism would undercut evangelism. Others focus on the potential detrimental effect of promoting universalism on potential Christians themselves, supposing many will think something along the lines of, ‘Well, I’ll be OK anyway, so why bother to accept Christ?’

I do not think that belief in universalism should have the above effects. Here it is important to note that universalism — at least the position I’ve been referring to by the term — does not imply that it is unimportant whether one accepts Christ in this life, or sooner rather than later. All that universalism per se rules out here is the ‘infinitely big stick’: that one will be eternally barred from heaven (and perhaps consigned to hell) if one fails to accept Christ in this life. As I’ve stressed, universalism itself does not rule out that there will be punishment for some after death. Indeed, it does not rule out that there will be a lot of punishment for some. So it’s not only consistent with the existence of sticks, but with very big — indeed, immensely huge — sticks, though of course universalists will disagree amongst themselves about the nature and size of whatever sticks there are. Universalism does rule out the infinitely big stick. But it would indeed be very sad if Christians believed that there is strong reason or motivation for accepting Christ in this life only if one faces an infinitely big stick if one fails to do so. Universalism also guarantees that all humans will eventually attain the tremendous carrot. But does the fact that things will eventually be OK for someone remove the motivation — for herself and for others — to improve her lot in the meantime? Those who believe they are going to heaven, whether they’re universalists or not, believe everything will eventually be OK for them, but few lose all interest in their well-being in the meantime. And those who believe that certain other people (say, loved ones) are destined for heaven don’t lose interest in promoting their well-being in the meantime. Why, then, should accepting that everyone will eventually be OK sap all motivation for promoting their well-being in the meantime — especially since it’s at least consistent with universalism that that ‘meantime’ can be a very long time?

It’s also worth pointing out that though the universalist believes all will attain heaven, it’s consistent with universalism that what one’s heavenly existence is like may depend on one’s earthly life. Thus the universalist may hold (though perhaps some will not) that how one lives one’s earthly life — perhaps crucially including whether one accepts Christ in this life — will have eternal significance, even if it doesn’t determine whether one (eventually at least) attains heaven.”

Hope this helps!

http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm#A

Oliver December 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Hi – can you help me on this question?

I have heard as a strong Chr. Univ. argument that since the OT hardly mentions hell or the like, not talking about eternal, the concept of eternal torture after death was not a concept around Jesus’ time. Since neither Jesus or NT writers go into very much detail on this, it means, that there can’t be an eternal torture hell.

Francis Chan quotes numerous sources to make exactly the opposite point that it was a concept at the time and Jesus just confirmed the common believe with his statements instead of destroying this believe.

Can you give your view on his quotes/point?

Thanks a lot.

admin December 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Thank you Oliver for your excellent question. I noted that Chan did make that point. Gerry Beauchemin (when he returns) will answer further on this as he knows the history and Intertestimental setting better than myself. However, even if I do not understand the Jewish history between the Testaments I am not held captive to my limitation of knowledge on this. We are told that even a little child can receive the Gospel. If we were required to know and interpret the historical setting in order to be certain of what we believe then we have just placed faith in the Gospel out of bounds for most people in the world. What we are called to understand and believe is Christ and Him crucified. We need to ask who was Jesus and what was His character? What did He say He came to do and accomplish and did He actually accomplish it? Was His work finished on the cross or was it thwarted by man or by a counter-will within Himself? Was He of one mind, love and mercy, or of two, mercy and (at the same time) no mercy? Was He really the “Savior of the World.”?

Second I would have to make the point that for all the “proof” the scholarly Preston Sprinkle provided, Chan still admitted he remained “unsure” of the nature of hell and urged us to “keep on researching.” (pg 86)

If you take some time to carry out that “research” here on this website and also on GodsLoveWins.com you will find that there is a host of powerful evidence and truth about God’s nature that far outweigh this interpretation Chan/Sprinkle give regarding the Intertestimental period. (note: Also keep in mind that Preston Sprinkle who did the majority of the research for Erasing Hell now believes that annihilationism is the more Biblical understanding. This would negate the conclusions he and Chan made in the book on the “Intertestimental” period of Judaism.)

Our review of Erasing Hell: HERE

grace and peace…

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