Explicit Mistakes: A Response to Matt Chandler

The Explicit Gospel by Matt ChandlerI’ll confess that I really don’t know who Matt Chandler is. Perhaps I’m not as well read and plugged into evangelicalism as I should be. I also haven’t read any reviews of Chandler’s book, The Explicit Gospel, critical or otherwise, and so I don’t know what other people think of him. About a month ago my church began announcing that we would soon begin a series based on this book, and the descriptions of it on posters and flyers—although compelling and engaging to many, I’m sure—left me with no idea what the book was actually about. Designed to captivate and spark interest, the failure of the marketing campaign to communicate ultimately anything meaningful at all about the book left me a little worried that The Explicit Gospel would be theologically vapid.
But a friend of mine who knows me very well, having peeked at portions of the book, told me I was in for a pleasant surprise. He recalled that in the very first episode of my podcast I lamented the fact that seemingly few Christians are being taught to look forward to their bodily resurrection, instead placing their hope in an eternal, disembodied existence floating around on clouds playing harps. He told me I’d be excited to know that Chandler teaches the resurrection in his book, and my friend assured me that this was just one example of several meaty theological topics Chandler addresses.
Indeed I was a little excited. And since I was recently given the gift of a Kindle by my best friend, I decided to purchase the Kindle edition of The Explicit Gospel. I’m only one chapter into the book but I must say that I’m very impressed. Perhaps my praise is a little premature but so far I am blown away by Chandler’s ability to communicate deep and profound theology in potent yet accessible language likely to move the minds and emotions of a diverse audience. Unfortunately, however, curiosity having led me to search the book for the word “hell,” I discovered that Chandler makes some mistakes concerning final punishment.

The severity of God

Before I begin my critique, perhaps I should explain why I’m responding to Matt Chandler’s book in the first place. After all, the book isn’t intended to defend the traditional view of final punishment, or to challenge alternatives to it. The Explicit Gospel is not Hell On Trial, or The Other Side of the Good News, or any of a host of other books like them. I can’t find the words “annihilationism” or “conditionalism” or their variations, and the word “universalism” is used only once in passing. Why use up time and energy issuing a response to such a book?
I suppose that one of my reasons is somewhat self-serving. While enjoying the book, curiosity caused me to stumble upon Chandler’s treatment of final punishment, and naturally I had a lot I wanted to say. Rethinking Hell gives me an outlet I wouldn’t otherwise have, the opportunity to articulate my thoughts in writing and share them with others. Of course, I do hope others are edified by my review, so it’s not entirely self-serving. And I do have high praise for the book as a whole, and for Chandler as an author, so part of me hopes that in the unlikely event that he reads my critique, he will take it in the spirit intended and learn from it as I, no doubt, will learn from his book.
I also felt it was important to address Chandler’s book because, although The Explicit Gospel is not primarily about final punishment, it does identify the topic as being of utmost importance. Chandler discusses the wrath of God early on, as early as the second chapter following his treatment of God’s glory in chapter one. “The kindness of God—the lovingkindness of God—is a phenomenal theme running through the entire Bible. But,” Chandler writes, “Paul didn’t stop there in . The text commands us to note not only the kindness of God but also his severity.”1 He further explains, “To be faithful to the supremacy of God’s glory, I must be upfront about how he responds to attempted glory theft.”2
Of course, many people—including, no doubt, many of my fellow conditionalists—may disagree, even if I do not. The point is, Chandler thinks final punishment is serious and important enough to address very early on in his book, but then he should treat the topic with a commensurate degree of care and thought, which I think he fails to do. Meanwhile, he seems to accuse those of us who reject the traditional view with doing so for illegitimate reasons. Therefore I think The Explicit Gospel warrants a response from us conditionalists.

A pretty terrifying place

After introducing the word Gehenna as used by Jesus to describe final punishment, he writes that hell is3

a pretty terrifying place. Jesus says that it’s a place of gnashing of teeth (). He says it’s a place where the worm does not die (). Probably the most hardcore description we find is in , which reads, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” It doesn’t get any more brutal than that.

Chandler doesn’t spend much time with these or any other texts as support for the traditional view of hell, so I won’t spend a lot of time with them, either. And fortunately Chandler does not appear to make too much out of the “weeping and gnashing” statements of Jesus (even though many critics of conditionalism have done so), which say nothing about the duration of the weeping and gnashing. So I won’t comment on them now.
It is implied, however, that the undying worm of does say something about the duration of suffering as part of final punishment, but he doesn’t provide the original context of the idiom, leaving his readers to assume Jesus must certainly be saying something about never dying in hell. And yet Jesus is virtually quoting which, unmentioned in Chandler’s book, explicitly says that it is corpses whose “worm will not die.” The idiom communicates the shame of having one’s corpse unburied, and arguably the irresistible and complete consumption of those corpses by maggots.
Critics of conditionalism sometimes accuse us of refusing to allow Jesus and New Testament authors to apply Old Testament language typologically, and to expand or change their original meaning.4 This is not the case; we do not deny the New Testament the freedom to expand upon and transcend the original meaning of Old Testament texts. We just think traditionalists cannot identify any texts in which the meaning is being expanded in such a way as would support eternal conscious torment. Jesus certainly gives no indication in that He is changing the host of the worms in Isaiah from dead and rotting corpses to living, immortal bodies.
Chandler’s appeal to likewise fails to provide information about the text that is crucial to understanding its meaning. For one, the vision John records is replete with apocalyptic imagery, not intended to be taken literally. As one of numerous examples that demonstrate this, consider the ten horns and seven heads of the infamous beast from the sea,5 which the angel interprets as symbolizing mountains and kings in the real world.6 Those of Chandler’s readers who are unfamiliar with the nature of the book of Revelation may think he is citing text originally intended to be taken in a straightforward, literal way.
Secondly, Matt does not point his readers to the connection between the ever-rising smoke of and the Old Testament imagery upon which it draws. Prophesying the long-past destruction of the city of Edom, Isaiah says that its fire “will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever.”7 And yet the fires which destroyed Edom are not still burning, smoke is not still rising from its remains. The imagery communicates the city’s permanent and irreversible destruction, not its perpetual or everlasting burning. We have no reason, then, for thinking the same imagery in Revelation communicates the perpetual, everlasting torment of human beings.

Those who kill the body

Recently I responded to some thoughts which Greg Koukl offered concerning conditionalism,8 in which Greg made an interesting choice made also by Chandler in his book, wherein he writes,9

The bottom line is that to seek our glory is to seek our damnation. In Jesus issues a somber warning: I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!…The comparison Jesus is making here is to say that it makes no sense to run up a tree afraid of a kitten while walking up to a lion and slapping it in the face. Will we fear man while flouting God? The reward for that is eternal punishment, which is infinitely more fearful than anything man could whip up.

I am intrigued by Chandler’s and Koukl’s choice to cite Luke’s account of Jesus’ words, rather than that of Matthew. In Luke’s account, Jesus does not clearly state what will happen to the bodies and souls of the wicked thrown into Gehenna, but He does in Matthew’s: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”10 Jesus says God will “destroy” both body and soul, using a Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi) which, used in the synoptic gospels to describe what one person does to another, consistently means something like “slay” or “kill.” I think it was a mistake of sorts on Chandler’s part not to cite the more explicit of the parallel texts in The Explicit Gospel.

Lazarus and the rich man

I want to reiterate that I have high praise for Chandler and for his book, even with what little I’ve read so far. I already have the utmost respect for him, and I’ve hardly even gotten to know who he is. But I really do think he makes an inexcusable mistake in his treatment of final punishment when he writes,11

What does this eternal punishment look like? One of our clearest pictures comes from a parable found in … This is a parable, yes, but it tells us a few things about life in the place of eternal separation from God. It is a place of conscious torment. It is a place of fire. It is a place of anguish. And once you’re there, there’s no getting out. It is eternal.

Despite being a parable, Chandler claims that Jesus’ story should be viewed as promising the wicked an eternity of anguish and conscious torment in fire. It seems a bit of a stretch, to me, how The Explicit Gospel ascribes to this passage a more explicit meaning than a parable should possess. But what I think is inexcusable is what seems to be his contention that the parable describes final punishment in the first place. After all, even if we were to take what happens to the rich man literally, it would tell us that anguish and conscious torment in fire takes place in the intermediate state, not the eternal one.
As I explain in more detail in another article,12 there are at least three reasons we know that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is not about final punishment. First, the events unfold while the parable’s central figures are dead, their bodies having been buried. Second, the rich man is in Hades, the New Testament counterpart to the Old Testament Sheol, the grave, and, according to some, the place of disembodied spirits awaiting resurrection. Third, the rich man’s brothers are still alive, and he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers from the grave, to warn them to repent.
I’m not saying that there’s utterly nothing we can learn from this parable that applies in some sense to final punishment. However, Chandler lets his readers come away thinking that the parable is about what happens as part of final punishment, that it describes it, and yet it most definitely does not. In fact, Chandler says the parable tells us that “there’s no getting out. It is eternal.” If that’s the case, then the disembodied spirits of Lazarus and the rich man will spend eternity in Hades, and we must abandon one of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith: the future, bodily resurrection of all the dead.

Changing Christianity

Although we conditionalists do not deny the reality and eternality of final punishment, I suspect that Chandler has us (and others) in mind when he writes,13

Every effort to remake the Christian faith leads to wickedness. Every effort to adjust the gospel so it appears more appealing, more palatable, is foolishness. This is liberal theology’s only play in the playbook. “Let’s get rid of the atoning work of Jesus Christ because it’s harsh. Let’s get rid of hell because it’s offensive. Let’s save Christianity by changing Christianity.”

I don’t deny that some, even many, conditionalists began rethinking hell because they perceived the traditional view of hell to be unjust and cruel. Convinced that the righteous Judge of the universe would not torment the impenitent for eternity, they rexamined what the Bible has to say on the topic, and came away convinced that Christendom had gotten it wrong. This wasn’t the case for me. To this day I don’t question the justice of the traditional view of hell; I was convinced solely by exegesis of the relevant texts.
But the reality is that, whether someone changes his view of final punishment solely as a result of taking a closer look at the Scriptures, or whether he was first led to do so because he was certain that the traditional view of hell is incompatible with the justice of God, either way we are not attempting to “get rid of hell because it’s offensive.” We are convinced that the Bible has been misinterpreted—badly and very demonstrably so—for centuries, and we believe God wants us to stand up for and proclaim the truth of His revelation, even when respected authors call us liberals.
I don’t think Chandler would have accused the Reformers of attempting to “remake the Christian faith.” I’m sure he would not have charged them with making an “effort to adjust the gospel so it appears more appealing.” Well, we conditionalists are simply trying to follow in the footsteps of the Reformers, upholding the authority and truth of God’s word even where it goes contrary to long established traditions. We are not trying to remake the Christian faith; we are trying to restore what has largely been lost, as did our Reformation forebears. We believe passionately in the doctrine of sola scriptura, and we think the Bible should be divided rightly as part of the explicit gospel, even when it comes to the topic of final punishment. Soli Deo gloria.

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  1. Matt Chandler (2012-04-09). The Explicit Gospel (p. 40). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition. []
  2. Ibid. (pp. 42-43). []
  3. Ibid. (p. 44). []
  4. Date, C. (2012, June 25). “Dr. James White Reviews Date vs. Whipps.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 13 July 2012. http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/dr-james-white-reviews-date-vs-whipps/ []
  5. []
  6. []
  7. []
  8. Date, C. (2012, July 12). “Wind out of the sails: A response to Greg Koukl.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 13 July 2012. http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/wind-out-of-the-sails-a-response-to-greg-koukl/ []
  9. Chandler. (p. 47). []
  10. []
  11. Chandler. (pp. 47-48). []
  12. Date, C. (2012, June 23). “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 13 July 2012. http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/06/lazarus-and-the-rich-man-its-not-about-final-punishment/ []
  13. Chandler. (p. 80). []

22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

9:1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

13:1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.

This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; 10 they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.

11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

10 Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
none shall pass through it forever and ever.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’