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 Romans 11:22. The text commands us to note not only the kindness of God but also his severity.”1Matt Chandler (2012-04-09). The Explicit Gospel (p. 40). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition. 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.”2Ibid. (pp. 42-43).

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 is3Ibid. (p. 44).

a pretty terrifying place. Jesus says that it’s a place of gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12). He says it’s a place where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48). Probably the most hardcore description we find is in Revelation 14:11, 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 Mark 9:48 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 Isaiah 66:24 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.4Date, 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/ 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 Mark 9 that He is changing the host of the worms in Isaiah from dead and rotting corpses to living, immortal bodies.

Chandler’s appeal to Revelation 14:11 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,5Revelation 13:1-2 which the angel interprets as symbolizing mountains and kings in the real world.6Revelation 17:9-10 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 Revelation 14:11 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.”7Isaiah 34:10 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,8Date, 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/ in which Greg made an interesting choice made also by Chandler in his book, wherein he writes,9Chandler. (p. 47).

The bottom line is that to seek our glory is to seek our damnation. In Luke 12:4-5 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.”10Matthew 10:28 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,11Chandler. (pp. 47-48).

What does this eternal punishment look like? One of our clearest pictures comes from a parable found in Luke 16:19-26 … 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,12Date, 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/ 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,13Chandler. (p. 80).

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 Revelation 13:1-2
6 Revelation 17:9-10
7 Isaiah 34:10
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 Matthew 10:28
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).