Our Reasonable Faith 6

This post is — once again — by RJS, and we are all looking forward to Scot’s return. As usual – personal reflections are mine – I don’t know Scot’s position.
Now we come to a topic where I anticipate great conversation. Chapter 5 of The Reason for Godis entitled “How can a loving God send people to hell?” This puts it on the line for many who comment here — how can a God of Love also be a God of Judgment?

I admit, and this is probably my failing, but I have never worried much about hell – the concept is too distant and too abstract – “fire insurance” was never a convincing motivation for Christian faith. I would rather worry more about how we should live and less about heaven or hell.
Is Hell actually an important concept?
Ok – I know this is an important topic in our Church and our world for some. Keller has some interesting observations here – taking his cue largely from C. S. Lewis. First, lets dispel the common perception, both from the outside, and sometimes within the church itself:

Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says “Too late! You had your chance, now you will suffer!” (p. 76)

but

… it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying “I’m sorry! Let me out!”(p. 79).

In the view of both Keller and Lewis hell is the result of God giving people up to their desire including their desire for freedom from God himself. It is a self chosen eternal consequence of failure to follow God.
The issue of judgment is even more important: A God of Love must also be a God of Judgment. How could it be otherwise? Think about it. If there is no judgment there is no victory over evil and there is no basis for morality. Nothing in the present world matters – injustice will not be put to right, evil will never be punished. There is no real justification for statements of right or wrong. What difference does it make?
But… The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity. (p. 73) There is a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts, who has won the victory over evil, over pain and suffering. On this we rest – no need for vengeance and retaliation.
I must admit that Keller’s description of hell and judgment here was not what I expected. Judgment is an essential element of the faith …
But what is Hell?
And… what about those who have never heard? Shouldn’t judgment be just?

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    RJS,
    Just a note from S Africa; this is our last time on the computer until we get back late Fri afternoon.
    As you know, this is one of the most pressing topics today and I look forward to the conversation.

  • Ranger

    Sharing about hell is more something I do as an act of transparency and honesty with who Jesus was/is and what he said. I think some people unnecessarily shy away from the issue because they want people to feel good about Jesus or even already be following Him before they have to deal with this very real issue.
    Whenever I’m talking to someone who is unfamiliar with Jesus or his teaching (I live in China…it’s pretty common that people are clueless as to who Jesus was/is or what he taught), then I am very up front regarding this issue. It’s something that Jesus talked rather frequently about. He talked about “hell” just about as much as he talked about anything. Now, I think that talking about “hell” can be confusing simply because it is described in so many different ways. I think it’s only in America where there is a common understanding of a “hell concept” that talking about hell is an issue. People who have never heard of a hell or don’t believe in it have no aversion to talking about it at all, haha.
    We can’t deny that Jesus makes it clear that there will be those outside of the camp (and that they are people who are capable of grasping what’s going on), who are weeping and gnashing teeth and that we should fear God who can cast both soul and body into hell, etc. Furthermore, I see no reason from a historical-critical perspective to question the authenticity of these statements. Add to that the fact that most of the discussion of hell uses figurative language and our best scholars are unsure of the meaning of the symbolism. So I’m just honest with people and tell them that these are things that Jesus taught, but are things that I don’t have complete understanding about. With that said, removing teachings of judgment and hell from Jesus’ message would require removing a great number of passages from the Bible (skim through the gospels and you’ll see how common they are).
    Furthermore, I think that part of our aversion to the idea of hell comes from the perspective of the West where we live more comfortable lives than most of the world. I personally think understanding judgment and justice come easier to those who have suffered great injustice. Miroslav Volf (a Christian philosopher at Princeton) has written lots about this issue and I think his perspective is completely different from our American perspective. As someone who has seen friends and family suffer greatly and die under an oppressive regime, I think he more fully understands the human desire for ultimate justice.
    I also think we do a great disservice to the text and the reality of hell by trying to philosophize or reinterpret it. I really enjoyed “Paradise Lost” and “The Great Divorce” but Paradise Lost is more a reflection of medieval ideals and the Great Divorce is more an interpretation based on western ideals. Neither get me any closer to really understanding the meaning of hell. They are enjoyable reads, but do a disservice to textual understanding IMO.
    Finally, what about those who never hear? Well, just as we see all throughout Scripture, God judges not based on some arbitrary standard, but in regards to the amount of revelation given to the individual and their capacity for understanding that revelation. To some more grace is given than others. Some call this unfair, and others say this is the only way we could consider God fair.

  • Scott M

    This whole conversation is made more difficult by the fact that we have conflated two very different concepts, ideas, and words in scripture into the single English word ‘hell’ (derived from the name of the goddess Hel) and then try to make sense of the result. Sheol (or in Greek texts hades) is simply not the same concept as gehenna. I know my tradition never distinguishes them in discussion and teaching so it actually took me a long time to discover and begin to understand the distinction. That’s important to realize because such terms as the ‘outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is Jewish apocalyptic describing the portion of sheol which is the abode of the unrighteous dead awaiting judgment. The ‘bosom of Abraham’ or ‘paradise’ is a description of the abode of the righteous dead in sheol. Fundamentally, though, sheol is simply the state of being dead. Thus, when Jesus trampled down death by death and broke the gates of hades, he defeated the power of sheol over mankind. It doesn’t seem that, for the Christian who has fallen asleep, to ‘be with Christ’ is the same thing that described the abode of the righteous dead simply because Christ is not dead. There is a deep shift in Christian understanding at that point that it seems most English discussions have completely lost.
    Now, the ultimate state of gehenna has long been understood by Christians as Lewis and I gather Keller point out. It cannot be some ‘place’ where God is not where they are punished by an angry God. Because to say that anything is separated from God is to say that it ceases to exist. Similarly, we do not see an ultimate new creation in which the reality of God varies according to individual people. Rather, God will be all in all. The whole of creation will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord — a glory with which it is already filled. And the face of our God is love and light, but that love and light are a consuming fire. It will be warmth and comfort to those of us who have placed our confidence in and conformed our lives to Jesus of Nazareth, but will be torment and consuming anguish to those who have chosen to reshape themselves in pursuit of other gods. But it’s all the same light, the same consuming fire, the same new creation.
    Hell in this sense is the ultimate state of delusion.

  • http://fightingthelongdefeat.blogspot.com Ben Wheaton

    How can people who have never heard the gospel be justly punished? Well, keep in mind that by rights none of us should hear the gospel. We don’t deserve to hear it. All men are justly condemned whether or not they hear the gospel. It’s not God’s duty to save all people–it is, in one sense, his desire, but I don’t think that we can think that people who have not heard the gospel somehow are deprived of their rights. They are not. What should amaze us is that God chooses to save so many, including us.

  • Ranger

    Scot,
    You say, “As you know, this is one of the most pressing topics today and I look forward to the conversation.”
    And I personally would love to hear your insights on it once you get a chance!

  • Bob

    Ben(4),
    Thanks for the correction and the emphasis on mercy and grace. I have nothing but praise and thanksgiving. There is something rebellious in humans on receiving unmerited grace and mercy. When I originally read this posting my mind went immediately to solve all these issues: universalism, annihilation, purgatory, what is the meaning of everlasting, and eternal. It falls away as straw.

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    To add to Scott M’s disccusion of sheol (Gr., hades) (the grave, the abode of the dead) and gehenna (Jerusalem’s town dump, the “valley of Hinnom”, which burned with fire), it also helped my understanding to realize that Jesus said to the penitent thief on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” but the resurrection didn’t occur until the third day. Paradise, at that time, was part of sheol, where the dead went, the grave, somewhere in the lower regions of the earth (to be Dante-esque). And “what is it that he ascended, but that he first descended, and took captivity captive, and gave gifts to men”. Jesus took “the righteous dead” with him; and Paradise (where the righteous dead still go) has been with Jesus at the Father’s right hand since his resurrection. Some, like Seventh-day Adventists, however, believe in “soul-sleep”, that we are not in conscious bliss at all when we die, we are simply in the grave awaiting our own resurrection. Time will tell.
    I will admit it before you can say it. I do not seem to have a New Pauline Perspective. Mine was helped along C. I. Scofield. :)

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    And a “by” before C. I. Scofield.

  • Jason G

    I am planning a sermon series on heaven/eternal life and hell/eternal separation. I look forward to what promises to be an enlightening discussion.
    Χαρις υμιν

  • RJS

    You know there is an interesting thread here. Ben (#4) affirmed by Bob (#6) have one take on the issue that I have trouble with – so open my thoughts up for discussion. One of the principle issues drawing me to faith in God is search for meaning. The theology behind Ben’s comment here leaves me with exactly the same problem that I find with scientific naturalism (ontological naturalism) and atheism. There is no meaning to life, no purpose, no Good News. Frankly – I do not find it to be good news to consider that I might possibly (but possibly not) be among “the few, the chosen” while for masses of humanity we have no more than Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” — and so on.
    Isn’t this simply a powerless variant on Gnosticism (throwing out the more bizarre aspects) – only those with a kind of God given divine spark are saved?
    Ok – now I expect to get stomped on – but lets put the discussion where it needs to be in our world today. All of this relates mightly to the Gospel — what is the Gospel?

  • Tom Hein

    At the popular level I would guess that most non-Christian people in America rarely think about hell as it is described in the Bible. They think of it either as a place to party with your drinking buddies. Or they think of it as a fictional part of medieval history that has been left behind us. Then, they might acknowledge some kind of a hell for a Hitler or Idi Amin, the “really bad” people, but I suggest that many Americans never give it a thought. If they have any spiritual belief they just think grandpa and grandma go to heaven because they were loving people. If they are secular materialists, well the, why think about it? We’re just worm food.
    And even among church folks I don’t think that there are many who have really studied this issue. The “fire and brimstone” preaching just doesn’t occur in most places anymore, so even most Christians don’t have much serious thought about the issue.
    I’m just throwing this out as a totally unscientific observation. Maybe Barna should do a survey on it or something.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    RJS, this is the key issue that drove my faith’s deconstruction. For if hell is real (and I believed it was) and if it is possible to be a part of the process/program that prevents people from going there, then there is no greater work to be done on earth in the name of Jesus than to save souls (and in my case, I went to the hardest place to save them – a Muslim country).
    But like the Santa Claus myth where we wonder how he can possibly get around the world in one night, it becomes quickly obvious that it is not only not possible to save everyone, it isn’t even possible to reach everyone with a chance to hear the Gospel, it’s not possible to make the Good News into good news in countries where it is bad news or foreign news or irrelevant news for the vast majority of people. It’s not possible to save the dead ancestors of the people you are trying to reach (yes, you are going to heaven now that you’ve been saved, but your mother and father? Well we didn’t get here fast enough – they’re in hell).
    And more, it’s not acceptable to “rest” in the idea of God’s justice on this matter when the numbers are so disproportionate of where Christians are versus where they are not. Until you have walked the streets of a country whose majority population is decidedly NOT Christian, it is too easy to expect God to reach people in dreams or to expect that someone will think “Hmmm, my culture, religion and worldview don’t seem right – I wonder if there is a different one I’ve never heard of that I ought to embrace?”
    How many people in America do that and wind up Muslims or Hindu?
    The reason hell is a non-issue (or a theoretical one) for most Christians is that I don’t think most Christians believe in it. They believe in the concept of justice, they believe that God is loving, they trust God with the future. But they do not spend time literally imagining an eternity (which is a really, really, really, really long time) of torment and suffering, particularly when they think of the non-Christian family members or loved ones in their lives.
    Those who take the annihilationist view are comforted by the extinguishing of the person (they can escape grappling with suffering) which makes the whole concept theoretical again and easier to manage emotionally. It doesn’t address the fundamental issue of why God would make access to his truth so uneven in the world and through history.
    So I finally caught up with what I really believe after 8 years working with Muslim missions. I think heaven and hell are theological constructs from an ancient cosmology used to help pre-modern people imagine justice as flowing from God toward the oppressed.
    I no longer believe in a literal hell.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Tom Hein, totally agree. Hell is part of the cartoon culture, not so much a genuine spiritual fear until you are indoctrinated into that view if your church. At that point, the person learning about hell is already saved so the concept goes down easier. Those “not saved” don’t fear it, really.

  • Scott M

    To piggyback on RJS, I would say the God who has implanted the divine spark to save only a few among the depraved many is a very different God from the God who is eager to heal those who are sick, the God who comes near, the God who is not willing that any should perish. Similarly, the God who has been offended by contrarian wrongdoing and will inflict torment and punishment in judgment on those who have offended him is an angry God and very different from the God who is love, who is slow to anger and quick to mercy. The God from whom it is possible to be separated is a very different God from the one who is everywhere present and filling all things, by whom all was created and without whom nothing that is would continue from moment to moment. To use one of those theological big words, those Gods are not even ontologically similar.
    Perhaps this is an area of such conflict because it is an area within which it is difficult to speak without exposing that the God you worship is not actually the same person as the God I worship.

  • Ranger

    Tom,
    Ask and you shall receive. Barna has done this survey already. 71% of Americans believe there is “such a thing as hell.” Of those believing in hell, 40% believe that hell is an eternal separation from God’s presence, and 32% say it is “an eternal place of torment,” and another 14% said hell is symbolic of a bad outcome after death.
    RJS,
    I’m totally with you on this one and think that what many people call Calvinism or Reformed theology truly is simply determinism. I don’t think they intentionally would believe determinism, but if they would stop and consider the logical conclusions of their rhetoric (which they are so used to hearing and saying) they would see the problem. Of course, many in the Reformed camp have realized this problem and changed their rhetoric to be less deterministic (some are very anti-determinism as well). Anyways, I think an overemphasis on our sinfulness and underemphasis on the implications of having the image of God within us leads to this conclusion.

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    These are fragments more than thoughts. They exist in tension in my head. This subject nips at my heels from time to time and I am not completely at rest with it.
    1) The people who live and die in such disasters as the tsunami, cyclone, or earthquake: To borrow the idea, do they go to hell because they lost the great genetic lottery? They were born in such a time and place that they never had a chance to hear about Jesus, therefore they never had a chance?
    2) Why did Jesus need to come? God sent Jesus as the one and only way to God, right? If not, then I believe I have read the New Testament wrongly, including both Jesus and Paul.
    3) Not everyone who truly had faith necessarily knew about Jesus. The OT believers who were “circumcised in heart,” or who believed God (similar to Abraham) are “saved” whether they explicitly knew about Jesus or not.
    4) Nobody has ever had God all figured out. Ever. Maybe we don’t know everything that God does or will do.
    5) God will always do the right thing. I have to trust that nobody will be able to point a finger at God in eternity and say, “You were unfair to me!”
    6) I wonder if there are those who respond to God in faith, like in Lewis’s “Last Battle,” who truly believe but don’t know much, perhaps not even God’s revealed names in the Bible. They are the inverse of Jesus saying, “If you knew God, you would have known me.” Can Jesus’ sacrifice count for them like it did for those in the OT?
    7) One more: what about those who do great evil? I don’t think Jews will enjoy celebration feasts in heaven much if they have to sit beside an unrepentant Hitler.

  • Ranger

    Julie,
    Thanks for your insightful comments. It is very interesting to see the causes of your deconstruction of faith. As someone who has lived much of my life in countries completely opposed to Christianity (either religiously in the Middle East or politically in China), I resonate with your emotions although have reached different conclusions (which I’m sure you can also respect).
    I’d like to comment on one of your questions: “Until you have walked the streets of a country whose majority population is decidedly NOT Christian, it is too easy to expect God to reach people in dreams or to expect that someone will think “Hmmm, my culture, religion and worldview don’t seem right – I wonder if there is a different one I’ve never heard of that I ought to embrace?”
    My experience is that I meet people like this all of the time. I’m not sure what country you lived in, but in Yemen it was very common for people after finding out we were Christians to tell my family (who were not missionaries by any means) about dreams they had about the Christian God, or Isa, etc. Some simply went back to living life in Islam, but some sought out answers and started following Jesus secretly.
    Living in China I’ve often heard very similar stories. Many of the followers of Jesus over here had dreams before becoming a Christian that led them to seek out answers from friends which led to their faith. In China, these stories are especially common for some reason. These dreams are not simply among the uneducated either, but among very intelligent leaders of the community.
    Just as with anything else our presuppositions determine our interpretations, but I tend to believe these dreams come from God. Of course, in a naturalistic faith or naturalistic Christianity these things aren’t possible and they could surely be rationalized away. It’s all about presuppositions at that point.
    I believe we see time and time again in the Bible that God does not judge based on a unified standard but individually based on many variable such as situation, amount of revelation, capacity to understand revelation, etc. As such, there is hope for ancestors and relatives who may have never heard Jesus’ message of hope.
    One last thing that I questioned during your last post was the final part of the quote that I mention above. Isn’t the question of something being wrong with your faith and seeking out another option what led you to deconstruct your faith? Why would those same questions be rare in people outside of Christianity or in countries opposed to Christianity?
    Thanks again for your insights, your perspective always challenges me because your conclusions are often different from mine, yet it seems as though our experiences are so very similar in many ways!

  • Bill Crawford

    Why not a “both-and” rather than “either-or”? That is, why not acknowledge with Ben that no one who ends up in the new heavens and earth deserves to be there (nor did God “owe” this outcome to anyone after the fall) AND recognize that there’s a wideness (and probably many surprises) in God’s mercy that Keller and Lewis try to get at?

  • http://theupsidedownworld.wordpress.com/2008/02/09/my-yoke-is-easy-and-my-burden-is-light/ Rebeccat

    I have personally found the arguments of biblical universalism (ie the eventual salvation of all mankind) very compelling. There are many, many verses which speak of the salvation of all, or make a direct comparison between the damage done by Adam (universal to all men) and the salvic work of Christ. I do believe in hell, however, I believe it is corrective and not eternal. The word translated as eternal is aion or aionian both of which are known to mean age. There is an argument to be made for it meaning eternal, but since there is also an argument for it to mean simply age and there are so many verses speaking of salvation for all men, I choose to accept age as the best translation. The word translated as punishment – timoreo – (ie eternal punishment in Matthew 25) would be properly translated as “chastise”. There is another word – kalazo – which means punish, and it is not used. Chastisement, of course, carries with it the idea of correction. And if someone is going to be in hell for eternity, then correction isn’t the purpose.
    Universalism was widely accepted in the first centuries of the faith. Even Origen who was condemned for various real and imagined heresies was never challenged on his teachings of universal salvation, which was acknowledged by even its detractors as being consistent with scriptures.
    At any rate, I know that my view puts me outside acceptable bounds for most American Christians. However, it is one which I believe is biblically faithful, allows for the biblical teaching of hell as a literal, miserable place, and allows for both God’s justice and his redemptive grace. It provides a consistency which both Calvinism (God could save everyone, but won’t) and Arminianism (God would save everyone, but can’t) lack. It keeps the good news good – there is both justice and redemption and a God who is powerful enough to enact both. I works for me and I think a wider acceptance of it would really straighten out some of the knots we have wound ourselves into as Christians. The whole of scriptures and even life just makes so much more sense from the perspective of biblical universalism, IMO.
    I don’t want to turn this into a debate about universal salvation, but I just wanted to share how I personally have come to be able to reconcile all of the issues with hell and God while remaining faithful to scriptures.

  • http://www.kareyswan.com Karey Swan

    I don’t know why I’m writing. I’m an artist and a wife and a mom, a woman who has lived in ‘full-time service’ present to God in all the many hats I’ve worn. I have thought deeply about this and the artist in me sees this huge image of what’s being discussed here.
    Like the Gene Kelley movie “Briggadoon”, at a young age I pictured the possibility of differing planes occasionally intersecting our earthly plane – including Heaven and Hell.
    Now I see the continuum of earth time as a linear line, with a beginning and ending point. I see current Heaven, or Paradise as outside time, Kairos time, as a huge circle that earthly chronos time is within. And Hell could be a parallel line with earth or wavy intersecting the the earth line.
    But maybe Heaven’s circle is more like a figure eight, with the Cross at its intersection.
    With ‘the Kingdom of God at hand’ I see us by our daily choices, being a part of God’s ongoing doings or wanting to do it ‘my way’- heaven and hell choices – present to God or separate.
    I trust God’s desire that ‘all be saved’ and that that is not out of His realm of power. But I also see CS Lewis’s Great Divorce possibilities too – though it’s hard to imagine someone face-to-face with God and still rejecting what is offered.
    As to an eternal hell though, once death is cast into the Revelation’s lake of fire, isn’t that the end of hell? Isn’t by then, everyone throughout earthly time, had the opportunity to deal with the cross? And if choose to reject God, they become nothing – non-existence?
    What bothers me most is when people seem to need a hell to feel better about themselves and going to heaven. Like a need to be standing on others to feel taller – a competition in comparison of my good being gooder.
    I’m glad it’s God judging hearts and not me. If in His mercy I’m sitting next to a Hitler or Judas in Heaven, why should I be offended?!

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com/ ChrisB

    what about those who have never heard? Shouldn’t judgment be just?
    1. Romans 1 makes it clear that, in God’s opinion, everyone has sufficient information. In every case, the decision is to join the rebellion, declaring ourselves to be masters of our own fate and turning our backs on our maker. Some have been rescued from the consequences of that rebellion, but some are not.
    People don’t go to hell because they were born in the wrong place or didn’t quite grasp the gospel. They go do hell because they’re rebels against God. They are sinners and their sin must be paid for. God is not obliged to save everyone; the only surprising thing should be that He saves anyone.
    2. I don’t believe in the heathen in Africa. In short, people don’t go to hell simply because no one got to them with the gospel. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to believe that if there is someone who would believe, the gospel will be delivered.
    In Kings, Naaman is sent to Elisha by a girl in the right place at the right time. In Acts, the Spirit sent Philip to the Ethiopian who was ripe for the harvest. The same is happening today as people in Muslim countries have dreams sending them to find Christian missionaries. I have no doubt it has happened for 2000 years.

  • http://www.faithemergence.com Dan B.

    I appreciate this discussion a lot. This is one of the hardest discussions to have, especially with non-Christians. I think it’s especially enlightening to hear the words of those above who’ve lived in predominately non-Christian cultures.
    The thread of this conversation I’d like to push a little is talking about the nature of God, both from a more systematic angle and from a narrative perspective.
    Let’s start with a narrative perspective and think about the concept of judgment and God. Where does judgment come from- it’s the result of the fall. Judgment is always linked to sin, to rebellion against God. As sin increases, judgment must follow. Throughout the OT, God is developed in the character of a judge, one who upholds righteousness. Just look at the terms, shpht, to decide between right and wrong; dyn, similar in meaning, but with the connotation of bringing about vindication. God is righteous and that has a judgment side. Oftentimes you can clearly see that, the judgment corresponds with the crime or even comes about as a direct consequence of the crime. At the same time, God is also full of grace. Grace is always linked to judgment. God’s judgments are oftentimes meant to drive people to his grace. Even prior to his judgments, its clear that grace abounds, God is patient and loving, slow to anger. You can trace this through the great judgment stories, from the Flood, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to the era of the prophets. In the greatest narrative of judgment and grace we look at Christ. Jesus bore judgment for the world, yet in this act of judgment and righteousness, God brought grace to the whole world.
    This is what we find when we look at God, and what we then declare systematically. God has two sides, the hidden, and the revealed or the alien and the proper work as some theologians call it. The hidden side or alien work is that his righteousness means judgment. The revealed side or proper work, the one he always is desiring, the one he delights in, and leans toward is grace and forgiveness. This is the one we of course see most clearly in Christ. The problem people have is that they don’t seem to fit together perfectly. They’re in tension with each other, even from the ontological level as Scott was indicating above. So our tendency is to try to make it work in our own thinking so we tilt God toward one side or the other. If God is loving, then hell, judgment, etc doesn’t seem to fit very well. If God is the righteous judge, then honestly, Jesus Christ and grace aren’t very righteous or “fair” (though we don’t often push this side of the equation).
    The point is this, we have to hold both sides in tension. Scripture speaks to both and reveals both. God is both. Our job in this lifetime is not to lessen the tension or negate it, but to proclaim it to people. We live in the discomfort of the tension, but in the comfort of knowing that God is righteous, that he’s fair (though in a far bigger and more amazing way than our word “fair” can ever express) and he is also loving, so loving he would send his son to earth to pay the price of sin and send shockwaves of grace, love, and forgiveness from the cross that begin the process of new creation.

  • http://fightingthelongdefeat.blogspot.com Ben Wheaton

    I think I have to agree with Bill Crawford. It’s not an “either-or” situation with God’s grace and mercy and his justice. RJS, I’m not sure I understood what you meant by comparing Calvinism’s vision of man’s purpose with atheism’s. Calvinists affirm that man’s purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever; atheists have no such reason. God is the anchor of meaning, no matter how you perceive it.

  • Brian

    A question I have about this discussion is why hell is thought to be such a big problem now? Why were the answers put out by theologians in the past apparently well received then, but not as well received now? The questions about hell are certainly not new.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Ranger, thanks for the dialog.
    Yes, of course I know that people have dreams and question their original assumptions of their religions in order to eventually come to Christ. I led my first Moroccan to Christ on this very basis. And at the time, it so moved me and caused me to hope that this was in fact one way God would reach out to those who had been raised in such a deliberately Muslim context.
    But I’m talking numbers now. For instance, the sheer volume of Chinese who are not Christians, who are unlikely to ever be Christians, versus the few who have dreams or who challenge their original faith context (few can even be thousands in China and not even touch the percentage of Chinese who are still bound to hell, according to a literalist soteriology of who goes to heaven and hell).
    My deconstruction of Christianity is very different from the idea that someone would question every aspect of his or her worldview and culture and adopt a foreign one.
    For instance, look at it this way. What would it take for an American raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, weekly church, living in Texas to become Hare Krishna or Hindu or even Muslim (which at least has some overlap with the Judeo-Christian tradition) solely through dreams or critical evaluation of their own faith? It just doesn’t happen often enough to make sense of the literal billions who “should be bound for or in” hell based on the idea that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians don’t.
    And of course then I have to ask why such extraordinary insight must be had in China or Yemen whereas for most western Christians, Christianity is still the cultural norm for religious faith. (I know someone will say it’s harder to come to true faith when Christianity is the norm… but numerically and historically, that’s just not the case.)
    Finally, what disturbed me more than anything was the image of God that emerges from a doctrine that makes faith so difficult (uneven) to obtain (whether due to the apathy of Christians who are not motivated to become missionaries to, for instance, the billion Muslims in the world or their neighbors down the street, or through the erratic distribution of the Gospel throughout history).
    If we say that God saves most or has his own rubric for faith and access to heaven, then we have gutted the traditional understanding of missions and evangelism too. (Which is fine with me today) But I find it hard to listen to justifications for this system of salvation when the ones defending it seem unmoved by the plight of those literally destined for hell…. right now.
    And yes, I enjoy reading your experiences and how you write about them too. So thanks for asking.
    Julie

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    julie (12, 13) pretty much told my story as well. hell is very much a sore spot with me.
    i came pretty close to being a complete basket case wrestling my head out of the fiery hell paradigm it grew up in. obviously, if people were going to die today and begin eternal torment in flames, there is nothing i could do that could possibly be more important than getting people saved. how could anything have meaning but a 24×7 existence of pleading with friends, family, even strangers to make their choice for their ‘eternal destiny’ now – they could die this very day! – especially here in atlanta traffic…
    i started a little crusade a couple of years back writing all the pastors in my part of the county asking them to stop preaching this nonsense (i think i used a little more colorful word than ‘nonsense’, but this is a public forum here…). of course i got the expected response. i think pastors who teach it should be arrested and put in jail – period. it is as much an example of verbal and mental abuse as anything is, and its long-term effects are very significant and mostly unknown. no church should be allowed to teach small children that their friends will burn in hell forever if they don’t know Jesus.
    this is absolutely insane, and the church should renounce this doctrine.
    my comments on the chapter are here if you want to read more. i doubt you do.
    other than that, i’m pretty neutral on the subject…
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • Brad Cooper

    Ranger (#17),
    Thanks for your insights. I especially appreciate the following comments:
    “My experience is that I meet people like this all of the time. I’m not sure what country you lived in, but in Yemen it was very common for people after finding out we were Christians to tell my family (who were not missionaries by any means) about dreams they had about the Christian God, or Isa, etc. Some simply went back to living life in Islam, but some sought out answers and started following Jesus secretly.
    Living in China I’ve often heard very similar stories. Many of the followers of Jesus over here had dreams before becoming a Christian that led them to seek out answers from friends which led to their faith. In China, these stories are especially common for some reason. These dreams are not simply among the uneducated either, but among very intelligent leaders of the community.” [end of quote from Ranger's post]
    I had a theology professor at college who had a whole notebook full of these kinds of stories. I remember reading one of the stories in which a young boy was visited by an angel who told him that people were coming to tell him and his family about “Jesus.”
    I find these stories very revealing about God’s grace. But while they do in fact reveal something of God’s grace and power, they certainly do not answer all of our questions. We can’t hope to have a complete handle on this. What we can do, however, is TRUST…..TRUST in the God who has revealed that he loves all he has created with a love that far exceeds our own love.
    ………..
    Julie (#12),
    I sympathize with your story. I have often struggled with these issues myself. I can remember an evangelist telling a story of how he had missed a chance to share the gospel with a friend and how grieved he was when that friend died.
    I think we sometimes put way too much of the responsibility for saving lost people on our own shoulders. I don’t think that that is how it works. It’s not on our shoulders. That’s not the Biblical teaching. It’s all in God’s hands. He has the power to solve these problems, not us.
    I honor the command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And I believe the declaration that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NIV). And I believe in a literal hell.
    But I don’t worry about how all of that is going to play out. I’m not sure any of is capable of getting our heads completely around it. I simply trust that God loves people far more than I do and that he knows what he is doing. I’ll understand it a whole lot better on judgement day. In the mean time, I will be obedient to what he has commanded and trust what he has revealed.
    Peace.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    A lot ofthe language of “hell” and judgment seems to be written to persecuted people. Even outside of the Bible, apocalyptic language of judgment is always very violent–bad things happen to “wicked” people.
    I wonder if the reason that so many westerners don’t believe in hell is because we are not a persecuted people. We have a hard time identifying “the wicked” because everyone around us seems pretty nice.
    I don’t think that is the only reason westerners don’t believe in hell, but I think it is a factor. People who don’t see justice on earth look for it in the eschaton. People who have it nice on earth don’t care about eschatological judgment.
    We’re rich. We don’t need hell.

  • Jason G

    Brian, your question is appropriate. It seems that the modern sentiment on hell and the fate of those who never hear is yet another finger many wag at God. The age-old “problem” of an all-loving God and an everlasting punishment doesn’t mesh with the modern self-sensitive mind. While I believe that many professing Christians earnestly seek a way in which they can find some harmony in these seemingly incompatible concepts, most others simply stuff it in their quiver and add to their arsenal of why they can’t believe in the God of Scripture. Thus, the rise in popularity of annihilationism (or should I say revival?) and other alternative views of punishment. Also, many of us are criticized for falling back on the justice-of-God argument; yet, how can we make sense of God’s love and salvation apart from it?

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    I think we sometimes put way too much of the responsibility for saving lost people on our own shoulders. I don’t think that that is how it works. It’s not on our shoulders. That’s not the Biblical teaching. It’s all in God’s hands. He has the power to solve these problems, not us.
    Brad, if this is the case, why should anyone give up living in America to raise a family in a foreign country, learning a language, living as secret missionaries (breaking the law in some cases)?
    The theology is convoluted. If it’s true that people need to hear the Gospel to be saved, then the Gospel much be preached and yet not nearly enough people in history have heard the message yet are spending eternity in conscious torment.
    If it isn’t necessary for us to become ambassadors for Christ, going to the least reached places on earth, because God will save who he will, then evangelism is really an extraneous activity and we ought to get busy doing other things and stop this compulsion to “get the message of Christ” out.
    Ranger, I enjoy reading you and interacting with you. I simply don’t see that the proportion of people who have had dreams or who’ve reconsidered their worldview, culture and religion adds up to enough people to make me feel comfortable with this process as a just act of God. If God wishes none to perish, God is perfectly capable of making that happen (assuming that God exists in the way this theology describes).
    For my part, I think this cosmology (heaven and hell are literal places- states of being) and this view of salvation (that those who are either Jesus followers or who God deems to be close enough get to go to heaven and no one else) are utterly outdated and make God look capricious and I hate to say it, but terribly distant (similar to what we say about the God of Islam).
    Julie

  • Steve

    Thanks for a great discussion (which I have only been able to skim so far). A couple of thoughts:
    Hell as a place/state of separation from God seems like a way God respects our wishes–a la The Great Divorce.
    I’m very influenced by the idea that we either become more and more like Christ or less and less, and that people “in hell” have lost (rejected) their true human-ness (the image of God) in favor or something else.
    Another image of hell that resonates with me is that just as darkness cannot exist in the presence of light, so evil/unrighteousness/sin cannot exist in the presence of God and his glory and holiness. So the choices are transforming to get rid of sin, being destroyed, or being permitted to be someplace else. My understanding of the Bible is that Christ offers us transformation, and Hell is the someplace else option.
    As far as judgment for “non-believers” goes—I can’t get too worked up about what people guess will happen. All of our highest, best and most accurate ideas of BOTH love and justice come from God and are embodied by God. So, I am sure that whatever happens to all of us will be a perfect example of love and justice. None of us will have any basis to complain or feel like God let us or someone else down. Our speculations about what God will do now, from our position of falleness and incomplete knowledge is no basis to start judging God (see Job).
    Somehow God is both completely in charge and good and he is using us/the church to advance his Kingdom–despite our on-going failures (see yesterday’s post and discussion). For me this is ultimately a leap of faith–including the willingness to admit to not knowing lots of what will happen to people after death, but resting in my trust that God will be faithful and righteous (that is, keep his promises and be true to his nature).
    Steve

  • http://theupsidedownworld.wordpress.com/2008/02/09/my-yoke-is-easy-and-my-burden-is-light/ Rebeccat

    Julie, I think that the problem with much of the discussion of salvation is that it views salvation as purely an issue of heaven or hell. In which case, there are indeed all sorts of arguments to be made against the need to evangelize around the world.
    Of course, salvation is not simply a matter of where we go after death; it is a matter of the here and now as well. One of the best explanations I have heard for Jesus’ words about the Kingdom is that it is an invitation to re-order our lives in radical subservience to God and His ways. When we do this, the whole world – internally and externally changes. So even for those who say, “well, the un-evangelized will go to heaven”, there is much that we need saving from in this life as well.

  • Robert E. Mason

    Before we dig into this business of judgment and Hell, there are, it seems to me, some prior questions that we need to grappel with:
    •Must an act of judgment always issue in rewards or punishment?
    •From God’s perspective is there an adequate punishment short of spending eternity in Hell?
    •Can God’s love be defeated?
    •Are postmortem conversions possible?
    •In the end will Hell be empty?
    What do you say?

  • Scott M

    I do take it as evident in our experience of God, our experience of the world, our experience of each other, our experience of ourselves, and our sacred text that God has created us with the freedom to worship other gods and shape ourselves and the image we bear in the likeness of those other gods rather than the God who created and sustains us.
    With that said, though, it continues to strike me that the language of “separation from God” is either poorly used or if it does express the true intent of the speaker describes a god who is incompatible with the God to whom those who penned our text testified. I see two possible meanings behind the phrase ‘eternally separated from God’. If it used to mean a true separation then, according to everything we understand about the creator God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, that must mean that whatever is separated ceases to exist. For is it not the case that everything that is was created in and for and through Jesus and is sustained moment to moment in him? However, there is no evidence either in scripture that God begrudges existence to any of his creation, so I’m not comfortable with the sort of God annihilationists describe.
    If you mean instead that God continues to veil the full knowledge of his glory in darkness (as the fire hidden within the smoke to use OT imagery) from those who have not shaped themselves in such a way that they welcome it as comfort and warmth, that may not be incompatible with a
    Christian understanding of God, but I have to question that perspective of the eschaton. Everything I can find in Scripture seems to proclaim that as part of God’s new act of creation and recreation, the veil will be fully lifted and all creation will be filled with the knowledge and glory of the God with which it is already filled. No, the idea that their will be some part of creation within which God will continue to be veiled seems contrary to all we are told.
    I described Hell as the ultimate state of delusion because I do not think the reality of the experience will be any different for any person. We will all experience the full love and glory and light of the Lord. But our Lord is a consuming fire and those who have shaped themselves into darkness and dross will experience that love and light as torment and wrath and darkness.
    Now within this view the ideas of universalism are not completely excluded and have been expressed at least as long ago as Gregory of Nyssa. I would not be willing to state as dogma that it is beyond God’s ability to find a way to reach even those who have tried to shape themselves into ex-human beings. Nor would I want to limit in any way God’s ability to have reached and saved many who may have never even known his name. I think we live faithfully with the knowledge we have been given as the church but presume when we attempt to confine God to the limits he has given us in our proclamation, life, and work. The only thing I will say about universalism is that it cannot be a dogmatic or it becomes simply another form of determinism. It is something for which we can certainly pray and hope, but our text does seem to warn us again and again that the course of our existence is largely set within this life. To a large degree the person we are becoming is the person we will continue to be forever.
    And I understand that it will be much better for us to be more like Jesus of Nazareth than less.

  • Tom Hein

    Please delete comment #??.
    Desiring hell for Calvinists does not really fit with the Jesus Creed.
    A Calvinist would say that we all deserve hell…. this is justice. That a sovereign God would choose to save some….. this is mercy.

  • RJS

    Tom,
    I agree that casting personal aspersion and/or expressing desire for “harm” over theological view is stepping over the bounds of civil conversation.
    On the other issue however, I have a hard time seeing either mercy or justice in sovereign election. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – judgment is just. No problem so far. But a world where a sovereign God chooses to save some — this isn’t mercy… this is… I can’t even come up with the right word. For the nonelect – all is vanity, worthless, and hopeless.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    ok, so i DID get deleted, but only after my foot was firmly implanted in my mouth – or whatever the correct keyboard/typing/comment analogy is… sorry, but i never see targeted sarcasm as out of bounds – it’s why we have satire, SNL and televangelists… but sorry if i offended anyone.
    actually, not really. if we can’t laugh at each other in this world, we’re all in hell.
    that said, tom makes a legitimate point, one that i hear often: that everyone deserves hell, and that God is gracious to save some.
    of course, those making that argument are always in the graciously-saved-”some” camp, aren’t they? imagine that… everyone is a “jacob have i loved” – no one ever speaks up as an “esau have i hated” – funny how that works.
    again, all of this is man trying to put finite explanations on an infinite God. in the end, He actually may allow some people to choose hell over heaven – actually, that’s where my theology is at the moment. however, i believe in one point of Calvinism: irresistable grace. except this “I” in “TULIP” for everyone – not just the elect.
    but to try to put this in a flowchart makes God out to be a sadist – pure and simple. and to preach it as if/then/else is trying to put black and white on something that’s, at best, very gray.
    ok, let me take my meds, see if i can calm down a bit.
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • Scott M

    It’s not civil to express a desire for harm to another. I would also say it is a failure of love to hold a desire for harm whether you express it or not. But I think I do empathize with what was driving Mike’s statement. But I would express myself differently.
    Simply put, if the God who sovereignly determines all things — from issues of salvation to the earthquake in China to the bridge collapse to the particular suffering of a specific child — is actually the true God, the God who reveals the fundamental nature of reality and what it means to be a human being, then I reject that God. Unequivocally, without reservation, and utterly. I have never worshiped that God, do not worship that God, and will never worship that God. If that’s the true God, so be it. I would rather live my life in service and submission to a lie.
    Now, I don’t really believe that is an accurate description of the persons of God. But if it is, so be it. If I did come to believe that were the true God, I wouldn’t be Christian. I am pretty certain I’m deluded about God in ways I do not see. But I’m as certain as I can be that the God of Driscoll, Piper, MacArthur, etc. is not the same God as the one I worship, to whom I relate, and about whom I learn in the story of Scripture. The two are not the same and are not even compatible. They cannot somehow be reconciled.
    And that, RJS, is what I’ve been saying all along. Maybe my background is just too pluralistic to play the game that these are somehow one and the same God just because we use similar words when speaking about that God. We don’t define or use the words the same way.

  • http://fightingthelongdefeat.blogspot.com Ben Wheaton

    In that case, Scott M, let the writs of excommunication roll out. One of us is clearly not a Christian.

  • Brian

    The line of thought about election begs the question of whether such a notion is taught in the Bible. If it is not there, then why put so much thought into it?
    Calvin actually anticipated most of the objections made in this conversation. And that takes me back to my question in #24. Or maybe not that many people have actually read Calvin. He was not a philosophical determinist, he was grappling with what he understood the Bible to be saying.

  • RJS

    You know though Brian – when I read Calvin, and I have some, though probably not enough – he resorts to a view of accommodation to account for scripture not consonant with his view. God is sovereign but accommodated himself to our view of “free will” in scripture — where it appears that God changes his mind or human behavior may impact or have impacted history.
    I think that the story told in scripture does not support the Calvinist framework.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    brian #40 raises an excellent point, too.
    my guess?
    i think calvin is simply doing exactly what paul was doing. somehow, paul’s thinking went, i know God is going to give these ingrates their due, but there’s no way i can get to them all in time to share this gospel with them! all i (paul) can figure is that God has decided beforehand who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – otherwise, i’d be spending my life here on earth trying to move people from hell (where my theology says they already are to begin with) to heaven, and it would drive me to the point of insanity by leaving the burden squarely on MY shoulders.
    the trip down the rabbit trail leads us to these inevitable conclusion. those who want to continue to believe in eternal hell shrug their shoulders and say, well, God’s ways are not man’s ways, and we’ll understand all of this when we get to heaven.
    i, however, choose to retrace my steps back through the maze that brought me to these unacceptable conclusions and admit that the presuppositions that took me down the path are quite plain and simply wrong. and that God did not actually create people to torment purely for His ‘glory,’ whatever we imagine that to be. of course, i’m called arrogant in the process, that i’m not accepting the ‘absolute truth’ of the bible. so be it – i’ve been told many times that i “resist authority figures;” i y’am what i y’am. :)
    most of our perception of God comes from the experience of God in our lives, regardless of how much we want to think scripture drives it.
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • Brian

    RJS,
    In Book II, chapter V of the Institutes Calvin writes, “For who is such a fool as to assert that God moves a man just as we throw a stone? And nothing like this follows from our teaching.”
    Statements like that fly in the face of what many people think Calvin actually believed. Calvin saw complexity to the issue that went far beyond accommodation.

  • Rachel

    I have a feeling that when all of you get to heaven, you will still be arguing and discussing and debating all the issues that have come up to this blog. I am a “humble outsider” who does not have any theological background, but i like what my pastor preached one day. He basically said that heaven will not be the same for everyone because not everyone was created the same. (Yes, we are all created in God’s image) He went on to say that heaven wasn’t a place to lie on clouds and stroke harps…there will be more work God needs done and we will be assigned it accordingly. Why can’t hell be different for different people? (When I get to heaven, I’ll be able to tell who the Jesus Creed bloggers were – you’ll still be discussing issues!)

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Brian,
    To answer the question you raised in #24, I think the reason hell has come under attack recently is because of the inherant power play in hell language. Since Calvin’s time we have seen:
    1. The collapse of the church as an authority,
    2. The collapse of the Bible as an authority, and
    3. The colapse of reason as an authority.
    Since there are no absolute authorities any more, people are now permitted to say things like, “I choose not to believe in hell.”

  • RJS

    Brian,
    I have no doubt that Calvin thought deeply and that simple short statements do not do justice to the whole of his theology. I have read his commentaries more than his institutes. When I read passages in his commentaries I have serious problems – because he reads and interprets the story blatantly through his theological framework and negates the actual story we have in scripture.
    So to take only one example Genesis 6:6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
    Calvin says:

    The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.

    Everything that doesn’t fit within the “theology” is rationalized away – no matter what the words actually say, and no matter how they have been read by the church through the ages.
    I cannot do that – I think that we have to take all of scripture and allow that to form our understanding of God. And…I admit that there are passages I would like to rationalize away myself — but I cannot do that either.

  • Scott M

    Excommunicate people from what exactly, Ben? We Protestants have created such a chaotic mess we can’t even speak to the recurrence of ancient heresies like modalism (a la Potter’s House and some strands of Pentecostalism) or the tritheism that results when you describe Jesus as separated from the Father and the Spirit on the cross. (When you overemphasize either the oneness of God or the uniqueness of each Person you stray into a constructed and erroneous picture of God. But those are both very ancient and known errors. If we can’t even speak to those anymore, how can we speak to anything?) The noise level has risen so much almost anything we say is largely unintelligible.
    Of course, the God I know is the same one Jonah knew. He’s slow to anger and quick to mercy. And he is also the one who will judge. What do you mean when you say that one of us is “clearly” not a Christian? I doubt either of us is as deluded or unlike the creator God as the priest of Baal engaged in infant sacrifice. So there is one outer limit on the spectrum. Speaking for myself, I know I am not yet truly one with God and one with my fellow human beings, living a life completely characterized by love for both. In fact, I’m something of a wretch in my poverty of love. And since that seems to be what it means to fully and completely be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, that sets a boundary of sorts on the other end.
    You and I are both somewhere within those boundaries. But here’s the rub. To the extent that we worship a God who is unlike the actual God in the unique and real persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are wandering off the path between those two points on the spectrum. While we are probably not returning to a point like that of the Baal priest, we are also not actually moving toward conformity to the image and nature of Jesus to the extent that our constructed image of Jesus differs from his reality.
    I’ve simply said that I will not conform myself to the image of the God calvinism describes and that I do not believe that picture describes much of anything like the true nature of the persons of God. (I actually picked on calvinism because it had come up in this discussion, but I would have issues to one extent or another with the picture of God constructed in most branches of reformed theology.) Obviously then, I believe that to the extent the true God differs from the calvinistic image of God those who worship and attempt to conform themselves to the likeness of the latter are worshiping and conforming themselves to an image without any substantive reality behind it.
    Again, like Jonah, I do believe that God is slow to anger and quick to mercy. And I believe that those who hold these varied perspectives are muddling along as best they can amid the massive confusion of our age just as I am. However, I do believe each of us will have a conversation one day with the very real Jesus about what we have done (or not done) for those who have been entrusted to our care along our journey. And since these myriad constructed Jesuses can’t all be true, those will likely be interesting conversations.

  • Dana Ames

    I believe that on the cross Jesus saved everyone. He dealt
    with sin once and for all, and Forgiveness is the ground on which we all stand. If Jesus paid the debt for all, then he paid it for ALL. (And it was explained to me not long ago that the debt Jesus paid was not to the Father, nor to the satan- but to humans in our condition of death. Breathtaking, the humility of God! Jesus IS the mercy-seat.)
    I believe sin is about missing the mark of being fully human, because sin doesn’t float around in the ether- it always manifests in relationships. It is not about failure to uphold a checklist of moral standards, but rather failure to love appropriately. The Kingdom of God is the society in which God’s will is done- which certainly involves, as the basis of everything, loving appropriately. There’s no conflict between God’s “essence” (not sure if that is the correct term) and God’s will.
    I believe that in the freedom God has granted us as created in his image, we choose to be aligned with Jesus or we don’t. It’s better to be a Christian than not, because Jesus is The Revelation of what the Trinitarian Godhead is about, and to be consciously aligned with him and worshiping him will be transforming us, and bring us closer, sooner, to the fullness of union with God, ultimately as the human beings we were meant to be. And part of that worship is witness to the powers that are anti-God that Jesus has conquered death and that their number is up.
    I believe God will judge, and his judgment will be Good and Just. I do not believe in a hell of eternal conscious torment. The Orthodox idea that once we have come into existence we do not pass out of it makes sense to me. With Scott M, I believe that if we want God, we will welcome his judgment, his “putting to rights” not only that which is outside us, but also that which is within us, his flooding our reality with his presence and love; if we align ourselves with/worship something other than the one true God, then not so much…
    If pressed, I could pull out bible verses to support what I believe, but I don’t think that’s the point.
    The last thing I want to say about what I believe is completely my hunch.
    I believe that part of our ongoing work after Jesus returns will involve him loving into the fullness of life -through us- those who will have become, in NT Wright’s words, -and CS Lewis’ ideas- “ex-humans”. No idea how this will play out- but the leaves on the twelve trees are for the healing of the ethnae- peoples, not boundaried political entities. The gates to the city stand forever open.
    Love wins. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
    Dana

  • Tom Hein

    The passages on God “repenting” are difficult to interpret, troubling, “yes.”
    But, there are many passages in Isaiah, Romans, and elsewhere that speak of the sovereignty of God.
    So, one must adjust your surface reading of the texts in one direction or another. Either God sovereignly knows and he accomodates himself to us in language we can accept and understand. Or passages that speak of God “knowing” are not all inclusive.
    Obviously this is a big debate between open theism and a classical view of the sovereignty of God.
    All I’m saying is that there are difficult texts on both sides of the issue.

  • http://fightingthelongdefeat.blogspot.com Ben Wheaton

    Scott M,
    Your words are unequivocal. Those who disagree with you are worshiping an idol. Those who are saved will have at least some idea of who God is; if those you oppose in this matter have such an erroneous view of God, I see no hope for them unless they (we) repent. And yes, there will be some interesting conversations when people meet Jesus after death: as in either, “depart from me, I never knew you,” or “well done, good and faithful servant.”

  • RJS

    Matt Edwards (#45)
    A little too simple don’t you think? For one thing Calvin and Luther contributed mightily to the collapse of church as an authority. And Calvin and Luther took Bible as authority – but only when read through their glasses.
    I agree with you though on this – we cannot simply say “I choose not to believe in Hell.”
    I posed the question – What is Hell? because I think it likely that some of our ideas are misconceptions, misinterpretations of scripture and wanted some reflections from others.
    It also seems unavoidable that the God of Love is a God of Judgment — a “pure” universalism won’t cut it. But that still doesn’t answer all of the questions.
    Tom (#49),
    I agree – we have to wrestle with all of the texts (even the ones I don’t like).

  • Robert E. Mason

    Dana (#48) The first point you make in your post is spot on, and it reminds me of what Robert Farrar Capon wrote in one of his books on the Parables–both heaven and hell are populated by sinners. The difference between the two populations is that those in heaven have accepted God’s free offer of forgiveness while those in hell have not.

  • mariam

    God is infinitely loving and merciful. God is a responsible, loving parent to creation. A loving parent corrects and disciplines his children. A loving parent allows their children the freedom to make mistakes but a loving parent would never give up on a wayward child. In our mortal lives sometimes parents never see their prodigal children return and die in that grief. But God is not mortal and death has no victory over him – His love knows no end. What loving parent would cast their child into eternal torment with no chance of return? If we human, who are sinful and selfish, can love our children enough that we always take them back, how much more will God love us?
    God is just. Our sense of justice – for the poor in spirit, the meek, for those who mourn, for those who have been oppressed and wronged, for the righteous, merciful and peacemakers – that sense of justice comes from God. Our sense of justice also demands that justice be proportionate – even OT justice only demands one eye for one eye, one tooth for one tooth. No matter how monstrous the crimes committed in this lifetime they are less than the sting of a mosquito compared to eternity. How can we then believe that eternal torment is a just punishment for our mortal sins. I don’t buy the line that even the tiniest sin is worthy of eternal damnation because it is an offense against God’s infinite holiness. On the contrary I think God’s infinite Holiness and Mercy can easily carry and erase the finite sins of us puny mortals. What sort of weak and pathetic God could be infinitely offended by our actions? He who created us and knows our weaknesses? Nevertheless, because God is just, sin must be dealt with. I agree with RJS that a loving God must also be just. Because God suffers when we suffer, He is angry at that which causes suffering and wants it stopped. Sin must be defeated. However, imagine this. Imagine being reminded at Judgment of every bit of harm you have done – the things that niggle at your conscience that you have never dealt with, the things you have forgotten, the things you have rationalized. Imagine yourself like the rich man looking at all of God’s children who lived in hunger and disease while you lived in comfort and excess. Imagine being stripped of all your denials and lies and facing the truth of yourself. I then dare anyone to say before God “Thank you God that you have elected me to not pay for any of my sins. Thank you God I am not like those sinners over there who you have chosen, in your wisdom, not to receive your favour.”
    How can a sane person think about their loved ones, or even any fellow human being, spending eternity in torment and be OK with that? What sort of God do we worship? Suppose a powerful and fearsome lord comes to you and says, “You’re an insect and I should squash you like just like a bug, but because I’m a merciful kind of guy I’ve decided that I won’t kill you and you can join my household. I’ll take care of you and you won’t have to worry about anything. You just have to hang on my every word and glorify me. I’m going to torture and slaughter all the people you care about, but don’t you worry about that, ‘cause you’re taken care of – and isn’t that the important thing – my glory and your safety. Still worried about those people I’m throwing into my torture chamber? Do you know what, things will be so great in my palace that you won’t even care that the people you used to hang around with are going to be crushed under my wrath. As soon as you’re inside you’ll forget all about them. Or would you rather join them?” Which of us wouldn’t turn down a deal like that? Well, me for one, I hope. Somehow this is not how I picture Jesus. I am horrified by this portrayal of God and it hurts and frightens me that others can see Him this way.
    God is sovereign. Or is he? I find it odd that those who most vociferously proclaim God’s sovereignty see either God as helpless or smug in the face of our ignorance and willfulness. Is God sovereign or is He not? The Bible tells us that God wills that NONE should perish. But mortals sometimes die without hearing or understanding his message. They die without repenting because they don’t understand what they have to repent, or sometimes because they are wayward children. Will God allow himself to be defeated by death? Does He say, “Ooops. Another one bites the dust. But there’s nothing I can do about it. In that blink of an eye in which that child lived they did not properly repent. Too bad, so sad.” or worse, “Their exquisite and deserved eternal torment highlights the glorious mercy I have chosen for this select few, who are also scum, but who I choose to show mercy.”
    Does God love us or does He not? Is He perfectly just or is He not? Is he sovereign or is He not? Did Christ die for us all, to show us the radical power of love, forgiveness and redemption, or was he just buying a ticket out of hell for a few that God had already decided he was going to let in anyway?
    God is much more just than us because he knows things that we don’t. Our hearts and minds are an open book to him. Our selfishness and our longing and struggle to be kind and unselfish. The good intentions and the weakness of the flesh. The confusion, the meanness, together with the remorse. The sickness of damaged minds and souls. It is clear that we all “sin”, we all cause harm, even when we don’t mean to. There is no one of us perfect and, as the previous thread on about our actions displaying our faith made obvious, it doesn’t seem that many of us, in spite of being “saved”, exhibit fruits of the Spirit very consistently. What is there then to separate the sheep from the goats? Only I believe a humble and penitent spirit, willing to be instructed. How do we, with a humble spirit, justify the wholesale condemnation of the many, for sins no worse than ours? With such thinking we condemn ourselves, just as when we refuse to forgive we put ourselves outside forgiveness. .
    So what is Hell? It is possible to believe, biblically, that all be judged by God and that He will treat us justly and mercifully, including punishment for correction, without believing in eternal torment. It is possible to believe, biblically, in an eternal fire, which is God’s truth, without believing that we will be eternally tormented in that fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when we realize the extent of our sin and face the harm and suffering that we have created. The more harm we have done, the more willful and selfish we have been, the more resistant to God’s truth, the hotter that fire will burn. But when we lift up our faces and repent, when all the sin is burned away, then we will be whole and able, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, to walk in the fire without being burned.

  • KenT

    I am writing this before reading all the comments, which I will be doing. Some points:
    1. The concept of hell I object to is “eternal conscious torment” as Hank Hanegraff likes to call it. One can find extensive analyses of what eternal means in relation to judgment at websites such as http://www.tentmaker.org.
    2. If a God of love sends the great majority of people to “eternal conscious torment” the is no ultimate triumph of good over evil.
    3. Believing in some form of hell does not eliminate the concept of justice. Mercy trumps judgement ( James 2:13; Psalm 118, I Cor. 13)
    4. The typical conception of hell among Christians and the general public is not biblically based. There is a long history of embellishments on this idea (see The History of Hell, Alice K. Turner). Why is the history of preaching filled with emphasis on hellfire and brimstone, or vengefulness, when God is love?
    5.How does one interpret the parables regarding the “lost”. In not one case is a coin, or a sheep or a son left unfound.
    6. There are many scriptures that must be honestly dealt with in regard to hell and universal restoration (John 12:31-32, Acts 3:19-21, Rom. 5:18, Rom 11:32. i Cor. 15:22, I cor. 5 14, Eph. 1:10, Phil. 2:5-11, Col. 1:20, I tim. 2:3-4, I tim 4:1-10, Titus 2:11, Heb. 2:9, I Pet. 3:18-20; 1 Pet. 4:6, 2 Pet. 3:9, 1 John 2:2)

  • http://theupsidedownworld.wordpress.com/2008/02/09/my-yoke-is-easy-and-my-burden-is-light/ Rebeccat

    I think it is probably wrong to say that here are very many people who with full knowledge of their sin and their need for a savior have said, “thanks but no thanks.” There are many honest people who don’t buy into the idea. I have known quite a few people who have said, “I prayed and I prayed, I read scriptures and I sang songs. And I never got an answer. Never felt the presence of God. And finally I decided there was no God.” What do we say to these people? “Sorry – you chose the wrong answer. Enjoy eternity in hell!”
    We do not see clearly now. Not you or I or the sinner who has turned their back on God or the genuinely good man who does not know God. I agree with the person who said that the path we set for ourself now sets us up for the afterlife. I think we enter into the afterlife in the condition we leave this one. I think God will deal with us each as we need in order to come to a knowledge of Him. for some, out of both justice and necessity that will no doubt include an age in hell. But it is all up to God. He knows what is right for each of us. I do not believe that in the end His work on the cross will be anything but 100% successful. I think that when Jesus said it was paid in full, work completed as he died, He was absolutely correct. But there does seem to be a whole lot of ground between here and there.
    As for Calvin, I think the problem was that he put so much emphasis on verses which emphasize election. However there are as many or more emphasizing our own actions and even more speaking of God’s salvation for all men. But isn’t this what many of us do? We find something which makes sense to us and ignore contrary evidence which would require us to re-think the whole thing. Calvin was just a man at the end of the day and prone to this foible of human nature just like the rest of us.

  • http://awaitingredemption.blogspot.com Matt Edwards

    Thanks RJS for #51
    My answer was a bit simplistic. I was trying to say that the answer to the question, “Do you believe in hell?” has developed over time. Before the Reformation, the answer would have been “Yes, because the church says so.” The Reformation killed that answer. In the 16th–19th centuries, the answer would be “Yes, because it says so in the Bible.” Higher criticism killed that answer. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the answer would be “No, because heaven and hell cannot be empirically verified.” Postmodernism killed that answer. Now, the answer is either, “Yes, because hell works for me,” or “No, because hell doesn’t work for me.”
    People can give a million reasons why the choose to believe or not to believe in hell (it says so in the Scriptures, it doesn’t say so in the Scripture, it is the traditional teaching of the church, it makes logical sense, etc.), but ultimately the individual chooses based on what “works” for him or her.
    Personally, I choose to believe in hell because of my interpretations of the Scriptures, because of it’s traditional role in Christian theology, and because most of my friends, family, and teachers believe in it.
    I also reiterate the point I made in #28 that a lot of westerners’ disbelief in hell is conditioned by our prosperity/military dominance over the rest of the world. If we want justice, we get it here and now. We don’t need hell.

  • Brian

    RJS,
    I agree with you on how Calvin reads scripture at some points, as in the case you pointed out. Not all of his observations were timeless. But there is a reason why he is still in print, and most of his contemporaries are not.
    What concerns me most when Calvin is brought into such a discussion is that he often gets characterized in ways that he would not be if more people had actually read what he said.
    The nature of this discussion requires some amount of systematization, and for that reason the Institutes are probably a better place to start than Calvin’s commentaries in understanding his thought on this subject.

  • RJS

    Brian,
    I have the Institutes – and have only read a few small pieces. I probably should read them more fully. Of course my “to be read” shelf is already enormous.
    On the other hand – looking at commentaries provides a good insight into how a theologian thinks — in part because scripture is not as “neat” as a systematic theology. So while I may do an injustice to the sophistication of his thought – I get a better idea as to the basis for his “system.”

  • Nancy

    I have read through this thread and all the comments with interest and appreciation for the excellent contributions of each individual participating in the discussion. The weight of it all makes my head feel like it is going to explode. (I mean this in a good way)
    I often think that THIS is hell…right now, here in this place. I hear personal accounts of hell in my office on an almost daily basis. It would be a cruel irony (and just does not sound much like the God that I have come to “know”) that individuals who have suffered so on earth would move on to a deeper form of suffering for eternity because they did not believe or believe in the right things in the right way. Something feels wrong about that. And I could be dead wrong in my feeling but my own sense of truth and untruth is all I have to go on in the final anaylsis. Maybe evangelizing is for bringing some little glimpse of heaven to earth and not just for some “reward” after bodily death? Meaning, if Jesus saves all, then the point of teaching others about Jesus and his ways would be to bring comfort and peace to a life that is hard enough here and now. Maybe it is to push as much hell out of our existence as possible?
    I’m fried and probably making no sense. In the end, I HOPE there is no actual eternal hell. I hope that Jesus’ gift is universal. I hope that God is bigger than our little thoughts about all of this. In fact, I’m confident that this is so.

  • MikeH

    I find it shocking when some say that we should be surprised at God’s grace towards us, usually emphasizing how very fallen we are and how very “holy” God is and that hell is “deserved”. Just because grace is unearned, does that mean it is undeserved? Aren’t we designed for God. Can God withhold himself and claim that he is just? Does grace seem so incompatible with the character of God? Why is there such surprise that our loving Father would pursue us? This doesn’t take away from the awesomeness of it. It permits us to say, “Though I haven’t earned it, God is a God of grace. He redeems and saves because it is who he is. It has nothing to do with me.”

  • Brian

    RJS,
    What you will get from the Institutes that is harder to get from the commentaries is the broad sweep of how he sees various themes working through the Bible, and showing up in numerous places.
    If you have the Battles translation, just browse through the scripture index. He sweeping use of the raw data is impressive, in spite of the points at which he can be accused of systematizing away the text.

  • Brad Cooper

    Julie (#30),
    I hear your frustration, sister. But please don’t misunderstand me. I do believe in the utter importance of spreading the truth of the gospel. It is just as important to sacrifice our lives for that message now as it was in 50 A.D.
    And if it is not true, it is not a matter of it being outdated but rather just a matter of it being false. And it would be quite sad that the apostles and so many other early Christians made such great sacrifices and ultimately gave their lives for the spreading of a hoax.
    As Paul himself says: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor. 15:14-19, NIV)
    Indeed, I must confess that from our perspective many things in life just don’t make sense. And you make a very strong case here. I have some very tangential thoughts going through my head that might possibly help to begin to clear it up, but I will not even venture to write them down. At this point, I don’t have an argument against what you’ve said that I really feel is adequate. All I have right now is faith. And by that I don’t mean faith in an absurd idea, but rather faith in the God that I have walked with since I was a very small child (or perhaps I should say who has walked with me….faithfully). Based on that trust (which Jesus has earned in my life in countless ways), I know that “the judge of all the earth will do right.”
    Perhaps, it helps to think of it like this. Being desperately poor most of my life ;), I have done endless numbers of car repairs (or so it seems)….even though I know very little about how cars work. As you can imagine, I have often found myself quite frustrated.
    I can remember a time when I worked on an old beat up truck of mine for days–literally replacing expensive parts that did not need to be replaced. I asked all my friends (and even people I didn’t know) for advice. But nothing worked. Finally, someone gave me the right piece of advice. And it worked. It was something very simple; but until that moment, it all seemed hopeless.
    And that’s not an isolated incident. I have had many such experiences where I just didn’t have the knowledge that I needed…and often with the little knowledge that I did have, I often thought my solutions had to be the only possible ones.
    I imagine that it will be something like that on Judgment Day. God’s justice will be clear. But for now we don’t have all the answers. There are simply way too many things that we do not know…..but Jesus does–and I trust him.

  • http://www.trissel.blogspot.com Taylor George

    The leading and most popular evagelical of our day, John Piper, teaches that God predestined the great mass of humanity to an endless torture in a literal lake of fire, and he did it for his glory.
    There is no hope whatsoever in that. How do I frame any good news around that worldview?
    It’s as if the world needs another savior.

  • RJS

    Taylor,
    Piper has a following and a voice – but to cast him as “the leading and most popular” overstates things by more than a little. And I think that he is sincerely trying to follow God.
    But… I have problems with a great deal of his theology, and have since I first came in contact with him in the late 70′s. You’ve hit on a big one here – there is no good news, no gospel, for the vast majority.

  • http://www.trissel.blogspot.com Taylor George

    RJS, Name one evangelical with more sway right now in the United States.

  • RJS

    Taylor, I won’t try off the top of my head because it is not really my area of expertise. But Piper’s influence is not nearly as large outside of the Minneapolis/StPaul metropolitan area (extending well into the surroundings and even western Wisconsin) as it is within this sphere.
    I sit outside this sphere – and his influence is minimal; I hear more of Warren or Hybels or Keller or Mohler or … than Piper.

  • Brad Cooper

    Taylor,
    I would definitely say that Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are more influential. Never even heard of Piper until about a year or two ago and have yet to read even one of his books (but picked one up at a garage sale last summer). And there are so many others that I would list besides Piper that have more influence…undoubtedly Piper is very influential with many people.

  • http://www.trissel.blogspot.com Taylor George

    Damn this is hard. Is the God of the Bible the slightly softer one of Hybels, Warren, and Boyd? Or is he the one of my recently converted (to Roman Catholic from reformed) accountablity partner? There are huge differences between the God of Piper and the God of Warren. Who is he??? And if I happen to get it wrong, even in earnest, I may send myself to an eternal torment. Wow, I think I need a cocktail or ten.
    Someone speak the gospel into me because I sorely need it bros and sisters…

  • RJS

    Taylor,
    You are making roughly the same point Scott M was making in #38 and other comments. I think that Piper worships the same God that I do – that many of us do – but that he misunderstands God. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t worshiping God and doesn’t mean that all he says should be discarded.
    Scot had an interesting quote from a fellow Professor at TEDS in an earlier review of one of Piper’s books. Scot said: My first encounter with John Piper was memorable. I now recall it was the first faculty retreat I was at Trinity … Stuart Hackett, a professor of philosophy, stood up at the back of the room, and rather loudly announced to Piper that “I taught you better than this, Johnny, and if I thought this of God I would not be a Christian!” I don’t recall what else was said, nor did I need to — it was all there.
    I was in college when Piper was a college professor (same college) – his theology caused me trouble then, 30 years ago, and it still does. I don’t think his understanding of God is—dare I say it—Biblical.
    I hope that others chime in with opinions and insight…

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    my 2 cents here…
    while i enjoy my little sarcasm-laced jabs at mohler, piper, macarthur (oh my) etc., we really don’t need to let the discussion go to one name vs another – we’ve got to say specifically what someone teaches/preaches that we don’t agree with, and why. most of my caricatures of those reformed/calvinist flag-bearers are really no more than straw men at best, although i think i generally know their positions. but i can’t say what someone believes and teaches unless i have something they’ve written, said or taught.
    people keep saying to me, “but mike, where does it say that in scripture?”, and i have to come back and realize that there are a few givens we have to agree to – or agree to disagree on – at the outset. we’ve all reached the beliefs we have through many roads, and to just sum them all up with a label or a dismissal of someone’s position is no better than cherry-picking scripture and claiming someone’s finally arrived with all the answers – namely, you.
    so what is it that piper teaches / represents / stands for / denounces / endorses that we’re specifically talking about?
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

  • Brian

    RJS,
    Stuart Hackett is a real character. “The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation Claim” is about the toughest book I ever tried to read.
    On Piper, I would really like to see an extensive critique of his exegesis. Most of the critique that I see comes from a philosophical slant, and that begs the question of his exegesis.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com/ Peggy

    Taylor, #68,
    The good news is that at the end of all the thinking and debating and wondering and hand-wringing and certainty and doubt … is the God of the Shema as he truly is — One — … and the unified essence of that One will always be bigger than the boxes we have constructed to contain Father and Son and Holy Spirit in order to explain and understand him … and this God, as revealed to us in Christ Jesus, and witnessed to by the Spirit, says that God IS love.
    We all know that love has soft sides and hard sides, but God is a covenant-keeping God — and he is always looking out for our best interests and the Holy Spirit is always at work in hearts that are turned toward the One, in order to complete the work begun: maturity toward Christlikeness.
    Exactly how all that works out is sometimes more flashy and interesting than keeping our focus on loving God and loving others … but Love is the point, not Law … and this should be the focus of our gospel teaching.
    Jesus tells us that those who are not against us are for us. The biggest challenge, sadly, is that there are too many folks — brothers and sisters in Christ — who are against each other. These folks clearly are in need of understanding the Jesus Creed … and should back up and get the basics in hand before branching out into the disputed areas.
    Just my 2 cents…

  • RJS

    Brian -
    I would like to see an extensive critique as well – but I am well aware of my limitations here – both in available time and current knowledge.
    Scot gets back tonight (see #1) … perhaps he’ll step into the discussion (after all a 24 hour or so set of flights should leave him well rested and ready to tackle any problem).
    More seriously though – this is relevant to the discussion of hell and judgment.

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Taylor, bravo. :) Just had to give you your props.
    One of the challenges in this discussion is that once we examine the issues up close, people tend to nuance their positions even beyond what they would if just asked in a kind of “non-reflective” way. That McArthur, Piper, Sproul, even Hybels and Warren believe in hell is indisputable. That salvation comes through Christ, the primary teaching. That conversion precedes salvation and is most often achieved through the evangelistic efforts of obedient Christians, the primary message and teaching.
    It’s when we stop to consider those implications (what it means for masses of humanity today and for millenia prior) that we must revise that glib and frequently preached understanding.
    I like the idea Peggy put forth that salvation is not so much for heaven but all of life. Honestly, I haven’t heard that preached much in my 25 years. I usually hear that salvation is the gateway to sanctification (which is what most evangelicals mean when they talk about life change).
    But if we move it backward – salvation is about all of life here on this side of the grave- continuing salvation, every day, in attitude, behavior, and word, then we are all being saved continually… and what necessity is there to focus on heaven or hell?
    It’s just that: that view isn’t evangelical theology any more… (fine by me… but I don’t think it would fly in most churches).

  • http://julieunplugged.blogspot.com/ Julie

    Jesus tells us that those who are not against us are for us. The biggest challenge, sadly, is that there are too many folks — brothers and sisters in Christ — who are against each other. These folks clearly are in need of understanding the Jesus Creed … and should back up and get the basics in hand before branching out into the disputed areas.
    Folks who condemn people I love to hell through their preaching… are they for or against the Gospel? For or against us?
    How are they brothers and sisters in Christ to me when their point of view is hostile and condemning?

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com/ Peggy

    Julie…I would say “they” are too often “for” God and the Law and forget that the fulfillment of the law is found in loving (not defending) God BY loving (not condemning) others.
    This is the realm where the parable of the sheep and goats comes front and center. Jesus tells us in that parable that the goats are surprised they are not sheep and the sheep are surprised they are not goats….
    Personally, I believe that most of the preaching going on is targeted more toward those who are already believers in Christ and so tends to carry a harsher tone bordering on the OT prophets who called the errant Israel back to faithfulness. Those prophets were the ones who had the Spirit of God come upon them to empower their words and message of condemnation and rebuke for the covenant-breakers.
    But there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus….
    And with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, it is no longer the case that only some few have the Spirit … all who call upon the name of the Lord and join the New Covenant forged in the blood of Jesus and put into effect with his resurrection from the dead are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
    In the New Covenant, it is the Spirit that convicts of sin and condemns our actions….
    And the hostile and condemning point of view of some members of the Body of Christ are too much like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable. Or like Jonah who would rather the population of Ninevah be destroyed with fire and brimstone than turn their hearts toward God.
    Until they see that their attitude and actions are not only unloving toward others but also unloving toward God — and actually taking God’s name in vain — there will be precious little unity … and the world’s view will continue to be one of gross hypocracy. :(

  • Doug Allen

    It’s sad how far removed most Christianity is from what Jesus called most important: the Jesus Creed, as we call it here. Some of what has been written in the above comments and much of what I have read and continue to read by self-identified Christians drove me away from Christianity a long time ago and closer to Jesus’ teachings, I think. Sure, I could characterize it as worshiping idols: doctrine, interpretations of scripture, theological positions. And sure, you could reply that we are broken ikons as though the fall from grace doctrine explains all that. So we get nowhere, and I am happier moving on and beyond all the doctrine-obsessed, scripture interpretation-obsessed claims of Christianity that often make God out to be a monster (as in condemning most of my friends, neighbors, and humanity to everlasting hell) and to the philosophical poverty of the Jesus Creed with no fear or need to know what happens after death and what are the attributes of God.
    Doug

  • Ranger

    I try with everything I am to daily live the Jesus Creed. But Jesus is my God and in loving my God I have to take seriously the things that he said and the way that he said them. Jesus spoke a lot about Sheol and Gehenna. There is no reason to doubt these statements as inauthentic.
    If we take his words to be historically true then there are only a few options for how we respond:
    1. We take him to be telling the truth. If this is the case, then we simply teach what he taught and try our best to stay away from any additions or interpretations that come from Platonism, church tradition, etc. and do our best to get back to the meaning of his words in his context. If we are honest in this situation it requires us to plead ignorance very often because the teachings, although common, do not lead to clear conclusions. As I stated above, this is where I fall…and I plead ignorance a lot…I believe in hell because Jesus taught it and he’s my God, still I don’t condemn. This view includes most of the classical views of hell, whether eternal or temporal. I think this view probably includes the annihilationist view as well.
    2. We take him to be telling what he thought was the truth, but wasn’t. Jesus was human, and lived within a certain historical context where these doctrines were believed by some. Both he and the people he was speaking to were ignorant and as such Jesus taught within the limits of this culture. In this option you can either except hell as teaching about some spiritual truth or you can just drop it from your theology altogether. According to Barna, there is a pretty sizable minority within America that holds to a variation of this view.
    3. You reject any “reality” of any of these things and have a naturalistic religion. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who pointed people to “God,” but was simply a product of his times who thought he was pointing to realities, but wasn’t. There is no literal heaven, hell or God in any real sense, but there is still a lot to be learned and experienced from following Christianity (as well as Islam, Buddhism, etc.) because they have shown time and time again in history to be beneficial (despite the claims of the “new atheism”). There are and have always been a good number in this group as well.
    I don’t like the doctrines of hell, because they at least mean that people will be there temporarily, and from my late-modernistic western mindset that seems unfair and will always seem unfair no matter how much I true to reconcile it. I attempt to reconcile this struggle with the other rather clear teaching that God judges based on the situation, and that God loves unconditionally and beyond my understanding of things. I take option one above and it’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle no matter which option you choose above, because the other two have other implications that are just as challenging as well.
    I think this discussion has been so greatly encouraging to me as I see how others deal with this same issue. It’s also been encouraging to see the paths people have taken in life while dealing with it, and how experiences have contributed to their interpretations (as they also have with my interpretations). This has been a wonderful, insightful thread and I thank all of you for it.

  • Brad Cooper

    Lots of interesting, perplexing, confusing and excellent comments….
    Some of us are even condemning others here for being condemning……huh?
    I think problems on both ends of the continuum in this discussion result from two problems: 1) thinking we know more than what we do; 2) listening to other people who think they know more than what they do.
    IMO, I think that the problems with hyper-Calvinism come from trying to answer questions that the Bible never gives us answers to so we can feel good about having all the answers….and on the other end of the continuum, I think that people who reject the idea of hell are assuming that they have answers that God never revealed to us….
    Maybe we should be content with what has been revealed and trust God with the rest….

  • Brad Cooper

    Hey, I’m lost in cyberspace……:)

  • Neil

    I have wanted to say something as this thread has developed, but have been rendered speechless more than once. My final reaction: discouragement.

  • Ranger

    Hey Neil,
    What’s discouraging about it? Maybe you can contribute to fostering some encouraging discussion.

  • RJS

    Neil,
    What is discouraging? Difference of opinion, views of Hell, disbelief in hell, …

  • Doug Allen

    Neil,
    I think you are discouraged by the futility of doctrines so maybe you are moving beyond that? As others here have pointed out so many times (and I love this group, their struggles, and Scot’s attempt to bring Christian religious thinking back to the center of Jesus’ teaching) our reach exceeds our grasp! And you can finish the famous line! If you want answers and certainty, as we humans are prone to do, you get on the doctrine train. And then, if you take off your blinders, it’s discouraging because you see there are many trains heading in different directions. IMO (I learned not to use IMHO on this board!), doctrines result from fear, but they seldom overcome fear. Love overcomes fear. And we probably do not overcome fear and hatred with doctrines. There’s a lot of love here on this board, within the Church and outside the church. My feeling is: Jesus would be (is) pleased by that and not by the doctrines.
    Doug

  • Neil

    Thanks for calling me on my post. It is not very loving or fair to express a negative feeling without some reason or substantiation, is it? Please accept my apologies for that!
    I am not discouraged by people having different opinions on controversial subjects, or by the way their reason guides them to such. Generally in such debates, I have seen some common ground (even amongst great differences) which allows me to think, “I now know where you are coming from and can respect that; let’s agree to disagree.” I guess that early this morning, I didn’t sense that common ground in this particular thread, hence my comment. Perhaps I should do some re-reading, or perhaps I will turn the page.
    In either case, I am grateful for a community that shares its views in the context of being followers of Jesus.

  • http://mikerucker.wordpress.com mike rucker

    in light of where this thread is at this point, i put some thoughts together and wrote a piece on my blog called, “half & half, but twice the pounds.”
    rather than stick all those thoughts at this site, you can go read them here, if your day finds you running out of productive things to do.
    Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race,
    It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.
    Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
    And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

    - Bob Dylan, I and I, 1983
    mike rucker
    fariburn, georgia, usa

  • Tom Hein

    “That McArthur, Piper, Sproul, even Hybels and Warren believe in hell is indisputable…”
    There are different personalities here who express their ideas in different ways. But, they have some common ground in their views of salvation, heaven, and hell. Frankly, I like Erwin Lutzer at Moody Church on these issues.
    So, show me where they are wrong or right in their interpretation of the biblical text, and I will agree or disagree with you. Otherwise, we’re just reverting to human guessing on what we want to be true, rather than what is written. This is a difficult subject, but we can’t let our “feelings” rule the day on this. Let’s stick with the text and with what others with biblical roots throughout history have thought about these issues, and not with our stabs in the dark of what we “think” is “fair” or “not fair.”

  • Ranger

    By the way,
    This thread has run its course, but if anyone is interested Leonard Sweet has a recent podcast on iTunes called “One helluva napkin scribble” (The name of his podcast is Napkin Scribbles). It’s pretty middle ground, but has a few good points.

  • Taylor George

    Tom, I appreciate your groundedness. It’s needed. Do you think any of us can possibly come to the text with no presupositions? I can’t. I doubt anyone can. You gotta rely on the church as much as the text my friend. For years I had no idea what to do with the book of James…all because I was reading my sytematics into that book.

  • http://communityofjesus.blogspot.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    To hit this from another angle I have to wonder if Paul’s words of Romans 9-11 so big in Calvinism’s theological framework, are not misread in a superficial manner.
    Paul is certainly addressing the problem of Old Testament, old covenant Israel as the new covenant comes in. Where does that leave them? And in doing so he is addressing or writes concerning God addressing the attitude of Israel, that they are “in” (and Romans does that in other places as well, like chapter 2) and all the rest are out. That somehow in their election by God they are the ones who are in God’s favor, the rest in God’s wrath. Of course since they’re of the natural stock, if they don’t persist in unbelief God is able to graft them in again.
    All I’m saying is that Calvinism makes an error similar to what Israel made of old, if this reading and interpretation of Romans has truth to it.
    Of course we have to honor all the words of Scripture, but we’d better be careful lest our interpretation of them be put on an equal par with Scripture itself. There is mystery here, as I take it. I just can’t say exactly how it all plays out within the framework of Scripture.
    All of this is tough for me as well, because even though I too reject Calvinism’s disaster of double predestination, I too am troubled by a doctrine of hell which all but assures us on the surface at least, that a vast majority of humankind will be confined in such a place, or eternally punished in whatever way, forever.

  • http://communityofjesus.blogspot.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Of course God is also addressing Gentiles directly or Gentile Christians in Romans 9-11, as I see it. Maybe them directly and by implication it speaks to Israel as to what had happened to them, the Gentiles being in danger of doing the same,or falling into the same error and judgment by God.


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