I am sitting in the guest room where I am staying with Matt Distefano and his wife Lyndsay, writing a review of Matt’s book, All Set Free. It seems like a miracle that Matt immediately said “Yes” when I asked him if I could come visit when I felt a strong need to start traveling. His open, friendly welcome both from a distance and now in person helped me to realize that he is walking his talk. Thus I am even more enthusiastic about telling people about this book and how it has helped me better explain as well as deepen my faith in a loving God who looks like Jesus.
Matt’s writing gave me tools and explanations that gave me confidence that I could explain why the early Christians did not believe in hell. All my research has shown that much of what the early Christians believed and practiced, like non-violence and sharing a common purse in community, has changed as people who are invested in power and profit have chosen to distort this message. But the early church fathers’ writings, historical documents, and the New Testament all give us clarity that the people who were closest to Jesus did not believe in hell as eternal conscious torment.
Hell is a bad enough concept. But a reading of the Old Testament and what God told his “chosen children” to do would make any person who believes in the value of restorative justice run away from Christianity and I would not blame them. It never made sense to me that God would order Saul to tell his army to slaughter every man, woman, child and animal in a city they were supposed to conquer so that the Israelites could remain “pure”, free from the influence of those horrible people. Then, when Saul saves a few animals and people, he is punished for being disobedient. Who wants to follow a god like that? And this is only one story in the bible which portrays a schizophrenic, sociopathic god who would drive anyone crazy.
What I value about All Set Free is that Matt deftly explains clearly how to look at the whole Bible in a way that helps me understand that the people were doing their best to understand God, but because they were so deeply entrenched in a society where violence and retribution were natural, it was almost impossible for them to hear a Jesus-looking god speak to them.
Using a number of methods of shedding light on the big picture of what is the essence of the message of the Bible, including Paul’s writings, Jesus teachings, early church history, and Renee Girard’s mimetic theory, Matt explains in a logical and warm-hearted way how we can come to see that God never changed. He always looked like the Jesus who said, when dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
He shows that we can still trust the Bible as being the story of God revealing himself through scriptures, but that we can understand better how many (but not all) of the early writers of the bible misunderstood what God was saying. Yet God was working through them to move towards a place where finally people could embrace and carry out a vision of a non-violent society where people loved everyone, even their enemies.
Matt’s vulnerable sharing of how he was kicked out of his church because of his beliefs in a God who would not create nor send people to hell touched my heart. He has been willing to give up friendships and his church community in order to stand up for what he believes. People even send him hate mail. Having experienced the hurt of being a scapegoat, I can empathize with him. I admire his courage and willingness to be a pioneer in an area which I believe will, within the next few years, will be explored and eventually accepted by a critical mass of Christians.
We do not need hell to motivate us to be peaceful, loving, and to follow Jesus, as some believe. Matt’s life demonstrates that, as I have experienced in the several days I spent with him and his family. I believe that one of the most telling and convincing ways that show people are peaceful is how they treat their children, and how their children behave. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Matt and his wife peacefully, lovingly, and respectfully interacted with their five year old daughter, as well as the way they treated each other and me.
Besides, sharing what you really believe is a good way to find out who really loves you and accept you for who you are. You might lose some friends who reject you, but perhaps they are the kind of friends you don’t need.
I feel grateful to Matt for the gift he has given to those of us who sincerely seek Truth. I pray that millions will read this book, and be profoundly changed in ways that motivate them to wholeheartedly take the plunge and dedicate their lives to following Jesus and helping to bring peace on earth, and a belief in a Jesus-looking God who profoundly loves us and wants the best for us.