May 14, 2015

close uo of hand of a prisonerI’ve previously written at great length on the Christian persecution complex here in the United States and how it’s both unattractive and offensive to Christians around the world who actually are persecuted for their faith.

As Christians begin to lose the privilege they’ve previously held in society, many are engaging in a case of mistaken identity and viewing their loss of privilege– their process of becoming equal with everyone else– as persecution.

Now it seems that the persecution complex is being taken up a notch by some with the claim that “not only are you persecuting us, but you’re going to hell for it,” which is a new twist in the narrative so extreme that I didn’t see it coming.

Yesterday Southern Baptist leader Denny Burk made his case for this new narrative, arguing that the biblical term “least of these” isn’t necessary referring to caring for poor people, but specifically to Jesus’s disciples. Burk writes:

“This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.”

The argument is an interesting role reversal, taking the term away from the disadvantaged and applying it to the privileged. When Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the immigrant, and says “whatever you did for the lest of these you did for me” he was actually talking about florists and photographers being boycotted because of anti-LGBT discrimination.

(As a side note, I sure wish Seth and Amy from SNL would read Christian blogs, because they could do a great “Really!?” segment on that claim.)

Not only does Burk claim Jesus is actually referring to Christian bakers and florists who lose business because they refuse to sell their products to a certain segment of society, but the punishment for those boycotting such business will be rather harsh. Burk goes on to state:

In the last day, all the people who thought they could get away with mistreating Jesus’ brothers and sisters are going to come face to face with reality. They are going to come face to face with their judge. And they are going to find out what justice is. And they won’t be taunting or mocking. They are going to be crying out for the mountains to fall on them to shield them from the Lamb of God come in judgment (Rev. 6:16-17). But there won’t be a mountain big enough or a hole deep enough for them to hide in. Jesus will arise as a dread champion for his people. And he will close the mouths of the scoffers and the persecutors once and for all… The good news is that Jesus offers mercy even to his enemies. If you have been at odds with the “least of these,” there is time to get this right. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, and he has been raised from the dead to offer us eternal life. We receive this gift of salvation simply by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ. That invitation of mercy is open to everyone reading this—including those who have mistreated the least of these.”

Now, there’s much in Burk’s post that I actually agree with. I agree that our works reveal who truly has our heart and that it is utterly impossible to rightly claim one loves God while hating or mistreating another human being. Our difference however, is that Burk’s application of this principle is quite self-centered, whereas I believe the implications are far more comprehensive. Not only is Jesus stating that it’s impossible to love God while mistreating a disciple of Jesus, it’s also impossible to rightly claim one loves God while mistreating anyone. Jesus is the one who taught radical enemy love and said, “even those guys love those who love them, but what reward is there in that?”

Yes, Jesus will judge those who mistreat his followers. But he’ll also judge those who mistreat anyone, including their enemies.

He’ll judge those who were uncharitable and mistreated LGBTQ individuals, those who mistreated Muslims, those who “slammed the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces,” those who mistreated… anyone. Because God’s concern isn’t simply with how we treat “gospel-bearers,” but how we treat image-bearers, and everyone gets included in that category.

The biggest danger in Burk’s application however, is that scripture also tells us that the same measuring stick we use to judge others is the measuring stick that will be used against ourselves. And well, if it turns out that God thinks isolating one segment of society to whom Christians refuse to sell flowers is unloving and mistreatment, it might be the Christian business owners who are begging for the mountains to cover them on judgement day.

February 18, 2015

Screenshot 2015-02-18 08.19.46

The violence we’re seeing at the hands of ISIS is disgustingly barbaric. If mass beheadings, taking people into slavery, and throwing gay people off the tops of buildings wasn’t enough, they’ve now of course taken to burning people alive. First, it was a single pilot, but now they are parading 17 Kurds in cages with the promise that they’ll be burned alive too.

Burning people alive isn’t anything new, and certainly isn’t unique to ISIS– as Christians we have a long history with this practice as well. Many of the early Anabaptists faced this same fate for the “sin” of baptizing adults, as well as people who had the crazy idea that the Bible should be translated into common language for everyone to read for themselves. Heck, even Calvinism was founded by someone (John Calvin) who had a theological enemy burned alive for disagreeing with his theology (okay, in fairness to Calvin, he tried to do him a favor and get him beheaded instead).

Nonetheless, it’s 2015. Civilized culture has grown beyond the days of burning people alive, recognizing the practice as something that is completely offensive to any rational person. And, not just offensive- we consider it morally repulsive to the degree that many Christians want the perpetrators wiped off the face of the earth.

I must say, those instincts are correct– torturing people by burning them alive is morally repulsive. And so, we pray to God that he would intervene on behalf of these people who are suffering such unimaginable barbarism.

But here’s the irony of it all: while we find burning people alive morally repulsive when ISIS does it, most Christians seem to have no moral qualms about believing in a God they think will do precisely that. In fact, the traditional doctrine on hell paints God in a far worse light than ISIS– instead of just burning people to kill them, this doctrine believes that the people will never die– but will be tortured by the pain of the flames for all eternity. And somehow, they believe God will pronounce this as being good.

The doctrine of “eternal, conscious torment” can get even sicker depending how far one wants to take it: instead of people like Hitler being eternally tortured ISIS style, many would believe that folks like indigenous tribes living in the jungle who have never met a missionary or seen a Bible will all be tortured in the flames too. In fact, some areas of Christianity, such as extreme Calvinism, actually believe that God created most of humanity for the express purpose of torturing them in flames and that they have no right to complain or object– because God has every right to create things for whatever purpose he has in mind, including ISIS style torture.

I’d hope that if we could all detach from our individual Christian tradition for a moment and step back, we’d be able to see that this is actually sick.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe that we were all created in the image and likeness of God, and that God has planted in our hearts a sense of justice and morality. When we see hostages paraded in orange jump suits, caged up and about to be tortured, we feel moral outrage– and I believe this moral outrage comes from the spirit of God within us, reminding our consciences that it’s never okay to torture a fellow image bearer.

That same moral outrage at images of hostages about to be burned alive (such as the image above) should also cause us to pause for a moment and rethink what we actually believe about God and his character. Is God perfectly moral in all his ways? Is God altogether good? Is he altogether lovely? Does God look exactly like Jesus– the one who said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”?

If God is– and I believe he is— this alone should cause us to be willing to rethink and reexamine the traditional doctrine on hell as “eternal, conscious torment.” Because if we don’t, we’re saying that burning people to torture them is sick and twisted when ISIS does it, but that it’s good and wonderful when God does it.

I’m tired of the canned statements designed to stifle actually using the hearts and minds God planted inside of us.

“But you don’t understand God’s justice.”

“You have no right to question God.”

“Being tortured is what we all deserve.”

“What is moral for God is different than what is moral for us.”

And you know what, I call BS on all of it.

It’s time to question. It’s time to rethink.

Is it possible that our views on hell have been more shaped by medieval barbarians who practically burned their enemies for the sport of it than the actual words of Scripture and the nature and character of Jesus?

Is it possible that we have taken these concepts given to us by people who enjoyed burning their enemies and then read them into the pages of scripture?

Is it possible that God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his enemies and not an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies? 

I believe a solid case can be made from scripture that hell as a place where God eternally tortures people because they grew up in a jungle without Christian missionaries, is actually unbiblical (you can find the archive of my hell articles, here). But even before we get to the biblical arguments, our moral outrage at ISIS burning people alive presents a completely good and valid reason to begin questioning and rethinking this doctrine. God gave us a conscience that bears witness to his– let’s use it.

Because I am convinced that if we rethink, reexamine, and attempt to rediscover, we might just see that God is not like an ISIS terrorist burning his enemies– but God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his.

(and if you’d like to read a book on this topic, I recommend Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.

January 30, 2015

disprove hell

In a follow up to our recent episode of That God Show, folks have asked for a comprehensive list of Scriptures that refute the traditional teaching of hell. While this might not be exhaustive, I’ve put together 25 verses that strongly illustrate what the Bible teaches on the issue. As one will see, to believe in the traditional hell, one will have to directly argue against the language the Bible uses in these 25 passages which unanimously describe the fate of the unjust as being annihilation– not eternity in a conscious hell.

Here’s what the Bible says, and precisely why I have argued that if one were to read the Bible without preexisting ideas of traditional hell, one would not walk away believing in it. Here’s the list:

Psalm 1:6 “But the way of the ungodly shall perish”

If one believes in eternal conscious hell, they don’t believe the ungodly perish at all– but live forever in hell.

Psalm 37:20 “But the wicked shall perish… they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.”

If one believes in eternal conscious hell, they don’t believe the wicked will be “consumed.” Instead, they believe the wicked and tortured and never consumed.

Psalm 69:28 says that the wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living.”

This continues the consistency of scripture which tells us the wicked die– not that they are eternally living in a conscious hell.

Ps. 34:16, 21 “evil brings death to the wicked.”

Of course, if one believes in eternal hell, one doesn’t believe that evil brings death at all, but brings life– in hell. 

Psalm 92:7 “… shall be destroyed forever.”

If one believes in eternal conscious hell, they don’t believe those who are lost are “destroyed” but again, that they live forever.

Prov. 24:20 “the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.”

To believe in eternal conscious hell means one believes they will not be snuffed out at all.

Dan. 2:35 “the wind swept them away without leaving a trace.”

This continues the theme of totally destroyed– there’s not a trace of the wicked. This is the opposite of eternal life in hell.

Isa. 1:28, 30–31 “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.”

Obadiah 1:16 It will be as if the evil “had never been.

This speaks to ceasing to exist– not eternal life in hell. In the traditional hell it will not be “as if they had never been” because they’ll live eternally and still “be.”

Mal 4:1 “All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.”

Here God is quoted directly– the evildoers are destroyed like straw thrown into the fire, and nothing is left. This shows total annihilation (they no longer exist). To believe in eternal hell, one would have to argue that God was mistaken and that they aren’t destroyed in the fire at all– but live forever in the fire without being consumed, which is the exact opposite of what God claimed.

Again, as I said on That God Show, hell is NOT in the Old Testament. Instead, they believed that the wicked are destroyed– that they die and do not get resurrected to eternal life. This is the testimony of the whole of scripture. To believe in eternal conscious hell is to really be at odds with the terminology we see scripture use. These same claims of annihilation and destruction continue in the New Testament:

Matthew 10:28 “Rather, fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Here Jesus himself teaches against hell– saying that those who are lost experience the death of their soul. If one believes in eternal conscious hell, they believe Jesus was wrong on this point, and that souls don’t die at all, but will live forever in hell.

John 3:16 “…whosoever believeth in him should not perish”

Again, to believe in hell, one must believe Jesus was wrong in John 3:16 and that people don’t “perish” at all, but live forever in hell.

Matthew 7:13: “broad is the road that leads to destruction

Jesus in his warnings continues with the repetitive testimony of scripture: the consequence of rejecting reconciliation with God is destruction– not everlasting life in torment.

Jesus on a variety of occasions uses the metaphor of fire that consumes not tortures: Matt. 7:19; 13:40; John 15:6

Philippians 3:19 “whose end is destruction…

There’s that pesky word “destroyed” again. Those who believe in eternal hell don’t believe one is destroyed in hell, but lives there forever.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 “who shall be punished with everlasting destruction …”

Getting repetitive yet? Seems like the Bible is getting pretty clear that the consequence of rejecting God is destruction, not eternal life in hell.

1 Cor 3:17: “God will destroy that person”

There’s that word again that doesn’t mean tortured in hell, but just means what it says– destroyed.

2 Cor 2:15-16: “those that perish

Again, if Paul meant hell, he should have said it– seems like everyone talks about perishing, being destroyed– but doesn’t talk about hell.

Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death..

Growing up we’re taught that the “wages of sin is hell” but nope– it’s perishing, dying, being destroyed.. the opposite of eternal life in hell.

Hebrews 10:39 “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.”

Another version of the same term… destroyed. 

James 4:12a “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.”

Seems like every biblical author wants us to understand to be “destroyed” is the natural consequence…

2 Peter 2:3: “Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”

Revelation 20:14 “This is the second death…”

Those who believe in eternal conscious hell don’t believe in the second death– they believe everyone is immortal, and that some will live forever in hell. Rev 20:14 is clear that they die– they don’t live forever in hell at all.

So there you go folks– the testimony of the whole of scripture does not testify to hell as a place where you are alive and tortured for all eternity. Instead, from the beginning to the end of scripture we are warned that refusing to be reconciled to God– the author and sustainer of life– results in a natural outcome: the finality of death which is the ultimate destruction.

I would encourage you to just read the Bible– and read it without the lens of hell that you grew up with. If you read it without those lenses to distort what you see, you’ll find that eternal hell isn’t what the Bible warns us about– it warns us about a second death.

January 28, 2015

ID-100285344Most of us grow up being taught that all those who die without accepting Christ will burn for all eternity in hell. While in this hell, they’ll be consciously tortured, day and night– forever.

But is this even biblical?

If you read your Bible without having any prior knowledge of this “hell” would you walk away believing in it as a result?

Probably not- because it’s not biblical. It wasn’t biblical in the time of Jesus (hell wasn’t in his Bible) and it’s not in ours, either.

In this week’s episode of That God Show, Benjamin sits down with Kurt Willems to talk all things related to the doctrine of “conditionalism” which is the biblical alternative to what your Sunday School teachers taught you about hell. Find out exactly what the Bible teaches, and explore what our relationships with others would look like if we did not have the underlying issue of hell on our mind.

Catch the entire episode of That God Show, right here!

Related reading: find Ben’s full archive on hell related theology, here. Additionally, you can visit Kurt Willem’s hell series, here. And don’t forget to consider Kurt’s challenge to give up hell this year.

 

god-show-logo-final_112kb Don’t forget to subscribe to That God Show in iTunes, or catch up on episodes via the website.

*header image via freedigitalphotos.net

August 27, 2014

 

More and more Christians are beginning to reject the traditional view of hell which states the unjust will experience “eternal, conscious torment”. Perhaps you’ve seen this change in the Christian landscape and grown confused as to why so many of us are experiencing shifting beliefs. While my Letting Go of Hell series goes further in-depth on many issues surrounding hell, here are 5 key reasons to help you understand why we are rejecting the notion of “eternal, conscious torment”:

1. Something in our spirit tells us that torturing people is morally wrong.

During the historically recent debates over whether or not it’s okay to torture people, it has only been the most sick and twisted minds among us who have defended torture as being anything less than morally reprehensible. In fact, we know that torturing is such an egregious offense to morality that we even have laws against doing it to animals. The assertion that God himself would not only torture people but take great pleasure in it, is something that many of us in Christianity are finding utterly offensive.

2. The concept of eternal, conscious torment runs contrary to the whole testimony in scripture.

Part of the reason why a growing number of us are rejecting the traditional view of hell, is that we’ve actually re-read the scriptures without our prefabricated evangelical filter, and find scripture describe something different than a traditional hell. Yes, there are some verses that seem to hint or describe eternal torture, but like many issues, the Bible is inconsistent on the matter. However, when we look at the entire testimony of scripture, we most often see the disposition of those who refuse to enter into God’s love described as a “second death”. Traditional hell isn’t death at all; traditional hell is instead an eternal life of torture. This simply isn’t what the Bible describes when taking into account the entire testimony. Instead, we find that those who ultimately reject God– the one who sustains life– to be granted their wish: their names are blotted out of the book of life and it is as if they never existed.

3. The final judge of each individual is Jesus, and torturing people seems contradictory to his character.

We believe in a coming judgement, and believe each one of us will have to stand before the “judgement seat”. However, we often forget that this judge will be Jesus! Most of us still affirm those who refuse to be reconciled to God’s love through Christ will ultimately be eternally lost, because we believe love must always be chosen– it cannot be forced. However, the idea that the end result of rejecting God’s love will be a slow-roasting eternal torture session with Jesus at the controls, is almost asinine. This is not the Jesus we find in the New Testament. The Jesus we find in the New Testament is loving and just– but not dementedly cruel. In fact, in the New Testament we see a Jesus who notices suffering all around him and repeatedly states “I have compassion for them”. That compassion consistently moves Jesus to action, often breaking the taboos of his day to alleviate their suffering. The Jesus of scripture is hardly the type of person who’d enjoy torturing people.

4. Jesus would become a hypocrite, demanding that we nonviolently love our enemies while he does the complete opposite.

Remember, Jesus is the ultimate judge of humanity so anyone who ended up being tortured in hell would only go there by the decision of Jesus himself. This is the same Jesus who pointed out in the Bible of his day the permissiveness of using a tit-for-tat system of justice (an eye for an eye) in dealing with enemies as being wrong. Instead of affirming we should follow this part of scripture, Jesus taught his disciples to no longer obey this part of their Bible– instructing that they should become nonviolent enemy lovers instead (Matthew 5:38). In fact, Jesus goes as far as telling them that loving enemies is a requirement of becoming a child of God. If Jesus commands that we love our enemies, refuse to use violence, and that we actually do good to those who hate us yet– eternally tortures his own enemies– he’s guilty of hypocrisy. I don’t believe this is the case– I believe Jesus commands we love our enemies because he loves his enemies… and torture is never loving.

5. We simply can’t get past the idea that we are more gracious and merciful than Jesus himself.

 This is the key area I cannot reconcile with eternal torment: I have been wronged by a lot of people in my life, but I have absolutely zero desire to torture anyone. I could never make the call to sentence one to torture or “pull the switch” to commence torture, because seeing people suffer is something that disrupts my spirit. I want no part in the causation of suffering, but instead want to be an agent who helps to relieve suffering. Furthermore, the longer I follow Jesus the more and more I desire that people be shown mercy. If I were to sit on the judgement seat (something I never will), there’s just no possible way I could ever sentence people to eternal torture– especially for things like being born into an Amazonian tribe who never heard the message of Jesus. If I were judge, I would always lean on the option of radical mercy.

The question then becomes: am I, a hopelessly flawed and sinful human being more merciful and compassionate than Jesus? There’s no possible way that is true, which tells me there might be more mercy than I can even fathom dished out at the final judgement.

As more and more Christians return home to a radical faith centered squarely on Jesus, we will continue to see a growing number of bible believing, soundly orthodox Christians, reject the evangelical concept of “eternal, conscious torment”. This should be viewed as a beautiful thing, not a travesty, as we rediscover that God actually is altogether wonderful, altogether lovely, and altogether like Jesus.

(For more reading on this topic, see the “Letting Go Of Hell” series, here.)

 


unafraid 300Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and holds his doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com

You can also follow him on Facebook:

June 25, 2014

What was Jesus talking about when he talked about hell? Well, that’s actually a great question.

Growing up I was often told that “Jesus talked more about hell than he did heaven”, but I don’t once remember being encouraged to actually research from a historical and grammatical perspective what Jesus was actually talking about when he used the word “hell”. (In their defense, I don’t think I ever had a religious leader with advanced theological training, so they probably didn’t realize that someone might want to “look this up” either).

The first discovery one will make on such an investigation, is the inconvenient truth that the word “hell” didn’t exist in first century Israel. This brings up one crucial problem when translating/interpreting the Bible apart from any scholastic work: we see English words that have specific linguistic and cultural connotations and meanings, and read those meanings into an ancient text which may, or may not, have intended to send the same meaning.

The word “hell” becomes a prime example: the word we use today, doesn’t actually appear in language until approximately AD 725– long after the first century. In addition, the word doesn’t come from Hebrew at all, but rather is ultimately rooted in Proto-Germanic. According to the The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the word “hell” was adopted into our vocabulary as a way to introduce the pagan concept of hell into Christian theology– which it did quite successfully.

Therefore, we know right off the bat that when we read scripture in English, we’re not actually reading what was originally said and risk reading into the text instead of getting back to the original historical and grammatical meaning of the text. We do this in many areas, which is why competency in Biblical languages or at least Koine Greek, is a mandatory requirement at legitimate institutions of higher theological learning– and why one would do well to hold theology in humility until they are well versed in the grammatical and historical realities of any given ancient text.

It is true however, that we do see– and not infrequently– Jesus refer to “hell”. So what was he talking about?

It’s easy to dismiss something in scripture as just being “metaphorical” without having an intelligent reason to back that up, so we’ve got to go deeper. In this case, we find that Jesus was actually referring to a literal place– and not a literal place of the future, but a literal place of first century Israel. “Hell” was a place that the people of Jesus’ time could actually go and see (image below). So, what was it? Here you go:

The word Jesus uses in Greek is γέεννα (Gehenna), which actually means “The Valley of the Son of Hinnom”. An over simplified description of Gehenna would be that it was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem; this was the place where both garbage and dead bodies would be discarded and consumed by a fire that was likely always burning. The location goes all the way back to the book of Joshua, and was a place where bad things happened– child sacrifice, bodies were cremated, etc. Basically, imagine a dump where garbage is burned– add into that the vision of burning bodies and a historical connotation of child sacrifice, and you’ll see that it wasn’t a very desirable place. However, it was a very literal place and the original audience of Jesus would have understood it as such. They would not have heard the word “Gahenna” and thought of our concept of hell– they would have realized Jesus was talking about an actual place outside the city.

Jesus did talk of Gehenna as a warning to his audience, but not in the same contextual framework you and I see it from a modern perspective. As my friend and co-Kingdom Conspirator Kurt Willems previously wrote on this same topic:

“When Jesus appeals to Gehenna, he evokes a literal place, not in the underworld, but outside of Jerusalem. Most of the time Jesus uses “hell” in the context of parabolic imagery. To say “hell” is to use imagery that helps listeners understand the danger in this life and the next of not joining up with God’s kingdom purposes.”

As Kurt said, I think the warning of Gehenna is two-fold, one with a very practical application for his audience and one that is symbolic of consequences in the afterlife. For example, it Matthew 23:33 we see Jesus issue the religious leaders a stern warning:

“You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to Gehenna?”

Now, going back to our historical context, we know that the original audience who heard this warning would not have thought Jesus was talking about the “hell” that you or I think of. Instead, he is warning them about their pending risk to literally be burned in the Valley of Hinnom.

Here’s what they would have heard: “You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?”

When we look at historical context, we remember that Jesus clearly warned people about the coming judgement against Israel. At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment). However, I still affirm that his warnings of hell also have implications for the afterlife– which is why I remain an annihilationist with the hope there will be opportunities for the unjust to come to postmortem repentance, and be reconciled to God through Christ.

All things considered, I believe it important to realize that when Jesus discusses hell, a primary purpose (not negating secondary) was a warning of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and that refusal to heed his advice would result in one being killed and burned in Gehenna.

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This article was part of a series on hell. You can find a directory of the entire series by clicking here.

June 24, 2014

Continuing the discussion on hell we started yesterday, I was asked to show the third option that exists beyond eternal conscious torment (the traditional hell), and annihilation. The third option that exists, of course, is universalism.

Yes, there are Christian Universalists– and they’re not a new thing. Christian Universalists existed among the early church, contributed to Christian thought well throughout the rest of history, and seem (by my unscientific observation) to be a growing number today.

I think this is an important position to discuss because of how quickly it is dismissed– often because of the word “universalism” and some of the connotations that has. When weighing this position, it’s important to note that Christian Universalism and Unitarian Universalism or simply a vanilla use of the term “universalism” are not the same thing. When we traditionally hear the word, we often associate it with the premise that “all flights lead to Rome”, or “all trails lead to the top of the mountain”.

Admittedly, I have a hard time with the type of universalism most think of when they hear the term. The idea that “all paths lead to the same God” is just completely illogical in my opinion, especially when you consider that the various paths themselves don’t even make that claim. Essentially, this type of universalism violates the principle that states two opposing truths cannot be true at the same time. Christian universalism however, is quite different which is why I prefer to refer to by the theological term, “universal redemption theory” so as to not confuse it with the other type of universalism.

The Christian form of this belief, instead of saying everyone is saved is better understood as the belief that everyone will be saved, eventually– not because all flights lead to Rome but because all will eventually turn to Christ. This view often maintains a belief in hell, but with the belief that hell is for the purpose of refining instead of eternal punishment– almost more of a Catholic purgatory than a Southern Baptist hell. Some do not maintain a concept of hell but rather see the “fire” as being metaphorical for God’s love which will purify everything.

For example, where as an annihilationist would argue that the purpose of the fire is to consume, universal redemption theory would argue that the purpose of fire is to refine. Though one would be separated from God, this view holds that God continues to invite repentance postmortem, and that eventually, all will willingly repent and come to Christ (“every knee shall bow” is seen not as a forced recognition of Christ, but of universal reconciliation with Christ). This question was perhaps most famously discussed in recent times in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, but even folks like CS Lewis held similar positions/asked similar questions, such as Lewis’ concept that hell is locked from the inside.

One of the hinges of this debate is on the Greek term aion, which is often translated into English as “eternal”. Some scholars have made compelling linguistic arguments that aion need not only/always be used in the same way as we use “eternal” in that it can  also be properly translated as “age” or “age-long”– a period of time that has a completion. This alternative or deeper understanding of the word supports their belief that hell may not be a permanent state, and that people can still be redeemed postmortem.

Those who believe in a universal redemptive theory do have some scripture which they feel directly supports their view. As you look at some of these familiar passages (emphasis in each is mine) consider the passage from the position of universal redemption theory and you’ll see why they find many of these passages to be compelling support:

John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted upfrom the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Romans 5:18: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”

Col 1:19-20  “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

There are some others used as proof texts, but the few examples I’ve given are just to demonstrate where this concept of universal redemption comes from– it is possible to see these verses and come to such a conclusion, which is why people who believe this are still orthodox Christians. Universal redemption theory still affirms all the key things that make one Christian– the only key difference is that the fires of hell (whether literal or metaphorical) are seen as having refining and redeeming qualities, instead of being designed simply as punishment (eternal conscious torment/ECT) or to consume (annihilation). What keeps this view within Christian orthodoxy is that it affirms that salvation is only through Christ and that there are in fact, consequences after death for the unjust. Again, the area of difference is a differing opinion on the purpose of it, and what that looks like– the purpose of the fire is redemptive in nature, leading to repentance and reconciliation with God through Christ.

Here’s my take on all of it:

While I don’t believe in universal redemption, I actively hope and pray that it is true.

If I am wrong, and every human being is ultimately redeemed by God and spends eternity in harmony with him, it will cause me to love him more not less.

The fact that I don’t believe it reflects my view of humanity, not God.

As my friend Ryan astutely put it, my reason for disbelieving is not because I believe God is unwilling or unable to save all, but because I don’t believe that every person will ultimately choose him. Even Rob Bell affirms this in Love Wins, so I essentially share his sentiments on this. I just don’t believe everyone will choose God– some, I believe, will resist him until they no longer exist. Scripture repeatedly talks about some who will experience a “second death”, and I simply cannot reconcile this with the idea that hell is 100% empty.

The concept of there being an opportunity for postmortem reconciliation makes sense with what we know about God’s character.

If we know that God is altogether good and wonderful, if we know that he is the complete expression of love… then it’s not a big jump to the concept that there will be an opportunity to be reconciled even after death. The difficulty with this, is that it cannot be explicitly proven using scripture– we’re certainly crossing over into the category of “opinion” (as is most of the discussion on afterlife in general, since scripture only lightly touches on this). However, I must also admit, that I know of nothing in scripture that explicitly prohibits it, either. What about people who never heard about Jesus? People who never had the opportunity to “see God for who he REALLY is?” What about the people who rejected Christianity because of horrible Christians (such as slaves owned by Christians, children of fundamentalists, etc.)? In these cases, the opportunity for postmortem reconciliation is the ONLY option that seems to account for God’s love and mercy. It’s certainly how I would do things… which begs the question: am I more merciful and loving than God? Surely, no. Which means, God is either RIDICULOUSLY generous with who gets in to begin with, or there is an opportunity to reconcile prior to the second death.

I really appreciate the take of my good friend, Kurt Willems, in a series he wrote on hell:

“If I were to give language for my view, until I come up with something better, I call this “purgatorial conditionalism.”  This reflects that Judgment Day will be a time for all to enter the metaphorical fires of God’s love, that will burn up the bad and refine what is good.  For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.  For those who yet refuse, they will experience the second death.  This is because immortality is conditional upon reconciliation with God through Christ.  An eternal hell is a Greek construct but the possibility of not receiving salvation remains.”

Reality: something that might shock both fundamentalists and progressives alike.

I’ve done a lot of processing in the last day, so here’s where I (currently) land:

I think everyone might end up shocked. I think Evangelicals will be shocked that things don’t turn out as neat and clean as they thought, and that there will be a lot of people in heaven who they didn’t think would get there. Conversely, I think progressives will be shocked that there actually was some criteria we needed to heed to avoid judgement for our sin. If there is no coming judgement, then half of the New Testament doesn’t make sense– and the imperatives don’t make sense either: change the way you live (repent), believe (faith), make disciples, care for widows and orphans, etc. If there’s no judgement, no potentially negative consequences for rejecting God, then the teachings of Christ and the early church really become quite irrelevant.

Neither side has a compelling narrative that strikes me as altogether true. The conservatives close the door to God’s creative grace and mercy while the liberal side seems to overlook the seriousness of sin and the sense of urgency we see in scripture to believe and be reconciled with God through Christ.

How will things play out? I think the most likely scenario is a middle ground between annihilation and universal redemption as my friend Kurt described above. I think the opportunity for postmortem reconciliation is a likely, but not guaranteed scenario, but those who continually resist reconciliation with God through Christ will most likely cease to exist at some point (the “second death” that seems clear in scripture) as a result of their own choices.

So, here’s a summary of Universal Redemption (Christian Universalism): all are either saved by Christ or will be saved by Christ. The fire described in scripture is either descriptive of a finite time at the end of which people will choose reconciliation with God through Christ, or the fires are metaphoric of God’s love which will refine and lead one to finally see God as he truly is– thereby prompting the choice of reconciliation with God.

It is an interesting concept, and many parts make sense to me, but my concern is that there are clear imperatives in the New Testament that cannot be ignored without writing off a ton of scripture– including the words of Jesus himself– and I think this would be a critical error. So, universal redemption/postmortem reconciliation? Maybe. But in the meantime, we must not ignore that scripture prompts us to be reconciled with God in the here and now, and that one shouldn’t wait for the risky notion that there might be a second chance.

 

June 23, 2014

Affirming that scripture is inspired and true means one must also affirm the “eternal, conscious torment” of hell, correct?

Nope– not at all, and today I’ll explain how it’s possible to let go of hell without letting go of the Bible. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and saw that Evangelical Theologian Scott McKnight has been discussing it of late (you can find his posts on it here), so seems like a good time to weigh in a bit.

First, it is important to note that our concept of hell certainly did not exist in Old Testament times (the Hebrew word often translated as hell was “Sheol” does not mean “hell” by our modern understanding). In fact, the concept of hell we have today is far more based on the 14th Century Poem, Dante’s Inferno, than it is scripture itself. Because many of us have grown up with the unchallenged concept of hell being “eternal, conscious torment” we often fail to see alternative understandings that still take scripture seriously. In fact, often times we don’t even realize that such alternate understandings exist, believing the falsehood that one must either believe in the traditional hell or be a universalist.

Now, this is a deep theological topic worthy of a book (there are plenty if you want to go deeper) so I’ll obviously be oversimplifying in an attempt to simply explain the basic concepts of an alternative view. If there are aspects of interest to folks, perhaps we can do a few more posts on this topic and go a bit deeper.

First, it is important to understand the basic premise behind the modern concept of hell: the human soul is immortal, and cannot die. As a result, punishment in hell must be one of eternal, conscious torment. What one believes regarding immortality of the soul has direct correlation to the logical consistency they must follow in a concept of hell. If you grew up like me, we were never aware that there is an alternative view to immortality of the soul and certainly were never invited to consider the merits of the concept.

An alternative view to this belief that the human soul is immortal is a concept called conditionalism.

Conditionalism is the theological view I hold of the human soul, and is one that a growing number of evangelical theologians are embracing, so it isn’t a fringe, hippie view. In short, conditionalism argues that the human soul is not immortal in and of itself– it is only immortal if God wills, and grants immortality (see Romans 2:7, John 10:28, 1 Cor 15: 50, 54). Since God is the creator and one who sustains all things, nothing came to exist or continues to exist apart from his will for that thing or person to exist (Heb 1:3). Since the soul does not posses independent immortality, souls can in fact “die” or cease to exist if God withdraws his will for them to exist.

We would argue that this is precisely what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 10:28 when he said that we should not be afraid of human enemies who can kill the body but not the soul, but rather we should be concerned with God, who actually is able to kill the soul.

Now, if Jesus is correct, it seems that the human soul is not automatically immortal– such immortality is conditional.

This foundation of immortal vs. conditional sets the framework for the two ultimate dispositions of the unjust: eternal conscious torment, or annihilation. Conditionalism leads to the latter and immortality of the soul leads to the former.

Annihilation is the theological alternative to eternal, conscious torment, and the position that I hold. In this disposition, instead of being tortured in hell for all of eternity, the unjust die a “second death” or are “destroyed” as scripture itself calls it throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the annihilation of the unjust is a far more consistent position with the OT than is the traditional concept of eternal conscious torment. In considering annihilationism, it’s important to be willing to re-examine scripture without reading into it what we’ve been taught– instead, we must look at scripture with fresh eyes. Even go-to verses that we memorized as kids can take on a fresh understanding, such as Romans 6:23 which doesn’t say the “wages of sin is eternal conscious torment in hell” but rather, “the wages of sin is death“. Perhaps scripture means what it actually says– the consequence is “death” or ceasing to exist–AKA, annihilation.

These options lead us to two different competing narratives about God, which is why I think our theology on this topic is important. For the argument of immortality and eternal conscious torment the narrative becomes: “those who reject God are tortured for all of eternity and that this is pleasing to God”. Or the alternative: “to those who do not choose God’s love, he respects their decision and does not force them to live in eternal community with him, and therefore allows them to cease to exist”.

Those two narratives are crucially important because of how it impacts our view and our relationship to God. As A.W., Tozer once said, “what we think about God is the most important thing about us”. One narrative leads to a view of God where he delights in the torture of the wicked (in direct opposition to Ez 18:23), or even worse– that he created some people specifically for this purpose! Or, the second option, which leads to a loving God who invites all to come and embrace him, but ultimately respects each individual choice– even the choice to reject love.

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As I said, this a complex topic and obviously can’t be properly dealt with in a short post, but this is an introductory to the basic concepts of how one can reject the traditional “eternal, conscious torment” position in favor of an alternative. If folks want to go deeper on this, let me know and I’ll do a few more posts on it. In the meantime, here are a few resources:

Theologian Greg Boyd has a fantastic post from 2008 that goes deeper into scriptures on the topic– it’s a must read, and you can find it here.

Check out the folks at Rethinking Hell. This is both an Evangelical conference, as well as a book and blog. Really great resources that you’ll find valuable– I am regretful that I can’t be at the conference.

Finally, here’s a great 9 minute video from Boyd that brings up some problems with the traditional concept of hell:

 

 

June 9, 2014

Last week, I wrote a couple of pieces on Gay Christians which has generated a lot of discussion across the web (one of them has been shared 177,000 times, which is crazy).

One of the most common responses to the idea of accepting gay Christians, is that some folks feel this is a no-room-for-discussion, black and white issue that is clearly covered in scripture. For these folks, the case is clear: gay Christians who have not repented are going to hell. The position on this end of the spectrum is that the verses don’t need to undergo an exegetical process beyond the predominant historical position.  These six verses, so the argument goes, simply mean what they appear to mean in the plain English. The case is closed for discussion– gay Christians go to hell.

Fine. But there are two sides to that same coin– because if gay Christians are automatically going to hell, so are Christians who don’t recycle plastic.

Don’t believe me? It’s a black and white issue covered in scripture. To try to convince me otherwise would be a replay of serpent in the garden– “hath God really said??” (an accusation often lobbed at me).

You see, in the book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) it does describe God’s coming judgement– it even talks about his wrath. Just take a look at how God’s future wrath pouring is described in chapter 11:

“The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small– and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:18)

It’s right there in black and white. If you accept the inspiration and authority of scripture, one must affirm that there is coming a time where God will be giving out judgements and rewards. At the coming judgement, the Bible says in a straightforward way that God is going to destroy unrepentant gay Christians people who did not properly care for the environment.

That means my friends who don’t recycle plastic are going to end up in the same boat they think all of my gay friends will automatically be in (if God judges them by their own level of judging others). Why? Because unrecycled plastic, among so many other things, is destroying the earth.

Many plastic items are borderline evil: they’re products designed to be used once and then thrown away, but are made out of a material designed to last forever. Crazy, isn’t it? We use a product that is basically indestructible for single use, throw-away situations. It is truly an odd logic.

What’s more tragic is where plastic often ends up: the ocean. The problem of plastic in the ocean has gotten so bad, that we now officially have an area called the Pacific Garbage Patch, which is an approximate 5000 square km area of the ocean that is saturated with plastic. Scientist had warned in the 1980’s that with the trend of plastic ending up in the ocean, such a “garbage patch” would occur in an area where opposing currents trap the plastic.

The key problem, as discussed by the Harvard Gazette, is the fact that plastic breaks down, but doesn’t degrade:

“Plastic can float for centuries. It doesn’t biodegrade into component materials, but can be broken down mechanically into tiny bits of plastic. It can act to magnify chemical pollution in the seas, since it attracts some types of pollutants, which are passed on to creatures that ingest it. One estimate is that there’s more plastic floating in the oceans today than plankton, the tiny drifting plants and animals that form the base of the ocean’s food web.”

What we’re starting to see as a result of this breaking down of plastic without degrading, is not so much what you would imagine a “garbage patch” to look like, but would better be described as turning the ocean into a plastic soup.

Yup, we’re turning parts of the ocean into a plastic, toxic soup.

Not to mention all the other things we do to destroy the earth… carbon emissions, destroying the rain forest, over harvesting animal species, pollution,… the list goes on.

Once again, what do the holy, infallible scriptures have to say about people who destroy the environment?

“The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small– and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:18)

The fact that God would be so angry at people who live in a way that is destructive to the environment, makes sense in light of Genesis. In what we often refer to as the “original mandate” we see that God’s original plan (job/role) for humanity was to be a caretaker of creation (the environment). The opposite of God’s plan, would be for humanity to become a force that is destructive towards the environment.

Which, is exactly what we’ve become in so many ways.

So, want to draw hard lines on the issue of sexuality and say that, no matter what, all the people who are X, Y, or Z are out, and that there’s no room for God to judge the individual heart?

Fine.

But, you also need to do the same thing with people who don’t recycle.

It’s what we call being consistent.

But here’s what I think (the readers digest version of Repenting of Religion by Greg Boyd): God is the only being in existence who fully knows each individual, human heart. Even when someone sins, it is only God who knows the reasons why they sinned or even still do sin (and what level of culpability they are to own). I think it is perfectly valid to debate and explore the meaning and application of various biblical texts and it is perfectly valid to help people apply biblical truth when you are speaking from the inside of their sacred story. What is wrong, however, is to declare that you factually know a certain individual is without question, going to hell. That is something known but to God.

But like I said– if you’re going to make such declarations based on a person’s sexuality alone, then to be consistent, one must make the same level of judgement based upon an individual’s recycling habits. Personally, I am uncomfortable cosigning someone to hell based on external appearance of either issue.

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If you want to explore the Pacific Garbage Patch more, check out this documentary from Vice (they make the best mini-documentaries on the web)

March 8, 2014

Johanna & her dad at the orphanage. Peru, 2011.

Three years ago today, my wife and I took a long drive from Lima, Peru to the outskirts of a few desert towns on the western coast of the country. Once we arrived in the obscure town we were destined for, we took a short ride to the backside– past normal civilization, passing gullies filled with burning garbage, and arrived at a small compound with towering walls and barbed wire.

Interestingly enough, I remember thinking about something Jesus talked about during my drive there. When Jesus talked about hell, he used a word that referred to a place outside the city where all the garbage was thrown and burned– it was an actual, real place called Gehenna (γέεννα) which was located outside ancient Jerusalem.

As I looked out the window and watched the smoke rise up from burning garbage, wild dogs scrounging for a meal, human beings living among this wreckage, I remember thinking to myself, “ahh, this is what Jesus was describing when he talked about hell“.

3/8/2011 – Peru

Hell was a place in the middle of nowhere, a place where children were literally locked up behind steel doors, where adults were few and where the love of a mom and dad was only a dream.

Hell, for me, became traveling to a Peruvian orphanage.

Yet, it was embracing what can happen when one is willing to let go of the comforts of heaven in order to visit souls in hell, that taught me the meaning of life.

Growing up, I used to believe that God had a plan for my life. But somewhere along my own dusty road, I had stopped believing that… until she jumped into my arms.

Three years ago today, my Johanna jumped into my arms, and I immediately realized that she was God’s purpose– she was God’s plan for me. She’s taught me everything I need to know about life, and most importantly, she’s taught me everything I need to know about God.

Other parents may experience their child’s first words years down the road, and it’s usually something like “daadaaa”. For me, I experienced my child’s first words within moments of meeting her. They were:

“Are you strong? Can I feel your muscles? Will you protect me? Is it okay if we leave the orphanage right now? I don’t want to spend another night here. I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”

I’ve loved her since the moment I laid eyes on her, and I’m pretty sure she feels the same way about me. The past three years have been a long journey– some of them quite painful, but today our family is celebrating our annual “gotcha day”, which is the most important “holiday” of the Corey home.

Today I also celebrate the fact that God is still in the business of restoration.

In three years, she’s gone from waiting for a family in a compound behind hell– destined for a life of poverty, illiteracy, and exploitation– to having a family, an education, a future… and being a sold out Jesus follower who has a passion for the broken, the forgotten, and the outcast. In fact, this past year she told me that she wanted “to be a friend of Jesus her whole life”, and asked me if I would baptize her– which was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Baptism, 9/2013

Johanna has taught me all I need to know about so many things in life.

You see, when we think about things like hell, heaven, purpose and meaning, I think we often look too far away. None of those concepts are distant things– but present realities in our own life. Hell can be a present reality in the here and now.

But so can purpose and meaning.

So can restoration and new life.

It can all be present, right now.

My friends- please don’t look off into the distance for these things. I believe that if you look at what is right in front of you, you’ll find elements of hell that you can mitigate. I believe you’ll find meaning for life, and God’s purpose for you…

I even think you can find small ways to bring heaven into the here-and-now.

My purpose and meaning? Her name is Johanna Grace (God is Gracious), and serving her is why God put Benjamin L. Corey on this planet.

And today, is her “gotcha day”.

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