Archive for the ‘doctrinal’ category

Despised and Desperately Needed, a sermon on Matthew 5:13-16 by Kathryn Boswell

February 12, 2017

One of the many impressive and somewhat unbelievable things on TV police dramas is the way the official sketch artist is always able to sit down with the witness and make a drawing that looks exactly like the perpetrator of the crime – the “perp” in police lingo – so that the detectives can find him on the traffic cameras conveniently located a block from the crime and run his photo through the facial recognition software and come up with his name and phone number and current address and go lock him up.

Last week we read what we call the Beatitudes, which is a list of qualities that were a different kind of sketch: Jesus’ own sketch of what a disciple looks like. Paraphrasing a little bit, it went like this:

blessed are those who know how needy they are;

blessed are those whose hearts are broken by all the pain and suffering in the world;

blessed are those who put the needs of others before their own;

blessed are those who long for the right thing to be done so desperately they can taste it;

blessed are those who show kindness;

blessed are those who open their hearts to me,

and who remember to keep the main thing the main thing;

blessed are those who bring people together instead of dividing them.

Jesus told us that that’s what a disciple looks like – and maybe it’s not who we are perfectly and completely now, but it is exactly what we are growing up to be if we follow him, which is what it means to be a disciple.

And after he gave his description of what a disciple looks like, Jesus told the disciples two things about being a disciple in the world. The first thing, he said, is that the world is really, really going to hate you. They are going to say nasty things about you and accuse you of doing stuff you never did; and they are going to do hateful things to you, because of me. When it happens, he told them, and it will – remember that you are in the best of company.

But the second thing about being a disciple, Jesus told them, is that this world that hates you so much, needs you even more than it hates you.

You – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted seekers of justice – you are the salt of the earth, Jesus said. Now, we use the expression “salt of the earth” in English to mean people who are just the most excellent, down-to-earth, highest-quality kind of folks. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Because salt in those days wasn’t just something nice, something you sprinkle on your French fries, or abstain from if you have high blood pressure. Everyone needed salt, because without salt food would last a very short time. All those fish that Peter and Andrew and James and John caught would very quickly have turned into a stinky mess without salt. We could misquote the old commercial and say, “Without salt, life itself would be impossible.”

And you – you needy, gentle, merciful, broken-hearted ambassadors of peace – you are the light of the world. In our culture that is so very focused on fame and celebrity that might make you think of someone standing in the spotlight, but that’s just the opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Nobody lights a lamp and sticks it under a basket, he said; no, they put it up on a lampstand so that it gives light to everyone in the house. Being the light of the world isn’t about being seen at all; it’s all about making it possible for others to see, and especially it’s about helping others to see God, who is their Father.

Probably the most well-known verse in the whole Bible is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who put their trust in him might have life in abundance.” If we are disciples of Jesus, we are disciples of the one who came to rescue and to serve the world because God loves them so much. Being salt and light are our ways of being servants to that beloved world – to the people of the world, in particular, but also to the whole of God’s good creation. We are salt to this earth not to draw attention to ourselves but to preserve its goodness and to work against the rot of hatred and greed and fear that destroys its goodness. We are light, not to call attention to ourselves, but to bring hope, to dispel the shadows, to illuminate the truth. “As my Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you.” As Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, so we come as servants to the world.

No disciple has ever been perfect, but there have been times in the history of the world when the church has failed miserably at this job of being salt and light. There have been times when the church has made friends with the darkness and become utterly saltless. There were times when the church hid the light of the gospel under the bushel-basket of worldly principles. It happened in the early centuries of our country, when men who called themselves disciples of Jesus forgot who they were. They forgot they were needy; they forgot to be broken-hearted at the suffering of their fellow man; they forgot kindness; they forgot mercy; they forgot to long for righteousness. Instead they used the word of God to defend their right to use and abuse other human beings for their own profit.

They, many of whom were our own brothers and sisters in Christ, failed to be servants of God’s world, and especially they failed to be servants of the African men and women and children who were also God’s beloved children. And so the rot set in, and darkness reigned, and our country has not yet recovered from that failure; the injustice of racism and the inequity of slavery haunt us to this very day. We can see echoes of our failure everywhere, from the hateful racial remarks that have been made about President Obama and his family, to those TV police dramas I was talking about, with their persistent and harmful stereotypes of the heroic white police detective and the black thug who gets what’s coming to him.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a brilliant writer and speaker and abolitionist, wrote these words that justly condemned the Church in its failure to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in his time. He wrote:

I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.

The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.

Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

I’m not saying that the church was single-handedly responsible for the evils of slavery and racism. But the effect of the church not being salt and light in that time; the effect of the disciples of Jesus not opposing the rot of greed and cruelty, and not shining light on the truth that the men and women who were being enslaved were human beings created in the image of God exactly like themselves – the effect of that failure continues to be devastating down into our own time.

We are not disciples merely for our own personal salvation. When the church fails to be light, the world is plunged into darkness. When the salt of the church becomes saltless, the gospel is trampled underfoot. We are not called today to build an ark and be good people keeping ourselves all pure and holy and separate, and letting the whole world go to hell; and we are not called to play by the world’s rules, lobbying for political power and wealth for the kingdom of God, as it were – Christians have been known to fall off both ends of that spectrum. We are called to be simply and essentially disciples of Jesus Christ, offering ourselves in service to one another and to the world.

Our power is in being servants as our Master also served: in meekness, in humility, in sacrifice, in kindness, in love. We are called to recognize the immense value of every human being because they were created by God. We are called to stand with the despised and rejected because our Lord made himself one with the least of these. We are called to spend ourselves for the good of our neighbor, like the Samaritan in the story. We come not to be served, but to serve, as he did. There is a desperate need for us out there right now, if we will be what we are called to be, salty and full of light, servants of the world God loves.

The Art of Timing – A sermon on Galatians 4:1-5 by Carroll Boswell

January 2, 2017

Galatians 4:1-5, “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is not different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

We are going to be thinking about timing, today, and the sense of timing. There are a lot of different levels to the sense of timing; some people have quite a lot more than others. Me personally, I have very little. I tend to function on only too different kinds of timing: on the one hand, late; or, on the other hand, in a hurry so I won’t be late. Everything in life requires some degree of timing. Music, acting, humor, cooking a dinner, small talk at coffee hour, everything. The difference between a great actor and a brilliant actor is exactly their sense of timing. The dramatic pause, saying the line at just the right moment, takes you from greatness to brilliance. It is just as true of comedy. Knowing the punchline can get you to funny; but giving the punchline at just the right moment gets you to the laughing-out-loud level. My father in law had an amazing sense of timing with stories. He could tell the most ordinary story and leave you curled up laughing in your chair. But I am the Charlie Brown of timing, I think. My one recurring nightmare is that it is the first day of classes, I am just arriving at school and suddenly remember that my first class starts in ten minutes. And I don’t know which room it meets in. And I don’t know which subject it is. And I can’t remember where I put all my books. And, … you get the picture. My sense of timing is to veer from one crisis to another, barely in time to avert disaster. Or else not in time.

Music is one area where the sense of timing is more than usually critical so let’s focus on that for a minute. Just counting out the beat like a metronome is a problem for me. Even average musicians have a sense of timing on a whole other level than mine. And then there are the True Artists of timing. Some musicians have a talent for timing that reaches into the realm of genius. I know very little about music but of the little that I’ve heard, my favorite piece of music is the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. The music itself is beautiful, and it builds and builds until it seems like it will have to explode, it suddenly stops. No sound at all. And the silence lasts for exactly the right length of time, and then the perfect note comes in to finish what it started. Barber handled even his silences with total genius. It is just past my comprehension how anyone could imagine such a thing.

And that is just the kind of timing Paul is talking about here in Galatians. God is not just brilliant at timing what He does; He is beyond genius. The last of the Old Testament prophets was Malachi, centuries before Jesus was born. And during those centuries, God was silent. But when the time was right, Jesus was born. Barber, it turns out, times his music a bit like God times His redemption of the world. It is genius. It is art.

But genius makes us nervous. We are uncomfortable with any gift or ability that seems to be beyond the human. We have to reduce it to a formula; we want to be able to point to some pattern that explains it all. “Oh, yes, I see what Barber was doing. When you make the silence 4.25 times the length of the melodic theme and divide by the square root of c sharp it will always work that way. No big deal. He just knew the trick.” Sometimes that is just what scholars seem to think their job is. Bring genius down into the common human realm so we don’t have to feel threatened by it. Unfortunately theologians sometimes feel the same way about God‘s genius. Look up commentaries on this passage from Galatians and you’ll get the usual line about the Pax Romana, and Roman roads, and a common language, and so on. That’s all perfectly valid scholarship, of course, and I am a wannabe scholar myself. But you shouldn’t stop where they sometimes do: “Yeah, that was great timing for the Incarnation. Well done, God, well done. Now we see how you worked it out. You had some clever tricks up Your sleeves, didn’t You, God?Pride of intellect lures us to try to make God’s timing into something any clever historian could have thought up himself. Just add a little cosmic power and influence and we could have planned the whole redemption thing ourselves.

But the fact is this: God is an Artist, not an Engineering. Now you know I love formulas, probably more than anyone here. But the truth is God’s plans and purposes cannot be reduced to equations, to some list of step by step instructions that make it all plain how He works. Notice how Paul put it in verse 3. The reason for the timing of the Incarnation was not that the clocks said so, not because human history converged, not because someone had their 21st birthday. It was because a Genius greater than all Time Lords said, “Now”. And so He appointed the date. But He carefully did not announce beforehand when it would be. He didn’t want us to fall victim to the authority of a clock to tell us when to expect Him. He kept His appointment calendar locked away from us so that we would have to pay attention to Him and wait for Him and expect something from Him. This fullness of time is not what we‘d like think it is, a matter of figuring out His symbols and signs so we could have predicted it before it happened. It is about Him knowing the right moment, and about us knowing that He knows the right moment, and about us waiting for Him to give the cue. But we never learn. We can’t resist trying to reduce His second coming to a little game with symbols and a time and times and half a time. But then there is that little passage in Revelations 8:1 “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” We’d do better to be quiet than decode the Apocalypse. God is not an Engineer running the show by a super-computer in the heavenly realms. He is a Genius Artist, waiting for the right moment that He can see and no one else can see.

So why does this matter? Besides cautioning you to stay away from drowning in end-times prophecy, it is this same genius of God’s timing that runs your lives, generally while you are clueless about what is really going on. Occasionally, though, He let’s us glimpse part of the timing. Two or three times I have experienced a glimpse of it. Long ago we were members of a congregation and our relationship with them had gone sour. We were unhappy, they were unhappy, but every time we contemplated leaving that church, we got a strong sense that God was saying “Not yet.” So we waited. And after what seemed forever we finally got the signal, “Now”, and it was like the door of a cell had opened and we walked out free.

That doesn’t happen often. Most times I am just confused about what I should do next. That is why it is such an oft repeated exhortation in Scripture to wait. Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.” I hate waiting. Especially waiting for something I want really really bad, and I bet all of us here have been in that position. Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” and ain’t it the truth. I bet many of you are sick at heart waiting for something you have long longed for. King David was an expert at just how horrible a burden it can be to wait. Psalm 13:1,2 “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Sooner or later, I think all of us feel David’s pain. We are right there in the middle of God’s silence, like in Barber’s Adagio, wondering it things are about to explode.

The temptation is to give in to fear, to think, “God is never going to handle this. He’s forgotten. He doesn’t care. He is just too slow. If anything is going to get done, I will have to do it myself.” And so we give up our long wait and take matters into our own hands. When people are young, the panic usually sets in about finding a boy friend or girl friend. Later in life we panic about job advancement, or children, or paying our bills at the end of the month, or if we will ever feel well enough to walk again. For me, I am really tired of waiting to finally retire and get on with all the stuff I have postponed doing for so long. We all have things we have waited for far too long. It drives us crazy. It makes our hearts sick. It tempts us to do crazy things that we will only regret later.

But when the fullness of time had come God sent forth His Son. This is the way God usually does things. He makes Big Promises. Then He seems to just walk away and ignore you for a really long time. And then, when you think He must have fallen asleep or had a flat or decided you weren’t worth the effort, then He is suddenly there with all the desires of your heart. You just have to wait until the fullness of time. Don’t get tricked into calculating: “He’s just waiting until I am more thankful or until I’ve fasted enough or until I prove I am worthy.” Those are just tricks. Ephesians 2:10, slightly paraphrased, says “We are His poetry.” You are God’s poem. You are God’s symphony. You are the most beautiful painting you have ever seen. You are one of those stars Abraham saw when God led him outside his tent to look at the sky. Let the Artist do His work. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.

The Disciples at the Well, part 2

February 23, 2013

There was a bit more going on with the disciples at the episode in Sychar. I think we can see between the lines a pattern that had been developing in the process of discipleship. The key is to consider why Jesus was alone resting by the well at noon in the first place. The text says that the disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Pause. All twelve of the disciples had gone into the Samaritan city to buy their food. I am reminded of the old series of jokes and this one would run something like: how many disciples does it take to change a light bulb? Were they buying so much food that it would take all twelve of them to carry it back? Judas was the one who handled their money. Why not just send Judas on the errand? It could have been too much food for one man to conveniently carry, but surely Judas could have taken one other disciple with him to do the errand.

It is more peculiar when we consider the explanation for their absence: Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. No dealings at all? None? How about buying food from them? How about buying food from Samaritans that might not be prepared according to the strict Jewish dietary laws? Kosher was not the elaborate thing in those days that it is now, I suppose, but still there could have been problems. Presumably the disciples would ordinarily have planned their provisions better to avoid having to stop at a Samaritan city, but this time they hadn’t; or perhaps the journey was slow enough going in Samaria that there was just no avoiding the necessity of getting something to eat from them. The disciples had passed through Samaria often enough, as many as three times a  year going to the required feasts in Jerusalem. There was no doubt a routine they knew well to avoid as far as possible any contact with the Samaritans.

But this time all twelve of them had to go into the foreign city and left their Rabbi alone. It requires some explanation, and I think the reason is an embarrassing one. They were tired of being with Him. Their Rabbi, who had so impressed them that they had dropped everything to follow Him, was just beginning to grate on their nerves. I said in my previous post that the honeymoon was over; that first initial enthusiasm they had felt for Jesus and the signs and wonders he kept doing had gradually become replaced by disappointment as He failed to meet each of their expectations one by one. Even before He did something as absurd as talking to the Samaritan woman He had been doing other things, little things, that had given them pause over the past year. John himself did not mention the gradual accumulation of irritating habits, and puzzling teachings, that they had been noticing in their Rabbi, but the other gospel writers filled in some of those details.

The disciples were just not sure anymore if Jesus was the man they had thought He would be. The signs, the miracles – they were great when it meant more wine for the feasting; and it was bracing the way He had turned over those tables in the Temple and refuted everything the rulers said against him, even when they didn’t understand what he meant themselves. But the truth was that on some days they just felt like they didn’t want to be around Him for a while. Sometimes they just needed a break and so when Judas was sent off to buy the food they suddenly all felt that it would be nice to do some sight seeing themselves. After their journey of the morning it would have sounded lame to say they needed to stretch their legs, but they would have found some other lame excuse.

But if they felt in a better mood when they got back it was all spoiled when they found Jesus talking with a woman. Luckily she went away pretty quickly and they could get on with their lunch and get on with the journey homeward. But oddly Jesus didn’t seem enthusiastic about eating the food they had brought. They had to urge Him. “Come on, Rabbi. Eat something.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Had that woman given Him something? Had someone else been there with some bread? But how would He have paid for it? We had the money? Why is He so weird all the time?

But Jesus was not talking about food. In fact, He was talking about them. He was talking about their irritation and disaffection with Him. He was talking, in fact, about how they had not progressed very far in discipleship, about how they still did not understand what He was doing. His food was to do the will of Him who sent Him, and to accomplish His work, and the disciples didn’t know about it. They didn’t think about doing God’s will. They didn’t understand what His work was. They wouldn’t even know if they were accomplishing His work or not. That was the kind of disciples they were: clueless.

But I don’t think Jesus was irritated with them the way they were  irritated with Him. He knew them, and He had chosen them knowing full well how they were going to be. You can’t disappoint someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Jesus was simply teaching them. However disaffected they might be, He was there to teach them and He knew they would go through their clueless phase of development before they would arrive at some maturity. And I think it is all part of a natural course of development that Jesus understood and accepted and worked with.

Developmentally, a disciple grows like a child. First there is infancy – total dependence and love and need for the parent. Then there is adolescence – when everything the parent does is stupid and uncool and embarrassing. Then there is maturity – when the child understands what it means to be part of the family and begins to consciously live like a member of the family. Jesus understood and accepted people as they were; He knew we are dust; and He knew that we need time and patience to grow. He knew, better than anyone, both how to be a son and how to be a father. Even He had to learn and grow into His Father’s work – the family business as it were.

But we don’t remember. We don’t know. We judge ourselves and each other in ways that Jesus never judges. We judge ourselves and each other stupidly, and if there is one thing He isn’t it is stupid. We expect the infancy stage of discipleship, our own or the others around us, to last forever, or to skip the adolescent phase and go right on in to maturity. We condemn our fellow disciples who are adolescent disciples, we make no effort to conceal our impatience at their lack of maturity, or what we think of their childish behavior. We violate the most basic of Jesus’ commands: not to judge. And to not judge means to not set up standards for other people and expect them to meet those standards, even if they are the standards we set for ourselves.

Jesus said to His disciples – and He says it to me and to you, however mature you may think you are – “I have food to eat that you do not know about”. He wasn’t condemning the disciples for their ignorance; He was teaching them, explaining what they would not understand perhaps for years yet, but putting remarks in their minds that they would remember eventually with dawning realization. I want each of you to take this to heart, each of you who reads this post: you are those disciples. He has food to eat that you do not know about. Don’t think you have arrived. And quit judging your fellow disciples. They aren’t as immature as you think they are and you aren’t as mature as you think you are. Quit urging your brothers and sisters to eat, when it is you that needs to pause and re-consider your own diet.

The Disciples at the Well

February 9, 2013

I have been doing some of my routine memorization in John 4. I love to do memorization, though I am not very good at it. It helps me to focus on the exact words that I am trying to memorize, and I believe it helps me to notice things I would not notice otherwise. This time, trying to attend closely to John 4, my attention was drawn, not to the Samaritan woman who came to the well that noon, but to the disciples who came back from the town with the lunch.

It was fortunate for the woman that she had already been talking to Jesus for some time and had reached the critical point in their conversation in which Jesus told her plainly that He was the Messiah. If she hadn’t gotten to that point, she might never have gotten to it because of the disciples. “They marveled that He was talking with a woman.” Talking with a woman violated some of their social conventions, and it was no doubt made worse that she was a Samaritan. By this time the disciples had been with Jesus for some time. They had been amazed to hear some of the things that He had said when they first met him associating with John the Baptist, or arguing with the Pharisees about whether He had the authority to overturn the money changers’ tables at the Temple. They had been amazed to recall Scriptures that He was fulfilling. They had been amazed to see some of the signs and miracles He did – the water into wine and the other signs He did at the Passover that had convinced so many devout Jews.

Now they were amazed – and not in a good way – that He was talking with a Samaritan woman. The “honeymoon” was over. He had drawn them in with His grace and with miracles; now He offended them with His grace. They had been convinced that He was the rightful King of Israel; now they were not sure they liked the kind of King He was turning out to be. They marveled that He would stoop so low as to talk with this strange woman.

But they were still in awe of Him. They were afraid to question Him even when they were irritated. No one dared to ask Him why He was doing such a shameful thing. No one of them even dared to ask the woman what she was doing there, what she wanted. No one of them dared to tell her to her face that they didn’t approve of her being there, that they didn’t want her there. For some reason, best left alone, their Rabbi had decided to behave in this absurd fashion and they could just be glad that none of their friends – some had doubtless mocked their following the crazy preacher – that none of their old friends were here to see this embarrassing episode. John wrote this account. I think he wrote it the way he did because he had been one of the disciples to be most offended. He and his brother had given over a prosperous family business, their respectability and social status, and left it all with their father and the servants, and they had walked out of their town to the incredulity of many of their old neighbors. How could they go home and face them again if anyone heard about this? But Jesus had His moods, as they well knew. They didn’t dare ask Him about it. Sometimes His explanations were as puzzling as His actions.

But the woman knew what they were thinking. She could read their expressions, their faces, their silence. And she was used to it. She had been astonished herself when He had spoken to her at the first and then even answered her questions, though His answers were as odd as His answering. She knew she was just a woman, and a foreigner, and she had grown up knowing what it meant, and she knew rightly enough what they were thinking.

So she left her water jar there, unfilled, and went back into the town. What else could she have done but flee, surrounded by twelve indignant men and one whom she could not fathom?

And that is enough of the story to make us pause, for John could have been describing us. We are those disciples. How often, I wonder, do Samaritan women and other derelicts come into our churches and meet with indignation from the disciples of Jesus? I think it happens a lot. I have seen it happen. I have felt it happen. I have even, I am ashamed to say, caused it to happen. You don’t have to go to Westboro to meet self-righteous indignation. We disciples just keep on being disciples, no better than the originals, even though our Teacher keeps trying to explain it to us.

And perhaps no harm is done sometimes. The Samaritan woman had already met Jesus. She had to flee from His disciples and that is bad, but she went away as one who had met Him. She went away as one who had faith – as small as a mustard seed, perhaps, but faith nonetheless.

The question, of course, is: how many people like the Samaritan woman come into our churches and flee from the disciples Jesus has left in charge? How many of them flee before they meet Jesus? We have never met Samaritan women here in the U. S. of course, but we have our own equivalent. Not long ago it was single moms that we made unwelcome. Where I grew up it was black brothers and sisters who were emphatically not welcome. I know churches where it is made perfectly clear that if you are not their brand of Republican you had best go somewhere else, of if you are not Calvinist enough, or financially stable enough. Homosexuals are often our version of the Samaritan woman.

Anne LaMott tells the story of the church that welcomed her Sunday after Sunday, pregnant and hung over, that continued to welcome her simply and kindly until she met Jesus. I am so grateful to hear that that happens, that if Jesus returns today He may still find faith on earth. May we all be like that congregation, growing up in the grace of God. It is one of the primary goals in the congregation I attend – where my wife is the priest – to grow into being more fully the kind of church that will not drive people away. We want to become disciples who will be as gracious as He is, who will not be surprised or offended by His grace when we see it. And being as gracious as He is always a stretch indeed, and always a greater stretch. I know we have a long way to go, but how can we call ourselves disciples if we do not seek to grow to be like Him? Or more chilling, how can He call us disciples if we don’t? It is my prayer that no one who has not met Jesus is turned away from our churches because we turn him away. And I pray that no one who has met Jesus will be received at our churches as other than a brother or sister.

A Brief History of Idolatry part 2

October 4, 2010

Who is the mysterious god whose presence is invoked on our money? There is one more chapter in this brief history of idolatry concerning this god with whom we must deal, a god who demands child sacrifice from his devotees, and who has been guilty of the blood of the innocents from the time of Herod to the present. This god did not plague the people of God until after the Christian era began. This is a god who never tempted Israel, but who has found Christians an easier prey.

Nearly four hundred years into the Christian era, the god called Patriotism changed his tactics and decided to make peace with the Church rather than trying to destroy it. Money had used the ploy so successfully against the Pharisees that he thought he might try it for himself. It was a surprisingly easy sell. The emperors of Rome who had tried to destroy Christians in the name of Patriotism, now merely agreed to leave them alone…in exchange for their service in his temple.

At first Patriotism had only one face, Rome, whose bloodstained mouth became oddly appealing when he smiled.  But when Rome failed, Patriotism found that he could set himself up with different names in different places and he could get much more sport out of his devotees. Not only could he get the Christians to compromise their devotion to Jesus, but he could even get them to kill each other in his name. It was his most astonishing and glorious victory: to get a Christian to kill, not just anyone, but a fellow Christian, a brother in Christ, in the name of Patriotism, while wearing the mask of Christ.

Patriotism’s gambit worked well, especially with European Christians, and most especially with the English. They were easily duped into thinking they had become the new chosen people, the new Israel, and in their thinking they were all too willing to cut off even appendages of the Body of Christ that did not accept their take on civilization. But the greatest success, the ultimate and most impressive temple to Patriotism’s name, was America. The English first moved to America with the false theology ready made; they were coming to be a beacon on a hill, a light to the nations; they were coming to establish a foothold of the kingdom of God on earth. It was all done in the name of purifying the church, of purifying the government of England which had decided not to enforce the Law of God. And thus with the purist of motives and the best of intentions the puritans came out of their Egypt to the desert of New England. They did not see themselves as serving any other god than the true one and in their piety they built a golden calf.

And this golden calf was America. The Puritans had been adroitly deceived into thinking they could establish the kingdom of God on earth, a righteous branch. But their descendants quickly deserted the Christ who was supposed to be behind it all and were left only with an idol glibly using His name. From the very beginning he had confused himself with God in their minds, and it was easy to erode any threatening vestige of Christianity over the years. God became only a memory, propping up the shadowy figures that had assumed His authority.

At first the Puritans had kept the influence of Money in tight control. People were not allowed to charge interest, they could not charge wages higher than a certain righteous amount per hour, they could not abandon the poor. But within a century, Patriotism saw to it that his wife was released from her bondage. For Patriotism soon formed a liaison with Money and she became his mistress. It was a fertility cult, and the cult prostitutes wore suits and became pillars of the community.

It was just before the American Revolution that Money threw off the worst of the Puritan restraints on her lasciviousness. The American economy had grown too enormous in its potential for her worshipers to remain content with her fetters. Charge interest to the poor. Charge whatever you could get away with for your time. Teach men to blame the poor for their own poverty, and give them as little as you can get away with. They called it the “free market”, not because it made men free but because it made Money free to do as she would.

Their cry for freedom was “No taxation without representation.” It was the freedom of Money that was at stake, and the freedom of her worshippers, not the freedom of men; but mythology is malleable. The American idolator was not long content having taxation even with representation. He was not willing that anything come between him and his Money, even the representative government that he himself elected. Thus, one of the first crises of the new nation was the Whiskey Rebellion, citizens protesting the right of their own elected government to tax them. Their whole Revolution had been a mere excuse to free their Money for the full and unfettered worship they meant to give her. And so their religion has continued to the present day.

But Patriotism did not merely act to preserve the sanctity of his goddess; he moved to protect himself as well. He first moved to make sure that his people reverenced his images, the flag, and his wife had her commitment to him written on her tokens as well. He had to make his followers think that desecration of the flag was betrayal of God Himself. Bestowing that kind of honor on that kind of symbol should have shown them that they had switched allegiance to a different god, but Patriotism had clouded their minds.

Patriotism developed a statement, a sort of confession of faith, in place of the Apostle’s creed, called the Pledge of Allegiance, but to deceive their conscience he inserted the phrase “under God”, a phrase vague enough they could pretend they were still being loyal to the true God. Thus they fell into a delusion and never noticed when Patriotism’s priorities conflicted with God’s. He managed to make his images, the flags, as common in Christian churches as their cross. It was a magnificent victory; he had not won such a victory in any other nation, though later he would accomplish the same victory in Germany through one of his greatest prophets, Adolf Hitler.

And so it has continued to the present. Any attempt to put the true God in place of Patriotism is met with a violence formerly reserved for heretics. Their schools required all their children to pledge their allegiance to Patriotism, and then cover up the idolatry by reciting some prayer to their former God, usually the Lord’s Prayer. If any American Christian refused to pledge his allegiance to this rival god he was suspected, and sometimes accused, of being a traitor both to God and to country, for the Americans could no longer tell the difference between the two. In this way citizenship in America supplanted membership in the body of Christ as the individual’s personal identity.

But by far the greatest victory of Patriotism over the Kingdom of God has been the willingness with which these Christians kill in Patriotism’s name. Ask any American Christian, “Would you fight to the death to defend the freedom given you by the Constitution?” and there is a good chance he would say with pride, “Yes”. Ask that same Christian, “Would you fight to the death to defend the name of the holy Trinity” and it is even more likely he would say “No”. A new devotion thus seized the heart and the soul of the American Christian; the truth he fought for, the truth he lived and died for, was the Bill of Rights and not the gospel.

On the contrary, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus Ye Soldiers of the Cross”, reveal exactly how far Americans confused the gods with God. These songs can be sung with fervor for the gospel, but all the while they sing, American Christians think of their country as much as the kingdom of God; they no longer clearly discern the difference between the two. They need no longer trouble themselves to justify an American Christian serving in the military of a nation of this world; the question never arises; it never troubles our consciences. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If an American Christian can kill to defend his country, then why can’t a Russian Christian also kill to defend his country, or a Chinese Christian also kill to defend his country, or an Iraqi Christian also kill to defend his country?

And inevitably they must kill each other. There were only two centers of Christian worship left in Japan in 1945: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Christian church was a small presence in Dresden in the 1940’s, and it is a small presence in Iraq, but how many of them were “collateral damage” when their brothers bombed Dresden and Baghdad? Is the Body of Christ thus divided? Is this the spiritual equivalent of “shooting ourselves in the foot”?

It is too easy to forget that the soldier of the gospel is part of a different army fighting with different weapons and using a different strategy than any army in the world. A soldier fighting for America must neutralize or kill his enemy; a soldier fighting for the cross must love his. Jesus has never permitted His soldiers to kill anyone, brother or not. To paraphrase Luke 16:13 slightly “No soldier can serve two commanding officers, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve  both God and country.”

The weakness of God has always been that He would not share His worship with another, however splendid the craftsmanship of the image. He is determined that He alone will be God, that the idols of the world will be forgotten and every knee will bow to Him and to His Messiah, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. America is indeed a splendid and beautiful temple, if you do not look too closely at the dead men’s bones mixed with the stones of its foundation. The Constitution is a lofty and beautiful document, the greatest imitation to a Scripture that has yet been devised by man,  easy to confuse with the gospel itself. This trick of disguising himself as an angel of light has paid off for Satan in spades.

It was a Jewish teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock, who had it all right two thousand years ago when she prophesied the demise of America and Wall Street and Walmart and the Chinese economic sphere of influence and all of the disguises of the gods of the world: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…”

Maranatha.

A Brief History of Idolatry part 1

September 7, 2010

Technically, idolatry did not exist until Moses went up on the mountain and received the stone tablet containing the Ten Commandments. Sin is not counted where there is no law, Paul tells us. Sin is lawlessness, John tells us, and naturally there can be no lawlessness where there is no law. While people had made images of wood or stone or gold and had worshiped them, it was not counted as idolatry. They had no idea what they were doing. They did not know there was such a thing as a false god. It never entered their minds to question how there could be more than one God or who He was or how a rock could embody Him.

Abraham had grown up in just such a world that acknowledged the existence of many gods. He had spent much of his adult life in Ur, the residence (as they believed) of the Moon, the god Nanna-Sin. When the Most High God spoke to Abraham in Haran, another location with its own resident god, there is no indication that he knew this was really and truly the only God. It seemed to take him a while to catch on that the Most High God was different from the others.

Certainly Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, didn’t understand the distinction. Jacob’s wife Rachel stole her father’s household gods because she believed them to be actual gods with some power, and by stealing them she thought she might weaken him. Jacob’s son Judah, the direct ancestor of the Messiah, worshiped one of the gods of the land when he visited Tamar thinking she was a cult prostitute. Joseph married the daughter of the priest of On, and though he knew better than anyone in the world that the Most High God really was most high, he had not finished connecting the dots on the idolatry issue.

But then the Most High God appeared to Moses and used the name Yahweh and invaded a land belonging to the gods of Egypt. It was the legend of the warfare in heaven coming down from the mythical remote past into historical fact, one God attacking another god to take away His people. And after He won, instead of boasting about how much stronger He was than other gods, He let Moses in on what had only been hinted to that point: the gods He had been fighting didn’t actually exist. He had won the battle, He had done great miracles, but when He had knocked on the temple doors, there had been no one at home. Only Pharaoh and a army of men with chariots. No gods.

It was only after the people had been told that other gods didn’t exist that the concept of idolatry occurred. It was only after the people had seen the real God in action, and in a tangible, visible form, that He mentioned that the other gods who seemed to have visible forms, were just empty masks. The other gods were only rocks, only things carved by men, capable of no action, having no power. The whole vast array of gods, dozens or hundreds of them, were suddenly reduced to One and He demanded that they quit worshiping all of those other things.

It was natural for the people of Israel to be somewhat skeptical. Yahweh was introducing a major change in their conceptual framework. It was a lot to swallow, even though He had backed it up with astonishing and powerful plagues and miraculous deliverance and daily bread and a formidable looking guide in the shape of a cloud. He at least was genuinely God. They only needed to jettison all the gods who had not come up with deeds of power of their own, who had not fought back as plague after plague hit their people. They were only being asked to disbelieve in the ones who had not shown up, who had never shown up. It should not have been difficult.

And Yahweh was serious about forbidding idolatry. There were many laws, but the emphasis was unmistakable, repeated more frequently than any other admonition in the Law. The abolition of idolatry had become the divine priority. The abolition of idolatry became the central enforcement issue. Over a millennium, through judge after judge, the oppression of Israel by some outside king was caused by the people breaking this one rule: worship Yahweh and Him only. No other issue – moral, ethical, dietary, or theological – was important enough to cause Yahweh to surrender His people to the power of another. His  language was violent when he described idolatry as “whoring”, as “adultery”, as “prostitution” in which the prostitute paid her customers.

The battle between God and gods is no where more vividly portrayed than the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal. Elijah had already demonstrated the power and anger of God against Baal by keeping the rain out of the land for three years; Baal had not been able to rescue his people from Yahweh’s anger, just as the Egyptian gods had failed the Egyptians. So Elijah alone among Yahweh’s prophets stood against 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. (Asherah was imagined to be the wife of El, the most high god in the Canaanite mythology.) And again, neither Baal nor Asherah came through in answer to all of their own priests praying at once. Maybe Baal was asleep. Maybe Baal was away on holiday. Maybe Baal had grown old and could no longer hear them pray, as they imagined El had grown old and senile. There are not many passages in Scripture as sarcastic as the ones God reserved for the idols.

The other eight commandments were purely secondary. Obviously, they were important, but not nearly at the level of the first two. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because thievery became rampant. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because they had quit observing the Sabbath. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because adultery had become common or because children were rude to their parents. There was only one other sin that was mentioned as making God so angry that He was ready to destroy the nation: the oppression of the poor by the rich. Read Amos. I will come back to this later.

But in over a thousand years of struggle against the idols, Yahweh did not vanquish them. Baal, Ashtoreth, Chemosh the detestable, Milcom the abhorrent, they all endured, they all maintained their fictional existence by their very real hold on people’s allegiance. Eventually the names got changed and Baal gave way to Marduk. There was a flavor of the month in god names  but those names were just aliases anyway. Throughout the Old Testament history there are ups and downs in the struggle to keep the people faithful to Yahweh, but no final victory, right up until the Babylonian army burned Yahweh’s temple and carried the last king of Judah into captivity.

Ezekiel was nearly the last of the prophets of the Old Testament and he testified, in chapter 20 of his prophecy, that the worship of wood and stone was a crime in Israel right up to their destruction as a nation. It is virtually the end of the Old Testament, and the only glimmer of light was Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilding the temple and re-instituting the worship of Yahweh. But the gods were still there, buzzing like flies around the entrails of Israel.

And then there was a break of about three centuries in which there were no prophets, no new Scriptures, everyone waiting for something or Someone and everyone with a different idea of who or what was expected. And meanwhile the slow dissolution of the nation and its hopes creeps through the fabric of Israel. And then, at a dark hour, the Messiah appeared. Just as He had left His people in Egypt in slavery for centuries before Moses appeared, Israel had been left in  the lurch and under pagan rule for centuries before the Messiah arrived. Their expectancy had reached a peak and everyone was ready for the next confrontation with the idols. Yahweh had made no move to fight for His own name against the gods for way too long and it was about time. What would he do now?

It is with a feeling of bewilderment at an invisible enemy that we turn to the New Testament. Baal had disappeared. Molech was not there. Ashtoreth also was missing. Even the new aliases – Zeus and Jupiter – are ignored as if they had never been imagined. What happened to the idols?! Did Yahweh spend a millennium fighting them to no avail, only to have them disappear when His back was turned? Or did Yahweh decide idolatry was a losing battle and wasn’t worth the trouble to fight? What exactly happened during those three hundred years that made people abandon the idols they had stubbornly kept through the years? If Yahweh’s kindnesses did not convince them to abandon their idols, what did?

The answer is that a new goddess came in, a new goddess more powerful than any of the previous idols, a new goddess so powerful that the old gods all disappeared into her shadow forever: Money. In the third century b.c. the king of Lydia, traditionally known as Midas, invented Money. This is going to take some explanation.

Obviously, something very like money had existed since ancient times. The difference between the ancient times and the kingdom of Lydia was scale and control. Earlier, each merchant had coined his own coins, weighed out his own gold into usable pieces, and went to trade. Sharp businessmen could systematically short change their customers, make their coins just a little bit under weight. The prophets of Israel had rebuked such merchants in no uncertain terms. Then the king of Lydia thought to himself, “What if I were the only one in the kingdom who was allowed to make coins? No businessman could cheat another businessman that way. I would personally guarantee the value of the coins and the people could trust it.” And that is what he did. The state assumed a monopoly over the currency.

There were obvious advantages to Money. Commerce could be done more easily and fairly. Individual business men found it more difficult to cheat their customers or each other when someone else controlled the scales. And Money gave a systematic, “objective” way of assigning value to goods and services that applied everywhere and which could be relied on. Thus Money was born, a kindly benevolent sort of deity, establishing justice and peace between men.

Money replaced the gods using much the same strategy Yahweh had tried to use when He rescued Israel from Egypt, though on a smaller scale: acts of power. Unlike other gods or goddesses, Money had some real power, some real presence. Unlike Baal, Money answered her prophets. Pray to Baal for a new camel, or a new wife, or a good harvest, and you just never knew what might happen; but it was usually disappointing. But Money would deliver every time. The guy who had Money could have anything he wanted; Money saw to it. You could look around anywhere and see the evidence of her power: people who served Money well lived in comfort and luxury and enjoyed the best, and people who did not serve Money well might be left to die in a gutter with nothing to their name. And Money was much more powerful than mere wealth. Wealth was too obvious. It was just the stuff you worked for and acquired. But Money was subtle, like the serpent of old. Money was an an invisible power that could control men’s minds from a distance, an abstraction who could be present in all places at once, like God Himself.

There is no way to overstate how greatly Money revolutionized idolatry. All the old gods became obsolete over night. The whole world shook its head and realized it had become monotheistic. Thus Money accomplished what revealed religion had failed to accomplish in its many centuries. Judaism and Christianity had sought to convince the world that there was only one God. But Money arrived on the scene and the world fell to its knees with hardly a whisper of the skeptic being heard.

And the perk was that Money made the king rich. It almost seemed that everything Midas touched turned into gold. The invention of Money gave the king power over the whole realm of business. It gave him power over everything that depended on business for its viability. In short, the king became like a god in fact as well as in theology. No more of this pretending to be identified with some idol or negotiating with some priest about politics. Now the king’s reach went into the very pockets of every man in the realm. Naturally, the king would put his own face on his coins; he himself was to be the incarnation of Money, the face behind the power that made the world go round. It was a fertility cult.

John the Baptist was the last of the old style prophets in Israel and he knew well which goddess he had to confront. No Molech, no Baal ever had the power and influence in Israel that this new goddess did and he attacked the influence of the new goddess head on. In announcing Yahweh’s wrath John stood in line with Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea and the others. “What then shall we do that is an appropriate fruit repentance from our goddess?” the crowd essentially asked. “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors were to collect only what they must, and soldiers were not to use their power to extort money and be content with the wages they get. It was all about Money and taking care of those who were not under her protection.

That is the way the Pharisees of Jesus’ day understood it. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question had never been asked before because in the old days the oppressor just took gold or silver or women or slaves. But what if the oppressor took Money? Paying money was a moral issue whereas paying tribute had never been. But why not? Because paying tribute was the slave giving to his owner what belonged to the owner, whereas paying taxes was the slave giving to a god what the god owned. Jesus’ answer is the same as the Old Testament answer to idolatry. That image has no real existence, no real power; the coin is nothing to God just as the image on it is nothing.

Jesus knew who His real enemy was even more clearly than John. In Luke 16:13 Jesus replied to the Pharisees this way: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.” The Pharisees, who loved Money, ridiculed Him.

The old forms of idolatry continued on for a while, like ghosts haunting a house. There were still graven images, but the images were only an excuse for business, an excuse for making a profit, a way of serving Money. In Acts 19 the riot started about the god Artemis was not about the honor due to an idol, it was about profitability.  Money was the issue now, not the old and worthless gods which everyone soon acknowledged to be superstition. What Yahweh had not accomplished by love, Money accomplished by greed.

At first the Christian movement understood very well what the true enemy was. And even when the Church signed a peace treaty with the emperor of the realm, the Church managed to impose on the pagan state certain moral restraints on the idolatry that it carried with it. Money was not allowed to reproduce: charging interest was forbidden. Limits were placed on the quality of worship Money could demand: people could not charge more than a certain amount for their time and labor. Money was even obliged to obey certain moral and ethical restraints: she was not permitted to dispense with people who did not worship her. Her own worshipers were obliged to care for the poor, to feed, clothe, and shelter those who had nothing.

But this goddess was cunning as well as beautiful. She seduced the Church. It was soon discovered that Church leadership could be made quite profitable if one weren’t picky about whom one worshiped. Then Protestants discovered that some of the moral restraints on Money could be relaxed. As long as they put a good face on their worship, used the Christian lingo of the day, assumed the pious external demeanor of  the evangelical pastor, they could carry on a clandestine worship quite handily and even free Money from some of the shackles she had long worn, shepherds who were inwardly wolves. Once moral restraints were relaxed a little, it became easy to relax them a lot. Money whispered it in their ear: It’s their own fault they don’t have as much of me as you. If they served me better, they would have enough. Why should you share with these unworthy people?

Anything could be justified if it were profitable enough: slavery, the murder of the native Americans, treating even the children of the poor as mere dispensable resources for factories rather than people. The judge of all the earth was no longer Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Israel. Now the judge of all the earth was Money and even her smile was merciless. Among the English Christians of just over a century ago, the crime of stealing a gentleman’s wallet was punishable by cutting off the hand; now the punishment is a much slower torture. Those who do not worship her, and who fail to carry the evidence of their devotion in some of her icons, are simply swept away and allowed to starve or bleed or evaporate. Prosperity theology is not a heresy about the Christian God; it serves a different god altogether.

The money we all hold in our wallets and checking accounts are the certificates that the goddess of this world gives to her servants that grants them permission to live with her blessing. Her certificates always carry a tribute to her current lover. The Roman coin had a picture of Caesar, the “god” of that empire, but our money comes from a more subtle serpent. “In God we trust” it says on the coins, and we can lull ourselves to sleep thinking it is the true God she acknowledges. But it is a lie. She is talking about yet another of the new idols, whose story must be told in a second installment.

The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 3

June 11, 2010

4. The Doctrine of Hell Violates the New Testament Ethical Standards

We are told that we cannot argue that a belief in hell contradicts the character of God because His holiness makes hell a necessity. But not making this argument forces the whole of Christian ethics to degenerate into nonsense. The Christian ethical standards established for us in the New Testament prove that hell cannot be derived from God’s holiness. For we are exhorted to be holy just as God is holy, to be conformed to the image of Christ, not in abstract terms but in concrete specifics.

For example, one specific aspect of being holy is “Never return evil for evil to anyone, but overcome evil with good”. Does God have one standard of holiness for Himself and a completely different standard of holiness for us? Because it is manifestly true that hell is returning evil for evil. It is manifestly true that hell does not overcome evil with good. Can God not live up to His own standards? Does He obey a different (and seemingly lower) standard than He expects of us? Is it simply metaphorical to say that we are to be holy just as He is holy? Or is our idea of hell a misconception?

Or let’s consider another specific aspect of being holy: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”. What sense are we to make of such an exhortation if the Christ we worship and are being conformed to is the One who not only lets the sun go down on His anger, but continues to pour out His wrath even when the sun has burned out and all the universe is old and is only then just beginning to express His anger? These were both exhortations that were to help conform us to the image of Christ.  Isn’t it natural to object to the discrepancy? Isn’t this an argument that must be made?

5. The Emotional Commitment to the Doctrine of Hell

One phenomenon that is somewhat mystifying in the discussions I have had with other believers on the question of hell is how emotional the issue becomes.  It is as if the denial of the existence of hell were a personal attack.  It is as if admitting the possibility that hell does not exist would lead to the undermining of the entire Christian faith.  Can it really be true that there is no Good News if there is no hell?  Can it really be true that the gospel would cease to be proclaimed if there was no eternal conscious punishment of the lost?  Why do Christians consider it such a necessity to believe in hell?  Why would anyone find it desirable to believe in hell?

The emotional nature of the issue is frequently revealed by one of the most commonly asked questions I encounter: “Don’t you believe that God has the right to punish the wicked however He likes?” It is an ambiguous question. On the one hand, I can answer affirmatively, that yes, I believe God has the right to do with us as He likes; I am, after all, still essentially Calvinistic. The question remains as to whether it is conceivable that such a place as hell could ever be something that He would like to do with us. Since God is good, since God is love, since God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all, how did we ever come to believe that an eternal conscious torment is something that God would like to do? On the other hand the question, “Does God have the right to do whatever He likes with the wicked?” may be taken as equivalent to the question, “Does God have the right to do evil?” which is utter non-sense as questions go.  It is as meaningless to ask if God could do evil, He who is the definition of good, as it is to ask if light could make the room dark.

So let’s soften the question into a more honest one: “Do you believe that God has the right to punish sinners and that whatever sentence He pronounces on them will be just?” The answer is, “Of course”. I do not at all dispute God’s absolute authority to deal with sin and evil and pain in whatever way seems best to Him; I merely assert that it is a contradiction to His character and to the revelation of Scripture to believe that God authorizes the eternal conscious punishment of any of His creatures, including Satan himself.

But the question can equally well be turned around. To those who defend the existence of hell I ask: does God have the right to simply forgive everyone their sins even if they refuse to accept Christ? The sins are committed against Him; doesn’t He have the right to simply forgive them if He wishes?

To answer “yes” seems to capitulate to my argument, for if God has the right to simply forgive an unrepentant sinner then why do we imagine that He would do otherwise? Usually we are told that He would not forgive an unrepentant sinner so that justice would be upheld, but it is impossible for me to see how this upholds justice, as I tried to argue above. So here I am in the bosom of Abraham being comforted for all eternity and there is my foolish neighbor, who refused to accept Christ, suffering in torment for all eternity. It was a very thin line between his foolishness and my faith. Where is justice being served? That, of course, is up to Christ Jesus and not to me; it is His suffering that is being scorned by the unrepentant sinner. So what does He say? Is it conceivable that He would say something like, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”? That is a direct quote of one of His statements when He contemplated the actual people who put Him to death; and if He could take such an attitude toward His executioners, why is it so hard to believe that He wouldn’t take a similar attitude toward the sinner who is so bound to evil that he hates Christ and would willingly drive the nails in himself?

To answer “no, God does not have the right to forgive an unrepentant sinner” naturally demands the question, “Why not?” How can God’s right to punish be unlimited but His right to forgive be limited? Those who answer this question negatively often do so because they think it would mean that Christ died for nothing. Why did Christ Jesus go through the suffering of the cross if the Father intended simply to forgive everyone anyway? I think the proper response to this question would be that Christ Jesus went through the suffering of the cross precisely in order for the Father to forgive everyone. Or taken from a different point of view the objection becomes, “Why should anyone bother putting their faith in Christ if they are forgiven for their sins regardless?” The answer to this one is that forgiveness of sins is only the beginning of what Christ intends to accomplish. A merciful God may well club fools on the head to carry them out of the burning building, but getting out of the burning building does not get you into a room in the mansion that is yours as an adopted son or daughter.

I think this last objection reveals the shallowness of our understanding of the meaning of salvation more than it justifies the belief in hell. We have such a vague view of what we are being saved into that we fall back on preaching merely what we are being saved from, and that in turn demands there be something horrible to be saved from. It is a form of compensation; to make up for our lack of anything positive to say, we must paint a vivid picture of the negative, the torments we imagine we will escape. The hope of the world to come, the hope of the resurrection, is such a pale hope to us that we know we could never persuade people to desire it. We can’t win them, so we fall back on scaring them. We have given up on talking about the beauty of God, the desirability of God, of the deep-goodness-that-surpasses-imagination of God, and are left with only the cobwebs and darkness to describe.

In short, I claim that we cling to the belief in hell because we have no clear notion of the goodness of God; because the Good News has grown so dim in our sight that it has become merely the escape from Bad News. We emphasize deliverance from hell because we have lost a clear vision of knowing God and loving God.

6. What Is Judgment? What is Wrath?

Nonetheless, even granting that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of hell we have come to know and love, it does unarguably talk about judgment, it does unarguably talk about wrath. We have become so accustomed to identify these concepts with hell that it may seem as if giving up eternal torment inevitably leads to giving up the whole idea that God will judge anything, that God ever feels anger. But it is not my intention to give up anything that the Bible teaches, only to give up what we thought it taught that it doesn’t. Here I will give my interpretation of these two words, judgment and wrath.

The judgment of God is this: that we each become conformed to the image of what we worship. Those who worship Jesus will be conformed to His image; those who worship an idol will become conformed to the image of what they worship. One example of a passage that makes this idea explicit is Psalm 135:15-18: “The idols of the nations are but silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear, nor is there any breath at all in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, yes, everyone who trusts in them.” Perhaps this passage is in the back of Jesus’ mind when he invited “those who have ears to hear” to listen to Him.

I believe there are eternal consequences for what we choose. Our eternal fate is the one we choose. Every person is given exactly what he loves, what he clings to, what he trusts, what he wants, what he worships. Love is a serious thing. We can love that which destroys us; we can see all around us people who do, who are in a slow death while their true love consumes them. And just as a love of sugar or fat or salt or ease will lead to the loss of health, the loss of limb, the loss of faculties, so the love of idols will lead to the loss of the capability of knowing God on some level or other. It eternal life is that we know God, then eternal death is the death of some connection to God, some mode of knowing God. To worship Jesus means to be conformed into His image into a sort of creature beyond our imagining with powers and delights and connections to God that cannot be put into words. To worship something less than Jesus is to be conformed into something less even than the sort of humanity we currently experience. This is God’s judgment: He gives us what we want, what we love. John 3:19 says something very much like what I am arguing for: “And this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil.” This is what predestination is: that we become fully who we are, that we grow up to be what we are now in embryo.

The wrath of God can be defined as the other side of the coin. In pouring out His wrath God simply lets us have our own way. This is a repeated theme in Romans 1, for example, with the refrain, “therefore God gave them up…” So what are we being saved from? From ourselves. From being left as orphans in this desolation. From hopelessness. From pointlessness. From the dull disappointment of all our dreams. From a jaded heart that can find no rest or pleasure in any thing. From the inevitable failure of all we do. From that horrible suspicion that this is as good as it gets.

Even a dog has its own integrity of being and rejoices in its own life and worships God in its own way. The lost are not in permanent torment; on the contrary they are in a state of perfect joy and worship God to the limits of their ability to experience. In that sense I suppose I could be accused of being a universalist, of believing that all people are saved, but it depends on how you define salvation. To lose our soul, to lose some part of what it means to be human, is an eternal loss even if we are eternally incapable of realizing what we have lost. Nonetheless I do believe that all creatures, everything created by God, in heaven or on the earth or under the earth, will end in perfect joy on whatever level of creation they end up. Is this universalism or not?  It is universalism of a sort in that it imagines perfect joy to all creatures as their ultimate destiny. On the other hand, it is not at all universalism in that it imagines consequences, serious consequences, eternal consequences that are horrible to contemplate, for those who reject the knowledge of God in Christ.

What being saved means is that those parts of our humanity, those parts of the image of God in us that have been damaged beyond repair, are created anew rather than being consumed. But being saved does not primarily mean that we keep what we’ve got, albeit in a perfected condition. Being saved means that we are raised into a newness of life, into a kind of life that is inconceivable to us at present. I believe this is what is alluded to in I Corinthians 15:35-58. I believe this is also what is implied by Jesus’ oft-repeated phrase, “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” It is clear that He is not talking about physical ears but about spiritual ears, ears which only exist if God has created them; ears which only exist if there is the embryo of a new creation present; ears which only exist if the person has been “born again”.

When Jesus died on the cross He bore the entire weight of the Fall, all the curse, all of the consequences, for all men at all times and for all of creation as indicated in Romans 8:20-22. God has indeed reserved a judgment of fire, a judgment that consumes utterly every trace of the Fall. Those who are in Christ are given shelter from that storm; but even those who are in Christ will have their work tested by fire (see I Corinthians 3:10-15). However the fire that consumes is God Himself; He is the consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29); the unquenchable fire is Jesus Himself as John the Baptist said in Matthew 3:11-12, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The Holy Spirit is Himself the flame of hell, burning up what is corrupt in us and creating a new creature in its place. The gospel, the Good News, is that Jesus makes a new creation that will outlast the burning of all things.

What about those who have never heard, or those whom circumstances prevent them from genuinely hearing of the hope Jesus offers? My view holds that God has the power and the right to give them whatever He wishes, and the goodness that makes it impossible to believe that He will deny them any good thing they can receive. My view is that everyone is given exactly the truest and deepest desires of his heart. Those who fail to “get to heaven” do not fail because of their lack of goodness, but because of their lack of desire. They just have no taste for God.

Finally I would point out that the Scriptures hint that there are levels, both in heaven and in “hell”, there are degrees of being saved and degrees of being lost. In heaven there are those who rule a hundred cities and those who rule ten; in hell, it is more tolerable for the Assyrians than the people who rejected Jesus in Capernaum. There will be degrees of gain in the dimensions that will be added to the lives of the saved, and there will be degrees of loss experienced by those who are not saved. I conceive of the saved as being like the stars of the sky, shining with varying degrees of glory, so astonishing that were we to see a saint in glory we would be tempted to worship him or her as a god. The lost will fail to achieve even what is human in the present sense of the word. But on no account are we to imagine that the arm of the Lord is shortened, that He cannot bring good out of everything He has created and that He will do it because He is truly all powerful and all good and all loving and all merciful, all.

The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 2

June 11, 2010

2. The Doctrine of Hell Contradicts God’s Character

One common argument used to justify the belief in hell is that it is necessary to establish God’s justice. There is obviously little or no justice in this world. The wicked oppress the righteous, and evil goes unpunished for the most part. We are not to seek revenge for the wrongs done against us but to leave vengeance to God. Thus we look for justice to be established in the next life, for fair payment to be made for the evil done in this world, for compensation to be made to us for the injustice we suffer here. As Colossians 3:25 says “For the wrong-doer will be paid back for the wrong he has done and there is no partiality.”

This reasoning, upon reflection, seems inexplicable to me. First, it seems to be based on the tacit idea that we are not included in the wrong-doers who will be paid back. It is nearly always used in the sense of our looking forward to God paying back those bastards who did us wrong. Sometimes we are bold enough to make it explicit, claiming that as Christians we have already gone through God’s judgment and are now immune, but it still leaves us hanging about how God will pay back those brothers or sisters who have wronged us. We have a continual double standard. We are forgiven with no strings attached, but not the “bad guys”.

To bring the issue into some focus, let’s use Paul’s argument from Romans 8 in the other direction: who is to bring a charge against the damned? Shall any of us? We whose tears have been wiped away, whose griefs have been borne and comforted, whose suffering in this world is not even worth considering once the glory of God is revealed in us, are we really going to spend all eternity settling old scores? May it never be! And will the eternal suffering of the bully who tormented me as a child actually compensate me for the pain I bore? Will I get any joy out of his torment then? May it never be! My pain will have been swallowed up in the joy of heaven and whatever pain could be inflicted on him for eternity will accomplish nothing to either comfort me in my glorified state or to increase my joy. If I do spend even a moment of time delighting in his anguish then heaven will have been infiltrated by hell and Satan will have overthrown it.

And how is an eternity of pain a fair pay back for the finite, temporary pain I may have suffered in this life?  I might have felt, or you might have felt, that the pain we went through does deserve an infinite recompense, but in our hearts we know this is not so.  Some evil is unspeakable, yes, but it is always finite whereas hell itself is also unspeakable but infinite. The very idea of hell violates even the Mosaic demand for getting even, the eye for an eye, the tooth for a tooth.  Eternal suffering is simply neither fair nor just punishment for anything you or I or everyone else has suffered in this world; it cannot be made to add up like that.

Furthermore, the experience of crime victims in this world shows us that such punishment never accomplishes justice.  The victim of a rape or the surviving loved one of a murder victim may feel that justice will finally be done, that closure will finally be achieved, when the rapist is sentenced, or when the sentence is actually carried out and the murderer suffers. But when the execution is over and the pain inflicted on the criminal, there is no closure, there is no feeling that justice has been done. The truth is that the suffering of the criminal does not take away even an instant of the pain of the victim. Nothing that can ever be done to the criminal will ever make up for the damage that he has done. Real justice is a matter of healing, not revenge. Isn’t this one of the reasons why the Scripture spends so much effort in forbidding us to take revenge, because the fact of the matter is that imposing equal pain on the criminal only doubles the amount of pain in the world and does nothing to make anyone’s pain any less? And if it is true on the practical level right now, won’t it also be similarly true in eternity? Isn’t God’s desire for justice better satisfied by wiping away tears and comforting the victim than by torturing the victimizer? Isn’t our own desire for justice better satisfied, isn’t it only satisfied, when we have come to the point where we can forgive the one who hurt us? Don’t we arrive at full healing of our pain only when we come to the point at which we are free of hate and the desire to inflict pain?  As long as we desire hurt another we continue to be the prisoner of our own pain.

So the only one left to bring a charge against the damned is God Himself. They have offended against His majesty, against His glory, against His love and therefore they are deserving (we are told) of an eternal punishment. The actual evil of their deeds is way out of proportion to what it might appear because it is the eternal God they have offended, and this is why evil done in a mere day or month or year must be punished by suffering that never ends. They squeezed an infinite crime into a few moments.

Don’t we all? The crime against God is so great, we are told, that it is worth His while to keep them all awake, conscious and in pain, forever. Make no mistake about it; for you or me or the damned to exist at all requires an act of will on God’s part. If He turns away His attention from anything it collapses back into the nothing it was made from. You and I and anything that exists continue to exist because God is speaking our name. As Paul said in Colossians 1:17,  “…in Him all things hold together”, and in Acts 17:28, “for in Him we live and move and exist”. Hell has no existence and the damned in hell have no existence and no experience of suffering unless Jesus Himself keeps them there, speaking them into existence, not allowing them to simply disappear into the void.

Though none of us would treat even a dog this way, we are told that Jesus will treat the lost in exactly this way, refusing them the mercy that non-existence would be, refusing them any relief from pain. And not only will He keep them in such agony, ignoring all impulses to mere mercy, but He will do so pointlessly, with no end in mind, seeking to accomplish nothing in them except to extend their consciousness of pain and suffering, simply in order to establish “justice”. And not only will He keep them pointlessly suffering, but He will mock them further by making them worship and praise him as they writhe, for we also know that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth”, Philippians 2:10. This is what we are told to believe regarding Jesus though it is not made plain, and though we do not usually think of the doctrine in vivid terms. Indeed, belief in hell rests on being as vague as possible in our thinking and imagination, and in not trying to understand how it fits with the rest of what we believe.

We are further told that we cannot argue against belief in hell by arguing that it contradicts God’s character. “God is love” can’t be taken to mean that His love swallows up His anger at sin and injustice. We must deal not only with a loving God but also with a holy God, a just God, and a God who hates sin and who will by no means clear the guilty, who cannot abide the presence of sin. God’s character is, by this picture, apparently something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or like the schizophrenic who sometimes has one personality come out and sometimes the other. For it is true that in my case and in yours, God’s love did swallow up His anger at our sin. Paul is the best example, or counter-example here, for he was by his own estimate the greatest of sinners, yet God’s love for him supplanted His anger even though Paul never sought that love.

We are accustomed to thinking of holiness as primarily a moral quality, a quality that impels God to destroy the sinner, but I think a closer scrutiny of the Scriptures will show that it only includes a moral dimension as one aspect. Holiness, in what seems to me to be the truest Biblical usage, refers to the general distinction between God’s ways and the ways of fallen man, not only in regard to superficial things like gossip or drunkenness, but to the deeper attitudes which lead us to condone evil in the name of righteousness. It was the holiness of God that was confronting the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees; it was the holiness of God that sent Jesus into the world to redeem us; it was the holiness of God that repeatedly kept Him from pouring out His wrath on Israel.

Holiness is a trait that is not in conflict with God’s love; on the contrary God’s love is one aspect of God’s holiness. For example, in Hosea 11:7-9 we read, “My people are bent on turning away from Me, and though they call out to the Most High, He shall not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within Me, My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute My burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  The point of this passage is that it is God’s holiness that prevents Him from acting on His anger, rather than making it necessary for Him to execute His anger. We have made the holiness of God into a trait that is in conflict with His love whereas the two go hand in hand. Holiness may make sin intolerable to God, but it is also simultaneously what hinders Him from treating sin as it deserves.  Holiness is what makes His reaction to sin entirely alien to the normal human reaction. It is man’s response to lash out in anger, but God is holy and therefore He does not respond as a man would. Holiness is the opposite of wrath, not of the opposite of mercy. Holiness does not demand that He blot out sinners; holiness demands that He blot out sin.  Holiness does not demand that He punish sinners; holiness demands that He heal them.

The Bible clearly presents the love of God as the foundational element of His character, and whatever other traits may hold in His character are manifestations of love.  Holiness is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. Wrath is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. The justice of God is not so much a characteristic of God distinct from love as it is a characteristic way of loving. God is love and everything else flows out of that fact. The Scripture nowhere says “God is wrath”. Wrath simply is not fundamental to His nature as love is.

Or what about “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all”? But if all things exist in Him, and if there is no darkness in Him, then how can hell exist at all?  For if hell exists, it is certainly a kind of darkness, it is even called “the outer darkness”, and if it exists it must exist in Him since there is no other way to exist. God’s character, God’s nature, excludes the existence of such a thing as hell. Some theologians, in order to justify belief in hell, insist that we cannot argue from “God is love”, that we must also remember that “God is just” and the demand for justice modifies the nature of God’s love. On the contrary, I assert and the Scripture asserts that it is God’s love that modifies the nature of God’s justice. Scripture certainly does teach emphatically that God is just; but it is equally clear from Scripture that we do not even think of justice as God does.

Nor are we to follow that mistaken theology that takes the Law of Moses as the definition of justice.

3. The Doctrine of Hell Is Bad Theology

The concept of hell is interwoven with many other fundamental concepts that will necessarily have to be rethought as well. For example, if we are no longer to believe in hell then what are we to believe about God’s judging the world and the people in it? If we are no longer to believe in hell, what do we mean by salvation? If we are not being saved from eternal damnation, what exactly are we being saved from? If we are no longer to believe in hell, what do we think happens to those who end up refusing to accept Christ? These questions are too inter-related to answer individually one by one. Rather we must deal with them collectively and all at once. It is more like arguing with a mob than a queue.

First, however, there is a question that is logically prior to them all: what is it that we imagined hell accomplishing exactly? It should be an embarrassing question for anyone who has long believed in the traditional view of hell. Obviously, hell accomplishes nothing; it has no point. If hell had a point, then it would necessarily have a point that is attainable, for a point that is unattainable is not really a point at all. But if hell has an attainable point, then eventually it must arrive at that point, it must accomplish what it is there for. But if it accomplishes what it is there for, it is no longer necessary and would end. Hence either hell is a finite condition that accomplishes some presumably good purpose of God and then ends, or else it is never ending and pointless. Why then are we being asked to believe in something that is pointless? Why are we asked to believe that our God is the sort who does pointless things?

It is a question of the sovereignty of God. I am enough of a Calvinist that the sovereignty of God is central to the way I think, to the way I interpret Scripture, to the way I try to relate to God. His purposes do not fail. What He intends He will perform. What He says will come to pass. Just as when He called light into being from nothing and there was no power that could return it to non-being, you and I exist because He has spoken the word, He has called us by name and continues to call us by name. We are His creatures, created by His will for His purpose, and nothing can circumvent that purpose.

This is the quandary of so-called “double predestination”. If one believes in predestination of the elect to eternal life, then it follows immediately that we believe in the predestination of the lost to eternal punishment. Some try to deny the second while maintaining the first, but it is simply no good logically. To choose the elements of a set is simultaneously to choose the elements of the complement of the set. To predestine the elect to everlasting life is simultaneously, indistinguishably, to not predestine the lost. There are those who are convinced of the basic truth of the Calvinist approach to interpreting the Scripture, as am I, but who find double predestination unacceptable, as do I. Romans 9 is the central text in this discussion, and I will return to it later. For the moment I will proceed with my thesis that God does not create beings whose purpose is to suffer eternally.

If God does not predestine creatures to hell, it necessarily follows that hell does not exist. Let me state that more strongly: if God does not create from nothing a creature whose only purpose is to be tortured in hell forever and then choose to maintain the existence of that creature purely for the purpose of its suffering, then hell cannot exist. Could God have such a purpose in the creation of something? Humility should require us to answer, “yes”, but to believe so involves us in an apparent contradiction. Can we maintain logically that God is purely good and purely loving and yet creates in order to torture forever? It is true that our ways are not His ways, that as the heavens are high above the earth so are His thoughts above our thoughts. It is true that we cannot fathom His purposes in what He has made, but the idea of creating something for such torment strains to the breaking point our trust in His goodness. It would appear to make His ways lower than our ways, lower than the sort of moral and ethical people He desires us to be. Only the severest of Calvinists could hold on to such an idea, and that in spite of their hearts.

It is because I was a convinced Calvinist that I was first brought to doubt the doctrine of hell. However, even had I been an Arminian I think I would eventually have reached the same conclusion. Consider the world from an Arminian viewpoint. Your eternal state and mine rests squarely on our free will, our “choosing to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior”. Mind you, just saying the words without meaning them would be an absurd basis for eternal salvation. We must say them and mean them. But of course, “in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute may reverse” as T. S. Eliot put it. What we can choose we can un-choose. And in fact all of us do it all the time. What seems good in our eyes today seems horrid the next year. In Arminian circles it is called “backsliding”. For if the entrance to salvation comes by an act of will, it follows that a similar act of will can undo it all. An Arminian must be in constant fear lest he lose his salvation; and I might add that it is not an uncommon occurrence for people to make a public profession of faith, to walk down the aisle, to be baptized as adults, and simply drift away.

I may fail to be fair but this is what an Arminian universe seems to me to be like. God loves each individual equally and infinitely.  Though we are all sinners, the effects of sin have not been utterly devastating. At least there is enough freedom of will left in us that each of us has the power freely to accept or reject the offer of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and God never infringes on that power we have to choose. And there you have it. In an Arminian universe a person ends up in hell because he has stubbornly refused the love of God through the whole course of his life. Even a last minute repentance on his death bed would be enough to deliver him from hell, but should he die without repenting, either the offer of forgiveness is withdrawn or else his freedom of will has evaporated so that he is no longer able to choose life. In fact, in an Arminian view it is theoretically possible for no one at all to be saved, because salvation depends ultimately and finally on our choices. If we all collectively choose to say “no” to God then He is pretty much at a loss and the divine purpose and eternal plan to save the world is halted. We can all just stand together and, if we choose, foil the work of Calvary and set the blood of Christ at nought. What can He do? Violate our free will? Unthinkable.

Thus, looking at the issue from the viewpoint of power, in an Arminian universe when a person ends up in hell it is because God’s strength of will was insufficient to keep him out. The damned stand against God and they win, though what they win is only the eternal consequences of their choices. Thus it would seem that in an Arminian universe hell is really a punishment for being more persistent than God, for being more stubborn than God, for being stronger than God. In an Arminian universe the very existence of hell is fundamentally a failure on God’s part: He is simply not able to save His creature if that creature refuses to be saved. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that this limitation on God’s power is a self-imposed limitation to maintain the freedom of our wills. He could just slug the determined sinner, knock him unconscious, and carry him off to safety against his will. Though this course of action might commend itself to mere humans trying to rescue from suicide the friend they love, it apparently does not commend itself to an Arminian God. From God’s perspective, according to the staunch Arminian, it is a higher priority to respect the wishes of the fool than to rescue him. If any one of us behaved in this way toward a friend, or even a dog, we would be condemned, but it is considered perfectly right for an infinitely loving God to do so.

And consider the gospel in an Arminian universe. We are offered the forgiveness of our sins if:  if we have the strength of will to turn from our sins and stay turned. There is always the threat of backsliding, for anything depending on our choice can equally well be cancelled by our choice. We must not only choose to accept the love of God, we must never go back on that choice; we must not look back, we must not doubt, we must not fail. This is ultimately the Arminian gospel, to put my and your eternal destiny under my and your control. Me and you, who can’t even stick to a diet longer than a week at a time, are required to follow Christ of our own free will and never fall into sin or else the danger of hell gapes at us. We are told that the Holy Spirit lives in us now and will help us and this is supposed to reassure us. It does, I suppose, if we can keep ourselves from thinking clearly. For all around us are the backsliders, those who grasped the plow and looked back. Was their looking back the fault of the Holy Spirit? Or course not. It was their own fault. So there I am and there you are with ultimately only our own strength of will keeping us out of the fires of hell and we had damned well better not waver. This is the Arminian “good” news in Christ, as far as I can understand it.

Hell cannot be understood logically in any other way than as God failing. The all powerful and righteous God, who is Light and in whom there is no darkness at all, simply could not bring it off and the outer darkness did overcome the shining of the Light after all. For a Calvinist, hell makes the sovereignty of God meaningless; and for an Arminian hell makes the love of God meaningless. Hell cannot be made compatible with any theological position; it is the complete and utter failure of God either in love or power to complete a work that He began.

For this same reason I cannot accept annihilationism, the doctrine that the lost are simply allowed to collapse back into the nothingness they came from. This doctrine at least has the virtue of maintaining God’s character as one of mercy. But ultimately, annihilationism admits the same failure on God’s part. God brought a creature into existence whom He would not or could not redeem, and He had to give up on it. It seems to me that it is the glory of God that is at stake. Hell, were it to exist, would be the opposite of glory to God; it would degrade His name.

The way I approach theology, the basis for arriving at a Calvinist position is the doctrine of Creation. Predestination is tacit in the act of creation. I do not have free will in the most basic sense because I did not create myself. God made me who I am and what I am and I cannot choose to be otherwise. This seems to me to be the main point Paul makes in Romans 9, which derives predestination exactly from God choice in creation. Further, as Paul says, “It is by grace that I am what I am”, and that is equally true of all of us. The act of creation is identical to the act of grace. I am what I am and you are what you are by grace, by the good purpose of God who called me and you into existence and calls us to continue in existence until He has Himself fulfilled His purpose in my creation and in yours. Ultimately, the existence of hell contradicts Genesis 1; for if hell exists it is a created thing and there is no truthful way for God to see it as good.

The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment part 1

June 11, 2010

The purpose of this essay is to argue against the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment as it is usually present in theologically conservative circles among Christians. I single out theological conservatives in this essay for one major reason: what most theologically liberal Christians believe about the afterlife is hardly worth discussing. It is only those who make serious attempts to believe and maintain the teaching of the Bible that are of any interest to me here. It is only those who are honest about using the word “Christian”, that is, people who are serious about remaining in the apostolic tradition, who are of interest to me here. I am one of those people, serious about being in the apostolic tradition and serious about believing and maintaining the truth of the gospel. I say this in spite of the fact, and also because of the fact, that I am writing this essay to argue against a doctrine that is part of that tradition. It is important to me, if possible, to reassure those who might read this, that I am not intending to attack the gospel or Christianity or the Bible; I only intend to argue that the idea of the eternal conscious punishment of the lost is a doctrine alien to the gospel and has no place among those who are serious about following Christ. I believe I am not alone in taking exception to this doctrine, and that even among respected evangelical leaders there have arisen those who question the doctrine.

For clarity’s sake, I should state clearly the doctrine I wish to argue against: I do not believe that those who are lost will be eternally and consciously punished and tormented, either metaphorically or literally. The arguments against the doctrine are numerous and seem to fall into three main categories: first, despite its long and venerable place in orthodoxy, the doctrine is unscriptural; second, it contradicts the character of God; third, it is bad theology; and fourth, it contradicts the ethical standards taught by the New Testament for believers. My arguments against the doctrine of hell are not necessarily original with me. Many of them are from sources I either never knew or do not remember. Many are standard arguments that in my spiritual youth were point out by my mentors and casually dismissed, but now seem to me to be much weightier than they allowed. Here then are my arguments and my take on some of the traditional arguments.

  1. 1. The Doctrine of Hell is Unscriptural

It is a basic exegetical principle: Scripture interprets Scripture. We who begin with the assumption that Scripture is a revelation from God, who begin with the assumption that the Bible is an internally consistent and coherent revelation, we expect that when a passage is obscure in meaning it will be explained clearly somewhere else in Scripture. Nothing important or authoritative is left to guess work. If God expects His people in all times and places to believe something, He will state it clearly and repeatedly. In particular, He will state the important things repeatedly as a good Teacher, knowing that we are creatures that learn by repetition. And since the Bible is a progressive revelation – a revelation given gradually and in “lessons” over two thousand years – we would expect Him to state the important things very simply and plainly at first and gradually embellish on the important themes with the addition of relevant details. In other words, if something is truly central to our understanding of God and His will, we would expect to find it throughout Scripture and in an increasingly specific and detailed form as we proceed through the centuries from Genesis to Revelation.

In the Old Testament the concept of hell as a place of fire and torment does not make any appearance until near the end, at the time when the northern kingdom was being destroyed by Assyria, and shortly before the southern kingdom was destroyed by Babylon. Before this point, the place of the dead was called Sheol, and it was not at all a place of fire or punishment. Hell as we imagine it played no role whatsoever during the first two-thirds of the Old Testament, strikingly out of keeping for a doctrine that so many consider so fundamental. The only event that was hell-like was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there is no suggestion in the text in Genesis that Sodom was more that a one time event. There is no suggestion anywhere in Scripture that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a universal metaphor. The only other nation the Scripture compared to Sodom was Israel itself shortly before the destruction of the northern kingdom. No where does the Old Testament specify Sodom as the potential fate of any nation outside of Israel, though there are other nations who are as evil and as subject to destruction. Sodom, though the standard bearer of evil in the world, seems to have had a unique punishment.

The concept of the fires of hell is taken up in the New Testament in the gospels and in the book of Revelation and in the letters of Peter and of Jude. Paul does not teach about hell. The chosen apostle to the Gentiles, the one appointed to bring the truth to the peoples of the world, did not find it necessary to even mention the concept of the eternal fires of hell. There is only one oblique reference to the punishment of the lost and that is Romans 9:1-3, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Is Paul here saying that he could seriously wish to be condemned to hell and suffer an eternity of torment in exchange for the salvation of Israel? Could any human being seriously wish that? Yet the emphasis in the verse makes it clear that he means what he says. The only way to take this passage sensibly is that Paul had a very different idea of what it meant to be accursed and separated from Christ than we do.

And so we find, if we attend to Scripture as a unit, that the doctrine of hell does not appear until late in the process of revelation, and is omitted entirely from the great summaries of the Christian faith recorded by the last great apostle. Whatever the Scripture teaches about hell, the doctrine is on the edge of the revelation. It is not central to the gospel and it is not central to the message of the Bible as a whole. I am not saying that we can ignore those passages, particularly what Jesus has said about Gehenna, but that we must interpret them in the light of what are the true central themes of the revelation. It has been argued that since the revelation is progressive (and I agree that it is) then it is not surprising that the doctrine of hell is not fully revealed until the end. The revelation was progressing and when the time was right the idea of hell was finally opened up to God’s people.

The problems with that argument are two. First, Paul is a counter-example. Paul was virtually the last, the culmination, of God’s revelation to us and he has little or nothing to say on the subject. If the revelation of God in the Scripture is a progressive revelation, then surely the crowning point of that progress is the book of Romans; but the pinnacle, the summary of the truth of God in Christ, does not see fit to mention hell.  Second, when we say that the Scripture is a progressive revelation we do not mean that it is like a mathematics textbook which introduces new and more advanced material as one gets prepared for it; rather, it is a person introducing Himself. He is all there from the very beginning, but some themes are not emphasized until later when their context has been revealed. What is central and important concerning God is shown throughout Scripture, from the beginning to the end; it may be only hinted at initially and gradually come into focus, but it is always there when you look back in hindsight. That we are saved by grace through faith, for example, though it is not stated baldly until the book of Romans, can be seen in embryo in the curses of the Fall in Genesis 3 and increasingly vividly in Noah, Abram, and so on. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity is never spelled out in so many words, and yet it had become unavoidable and undeniable by the New Testament and in hindsight tangibly and discernibly present even from the first chapters of Genesis.  Not so the doctrine of hell. There is no hint of it, no embryonic form, no suggestion that there is an eternal torment of flame waiting for all who are left out of the stream of revelation given to Abraham and his descendants. It is we who have made hell a central theme of the gospel, not the Scripture.

I would now like to look at two passages from the gospels that talk about eternal punishment to see how inevitable their interpretation really is. There are other passages than these, but it would be wearisome and unnecessary to consider them all. I think it will be sufficient if I can show that two of the primary passages used to argue for the existence of hell can be seen in a different light. Let me be clear, though, that I am not trying to argue that there is no judgment, that there is no consequence for sin; and I am not trying to argue that the consequences of rejecting Christ are mild or painless. I am only trying to argue that the eternal conscious torment of the lost is not biblical. What punishments God may inflicts on the lost we can save until the end of this essay.

So let’s consider Matthew 18:8, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.” To begin, let’s focus on what is meant by the phrase “into the eternal fire”, the phrase that on its face appears to be exactly a description of the hell we have been taught to believe in.

In the Greek, the phrase in question is eiV to pur to ’aionion. Dr. Robert Morey perhaps presents the traditional interpretation in most detail in his book Death and the Afterlife, which the interested reader should consult as a balance to my essay. In regard to the meaning of “fire” it is common to understand it in a metaphorical sense, emphasizing that for a word to be used metaphorically does not mean that it has no meaning. Dr. Morey says, “Hell is described by many different figures of speech, each emphasizing a different aspect of ultimate alienation from God. None are to be taken in a literal sense.  But all are to be viewed as weak and feeble attempts to mentally picture something so horrible that the most awful situations here on earth cannot adequately describe it.” Jonathan Edwards, whom I rather admire, has the most graphic descriptions of this metaphorical fire in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. The point for the moment is that the most orthodox take the concept of the “fires of hell” as a metaphor for something even more horrible.

The meaning of “eternal” is somewhat more complicated due to the fairly wide range of meanings that it can have. On pages 130-133 of his book, Dr. Morey lists nine possible meanings for to ’aionion which I will list here as being more detailed than in the standard lectionaries; I italicize the phrases which are translations of to ’aionion:

1. it may be used to speak of God’s absolute eternity – see I Timothy 1:17 which reads, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, …”;

2. it may be used to encompass all of time since creation  – see John 9:32 which reads, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind”;

3. it may describe a long, indefinite but limited period of time – see John 8:35 which reads, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever”;

4. it may describe past ages or past generations – see Colossians 1:26 which reads, “that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations…”;

5. it may refer to the present evil age or the present world system – see Romans 12:2 which reads, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”;

6. it may describe the present order of things which is to be ended when Christ returns – see Matthew 13:49 which reads, “So it will be at the end of the age…”;

7. it may be used to contrast the final order with the present temporal order – see Luke 18:30 which reads, “who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”;

8. it may describe actions which begin in the present age and continue into the next age without interruption – see II Peter 3:18 which reads “…To him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity.  Amen”;

9. it may describe the final order of things after the resurrection – see Mark 10:30 which reads, “but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life”.

Clearly there is some overlapping of these shades of meaning and they are not meant to be hard and fast compartments. The important thing to notice is that the Greek word we translate “eternal” does not always mean “without end”. The question, of course, is which shade of meaning should be attributed to to ’aionion in the particular passage, Matthew 18:8. Here Dr. Morey does what seems to me to be a strange thing. He insists that while the fire is clearly metaphorical nevertheless the most literal meaning for to ’aionion is the only acceptable choice. If I understood him correctly, he gives two reasons for this insistence.

In part he argues for this interpretation based on the rabbinic teaching current at the time of Jesus that pictured hell in the most literal terms and as being never ending; since Jesus was using rabbinic terminology He must therefore have meant it to be taken as they used it, for otherwise He would have corrected their definitions. Dr. Morey chooses not to deal with the fact that the rabbinic teaching also included concepts very similar to the Catholic concept of purgatory though he does not show any inclination to change his views on that issue.

On the contrary, Jesus generally showed little sense of obligation to make changes in definition clear; His answers to the Pharisees are frequently oblique, using words in ways unfamiliar to them, without warning and without explanation. For example, when He asserted that He would rebuild the temple in three days no one understood what He was talking about and He never did pause to explain that His definitions were different. His method was to say what He said and leave it to people to catch up as best they could, or even leave it until they remembered His words after the resurrection and gained a whole new understanding of them. That Jesus used Rabbinic phrases does not seem to me to show at all that He used them with the Rabbinic meaning. In fact though, I think He did hint as to the correct definition of “eternal” just as He hinted at the correct meaning of “temple”, though it is easy to miss the passage where He did it; I will consider it later.

This is only part of Dr. Morey’s argument, however. He refers to the great Dr. Robertson for a further argument, that to adopt a metaphorical meaning for “eternal” fire would require us to adopt a similar metaphorical meaning for “eternal” life. If we give up the concept of unending torment in hell do we not simultaneously give up the concept of unending bliss in heaven? It is a good question, but it is one that Dr. Morey’s purpose makes him unable to answer correctly, I think. Dr. Morey is primarily concerned in his book to disprove the doctrine of annihilationism, that in the end the unsaved will simply cease to exist; and I believe his purpose hindered him from seeing other possibilities.

Though the annihilationist position seems to me to be more true to God’s character, and thus more nearly true, than the traditional belief in hell, nonetheless I have come to agree with Dr. Morey that annihilationism is defective, for reasons that I will consider shortly. However in focusing on annihilationism I believe Dr. Morey has missed some points that he might otherwise have noticed had he been on the look out for them. The first point is that there may be – I believe there is – a tenth meaning for the word to ’aionion which is the one that ought to be used to interpret Matthew 18:8; and it is the one we should use to think of both eternal life and eternal punishment.

I believe Jesus gave a definition for “eternal life” in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The question of continued existence, of everlasting existence, is not the point of eternal life. Eternal life does not refer to a quantity of life but to a quality of life. In the resurrection of the saved, we are not brought into a continuation of the sort of life which we now enjoy, albeit without the pain and temptation. Rather, we expect, we hope, to be resurrected to a whole new order of existence, a kind of life which we cannot even imagine or speak of at the present. It is that quality of life that is eternal life. Eternal life, which is so glorious, is one that is derived from knowing God. On page 97 of his book Dr. Morey makes a similar point but does not follow it through.

But is it really true that when a word is used twice in the same passage we must give it the same meaning each time? For example, in Revelations 14:11 the smoke of their torment goes up “forever and ever” and in Revelations 15:7 it is “God, who lives forever and ever”. If we interpret 14:11 otherwise than “unending”, do we have to interpret 15:7 other than “unending”? If we lose the unending span of torment, do we also lose the unending span of God’s life? Not at all. Words can change their meaning even when used twice in the same sentence, as anyone who has told a pun can attest. And if we require that the Bible not engage in such shifts of meaning then what about Romans 5:19, “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” In the first occurrence, “the many” is clearly the entirety of the human race; if the second occurrence must be taken with the same meaning, then the Scripture does teach that all will be saved.  As much as I would agree with this understanding of Romans, the most conservative scholars freely allow “the many” to change in meaning within the same sentence. Why not in a longer passage from Revelation? The truth is that the meaning of a word can change in ordinary speech even within a single sentence, and that giving up unending torment does not give up the unending life of God

Furthermore I think we can see a hint of this understanding of eternal life as a difference in quality of life even from the Garden of Eden. For in the garden that God planted, and in which He placed Adam and Eve as immortal people, untainted by sin and untouched by the expectation of death, He planted the Tree of Life. What was the Tree of Life to people who were not under the power of death? They already had eternal life, eternal in the sense of unending; clearly then, there was some other quality of life that was to be added to unending days, a quality which God intended to share with us from the beginning. After the Fall, when death had entered the world, when they were in need of something like a Tree of Life, their access to the Tree was cut off. This does not prove my contention, of course, but it does show that my interpretation is possible and merits further study. Further, it seems to me that the understanding of eternal life I am advocating here has the advantage of being “in embryo” in Scripture from the beginning, unlike the doctrine of hell.

The analogy I would suggest is this: compare the life of a person in the present world and the life of a dog. A human lives on a “higher dimension” than a dog does. This may sound like New Age terminology but what I mean by it is much more mundane. A dog lacks, or seems to lack, certain abilities that go into making our lives as rich as they are. A dog appears to have no sense of aesthetics, to be unable to perceive the beauty of a flower or of a symphony or even of a fellow dog. A dog appears to have no ability to reflect on experience and derive wisdom or meaning from it. A dog has no ability to abstract or to imagine what is not present to his senses. A dog has no sense of humor. A dog cannot perceive two-dimensional images and so cannot create art. A dog appears to have no ability to create even in imitation of the world around it; whether a dog could ever learn to build anything even if it had opposable thumbs is doubtful. A dog has no ability to hear music for what it is, to distinguish the beauty and order in music that distinguishes it from noise. And yet a dog is fully alive. It is just that the life of a dog is immeasurably poorer than the life of a human.

Though some of my assertions may be arguable, the point is to compare the level of existence readily available to a human versus the level of existence readily available to a dog. I would argue that the nature of eternal life is a higher order of existence as far above our present lives as ours are above a dog’s, and that this is what the term “eternal” was intended to convey. We are destined to eternal life meaning that we are destined to a kind of existence in which we will be given the abilities to know God more fully than is presently conceivable. It would be no more possible to show us what eternal life will be like than it would be possible to explain to a dog the beauty of a symphony. Further the Greek language makes just such a distinction between different levels or kinds of life by having two distinct words for life. The word ό βιος means biological life, the sort of life experienced by animals and by men on a physical level; the word ή ζωη means the spiritual life, a life which can know God. It is not unnatural at all to posit that Jesus was indicating by “eternal life” a type of life with intimacy and knowledge of God beyond our most mystical experiences.

The other side of the coin to eternal life is eternal death; those who do not enter into the joy of their Master are cast into the fire of Gehenna. If eternal life means what I think it means, then by analogy the lost experience a loss of faculty, a loss of humanity, a lessening of their abilities to experience and know God. I believe that the fire of Gehenna may be the burning away of all that is ruined in that person, of all that was contaminated by the Fall and remains unhealed. And it seems to me that this interpretation makes good sense in Matthew 18:8 (and other similar passages): it is better to go through life externally crippled than to lose permanently some of those faculties which go into making us human. Plucking out your eyes, temporarily losing the ability to see in this life, is nothing to be compared to the permanent loss of what is unclean in your spirit, the ability to see some of the things of God in your soul.

Another commonly used passage to uphold the doctrine of hell is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This parable, from Luke 16:19-31, is a frequently used portrait of the traditional understanding of hell. I will quote the entire parable here for easier reference:

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house –  for I have five brothers – in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

We are told by the scholars that a parable is a story that has a single central point, that we are not to press it too far, and that we are not to try to invest the details of the story with too much significance. If so, then this parable is clearly not about the nature of hell. The ultimate point is summarized in the very last statement: if someone is not convinced by the Scriptures that had already been revealed then they wouldn’t be convinced by someone rising from the dead; which meant that the coming resurrection would not convince some of the Messiah’s identity because they had already rejected Moses and the Prophets. All very well, but this point is not really emphasized by the rest of the story; it is an added point put into the mouth of one of the actors in the skit. What about the action in the skit itself? Is it primarily about the nature of hell? Not at all. The primary point is the contrast made between Lazarus sitting on Abraham’s lap (which is clearly metaphorical) and the rich man in torment (which we are expected to take as non-metaphorical). But if we are not required to view heaven as a literal sitting on Abraham’s lap it seems illegitimate to require us to view the description of Hades as literal. In fact, the whole nature of a parable is metaphor, and therefore the point cannot be to describe the nature of the rewards or the punishments.

What stands out in the story then? The first thing that strikes me is that the rich man in hell is never actually accused of any sin, per se; he is only guilty of being rich and enjoying it at the cost of the suffering of his fellow. Similarly, Lazarus is not described as having any depth of faith, per se; he is only singled out as a victim of poverty and mercilessness. So this parable portrays the judgment of God as re-establishing a balance between the suffering of the poor and the luxury of the rich; in a word, the parable is about justice. Perhaps we are told to look at the parable as a teaching about hell because we are afraid of what else it might mean? If it is a central priority with God to correct the balance between rich and poor then many American Christians may be in for a thin time in the next life.

In summary, when read with an open and receptive spirit, I do not think the Bible teaches the doctrine of hell that we have been taught. For most of my adult Christian life I accepted the doctrine of hell because it was simply a part of the package deal that I received when I first acknowledged Christ as my Redeemer. It took me thirty years of reading and studying both the Bible and doctrine before I got around to even thinking about the doctrine of hell, because there were so many other things that needed to be thought about. Much to my surprise, when I did finally turn my attention to this doctrine, it seemed to disappear into the quicksand of human interpretations.