Tag Archives: hell

God, Punishment, and Job (weekend reflection)

This weekend, I want to offer a bit of a footnote on the book of Job.

I have often heard it said that, no matter how hard human beings try to be good, we will always fail to such a degree that God will be inclined to punish us with extreme, eternal prejudice. Thus, by default, everyone is necessarily deserving of eternal punishment from God. [*]

In order to understand the book of Job, you have to put that idea out of your mind.

Things don’t work that way in Job. In Job, we find a man who can rightly be called “blameless” and “upright.” We are told, repeatedly, that – despite temptation – he has refused in sin in response to the circumstances in which he is placed. Job repeatedly maintains his innocence, and God validates this claim by saying that Job has “spoken correctly.”

All of this is not to say that Job has never sinned in any way. Even the author of Job knows that is impossible. In Chapter 7, he will ask “why do you not pardon my sin and take away my transgression?” Later in Chapter 13, he will speak of God making him “reap the iniquities of [his] youth.” The poet is well aware that Job, like all other humans, has necessarily sinned in his day.

The point is not that Job is altogether pure. It is more subtle than that. It is, as Gustavo Gutierrez puts it, that Job is asserting he has not done anything so evil that he is deserving of the treatment that he is receiving.

His “punishment” does not fit his sin.

All of this is simply to say that – to understand Job – you have to abandon this idea that a single sin, no matter how slight, is deserving of unending punishment. That idea is simply not to be found in this book. Rather, punishment, if it exists at all, is more measured and just.

[*]I think that the basis of this belief comes from a theological concept known as “total depravity.” Truth be told, however, I have never been able to find a consistent definition of total depravity. Every time I think I have found the best definition, someone comes along and says it means something completely different. I think this is because, over time, there have been lot of different versions of total depravity, and no one is ever happy with the previous guy’s definition, so new “versions” of the concept just go on and on. Thus, Augustine’s “total depravity” is different from Luther’s, whose concept is different from Calvin, whose concept is different from John Piper’s. I am a fan of Bo Sanders’ proposal to speak instead of “sufficient depravity.” That is, we can all agree that humans possess a certain degree of depravity and that such depravity is sufficiently serious that we are in need of God. No need to take it to unnecessary and seemingly bizarre extremes.

The Divine Wager (Weekend Reflection)

As we saw last weekend, the book of Job begins and ends with a short story. And that short story is about a wager.

The wager occurs in connection with a conversation between God and "the Satan" (literally, "the accuser"). God is proud of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job, but the accuser challenges him: Job, he says, worships God "for nothing," since God has blessed Job with possessions, family, and health. Take away the "rewards," and he will no longer follow God, since he no longer has any reason to do so.

God then agrees to allow Job's family and possessions to be taken, as proposed by the accuser. However, when Job remains faithful, the wager escalates. "Skin for skin!" the accuser shouts. Harm Job himself, he reasons, and Job will turn. Thus, not only are Job's possessions and children taken from him, but also his health.

The question at issue in this wager is simple: is Job capable of following God willingly, even where he does not benefit from doing so? The circumstances in which Job is placed create the perfect "test." Since Job's family and possessions are taken from him, he has no reason to believe his faithfulness is being rewarded. Likewise, he has no reason to fear punishment from God. Everything is already lost.

Three points about this wager:

First, the wager is not about Job's righteousness, so much as it is about God's "faith" in Job. Job believes in God, but – more importantly – God believes in Job. The divine hope is that Job will willingly and freely follow God regardless of the circumstances. The Satan, on the other hand, hopes that Job's devotion will vanish when he can no longer discern that he will benefit from his relationship with God.

Second, it is not only Job, but all of humanity that is on trial. Job is merely the archetype for all of us. Later, as the poetry in Job gathers momentum toward its mind-melting conclusion, we will  see that, from the beginning, God has been "wagering" on humanity, hoping that we will all come to follow God freely.

Third, because it is about all of us, the wager makes us aware of the difference between "true"/authentic religion and "false"/Satanic religion. In Job, "false"/Satanic religion is any system of faith that requires promises of rewards and threats of punishment to be effective. Authentic religion is any system of faith that allows humanity to freely approach God, without coercion.

And there you have it. At stake in Job is the question of whether humanity is capable of following God purely because we choose to do so or whether we must be lured (or beaten) into submission.

I think that the poet would have a lot to say about some of the discussions that are occurring between Christians in our day. Here are a few examples:

  • Prosperity. Some Christians have become critical of what they call a "prosperity gospel" that is being embraced by some churches. In its strongest form, the prosperity gospel asserts that God is certain to provide great reward to anyone who tithes and gives freely, but not all people go so far to say that this principle is absolute. The poet, I think, would question these claims in their strongest forms.
  • National Exceptionalism. Some Christians embrace the idea that God can and does favor groups and nations that properly worship God over and above other people and nations. They claim that their nation's power and success is a result of God's favoritism. Again, I think the poet is pushing back against this concept, asking us to reconsider whether we are exceptional simply because we are wealthy and powerful.
  • Hell. Some Christians are beginning to question the concept of hell, as it has been traditionally understood by the Church. In response, supporters of the traditional concept of hell often argue that people will not follow God unless they are motivated by the prospects of punishment. I believe that Job is also speaking directly to that debate, reminding us that God's desire is for us to worship freely, and not because we are coerced to do so. (The recent controversy over Rob Bell's book Love Wins illustrates just how strongly people feel about this issue – on both sides.)

Here are some issues, then to consider:

  1. In what ways do systems of rewards and punishments still influence our approaches to faith?
  2. Is the fear that people will never follow God without promises and threats legitimate? Or do you think that such fears come from our darker side (or "the Satan")?
  3. How does all this fit in with God's promise to enact justice, setting the world straight? (the poet will eventually have something to say on this point, by the way)
  4. What does a life of authentic faith (unmotivated by promises of prosperity or threats of punishment) look like?

[Note: many of the ideas that are at work in these posts are inspired by and/or come from Gustavo Gutierrez in his book On Job. If these posts interest you, I highly recommend the book.]

Hell is for Bad People (Duh!)

If you are going to carry on a conversation about hell and the way it is presented in the Bible, it helps to begin by considering who actually – in the words of Jesus – is going to hell. Surprisingly (to some), Jesus doesn’t describe the denizens of hell as people who don’t profess faith in him or who refuse to say a sinner’s prayer.

Hell, we are told, is for bad people.

You know, people who, for whatever reason, never buy into God’s idea of justice.

They never feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or care for the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). They ignore beggars that they pass by every day (Luke 16). They abuse their religious authority, burdening people with pointless rules and teachings to reinforce their own importance and power, and luring them into the same sense of smugness (Mt. 23).

Before you get into a hell-related conversation, then, be clear: whatever hell is, the Bible tells us that people are sent there because of what they did (Rev. 20). Hell is never, to my knowledge, associated with something that someone believes.

[Another interesting feature: Even among those who survive the cut, we are told, there is a great deal of complaining about how others didn’t do enough, or got in on the whole thing too late. That is, some of the hardest “workers” will apparently have a much more narrow view of who should be “in” and who should be “out” than God (Mt. 20).]

So…wait a minute! Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? How can we be judged by works, yet saved by grace?!

That, to me, is the million dollar question.

Paul, in his letters, talks quite a bit about salvation through grace. He also talks about God’s judgment and wrath. Never about hell itself, however. We should be careful about conflating the two concepts. When Jesus talks about hell, he is talking about God’s judgment; but we shouldn’t assume that, every time Paul mentions judgment or wrath, he is talking about hell.

One way of answering the works/judgment versus grace/salvation question is to say that faith in Jesus provides a sort-of “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Just keep it tucked in your wallet or purse, then pull it out on judgment day. But the Bible’s accounts of hell aren’t stories where everyone is condemned, but then a few manage to slide by because they have one of the Jesus coupons. They are stories about good people and bad people. And it’s the bad people going to hell. Good people don’t.

Which has made me wonder, for a very long time: What if judgment by works and salvation by grace aren’t two diametrically opposed things? What if its not one or the other? What if God does both of these things to and for each of us? And what if the message of the Bible is this – while God can and must do both of these things, it is his grace, in the end, that is supremely triumphant?

Questions like that seem to point in a better direction, and I hold to some speculations about how all of this might work out in a wonderfully spectacular way. But many of the ideas I hold to are just that. Hopeful speculation about the next world.

What I can say for certain, in the meantime, is that Jesus is intensely interested in what we do in this life. If we want to avoid hell, he tells us, its time to start doing works of justice.

Another Rob Bell Interview on MSNBC


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I am astounded by the interest the mainstream media has in Bell and his new book. As I’ve said before, Bell isn’t offering anything new (he says it himself in this interview); he is just doing a better job of making it understandable… and, by complaining, the folks who don’t like what he is saying are only increasing his visibility and influence.

The down side of all the publicity: the book is selling like hotcakes, and Amazon hasn’t yet shipped my copy (which I preordered)!

Rob Bell and Hell: What is at Stake?

The net was abuzz last night over a video from Rob Bell that promotes Love Wins, a book that will be released at the end of March. Here is the video:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

In the video, Bell asks a series of questions about the doctrine of hell, the most pointed of which is this: will the vast majority of humanity will suffer conscious, eternal torment?

The questions alone seem to be enough to hit some hot buttons. Commenters on Vimeo, for example, are quoting scripture back at Bell, as if his complete teaching was laid out in the video (its not). Likewise, noted Christian leader John Piper has now famously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” linking to a blog post by Justin Taylor which suggests that Bell’s teachings on the subject are “false doctrine.”

The general tone of the critics has been something like this – “Okay, we’ve seen the video, we now know that Bell is a universalist. Now that he has come out in the open, our suspicions of his heresy are confirmed.”

Scot McKnight has thankfully weighed in on the subject, cautioning us to wait and talk about Bell’s ideas after the book is actually released. Likewise, Tom Batterson, who has actually read an advance copy, has quoted from segments of it. The snippets Batterson quoted do not suggest to me that Bell is a universalist, but his apparent rejection of the teaching that people’s fates are “sealed” at death will not win over many of his critics.

The flurry of emotion over the entire subject is, I think, itself somewhat telling. For better or worse, Bell has hit a note that marks a significant break between Christians in our culture.

Often, in heated debates, I think it is helpful to try and understand what is going on behind the scenes. Why is this a message so many people want to hear? Why are people so upset over what amounts to nothing more than a series of questions in a promotional video?

To set the right tone for a debate of this magnitude (and make no mistake, once the book is released, such a debate will occur), I think its important to get in touch with why we are all so emotional about it. That helps us to keep our cool while we try to understand where the other side is coming from. So lets work through that for a minute.

From the perspective of traditional evangelicalism, and even moreso from the reformed perspective, the gospel is first (and, to some, exclusively) about being “rescued” from hell. Jesus’ work on the cross, his atonement, is an act that allows those who believe in him to avoid an eternal fate in hell. This is a perspective on the gospel that Brian McLaren has characterized as a “soul sort narrative.” Ultimately, everything you read in the Bible is about saving people from hell.

If we come to believe that hell doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t affect all nonbelievers, or that “good people” who are nonbelievers can be saved, then this entire perspective falls apart. The entire understanding of the gospel is built on the premise that we need to be “saved from hell.” Take that “need” away, and the whole thing collapses like a tower of blocks. Kevin DeYoung, for example, has more or less said this. He can’t make sense of anything in the Bible if his concept of hell is challenged. And I believe he is sincere.

So it’s a scary thing. If the tower collapses, then you either have to say it was all a fraud to begin with, or you have to pick up the pieces and try to put them together in another way. Either way, your entire worldview must go through a dramatic, jarring shift.

Its also worth mentioning that reputations of leaders are on the line here. If they are getting the hell question wrong, then it follows that there are problems with a lot of other things that they have said as well. That could be really embarrassing. I am sure that many leaders who disagree with Bell are going to do so with great (and appropriate) humility, but there may also be some egos, and some pride, involved on the part of his critics.

That is one side of the debate. What about the other?

For others of us (and I include myself in this group), the tower of blocks looks pretty wobbly to begin with. The notion that, ultimately, the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity in eternal suffering just doesn’t jive with all of the Biblical talk about God’s love. Something seems deeply wrong with this scheme.

This is what is at stake for the other side: What is God really like? How can God’s essential nature be trusted as one that is loving, if it is God’s intention to do this act of (to us) unimaginable horror? We don’t really want to see the tower stand as it is, because it presents its own, frightening view of cosmic history.

Thus, some of us are eagerly (and silently) waiting for someone to come along and, like the child who observed that the Emperor was naked, finally yank out the block that pulls down the tower. We think that Bell is going to do that for us.

But pulling this block is a very serious thing. If we hold any respect for scripture, we are going to have to account for God’s judgment and wrath and, yes, the Biblical texts that refer to hell. In other words, the “hell” block may not fit well at the foundation of our faith, but – when we eventually rebuild the tower – its going to have to fit into it somewhere.

While the “traditional” side is frightened that no new worldview can emerge once we pull the block, the opposite side of the debate may underestimate how difficult its going to be to put together a new tower. We need to approach the subject with sobriety, and respect for the prior generations who handed this perspective to our own.

To summarize, then, here is what I think is at stake: We aren’t just arguing over a few minor points of doctrine, we are arguing over a key component which is central (even essential) to the faith of a large number of Christians. A great number of things depend on how we answer the “hell” question.

This storm has been brewing for a long time, and – as you might expect – some are spoiling for a fight. Lets not allow the tension to cause our discussion to spiral out of control, into name calling, mischaracterizations, and dismissiveness. This means a great deal to all of us. Lets address each other with (1) a genuine desire to understand what people are saying and why it is important to them, (2) mutual respect, and (3) humility.

As followers of Jesus, it is the very least we can do.

A New Kind of Christianity #1 – The Narrative Question

This is the first part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.

The first question is this: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

McLaren begins by observing that, for most of us, the story can be outlined on a six-line diagram that looks like this:

In this story, creation begins in a pristine, “perfect” state that we call Eden. Then, there is a single, fateful event which places humanity in a state of condemnation. At this point, the diagram branches. Some of condemned humanity moves back up, along the “salvation” line, ending up in heaven. In the meantime, the rest of humanity ends up in hell. Once in these new states, everything becomes perfect and unchanging again.

This six-line story is not something that we think about a lot, he says. Rather, we assume it to be the case. Like an pair of glasses, it is not – for the most part – present in our conscious minds, yet it is shaping the way we see scripture.

Right out of the gate, McLaren is moving into an issue that will elicit very different reactions from Christians. Some of us will look at the six-line story and say “This isn’t just a way of thinking about the Bible – this is the Bible. What is the problem with it?” Others, however, are starting to look at it and say (in McLaren’s words) “[H]ow in God’s name could anyone ever think this is the narrative of the Bible?

Why the sudden reluctance by many of us to embrace the six-line framework? McLaren answers this in several ways.

To begin with, the six-line story is a cold, almost mechanistic way of characterizing human existence. It is as if our world is little more than a sorting bin on a cosmic assembly line. Our value to God is determined, and then we are either selected for eternity in heaven or cast off. How does this push us toward the values that are central to the Judeo/Christian tradition? How does it encourage us to love our neighbors and our enemies, or to be good stewards of our planet?

Second, he says that we have come to think of Jesus in terms of the people that came after him, rather than the people that preceded him – John the Baptist, the prophets, David, Moses, etc. In other words, we tend to ask how did Paul see Jesus? Then, how did Augustine see Paul as he saw Jesus? etc. Thus, by the time we start listening to the most influential voices of our day, we may be looking at Jesus through as many as five layers of other interpretation. Do the opposite of this, interpreting Jesus’ life in light of those who preceded him (John the Baptist, the Prophets, Moses, etc.), and you get dramatically different results – results that don’t necessarily fit within the six-line framework.

Finally, McLaren believes the six-line frame is a way of superimposing a traditional, Greco-Roman narrative on scripture. He develops this idea in considerable detail.

The Greeks, he argues, were used to thinking in dualistic terms. The tension in Greek philosophy was between: (1) the material world of Aristotle, which was imperfect, changing and evolving, and (2) the ideal world of Plato, which was perfect and unchanging. The Platonic way of thinking, which looked at the material world as “unreal,” was later adapted by the Romans to justify their systematic efforts to dominate all cultures and nations.

If you peel away the Biblical layer from our six-line story, McLaren says, you can see the Greco-Roman themes that are at play behind it:

McLaren encourages us to think of Theos – a Roman god that he has invented for purposes of his illustration. Theos makes a perfect, pristine world – unchanging in the tradition of Platonic philosophy. Then, something bad happens – and creation falls into a state where it is suddenly dynamic, shifting, changing. This angers Theos, whose sense of eternal, singular oneness has been disturbed. Thus, he sets out to restore some of humanity to the perfect, pristine state (heaven), while the rest is consigned to the Greek realm of the dead, known as Hades. Satisfied that everything is no longer is a state of flux and change, Theos is once again content. In Hades, a sign is placed over the locked gates: “DESPAIR ALL WHO ENTER HERE: NO BECOMING ALLOWED!”

Of course, accusations that dualism is overly influential in Western Christianity aren’t new. The issue has been discussed among theologians and Bible scholars for years. McLaren, however, is a great at popularizing ideas from the academy, and – in this case – he is using the six-line diagram to illustrate issues that people have been tossing around for a long time. Specifically, he wants us to see how Platonic dualism is so powerful that it is actually distorting the foundation and frame on which our entire Biblical narrative is built.

He is also highlighting what I’ve found to be an essential problem with narratives like this one for years: “What, exactly, will people be doing in heaven?” I’ve wondered, “Doesn’t sound that exciting to me.” From a dualistic standpoint, “nothing” is exactly the rather unexciting point. Likewise, once further change becomes impossible, the horrors of hell begin to look terribly unfair. What if someone changes their attitude toward God while in hell? The Platonic view says “they can’t.”

While I like the way McLaren has visualized the problem using the six-line framework, and while I generally agree with him, my suspicion is that we aren’t simply dealing with a problem of subsequent Platonic philosophy influencing the way people read the New Testament. Rather, I think that Greco-Roman culture is influencing the Bible writers themselves, and that some of these issues are already surfacing in the narratives in the New Testament. The example that comes to mind immediately is the way the gospel writers are already using Hades as imagery to describe the abode of the dead. That means that the task of understanding Jesus can’t be solved by simply disentangling the New Testament from Platonic influences – we also have to re-think the way we read Bible narratives that are shaped by dualistic philosophies.

McLaren’s alternative approach to the shape of scripture – looking at Jesus primarily through the lens of Moses, David, the Prophets, etc. – rather than Plato and the theologians and Church fathers who were influenced by Plato – yields a different perspective. In this view, creation is and should be an evolving, changing, dynamic reality full of life, mystery, and potential. It is a rich, colorful, three dimensional picture. Furthermore, as humanity and creation get into deeper and deeper trouble, God becomes more and more deeply committed to rescue and redeem it. The trajectory of the story points to the restoration of creation rather than a transition of humanity into an unchanging, Platonic state. At the end of the restoration project, God’s world continues, full of life, potential, vibrancy, and change.

The alternative to the six-line story is spelled out over two Chapters, but I’m not going to say anything more about it here because: (1) his main point is to introduce the question and the forces that are driving the question, not to offer a comprehensive answer to the question and (2) for the unconvinced, I don’t think he has the time or space to generate many converts. He’s got too many other issues to address in the coming pages. McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus and/or NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope are much better resources for that purpose.

Up next – The Authority Question: How should the Bible be understood?

Paul and Hell Revisited

One of the odd things I’m learning about moving to a new blog is that the old one doesn’t really die unless you completely pull it down. Even after I publicly announced that my WordPress.com blog was dormant, people – mostly, I’m guessing who linked to it via search engines and blogrolls that haven’t been updated – continued to read and comment. Today, someone named Mannik left a comment on one of the more heavily-commented posts on my old blog – entitled Paul, Hell, and Universalism. Interestingly, that post is now three years old, almost to the day.

Mannik’s comment was extensive and somewhat personal, and I want to respond. However, I want to do it in a forum where more people can be exposed to the conversation, so I decided to shift my response over to this post. (I’ve linked to this post after Mannik’s comments so that, if he continues to monitor the comments, he can read what I have to say here).

I plan to eventually revisit the subject of Hell, salvation, and universalism on this blog in considerably more detail. However, for the time being, a Cliff’s Notes version of the prior post will have to do.

My 2007 post points out that, while mainstream Christianity seems to have a fixation on the doctrine of hell and the way it fits into our belief systems, the Apostle Paul himself had – literally – nothing to say on the subject. Paul often talks about God’s wrath and judgment, but he never discusses it in terms of the image of the valley of Ghenna, the word has evolved into “Hell” in our language. Also, with the exception of one somewhat cryptic passage in a letter to Timothy, one that some don’t even attribute to Paul – there is nothing in Paul’s writings that suggests the idea of eternal “punishment” for sins.

I then quoted from several texts in Paul’s writings that include themes of universal salvation (or, what some call universal reconciliation). My point was that, in the debate between Exclusivism (the idea that all non-Christians will go to Hell) and Universalism (the idea that all people are ultimately “saved”) everyone has to pick and choose which texts they want to focus on. Universalists put emphasis on these texts and “play down” others. Exclusivists do the same thing.

This was part of a series of posts on Hell. In those posts, I pointed out that I am not, strictly speaking, a believer in universal reconciliation. I do, however, fit into the odd-ball category of the hopeful Universalist. That is, I believe that universal reconciliation is possible, and I therefore hope and pray for it. I am also a believer that – whatever Hell/Ghenna may be – the Bible writers didn’t understand it as a place where all non-Christians will end up. But sorting all of that out will have to wait for future posts.

Responses to the Paul, Hell, and Universalism post have been very emotional. Some commenters felt strongly that universalism is inconsistent with Christian beliefs and with the Bible. Others weren’t sure why its a big deal to talk about the possibility of universal reconciliation. One even linked to some of his own thoughts on the subject.

Today, Mannik made this comment (I don’t believe that Mannik’s native language is English, so I’ve edited it slightly):

I came from a Hindu background and gave my life to Christ [many] years ago. My parents were very strong in their religion and I as a youngster [did] the same. However when I was exposed to the Truth of the gospel and saw the Grace of God as compared to idolatry, karma and reincarnation etc, I knew how wrong all these were. So at the cost of being expelled, ill-treated and rejected from my family and village, I chose Christ. My decision broke the heart of my mother and my family. My mother would cry night and day, and I know she suffered a lot.

Universalism must make many people feel comfortable, but not so with those like me, who have caused [grief] to our own.

I would be more than happy [to] know that at some point in eternity my parents will come to the Lord, but I could have remained in my religion and in my family without causing any distress, and breaking my mum’s heart. IF I [HAD KNOWN THAT] ALL ARE ULTIMATELY SAVED, then WHY [WOULD I GO THROUGH ALL OF THIS] FOOLISHNESS, in light of the Universalists’ belief. Really, I [would] always regret knowing the simplest way was to STAY IN MY EX RELIGION, if Universalism was true.

I realize that all of that is a lot just to get to a response that is relatively short, but I hoped to give everyone a feel for the context of Mannik’s remarks and my own. So…to Mannik, I say this:

I have a couple of things that I hope you will consider.

First, I hope you will consider whether things ever could have been any different. You’ve described an experience that dramatically changed the way you look at the world. Even if you had known that, “in eternity,” as you say, God will wait patiently for your family to see the universe as you, would it have made sense for you to go on living as if your own view of the world hadn’t changed? I think that, if you reflect on it, you’ll see that continuing to live as if your view of the world had not changed would not have made much sense.

Second, I hope you’ll consider whether an approach to Christianity that removes Hell from its center might have helped you – and may could even now  help you – to stay in relationship with your family. I know nothing about the particulars of your situation. However, my experience has been that people don’t react well to a message which indicates that God intends to do violence to them simply because they don’t have a correct view of their world. That sort-of message isn’t consistent with the central Christian assertion that God is good. On the other hand, I wonder if they would be more open to staying in relationship with you if you have a faith that declares that God intends to make all of our world – including many, maybe even all, who do not fully understand God – whole and beautiful and eternal. I’m not saying that would have been – or could be the case – with you, but I think that it can make a big difference in many situations.

Anyone else want to comment?