Tuesday, July 12, 2011

So What's the Point?

So, you have heaven and hell.
You have eternity, eternal life, the kingdom of God, whatever those include or don't include.
You have this life, and the next, and somehow they're bound up together in a way that makes it impossible to separate one from the other.
You have salvation, through Jesus, however that works, however the mysterious mechanism operates, but it's available.
You have faith, belief, works, actions, lifestyle, repentance, and a myriad of ways in which different people will tell you salvation is gained.

But ultimately, it comes down to Jesus, and a question that isn't asked in Love Wins but that is raised by it nonetheless:

Without all this afterlife stuff, without the question of how hell works, who goes there and for how long, what heaven looks like, what the Greek word for eternal means...

Is Jesus still worth following?     

Because you also have this life, and somehow all those questions about that life, later, have serious implications for this life, here, now. 

One point our Life Group kept returning to throughout our discussion on Love Wins (we've talked through the first five chapters so far), is the question: what does all of this mean for how I live now?

Am I living in heaven now, or hell now? Which one am I embracing, when I make certain decisions in my life?  When I choose to spend my money there, pass my time with them, treat him in that way, speak to her in this manner?  Because heaven and hell are real, they are present, and we embrace each of them sometimes, based on our decisions about how to live.

When it comes down to it, we might continue to disagree on how heaven and hell and salvation work and how we interpret what the Bible has to say about all that.  But throughout our group discussions we all agreed on one thing: a desire to follow Jesus, in this life, now.  Because regardless of just how things are going to go down later, we find the Way of Jesus too compelling, too beautiful, too real to resist joining now.  We see a kind of life that we desperately want, a life that isn't available apart from the kind of life Jesus lived and offered, a life that, when embraced, starts to make our arguments about theology seem petty and arrogant and far less important than embodying our true beliefs in the way we live.

Because when it comes down to it, what we do is what we believe, isn't it?

I can claim to hold certain theological viewpoints all I want but if I live a different way, it's all too clear what my real beliefs are.

Pastor Shane Hipps brought up the question of orthodoxy (literally defined as "right belief") in a recent message.  We in the church are very concerned with orthodoxy, with making sure we hold "right beliefs", with convincing others that the way we understand the Bible is the correct way, the orthodox way, so that we won't be labeled "heterodox" because "heterodox" is not many steps away from "heretical" and God forbid we be associated with heretics.  (Gold star if you can name one infamous heretic from the New Testament.  Hint: he got paid to carve stuff.)

Hipps asked the question: what about orthopraxy?
When was the last time you heard that word used in church?
What about "right practice"?
Because in the early church, in the minds of those Jews-turned-"little Christs," the idea of separating one's "orthodoxy" from one's "orthopraxy" would have been completely foreign.

So there's Larry, and he believes that the opportunity for salvation from hell ends at death, that the choice you make in this life determines where you spend eternity, in heaven with God or in hell without him. 

And there's Sandra, and she believes that there will be post-death chances for people to choose God, but that it's not likely that they will if they didn't already.

And there's Dave, who believes that "eternal punishment" will be a time of correction focused on the quality of an experience that is outside of time, whose purpose will be to bring to God those who had previously rejected him.  He believes that eventually, no one will be able to resist God's love, that given forever, everyone will make the right choice, of their own free will.

And there's Christy, who believes that eternal means everlasting, that all whose names aren't found written in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire, that God gives us a choice, leaves it up to us, that if we want hell we can have it, because he won't force anyone to choose him, and that hell will literally never end for those who choose it.  

And all of these people find scriptural support for their viewpoint, which hints at the fact that maybe it isn't as clear cut in the Bible as we'd like to believe.

But maybe more important than figuring out who is right, who holds the most orthodox set of mental beliefs, is a question of where orthodoxy meets orthopraxy.  How do Matt, and Sandra, and Dave, and Christy reconcile their beliefs with their lifestyle?  How does what Matt thinks affect how he shows people what Jesus is like?  How does Sandra embody the life Jesus offers in light of the fact that she believes death doesn't have the final say? How does Dave bring the kingdom of heaven to earth in order to show people that they want what God has to offer, that this love is too good to pass up?  How does Christy work to replace the hells on earth with heaven, to show people what the difference is, to convince them that there is only one way to Life?

All of which leads to one central question, that we all answer, one way or another, through our actions and our lives, whether we're trying to or not, whether or not we know we're answering it.

What does it look like for love to win?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Biblical Support for the Ideas Being Discussed

I'm of the opinion that anytime you try to use individual verses to back up a point, such as the point that nonbelievers will burn in hell forever literally, or the point that they might not, you have to take those verses into account against the backdrop of the context of the entire story that is the Bible, along with the context of the nature of God and the kind of Being we believe him to be.  Because of that, I don't like to point to individual verses (even a group of them) as evidence that God might offer the opportunity of salvation after death, because I think it is dangerous to base an entire system of theology off of a select few verses. However, the fact that verses exist which point toward the ultimate redemption of all things is true, and I've provided a list of those I have come across (some of which are referenced in LW, some of which are not), as I have been asked to do by a few people (who I would hope, are also searching them out themselves).  I am also familiar with the verses which seem to suggest that nonbelievers will spend forever in hell, however, I don't interpret them the same way as those who do believe that "once in hell, always in hell".  In particular, the fact that "hell" in the N.T. always translates to "Gehenna" (a physical place in Israel) or to "Hades" (the Greek concept of death/the underworld) as well as the fact that "eternal" (aion) does not translate to "forever", give me pause in interpreting those verses in what might be considered a "traditional" sense.  This is all to say that I don't consider any of the verses about hell found in the Bible to contradict any of the verses mentioned below, to ensure that I don't give the impression that I would use any verse to "refute" another.

If you end up looking these up, I definitely encourage you to read more than just the single verse in each case, if for no other reason than that it will be good for your soul and God said that the word that goes out from his mouth will never return to him empty but will accomplish what he desires (Isaiah 55:11). 

John 1:29; 3:17 (*The verses following v. 17 speak of those who do not believe standing "condemned already".  However it does not say anything about the nature of hell in this verse, or the impossibility of the condemned being redeemed.)

John 6:33; 6:51

Romans 5:18; 11:32; 13:10; 14:11; Isaiah 45:23

1 Corinthians 15:20

Colossians 1:19-20

1 Timothy 2:3-6

Interesting & Important:
"kolasin aionion" (translated "eternal punishment" in matthew 25:46)
Kolasin: "punishment, chastening, correction, to cut-off as in pruning a tree to bear more fruit"
*God punishes with a purpose, in this case, the purpose of pruning.  How can someone who never gets to leave hell/punishment produce more fruit?
Aionion: "an indeterminate period of time. It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (three days or nights, and is used in that passage), the length of a man's life, or as long as a very long age."  
Aionion does not equal "everlasting".

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Chapter One, Part Two

...And, here goes the rest of it.

III.           Is that the good news?
                Bell writes, "Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven.  Is that the message? (And I would add, if all non-believers are going to hell forever, how could we claim that the point really could be anything else?)  Is that what life is about?  Going somewhere else?  If that's the gospel, the good news - if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else - then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one.  Which of course raises the question: Is that the best God can do?"
                  This question raised another one in my mind: If even part of the reason we follow Jesus is that we know we have to or face eternal punishment, then can we truly ever follow him for other reasons? Can we honestly say we follow him because we love him?  Is it really our choice to love him if we have to love him, or else?  Or, as Kant suggested, if you do the right thing because you have to, are you really doing the right thing?  I  don't know if I agree with Kant, and I don't know if anyone really follows Jesus "for the right reasons", or if that's possible.  But it is a question I have. 

IV.          Is it grace or is it earned?
                A. "Being a good person"
                RB mentions that a dominant belief among Christians today is that "If they die, they go to be with God only if they have said or done or believed the 'right' things."  He adds that "If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him - a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds - and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't those verbs? And aren't verbs actions?
Accepting, confessing, believing - those are things we do.
Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that the good news?
Isn't that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart - that it wasn't, in the end, a religion at all - that you don't have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?"

So, here's my question that follows from that: If we do have to do something, which something is it? Is it (A) being "born again" as Jesus told Nicodemus he must do in order to see the kingdom of God? (John 3)
(B) being considered worthy? (In Luke 20, Jesus refers to "those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead")
(C) asking God for mercy or acknowledging that you are a sinner? (In Luke 18 Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The tax collector prayed "God, have mercy on me, a sinner," and Jesus said "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.")
(D) asking Jesus to remember you as the thief on the cross did in Luke 23?
(E) forgiving others? (In Matthew 6, Jesus says that "if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.")
(F) standing firm to the end? (Matthew 10-"he who stands firm till the end will be saved.")
(G) give half of our possessions to the poor as Zacchaeus did in Luke 19, prompting Jesus to say "Today salvation has come to this house"?
or what about when the paralytic's friends lower him through a roof in Mark 2 in order for Jesus to heal him, and "when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'."?

By the way, there are plenty more where those came from. 

RB mentions that many preach that you just have to believe, and he responds, "So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things?"  To me, that idea seems to contradict much of the rest of the message of Jesus when he talks about how the way you live your life now does matter.   (See Matt. 25:31-46 for example).
                B. "a personal relationship"
                Bell also writes that, according to many Christians today, "the real issue, the one that can't be avoided, is whether a person has a 'personal relationship' with God through Jesus...that's the bottom line: a personal relationship.  If you don't have that, you will die apart from God and spend eternity in torment in hell.  The problem, however, is that the phrase 'personal relationship'  is found nowhere in the Bible.  If that's the point of it all, the one unavoidable reality, the heart of the Christian faith, why is it that no one used the phrase until the last hundred years or so?"
                My question that follows from that is, if it's all about who has a personal relationship with Jesus, why wouldn't Jesus simply state clearly that that is the key to salvation?  Why wouldn't he state it so clearly that it could not possibly be mistaken or confuse anyone?  Another issue I have with the personal relationship concept is that the idea of a relationship is not black and white, and what this relationship should look like isn't defined in the Bible. So even if Jesus had said "if you have a personal relationship with me, you will go to heaven," how would we know who had one and who didn't? He is, after all, an invisible, (currently) non-physical, divine Being.  I don't have a manual for how to have a relationship with such a Being, I just have a really long book with story after story of people who interacted with Him, some of whom seemed to pursue a connection with Him, some of whom didn't, none of whom ever got it quite right.

Chapter One, Part One (What About the Flat Tire?)

There was so much to talk about, I split up my ch. 1 blog into two parts, and this is only the first of those.  I organized it by question category, because basically, this chapter is all about asking important questions, so below are RB's originals plus the additional questions they caused me to raise.

I.             Love & Justice
                Here are the first two questions we come across in chapter one, simplified as much as I could:
(1) Will most of the people God created go to hell forever? How does that mesh with the picture of a loving God?
(2) Is it truly just (and moreover, is it merciful?) for someone to suffer forever (an infinite amount of time) for a finite number of sins?
                Rob Bell doesn't claim to know the answers to these questions, but he stresses the importance of asking them.  How we respond to these questions shapes what our faith looks like, the kind of relationship we believe we can/should have with God, and how we treat and view others.   Here's an example of a question that should follow after reading all the questions raised in Ch. 1: "What should evangelism look like in light of what I believe about heaven, hell, and salvation?" Here's another:  "If I believe I'm 'getting in to heaven' and 'Bob' isn't, why do I believe that, what am I basing it off of, and how should I view/treat Bob in light of that? What is my responsibility to Bob?  And if I don't believe that Bob is necessarily 'not getting in', how should that affect how I "evangelize" or "witness" to Bob? What are my responsibilities to Bob then?
                So, about those questions RB asks in Ch. 1, here's a taste of them:
                "Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number 'make it to a better place' and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever?  Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?"
                On a similar note, a page or so later Bell writes: "Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?  What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?"

                So here are the questions I'm left with: (A) Is the God I believe in, the God my Bible tells me is love, mercy, justice and grace, really okay with being separated from the vast majority of his creation, the beings he so desperately longs to be with, according to what the Bible tells us, forever and ever? And not just be separated from them, but know that they are suffering forever and ever? And not just know that they are suffering, but know that he decreed that to be their punishment?  I believe wholeheartedly that God loves us enough to allow us to choose whether or not we want to have anything to do with him, and that as painful as it is to Him, when we reject him, he lets us do so.  But what if someone rejects him now, and changes their mind later? And by later I mean, post-mortem later.  Is God going to say "nope, sorry, as much as I want to be with you, you made your choice, and you can't unmake it?" 

                (B) The question of God's justice: does it seem just that an "average" non-believer would suffer not ten years, not ten million years, but forever upon forever in hell for whatever he did wrong, or rather, for the right choice(s) he didn't make, during his seventy-odd years on Earth?  Or let's take an extreme example: maybe we do think Hitler should get ten million years of hell for what he did.  Maybe that would be justice, seeing as how far more than ten million lives were grievously affected and/or snuffed out because of him.  But his grievances, his sins are still finite in number.  Can we really say that after ten million years or so of torment even Hitler wouldn't have atoned for his sins? Or even if he hadn't, say that at that point, Hitler is actually repentant.  Would a loving God continue to inflict punishment on a single soul for millions upon billions upon trillions of years everlastingly, for the sins committed in a single lifetime? 

II.            Why Run the Risk?
                In Love Wins, Bell references a story of a Christian teenager whose high school friend passed away.  At the funeral, she was approached by another Christian who asked her about the dead guy's beliefs, and upon finding out that he had been an atheist while alive, said, "So there's no hope then."  Bell then questions if "no hope" is the Christian message, the word Jesus came to offer to the world. He asks "Is this the sacred calling of Christians - to announce that there's no hope?"
                He then writes, "This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces.  If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child's life anytime from conception to twelve years of age (the age he cites as most commonly believed by Christians to be the age of responsibility)* would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?"
*Italicized words are my added thoughts

Monday, May 30, 2011

An Introduction to An Introduction

First off, a statement about the controversy surrounding the book.  Rob Bell's title is, like those of his other books, meant to catch your attention, (remember Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Too). The book Sex God ended up being a lot tamer than those of us who didn't realize it was supposed to read Sex, God (comma=crucial) might have expected.  That isn't the case with Love Wins.  It absolutely does "go there."  Many people have been shocked, disturbed, or concerned with the contents of LW.  Rob Bell openly invites disagreement, questions, and discussion.  The main point of all of his writings, from what I understand, has been to encourage people to take a step outside of their mental comfort zone and consider the possibility that we don't have all the answers, and that the acknowledgement of that truth could lead to a better understanding of God and a deeper relationship with Christ.  Rob Bell wants people to feel safe to discuss their doubts and concerns with things they've been taught, safe to have the conversations they may have been too afraid to have with other believers.  He write in the preface to LW, "There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous."

That being said, RB begins his preface "Millions of Us", by stating what is perhaps the most important thing for anyone to remember while reading this book:  "Jesus's story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us."  It is hard to maintain that an individual is a heretic or a false prophet while acknowledging the obvious love that individual has for Jesus and his desire to serve God by sharing the love Jesus has for us with as many people as possible.  It is difficult to assert that someone is not aligned with the mission of the kingdom of heaven while acknowledging the work for the kingdom that a congregation of believers has achieved under that someone's teaching and leadership.

To jump right into the point of the book (Major Spoiler Alert), RB writes: "A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better."

If  you're thinking, "that's what I was taught," or "that's what I believe," I hear you.  For eighteen years I never questioned that exact description of what the message of Jesus is.  Now that I do question whether that is the point of Jesus, whether that can be considered a gospel of hope, I worry about whether my church will continue to support me, whether I will continue to fit in with my Christian friends, whether my family will think I'm a heretic. 

RB continues, "It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus."

I only hope that other Christians will be able to agree that the rejection of the idea of everlasting torture for the majority of humanity does not have to involve a rejection of Jesus, his teachings, or the Bible.   

As I continue to write about Love Wins chapter by chapter, I'm also going to look into what some well-known Christian theologians have said about the very questions Rob Bell raises.  As he writes, "nothing in this book hasn't been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven't come up with a radical new teaching."  C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Origen, among others, have suggested ideas about "heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived" that are worth discussing, and that anyone who wonders where Rob Bell is coming from should be aware of.

My thoughts are small beans, puny potatoes and mini marshmallows compared to reading the book for yourself.  Please let me know what you think about Love Wins and/or anything I've written.  Grace and peace!