Thursday, June 16, 2011
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
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
...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.
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