Tag Archives: afterlife

24 Responses to Charisma News On Hell (Part 2)

I am responding to a Charisma News article titled “24 Reasons To Believe Hell Is a Reality.” Continued from Part 1

13. The early preachers of the church clearly preached that Jesus is the only way to salvation. “There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; see also 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 2:3-4; 1 Pet. 1:3-5).

More bad soteriology. See also Part 1, #11. If “salvation” is a legal soul status that keeps one out of hell, then this can be read as an exclusivist statement about the only way to get to heaven. But the true context of a saying like this is the first century Roman Empire, wherein Caesar was the only name by which one could be saved. When the emperor took control of your city, he became its “savior,” and the program of goods and services afforded by collusion with (or surrender to) the empire was described as “salvation.” Statements like this one in the Bible are a rejection of corrupt empire and that empty and false kind of salvation, and a countercultural declaration that true rescue and liberation were to be found in the way of Jesus. This isn’t about one’s fate in the afterlife, but about one’s allegiances in this life.

14. According to Scripture, only those who receive Jesus Christ and believe in Him are children of God. “Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name” (John 1:12).

I was talking to a friend recently about faith and hope, and he made a great point. He said that, for instance, when Paul writes (quoting Joel) that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be rescued,” the church’s impulse has been to immediately affirm the negative inverse, that those who do not call on His name will not be saved, even though that’s not what the text says. That spirit pervades this list.

15. The gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; see also 10:9).

Likewise, here is another overwhelmingly positive statement that is being offered as proof of its grim antithesis.

16. Rather than teaching that those without faith in Christ are already saved, the Bible teaches that they are already under judgment. Faith in Christ brings us out of condemnation and into right relationship with God. “He who believes in Him is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).

The basic assumption of this article, stated plainly in the introduction, is that rejecting or even questioning the traditional doctrine of hell means that one has “rejected the notion of judgment altogether.” In that “our way or the highway” kind of framework, a text like this one seems like a slam dunk for Charisma News. But that is not a fair representation of the text itself or those who would interpret it any other way. Speaking for myself, while I have come to question and reject elements of the traditional doctrine of hell and eternal conscious torment, I would never suggest that judgment is not a key theme in scripture. Indeed, it is the heart of Jesus’ prophetic message and the eschatology of Paul, for two major examples. But that moves us toward the real question: what is the nature and basis of judgment? Is it about loyalty to a religion, or character and integrity? What does it mean to stand “condemned”? Does it mean that God cannot accept or embrace us unless we profess certain creeds? Or does it mean, as Jesus taught, that violence and retribution will keep us on a path of self-destruction unless we repent and embrace the kingdom of peace?

17. Only those whose names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life are granted access into the eternal city of God. “Anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15; see also 21:27).

Another flat and literal appeal to a dramatic apocalyptic metaphor. And, according to the text, whose names are in that book? Was it those who belonged to the correct religion or believed in the correct doctrines? No, it was those who did what was right and good.

18. People are not automatically righteous. Only when we declare faith in Jesus Christ does God declare us righteous in His sight. “But to him who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

The context of Romans is not soul salvation or afterlife, but a conversation about who truly belongs in the Christian community. Do Gentiles need to become Jews before they can follow Jesus? Paul says “absolutely not,” and that is what “works” and “justification” are about. You are “justified” and “in the right” because of what Jesus did, not because you got circumcised or went kosher. This is an argument about culture and freedom, not heaven and hell.

19. Eternal life comes only through a relationship with God. We cannot know the Father unless we know the Son. “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Again, John says, “if you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus.” “The life of the coming age” is John’s code word for “the kingdom,” not necessarily heaven or afterlife.

20. The cross of Christ is where payment for our sins was made. Only when we believe this are we saved. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on a cross], that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Here the article’s author has inserted his own interpretive expansion into the text, so that it is explicitly talking about the cross and atonement. But in John’s text Jesus is talking about the “son of man” as a beacon of God’s goodness to a lost world. This most certainly includes his death on the cross, but also his life and teaching and resurrection. Charisma News wants to read this as a warning to believe in substitutionary atonement or go to hell, but in context it is about getting a transformative glimpse of God’s love and mercy. This verse precedes the famous John 3:16, which is immediately followed by 3:17: “After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.”

21. Only those who have the Son of God have eternal life. “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life, and whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

See #19 and #12 in Part 1.

In addition to these verses, the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11 provides hard evidence against Uni­versalism. Cornelius was devout, prayed often, gave generously to the poor and even received an angelic vis­itation. Yet God went to great lengths to get the gospel to him so he could come to know Jesus and be saved.

I do not see how an ancient story about a Greek man converting to Christianity is “hard evidence” for anything in particular. In the context of Acts, this account is actually part of a larger story about Peter’s journey to a more open-minded and inclusive faith.

22. Added to the avalanche of scriptural evidence, there are also practical reasons for rejecting Uni­versalism. History teaches that acceding to Universalism sets the church on a slippery slide toward theological liber­alism. Soon all confidence in Scripture is lost and the uniqueness of the Chris­tian gospel evaporates.

First let me just say how relieved I am to finally have respite from the “avalanche” of prooftexts. It feels good to breathe again! However, I cannot begin to fathom what the author is talking about here. Have they confused the fact of diversity among Christian traditions for a “slippery slope”? Yes, there are people who do not read the Bible like you do, and who frame their doctrine according to an altogether different set of assumptions. To you this looks like compromise and failure, but it is actually just a reflection of reality, of the diversity of human thought and perspective. Can we be so certain that our own camp has followed Jesus with impunity while others have gone “wishy washy”? Or is it possible that we have much to learn from one another? If history teaches us something, it’s that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are unhelpful at best, divisive and damaging at worst. 

23. If we embrace Universalism, there is no urgency to evange­lize or imperative to do missions. In fact, evangelism and missions would have to be redefined. We need look no further than most of the mainline denomina­tions to see what happens to evangelism when Universalism is prevalent.

Here is a spot where we do agree: evangelism and missions DO have to be redefined! Not because of universalism or compromise or any slippery slope, but because it is the responsibility of every generation to revisit and rediscover what these Christian praxes look like. When tradition and reason and scholarship and experience come together to create a new dawn of interpretation and clarification of mission, it only stands to reason that we will rethink what it means to “spread the gospel” in our own day and in our own world. And speaking as a believer who transitioned from the Evangelical world to a “mainline” tradition, I want to tell you that you are wrong. Mission and evangelism are alive and well in our churches, they just look and feel and taste very different.

24. If Universalism is finally proved right, nothing will have been lost by our continued urgency in winning people to faith in Christ. But if it is false and we embrace it, then everything will be forever lost—including people who do not know Christ.

Such a strange and desperate kind of argument to make. So, because there is more (hypothetically) at stake in our traditional, conservative perspective, it must be legitimate? That is weird logic, and it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on Christians. If we don’t mobilize and warn people about hell, God’s rescue plan will fail and “everything will be forever lost”? Do we trust in Jesus or not? Is the good news good or not? If we truly believed in Jesus, wouldn’t our faith look more like joyful, confident living than moralizing or doomsaying? Did the early evangelists preach hell and conformity, or was it love and unity? As with “inerrancy,” we should be wary of doctrines that come with warning labels about what will be “lost” if we ever dare to question them. 

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Three More Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

The response to my first “Bible words” post was quite positive, and so I offer this exciting sequel. Here are more words that have taken on new layers of meaning throughout the centuries and which may carry some unhelpful and counterproductive assumptions for many American Christians. Or, as in the case of our first word, we might have simply lost our view to the origins of an over-familiar term.

1. Christ

What We Hear: This is an example of a word that has taken on such a heavy load of theological meaning that its original setting is easily overlooked or forgotten. There are actually two extremes when it comes to a modern understanding of “Christ.” For most Christians, Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the object of Christian belief and worship. For others less familiar with Christianity, it might as well be Jesus’ last name: Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary Christ, the Christs. The former is Christian doctrine, the latter is a misunderstanding. But the native context of the term “Christ” is not the Greek-influenced world of early Christian interpretation, but the Jewish world in which Jesus himself lived, operated, and died. “Christ” may now mean much more than it did in its ancient Jewish setting, but it can never meaning anything less. If we proclaim that Jesus is “the Christ,” we should probably do our homework and understand the term as fully as we can.  Continue reading

More On the Post-Resurrection Stories

Mveng Resurrection Chapel of Hekima College Nairobi

Engelbert Mveng: Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962.

I touched on this in my Easter post, but I want to say a little more about the details and ramifications of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Here are three deeply significant aspects of these strange tales that might have been obscured by traditional readings of the Bible.

1. Jesus returns in peace, unexpectedly.

Clearly no one in the gospel stories expected Jesus to be resurrected. Even when Jesus made cryptic predictions about his death and vindication, his followers told him to stop talking crazy and asked when he was going to become king and kill all the bad guys. As I’ve explored at-length elsewhere, the designation “messiah” had little to do with dying and coming back to life and everything to do with winning wars. After Jesus was executed, no one was looking at their watch wondering what was taking him so long. They were defeated and dejected. Their candidate was gone. The end.

And so when Jesus is resurrected, according to the synoptic gospels, it’s a surprise that completely blindsides his friends and followers. The shock and terror of the disciples is dramatized in the gospel texts, and we sympathize. Running into someone you watched die would be unsettling, to say the least. But once again, a deeper consideration of the historical and political background amplifies the drama. No one had ever imagined that a messianic candidate would die and be resurrected, but if that WERE to ever happen, surely the vindicated one would start the holy war to end all holy wars. With God clearly on his side, nothing could stop him. The disciples aren’t just scared because they think they’ve seen the ghost of a beloved friend, they’re staring at the risen body of the prophet they betrayed and abandoned. They must be thinking that judgment day is upon them.

But it wasn’t. Jesus announces “peace!” and tells them not to fear. The disciples (and innumerable Christian interpreters since) still want to know when the war will start, and Jesus lovingly smiles and shakes his head.

2. Jesus returns as a stranger.

The resurrection narratives in the gospels are diverse and sparse in detail, and they leave us asking many questions. In light of their ambiguity, however, continuities become more significant. For example, in every appearance story not a single person recognizes the risen Jesus on sight. From the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel to Paul’s vision in Acts, the resurrected Jesus is always encountered first as a stranger. This detail is easily overlooked, but its implications are staggering.

Quite in line with his expectation-defying career as a most unlikely messiah, Jesus is not portrayed as returning from the grave in public spectacle and revenge. His appearances are quiet and private, and his own friends don’t recognize him until they talk and eat with him. This Jesus is not the Jesus of triumphalism or culture war. This Jesus does not take over the world from an earthly seat of power, nor does he publicly shame those who don’t know him. He comes quietly alongside his followers and reveals himself in intimacy and friendship. An encounter with this Jesus is unexpected, a run-in with a stranger, a stranger who challenges and forever changes the way we look at things.

3. Jesus returns to affirm life, not “afterlife”.

The synoptic post-resurrection tales are remarkably brief, given their centrality and theological weight. As a result, we have tended to fill them out with our own assumptions and infer our own meanings. For many, the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to prove that heaven is real, and that Jesus can take us there with him if we negotiate a ticket. A peek at the texts, however, reveals a different agenda.

In Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to go and make “disciples” (students) of his teachings who will keep his “commandments”. In Mark, the risen Jesus instructs the twelve to spread his message and “baptize” new followers.* In Luke, the most extensive of the narratives, Jesus reads scripture and eats with his followers, charging them with the task of being “witnesses” to his life and legacy. There is not a word about life after death or of his followers “going to heaven” when they die, but there is a clear mandate to proliferate his teachings. This includes his commandments to love God and neighbor, and his message of repentance and empathy.

Other texts will speculate about the nature of Jesus’ “appearing” at the “end of the age,” and of the fate of humanity and creation, but the gospels’ resurrection stories are clearly more concerned with the present. Here, Jesus’ legacy is first and foremost for this life, the one we’re living, for the well-being of his followers and of the whole world that God loves. This is the Risen Jesus we meet in the pages of the Bible and, hopefully, the one we seek in our lives.

 

*In Mark’s gospel proper, the risen Jesus says nothing at all. There are two “extra” endings, from 16:9 onward, widely considered to be later additions. It’s fairly easy to see why, even on the surface.