Tag Archives: hell

sheep-goats

Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 2: Away From Me!

In part one of this series I examined two gospel passages commonly used to suggest that Jesus advocated (sword-based) violence. That post was basically an apologetic, as I sought to demonstrate that the ethos and message of Jesus was consistently and inherently nonviolent. But it’s important to note that apology is not my default approach to every troublesome Bible text. In this case, I strongly believe that the true sense of the texts in question had been misunderstood and needed correcting. But in general, I am not committed to defending the Bible at all cost. I am open to being challenged and corrected, and I am willing to learn from or ultimately even to disagree with the text. The material today will put this to the test.

Many Christians, in service to inerrancy and systematic theology, accept apparent tensions and contradictions in the Bible as part of some grand, unifying plan. When it comes to Jesus, many Christians have no problem acknowledging that he was a teacher of peace, even as they have no doubt he will return to earth riding a wave of fire and retribution. Round one may have been all hugs and back pats, but round two will be a different story.

For the most part, this tense view of a peaceful-but-eventually-violent Jesus comes from contrasting what the gospels report about Jesus with what other New Testament texts (eg. 1 Thessalonians or Revelation) say about his return. But even in the gospels, Jesus offers his own vision of the “coming age,” replete with dramatic prophetic imagery. Since this series is concerned with the presentation of Jesus in the gospels, we will focus on his apocalyptic sayings, especially some in Matthew which seem to promise violence. Continue reading

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What I’m Going To Tell My Daughter About Hell (When She Asks)

My little girl is four years old and I’m in no hurry to burden her with concepts like afterlife and judgment, especially not the dour and literal conceptions her mom and I grew up with. Gloria barely understands what death is at this point. But we are trying to raise her in the way of Jesus, and eventually certain questions are inevitable. This is my attempt to rehearse what I might say in response to the question, “Daddy, what is hell?”

Sweetheart, “hell” is a word that means a lot of things to a lot of people. Basically it’s a way of talking about the pain and sadness caused by the bad things people do to each other. Some people go through hell during their lives because they get sick or hurt, and prophets warn us that the world can turn into a kind of hell if we don’t take care of it and each other.

In Jesus’ time people didn’t really talk about hell, they talked about “Gehenna.” Gehenna was a real place, a valley near Jerusalem. It was a nasty place. A long time ago some really bad things happened there, and Gehenna was known as the scary place where people died. When Jesus lived, people used to talk about their enemies being “thrown into Gehenna” as a punishment from God for being bad guys, but Jesus didn’t see it that way. 

Jesus knew the same Gehenna story that everyone else knew, but he told it in a different way. He agreed that really bad things can happen because of the mean things we do to each other, but he disagreed with the idea that Gehenna was only for his country’s enemies. He warned his friends that if they didn’t learn to love peace, they would all be in trouble too. He also said that it wasn’t God who threw people into Gehenna, it was the people’s own weapons, their armies, and the enemies they made by being mean who would bring disaster.

So Jesus told his friends to repent, to change their minds and learn to love peace and to love their neighbors and even to love their enemies. That’s how the world can be more like the Kingdom of God and less like Gehenna. I know all of this sounds very serious, but Jesus said we never need to worry or be afraid. In fact, he said we should all be happy and have fun like little kids!

There’s a lot more to talk about, but this is a good place to start. I love you, kiddo. Now, for the last time, please pick up your Duplos.

ancient-cosmos

Follow-Up to “Do You Have to Believe in Hell and Angels…?”

This is a brief follow-up to last week’s post “Do people have to believe in hell and angels before they can follow Jesus?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I raised in that post, and had a few good conversations with Christian friends about it. My overall feeling after much consideration and thought is this: it is surely much better to remain agnostic concerning the supernatural than it is to doubt (or forfeit) values like compassion and mercy. This is particularly true given that the church has often erred in the opposite direction, certain about details of the afterlife and apocalyptic schedules but cautious and dubious about grace and inclusion. And after all, one of the major revelations of the New Testament is that God accepts all those who “do His will” regardless of who they are and what they believe (Acts 10:34-35).

But there is a big “gotcha” in this discussion, one which I didn’t address in the original post. That is the question of the resurrection. Isn’t it necessary that one must believe in the miracle of the resurrection to be a Christian who is “right with God”? This seems to be a juncture where belief in the supernatural becomes absolutely bundled up with Christianity. And here’s the thing: in no way do I wish to sidestep or deny the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. This is the heart and soul of what we believe! However, the fact that this comes before us as a divisive question about faith versus skepticism, belief versus exclusion, indicates just how far we’ve strayed from the essence of the gospel, and how hard we’ve worked to separate the ethos of Jesus from the pathos of his story.

A major misstep by both sides of the “religion vs. science” debates is this violent division between the sacred and the mundane, between the miracle and the message. The traditional camp has been all too happy to distinguish the miracles and passion of Jesus from his life and ethics, and to emphasize the former at the cost of the latter. Skeptics then engage them at their point of emphasis, and the central issue becomes whether or not modern/postmodern people can bring themselves to believe in these sorts of claims anymore. But without their original narrative contexts and resonance, without the story, miraculous and supernatural claims are just arbitrary and kind of empty. If you believe them, you are in. If you don’t, you are out. But what does it benefit one’s character or the world around them which side of the divide they happen find themselves on?

In the story, Jesus’ miracles are not random magic tricks, they are “signs of the kingdom.” He heals human lives as a sign that peace and forgiveness have come to Israel. In the story, Jesus doesn’t die to satisfy God or become a theological hero, he is killed by a corrupt empire because influential people were unsettled by his teachings about the kingdom. In the story, Jesus isn’t resurrected as a tacked-on happy ending or so that Christians can belong to the correct religion. God raises him up in full public vindication of his prophetic message about the coming of the kingdom. There is no point in the story at which the events and claims surrounding Jesus’ life are not directly connected to his teaching about a loving God and a kingdom of peace. The story is not “these things happened and so Christianity is true,” it’s “these things happened and so grace and reconciliation and freedom and mercy are true!”

This is why I reject the rigid and literalistic belief/disbelief binary that uses supernatural claims and miracles as a litmus test for belonging to a religious tribe. We are invited into a story, and the story means something. You can choose to believe every detail in the narrative with all of your heart without ever being affected or transformed by their meaning. Or, you might find yourself struggling with the details of the story but gobsmacked by their implications. You might find yourself drawn into hope and discovery and illumination, even though you’re not sure what you believe. If we embrace the miracles but not the meaning, we’re no better off than we were. But if we embrace the meaning, the miracles are not far off. 

ancient-cosmos

Do People Need to Believe in Hell and Angels Before They Can Follow Jesus?

This is a serious question, though my concern is that it will be seriously misunderstood. Stick with me, please.

It has been a basic assumption of western Christianity that evangelization begins with informing “unsaved” people of their imperiled status within a certain cosmology; there is heaven, there is hell, you are headed in one direction and need a boost in the other. After all, people have to understand the problem before they can accept the solution, right? But today, few people hold to the ancient worldview that simply took for granted certain segmentations of earth and sky, heavens and underworld, and the hosts of spiritual beings which inhabit them. As a result, there is a major disconnect between those who would package the gospel of Jesus along with the ancient cosmology of the biblical world and those marked for evangelization who passively assume a modern understanding of the universe. If people struggle to believe in (for example) heaven, hell, angels, or young-earth creationism, does this disqualify them from understanding and responding to the message and challenge of Jesus? Is Christianity primarily a willful acceptance of a particular ancient cosmology, or is it first and foremost an ethical or moral worldview?

Here’s where I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not raising the question of whether or not hell and angels, etc. are “real,” nor am I questioning whether or not they are significant to Christianity. These things are inescapable, indelible, and how we come to understand and engage with them is very important. My question is about the heart and essence of Christianity, not about faith vs. science. I’m not asking if we, as Christians, really need to bother with all of that supernatural stuff anymore, I’m asking whether or not this ought to be a barrier or a checkpoint that prevents newcomers and outsiders from understanding and knowing Jesus as prophet, teacher, and lord.

Consider: Jesus was a prophet of peace and grace in the religious world of first century Second Temple Judaism. From within that matrix, using its assumptions and language, he announced a gospel of repentance, empathy, and forgiveness. He wasn’t on a mission to convince anyone that God or angels or hades existed – granted, he didn’t need to! Indeed, everyone he encountered already assumed the cosmology of their day. This is part of my point, that Jesus didn’t propose a new set of religious beliefs to his listeners, but he DID subvert and challenge the implicit meanings and presumptions of their common beliefs. He didn’t have to convince anyone that there was a God in heaven. But he did go against the grain and insist that God was a loving and endlessly forgiving Father, not a space tyrant who inflicts sickness and calamity to punish sinners. He didn’t build an apologetic case for the reality of hell and judgment. But he did step on many toes by teaching that judgment is universal and based on charity and personal integrity rather than class or religion. Rather than teaching people that they must assent to certain religious propositions or supernatural claims in order to be saved, Jesus was, in a sense, “unteaching” certain bad and pervasive religious ideas, and inviting his listeners on a path of open hearted trust and faith – faith in himself and in a way of life.  

Back to our question: Is it conceivable that this heart and ethos of Jesus – this trust in grace and “the things that make for peace” – might transcend issues of cosmology and religion and find an expression that resonates with our twenty-first century worldview, even as it surely subverts and challenges it? It is possible that this gospel might ignite imaginations and win hearts whether or not they have also embraced a first century understanding of the universe? Do not violence and sin and exploitation and self-interest and retribution pose the same threat today that they did then? By trying so obtusely to change what someone else believes about the sky or the planet or the future or the afterlife, do we not risk obscuring or stifling the voice of the prophet calling us all to love God by loving each other?

Again, I am not advocating that we dismiss or forsake the unique religious, supernatural, or apocalyptic trappings of the Christian tradition. I have not rejected them, even as I often struggle to understand and engage them in fruitful ways.* Anyone who is drawn to Jesus will be invited into this strange and sacred world. But to make these things intellectual prerequisites to faith and inclusion seems absurd and counterproductive. Instead of simply speaking the truth about love and peace, we are obsessed and pedantic about the precise language in which it must be communicated. And while we are so busy rehearsing and reconstructing an ancient mindset, our neighbors are outside starving and homeless. If the only hope for humankind is that everyone might intentionally adapt an ancient understanding of the material universe, then our future looks pretty bleak.

But consider these observations about the earliest Christians:

Ancient Christians were known for being nonviolent, not for arguing about creationism.

Ancient Christians were known for their brotherly and sisterly love, not for believing in hell more intensely than everyone else.

Ancient Christians were known for charity and service to the poor and outcast, not for being the most religious people around.

In fact, ancient Christians’ apparent emphasis of charity and fellowship over ritual and sacrifice, along with their regard for only a single deity, resulted in them being labeled “atheists” by some of their pagan observers.

And I suppose this gets to the heart of what I’m clumsily suggesting here: Throughout history, Christians at their best have been identified as people who believe in transcendent things like repentance, peace, compassion, and forgiveness, not religious or cosmological ideas like creation, hell, or angels. There are elegant and productive ways of talking about those things, but they should not be in the forefront of our mission and message if they will distract from the gospel. Our world needs “the things that make for peace” more than ever.

For my part, from now on, when someone asks me if I “believe in hell,” my stock answer will be “no, I believe in Jesus!”

* I should note for the sake of disclosure that I do reject doctrines of “young earth creation” and “rapture,” both of which I understand to be aberrations built on the misapplication of Bible texts. For more about my views on hell and angels and such, see posts like these

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. 

24 Responses To Charisma News On Hell (Part 1)

If you’ve seen an outrageous or mind-numbingly divisive “news” story from a scary sort of “Christian” perspective, there’s a good chance it was posted on Charisma News. This ultra-conservative website and its parent magazine Charisma have been predicting the “end times” and wagging their fingers at American sinners for forty years now. They even hosted a disgusting post by a pastor calling himself a proud “islamophobe” before taking it down in response to social media outrage. 

This week an older article from Charisma News has been making the rounds on Christian social media. It is called “24 Reasons to Believe Hell is a Reality,” and it seeks to debunk what the author calls “universalism,” basically anything other than a traditional “eternal conscious torment” view of hell. And look, it’s their prerogative to defend any position they want on their own website. But certainly they will be careful and balanced, considering all factors of context and interpretation, right? Let’s take a look. Here are their “24 Reasons to Believe Hell is a Reality,” in bold, accompanied by my brief responses.

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24-reasons1. Jesus made both repentance and faith prerequisites for forgiveness. “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Oof, really? It’s our first “reason,” and we’ve already got problems. Nothing in either of these verses says anything about hell or, for that matter, about any “prerequisites for forgiveness.” The “perishing” in the Luke passage refers to some Jews who were publicly executed by Pilate, most likely because they were suspected of insurgency. Jesus is saying, “if you don’t repent of your violence, you’ll meet the same end.” And in Mark 1, Jesus is announcing the good news that all Jews were waiting for, the coming of God’s reign on earth. Nothing there about brokering forgiveness or going to hell.

2. The “water of life” is offered to all, but not all receive it or even desire it. “Let him who is thirsty come. Let him who desires take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).

Um, OK… Very strange that we would pick this, of all verses in Revelation, as “proof” of hell, seeing as just two chapters earlier there was a whole bit about a lake of fire and dragons and stuff. This verse just sounds like Jesus inviting people to come to him and be refreshed. Am I missing some implicit threat?

3. Scripture teaches that there will be a judgment after death. “As it is appointed for men to die once, but after this comes the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

OK, yes! The author of Hebrews did write that. After death comes judgment. And then… hell? Well, that’s not exactly what Hebrews 9 is about. The immediate context is a discussion of Jesus’ death and atonement, and here’s the rest of the thought: “…so, the messiah, having been offered once and for all to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time. This will no longer have anything to do with sin, it will be in order to save those who are eagerly awaiting him.” Another kinda weird choice for a prooftext, unless we want to rename the article “24 Reasons To Believe That The Second Coming Will Have Nothing To Do With Sin”?

4. Those who have not had a true conversion will experience a judgment for sin that the Bible describes as “the second death.” “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the abominable, the murderers, the sexually immoral, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars shall have their portion in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).

All of these “reasons” are gonna be out-of-context Bible verses, aren’t they? Well, alright. Hey, this one is probably your best bet, since it actually talks about sinners being thrown into a burning lake of brimstone. Though, I would point to just three minor nitpicks: 1) this is a passage from Revelation, a text that is wall-to-wall visual symbolism and simply begs to be read in its first century historical context. 2) I hate to split hairs, but the whole “second death” thing actually contradicts the conservative doctrine of “eternal conscious torment.” If we’re gonna take this literally, we should at least get the details right. The sinners in this scene die in the fire, only the “dragon” and his two “beasts” are actually tortured forever (20:10). And 3), not sure where this “true conversion experience” stuff comes from. The basis for judgment in this scenario – just as in Jesus’ similar parable about sheep and goats – is behavior and character, not religious affiliation or “conversion.”

5. Contrary to Universalist beliefs, Jesus’ teaching indicates that most of humanity is on a broad path that leads to destruction. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. Once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know you, or where you come from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity”  (Luke 13:24-27).

Kudos for providing more than a single verse on this one, really! I actually wrote a post about this, and while it’s hard to deny that Jesus here is teaching that “few will enter,” the real question is what it is that they will or won’t be entering. The answer, in context, is the “kingdom of God,” which for the publishers and readers of Charisma News most likely means “heaven when you die,” but which for Jesus means “the reign of God realized on the earth.” Look, there’s no doubt that Jesus is offering a bleak assessment of humanity in this teaching. But despite our history of self-serving interpretation of texts like this, being “in” or “out” of the kingdom is not about being Christian or non-Christian, or going to heaven or hell. This is an ethical teaching. Jesus taught a lifestyle of nonviolence and selfless empathy, and he knew that very few would authentically follow that path. Very few Christians actually follow it, and plenty of non-Christians have followed it. To reduce this teaching to a heaven/hell, believer/nonbeliever duality is to miss its real point.

6. Jesus spoke often of a terrible place of judgment for those outside His kingdom rule. “The Son of Man shall send out His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who do evil, 42 and will throw them into a fiery furnace. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:41-42).

It’s very telling that a few verses before this one Jesus said, “I will open my mouth in parables,” and in the verse that follows says, “if you have ears, then hear!” This imagery is framed as an apocalyptic parable. Yes, it is a harsh word: in the reign of God, things that are not useful will be pruned and burned away, so be sure to do what is right. Like the passage in #5 this is a cryptic, parabolic way of talking about ethics.

7. The Bible teaches both the love of God and His sure judgment of sin. Trusting in Christ’s payment for our sins saves us from this coming judgment. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. How much more then, being now justified by His blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:8-9).

I tackled this one recently in my series on atonement. Paul’s teaching is too complex to be reduced to soundbytes and prooftexts. The big question here is what exactly Paul thinks this “wrath” is, when it is coming, and who has been saved from it. In 1 Corinthians 3, for example, he says that the “coming fire” of judgment will only refine, not destroy. And right here in Romans 5 he says that Christ’s death has won “life for all people.” Paul definitely has an apocalyptic understanding of judgment and history, though he doesn’t talk about “hell” and places major emphasis on God’s love and Jesus’ victory. That traditional view of a “two-faced” God whose love is primarily manifested as wrath and destruction has come under fire of late, often because of what the scriptures actually say rather than in spite of it.

8. In one of the most loving verses in the Bible, Jesus issues eternal options. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

So, we’re sticking with the whole “perish = hell” thing? (Here’s a little thought experiment I did on John 3:16.)

9. Scripture teaches that there is unending, eternal judgment for those who do not know God and who do not respond in faith to the gospel. “… And to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).

Here’s another passage I’ve written about before on the blog, in fact I wrestled with it pretty intensely and ultimately concluded that I simply disagree with the author of 2 Thessalonians. I do not disagree that God has the hypothetical right and power to send fiery judgment against the enemies of the church, I simply question how a bloodthirsty text like this holds up next to Jesus’ insistence that we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. But maybe all of that is just my own personal issue. The question here is whether or not this text proves hell to be a “reality,” and I’d say that’s not really the point, however you slice it. I realize the phrase “eternal destruction” has been co-opted by proponents of eternal conscious torment and hell, but really it just means “permanent destruction.” Like, they’re gonna die. This reads like a revenge fantasy, an angry response to opposition or persecution.

10. Jesus emphatically taught that a spiritual birth is essential to entering the kingdom of heaven. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Golly, I forgot how tedious and depressing it is to list endless Bible verses under specious categorical headings without actually engaging with them on the level of language or context! Here is John’s version of the ethical teachings in the synoptic gospels. Only people who are “born from above” (who get it, who “have ears to hear,” who learn to love peace and their enemies) will be able to see the kingdom. It’s hidden from everyone else. Nothing here about hell.

11. In answer to a very clear question about what is necessary for sal­vation, Paul gave a very clear answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your household will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

A very clear answer that has nothing explicitly to do with afterlife destiny. This “reason” reflects conservative Christianity’s unfortunate conflation of bad soteriology and bad eschatology; being “saved” means being saved from hell. But the evangelists in the book of Acts say nothing about hell or afterlife, and citizens of the first century talking about “salvation” would not have had heaven or hell on their minds. For them, salvation is about being rescued from oppression and the temporal (here and now) effects of sin. The apostle’s answer? Trust in the way of Jesus, that’s the way to peace!

12. Jesus gave no indication that many roads lead to God. He forcefully stated that He was the only way. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'” (John 14:6).

Ugh. This one again. John 14:6 is the favorite verse of fearmongering, exclusivist Christians who want to draw the thickest possible line between “us” and “them.” All other religions are wrong, Jesus said so! But that is a poor reading of what John 14 (and the Bible) is all about. The question is not which religion is true or leads to heaven, the question is how to know “the Father,” how Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers can know what the Jewish God is really like. One of the major points of John is that God is like Jesus. If you want to know the Father, look at the son. In this verse, Jesus is assuring one of his followers that walking the gospel path – of peace, repentance, and empathy – is the way to know what God is really like. Nothing about pluralism or hell.

Continued in Part 2 (in which they eventually stop prooftexting and actually try to make a few arguments)!

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

Repent of Bad Religion! Part 3: Rescuing Salvation

The premise behind this series of posts is that true “repentance” is not about feeling sorry for your misdeeds and trying to do better. (You should do that, but it’s not repentance.) Nor is it a display of shame and contrition that wins you favor with God or your religious overlords. Real repentance is both a forceful rejection of bad ideas and an embracing of better ones. I’m applying this definition to some of the central tenets of Christian religion and suggesting that some radical repentance is in order.

Please note that I’m not simply exploring arbitrary new ways of conceptualizing Christianity as some kind of thought experiment or act of contrarianism. I honestly believe that we can and should get closer to the true biblical and historical essence of these ideas and farther away from the often poisonous mutations of them to which the modern church clings. We started the series with a clarifying look at repentance itself, and then we tackled the all-too-often bad news of “the gospel.” Today I hope we can rescue the idea of salvation.

What is “Salvation”?

Traditional American Christianity really wants everyone to get saved. After all, the bible itself enthusiastically announces that “salvation” comes through the name of Jesus Christ alone, and so job one for believing Christians has been to pound the pavement and make with the savin’. Problem is, it’s not always clear what exactly this “salvation” is, on a technical or practical level. Questions abound: Is it literal? Is it a metaphor? What are we saved from? What are we saved for? Who decides who’s saved and who’s “lost”? How do I know when I’m saved enough? Can salvation be lost once it’s unlocked? Do we have to dress and think and act and vote alike once we’re all saved? And, while we’re at it, will you save me some pie?

Traditional answer to these questions are problematic to say the least, and betray a host of muddled assumptions. Let’s briefly examine two bad models from the Greatest Hits collection. (They’re ultimately two versions of the same bad model, but please indulge me…)

Bad Model #1: “Saving Souls”

The classical European and American model is all about “saving souls.” Even though the bible only uses the words “save” and “soul” once in the same sentence (James 5:20), this has been the official way of talking about salvation for centuries. It goes something like this: Your body is mortal, but inside of it resides an immortal spiritual object or essence called a “soul.” When your body expires, your soul will live on for eternity. Because of original sin, all souls are doomed by default, and getting saved is the only way to guarantee a pleasant journey on the other side. This model boils down to a toggle switch inside of you that must be switched from the factory setting “lost” to “saved” before it’s too late. This is typically achieved by praying a prayer, professing to believe certain things about Jesus, getting baptized, and/or joining the right kind of church.

In addition to a less-than-compelling view of humanity and spirituality, this model has a much bigger problem for Christians: it’s not at all biblical. The notion of an immortal, immaterial “soul” that will exist forever in a state of either compromise or perfection is Greek philosophy, not bible theology. It’s Plato, not Jesus. To be fair, it’s easy to see how these Greek ideas might have been imported into early Christianity, as the word “soul” is indeed pervasive in both testaments. But in the (very diverse) world of biblical thought – that is, in the worlds of Ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and First Century Christianity – “soul” meant something very different.  In both Hebrew and Greek, with a great deal of range and nuance, “soul” means something like “life” or “breath,” and is a poetic way of referring to an individual mortal person, a “self.” I had a seminary professor who summarized the biblical soul as “the whole you as only God knows you, body, heart and mind.”

When we strip away foreign and anachronistic ideas from our understanding of biblical salvation, we move away from the first “bad model” but perhaps closer still to the second:

Bad Model #2: “Saved From Hell”

OK, so the “immortal soul with a toggle switch” model isn’t plausible nor is it biblical. But the bible does say that unsaved sinners are going to burn in hell (right? probably?), and so for many Christians this is the primary motivation for “sealing the deal” of salvation. Despite its popularity, however, this model has numerous serious problems. For a start, the word “unsaved,” ubiquitous in conservative Christianity, is completely unknown in the bible. It’s a silly non-word that betrays a wrongheaded adherence to the “salvation as status” model. (Not to mention how arrogantly dismissive it is of billions of human beings.) Meanwhile, setting aside the huge question of how the hell language in the bible actually works (something I had a lot to say about elsewhere), it turns out that the link between “salvation” and a “ticket out of hell” is not as clear as we assume it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the bible never explicitly links salvation to the avoision of eternal punishment.

In the gospel texts, salvation is always a positive promise of rescue for Israel and the world through Jesus, never a threat. Jesus came to “save his people [Israel] from sin” (Matthew 1:21), to “save the world” (John 12:47), and to “save” countless individuals by healing and liberating them (eg. Luke 7:50). Nothing is ever said about salvation from hell or punishment. The Book of Acts is an account of the earliest Christian evangelists and their mission to bring the gospel of Jesus to all corners of the Roman Empire. The salvation they preach is the same positive, rescuing, life-renewing salvation that Jesus preached. It’s never “become a Christian or you’re going to hell!” Not once. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul in his letters does use language of life and death when arguing about the power of salvation, but he never once invokes the threat of hell. If the bible never makes this connection, we should probably stop making it ourselves.

There’s a lot more to be said about this model and its problems, but I’m eager to move on and very briefly unpack just what I believe the bible is really getting at when it talks about “salvation.”

Salvation In The (Whole) Bible

First, a surprising fact: forms of the words “save” and “salvation” appear exponentially more often in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament. To be sure, the HB is a much much bigger collection than the NT, but the point is still important. “Salvation” isn’t a Christian innovation, it’s an ancient, biblical, Jewish idea. And like so many ancient biblical Jewish ideas, it is rooted in a specific historical reality, the event we know as the Exodus. Salvation was what happened when Israel’s God showed up and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. This salvation became a metaphor for the rescue of individuals from dangers both temporal and spiritual (Psalm 35:3; Psalm 42:5), and the template for anticipated national rescue during times of exile, invasion, and occupation (Psalm 14:7; Isaiah 62). And by the time of Jesus, Roman oppression and internal division were so devastating that hopes were high for a “New Exodus,” for a new act of salvation from above. Jesus’ message was that the long-awaited salvation had finally come in the form of the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile, the Roman Imperial cult had its own ideas about salvation. The package of benefits promised to compliant subjects of the empire was rhetorically said to bring “peace” and “salvation,” available exclusively through submission to Caesar. This brings many New Testament statements about Jesus and salvation into sharper focus (eg. Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”). Rome promised to “rescue” you even as their noose tightened around your neck. Jesus and his followers proclaimed a salvation of true peace, of real rescue from the violence and sin embodied by Rome.

In light of these examples, a few observations about biblical salvation: 1) it is something everybody was already waiting and hoping for, 2) it affects individuals, nations, and the entire world, and 3) it involves physical and temporal rescue as well as spiritual liberation. In the bible, salvation is the too-good-to-be-true news in answer to the hopes and dreams of people who desperately needed to be rescued. It was never a mechanism for soul preservation or belonging to the correct religious group, it was always rescue and renewal and new creation and happy feelings and kittens and powerful God stuff, and it was all unleashed in the words, deeds, life, martyrdom, and resurrection of Jesus.

And there’s nothing we can do about it. The dam has broken and the unstoppable force of God Rescue™ is oozing through the cracks in our world. The bible invites us to embrace this new reality. The first step to embracing salvation is to accept the impossibly ridiculous notion that a kingdom of peace and love and joy could actually be a real thing, and that it could actually take over this world. That’s the Jesus way, the way of salvation. Only religious people could turn this amazing proclamation of unbridled hope into a burden, or worse, a weapon. God save us.