Tag Archives: judgment

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.

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

Brief Follow-up to Yesterday’s Post

I anticipate that, for some of my readers, my third “Break Your Bible” post may have gone a little too far with its suggestion that we should apply moral discernment to our reading of the Bible. The objection is something like, “but we get our morality FROM the Bible, we can’t sit in judgment OF the Bible.” I want to offer a response in two short parts.

1. It’s not untrue that we derive ethical and moral principles from scripture, but one of my main goals in writing what I do on this blog is to illustrate that interacting with the Bible is not as simple as reading a constitution or instruction manual. The canons represent libraries full of ancient texts that often stand in conversation and even tension. The Torah laws, though not followed fully or strictly by any Christian community known to history, give us a glimpse into Israel’s ethical framework. And Christians have the teachings of Jesus and his commandments of love, which ought to shape our morality more than anything else. But as I have attempted to illustrate, scripture is also filled with narratives and themes and voices that need to be checked against the moral standards of Jesus. That is not an inappropriately critical approach to the Bible, it is a Christian one.

2. I would take this even farther and contest the notion that it is inappropriate to judge a source or teacher of morality by its own standard. Isn’t this precisely what we must do? I touched on this in an earlier post, but when Jesus sets forth his principle of judging a prophet or teacher by whether or not they bear “good fruit,” is he not inviting us to watch his life and hold him accountable to his own teachings? Is this not how we discover that he is good, that he is authentic, that he is worthy? Does he not follow his own standard of selfless empathy to its brutal climax? It is precisely through discernment and judgment, based on “biblical principles,” that we determine Jesus to be Lord. The notion that we could find or embrace truth without moral discernment – even or especially when it comes to the Bible – is absurd. Unexamined or inherited Christian identity alone cannot build or sustain a healthy moral character. It is only when we grow and learn to discern for ourselves – in partnership with the written teachings of Jesus, his living spirit, our own reason, and one another – that we can make sound moral judgments.

Repent of Bad Religion! Part 5: End Times Insanity

True “repentance” isn’t merely confession or contrition, it’s a constant and radical reconsideration of all things, a willingness to reject old and bad ideas and to embrace new and better ones. In this (final?) installment of an ongoing series, I apply the spirit of repentance to the Christian notion of eschatology, what many refer to as the “end times.” This is a long post, based in part on work I did in seminary. I hope this will surprise and intrigue both long-time believers and spectators alike.

Introduction: Defining Eschatology

Eschatology is one of the most divisive and volatile topics within Christian theology, and the subject of much debate, confusion, and distress. “Eschatology” is often flatly defined as “the study of the end times” or even “the end of the world.” Indeed, the Greek word means “the study of the late things,” but perhaps a more appropriate encapsulation of the eschatological material in the bible would be “a hope for God’s future.” A broad, positive definition like that is a good first step to navigating the chaotic and often lopsided map of contemporary Christian beliefs about the future. Before we take further steps toward a solution, however, we have more to say about the problem.

The Problem: Making It Up As We Go Along

I have sat in church services, bible studies, and even seminary classes where the following statements (and many more like them) were confidently made by Christian pastors and teachers:

“When we get raptured our new angel bodies will be huge, at least thirty-feet-tall, since heaven is so big and there will be so few of us there!”

“Every night I pray that if Obama is the antichrist, someone will assassinate him. And for good measure, my wife prays that he’ll get saved.”

“The bible reveals the exact date when all of the stadiums in America will be converted into concentration camps to hold all of us Christians!”

“I can’t wait until Jesus comes back and gives me a sword so I can fight some demons!”

These are extreme and ludicrous examples, of course, but in each case no one objected, and in fact many people were feverishly taking notes! (For my part I was flummoxed but said nothing. Until recently I had little to say about eschatology that was constructive.) These statements may be nutty, but they are all just imaginative variations on mainstream “dispensationalist” teachings cherished by many fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The world will soon meet a violent end, Jesus will return to fetch his few and faithful followers to take them away to heaven, and all of this, they say, is clearly laid out in the bible.

But is it? In reality, most contemporary Christian eschatology is anything but “biblical.” It plays fast and loose with bits and pieces of bible text, but its form and logic generally spring from other sources: nineteenth century dispensationalist theology (Darby by way of Scofield), popular culture, and whimsy of the speaker. A bit of biblical data is taken out of context and synthesized with personal ideology and pure imagination to produce some assertion about “the end.” The claim is “based on” words from the bible so it is presented and often accepted as “biblical,” but typically it reveals much more about the speaker’s personality and politics than it does about the bible or the future.

It’s easy to see through bad eschatology (e.g. Left Behind, Harold Camping). What is not so easy is to know how to move forward with eschatological thinking that is constructive and authentically biblical. The solution, I propose, is an open-minded approach which takes into account the history and literature of the whole bible (not just Revelation or the New Testament). In my experience, this kind of holistic approach makes it very difficult to proffer specific predictive claims about what MUST or WILL happen in the near or distant future. In fact, the more I have studied the diverse witnesses of the ancient writings on these topics (biblical and apocryphal), the more agnostic I have become regarding any specific eschatological expectation. What I hope will emerge from a study like this is not a timeline or a list of answers, but an overwhelmingly bright and hopeful spirit, an orientation, a new and better way of thinking about tomorrow.

Thesis: A Holistic Biblical View To God’s Future

The full category of things “eschatological” is far too broad to cover in a single blog post. I will focus instead on three central eschatological doctrines: the Resurrection of the Dead, Judgment, and Heaven. My thesis is this: The doctrines of resurrection, judgment, and heaven are best understood in the full light of their foundations in the Hebrew Bible as well as their reconfiguration by the Jesus movement. In each case we will attempt to avoid the typical speculation, boil the doctrine down to a fundamental question, and examine the biblical responses from Ancient Israel, First Century Judaism, and Early Christianity. This may result in uncomfortable confrontations with some of the more popular beliefs and assumptions of the church in our day, but it also affords us the opportunity for illumination and discovery.

I. RESURRECTION: A FUTURE FOR HUMANITY

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…”  (Daniel 12:2)

“Thus says the LORD God to these bones: ‘I will breathe into you, and you will live.’” (Ezekiel 37:5)

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear his voice and come out…” (John 5:28-29)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

Christians tend to think about resurrection primarily in terms of something that happened once to Jesus, and perhaps as a vague description of the believer’s future experience “in heaven.” In the full context of the bible, however, resurrection concerns the question of the future of humanity. The question might be put like this: What will happen to the living and dead bodies of humans in the future? That is not a particularly poetic question, but it is important that we frame this discussion properly. As we will presently see, the bible’s response involves the notion of physical bodily resurrection to some new kind of earthly life, not simply a metaphor for some spiritual journey or celestial escape.

A. Resurrection in the Hebrew Bible and First Century Judaism

The resurrection tradition appears to have its origins in Israel’s horrific experiences in exile. While ancient Hebrew wisdom taught that justice would be done in this life (Proverbs 3:33, for example), the brutality and trauma of exile were such that the traditional view was called into question. When the survivors began to despair, prophets offered a new vision. If justice wasn’t being done on this side of the grave, it would have to happen on the other. Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel offer three imaginative and contextually unique illustrations of this new way of thinking and hoping. Daniel 12 sees the victims of exilic violence physically raised back to life and rewarded, and their abusers punished. Isaiah 24-26 envisions a sort of death and resurrection of the entire world, with special attention to the happy fate of Israel and its citizens. And Ezekiel 37 finds the prophet in a valley filled with the bones of his fallen brothers and sisters, which spring back to fully incarnated life before his eyes. In each case the circumstances and details are different, but the purpose and effect of resurrection is the same: vindication for those unjustly cut down by enemies who seemed to “get away with it” in the present.

These (and other) historically-located visions of vindication evolved over time into a spectrum of Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead on the “day of YHWH,” the day when Israel’s God would show up to put the world right (more on that in section II). It’s impossible to say “here is what all Jews believed” about any number of theological questions, but in the pre-Christian, Second-Temple world of the First Century as depicted by the gospel authors, we find evidence that resurrection had become an assumption among many Jews. First, in John 11:24, Martha takes (some small) comfort in her belief that her recently deceased brother Lazarus will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus does not correct her but takes the opportunity to associate himself with “the resurrection.” Matthew 22:23 concerns an exception which proves the rule; the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” interrogate Jesus about his belief in it. This, of course, implies a common and pervasive belief among some Jews of this time in the bodily resurrection of humans at “the end.”

B. 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus and Resurrection

The New Testament has much to say about resurrection, and while modern Christian interpreters have not emphasized a connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the ancient resurrection expectation, it is actually the climax of the apostle Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while we have typically used the Hebrew Bible to “prove” assertions about Jesus, Paul actually moves in the opposite direction. Consider this, from 1 Corinthians 15:

20 But in fact the Messiah has been raised from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since it was through a human that death arrived, it’s through a human that resurrection from the dead has arrived. (1 Corinthians 15:20-21)

The big deal about the resurrection of Jesus, says Paul, is that it fulfills all the old hopes and proves that they were true. Nobody imagined that a single human would be raised from death in the middle of history, but for Paul this is the heart of his “good news.” Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, just the first of many, and his followers have assurance that death is not the final word. In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses this to encourage a church full of screw-ups to get their act together. Because of the renewed hope of resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection as a preview of their own – they can get busy doing things that matter. For the apostle, resurrection is the opposite of escaping this world or “going to heaven,” it’s the hope that human existence and the work of the Kingdom on earth will go on. He closes the resurrection passage like this:

58 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you are doing will not prove worthless.

(For more on the broader context and eschatology of 1 Corinthians, see this podcast.)

C. Summary – Resurrection Not Rapture

The hope of resurrection grew out of the injustice and terror of exile, and evolved into a general belief that even death couldn’t keep Israel from God’s blessing and purposes. After Jesus, influential Christians like the apostle Paul preached that this hope had been spectacularly affirmed and inaugurated. At its essence, resurrection is not about escaping from this world but about discovering new and continued life within it. The “rapture” anticipated by dispensationalist Christians is a foreign concept to the bible (based almost entirely on an interpretation of a single verse in 1 Thessalonians which we’ll look at in an upcoming podcast). Resurrection is the prevailing expectation of New Testament authors and figures, with many colorful and diverse interpretations, from Jesus in Matthew 25 to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and John of Patmos in Revelation 20. Each of these moves thematically toward the next eschatological category we will examine: judgment.

II. JUDGMENT: A FUTURE FOR THE WORLD

“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:12-13)

“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge…?” (Rev 6:10)

We struggle with the bible’s talk about resurrection because it sounds too good to be true. For most of us, the same cannot be said about judgment. We (in the West, at least) live in a very different world from that of the bible’s authors, with very different notions of justice and security. As a result, the bible’s vision of God judging the world seems to us either terrifying or ludicrous. But if we take the time to appreciate how these ancient people conceptualized judgment, we might realize that it is actually meant to be most excellent news. While our version of “divine judgment” typically involves a distant deity invading our space and doling out arbitrary punishment, the biblical picture (often cloaked in parable) is that of this world’s rightful owner and caretaker coming home to tidy up and put everything right.

They lived in a brutal world and, OK, so do we. But they had no police force or door locks or credit cards or firewalls, no banks or insurance or Better Business Bureau. Violence, corruption and every kind of abuse could run rampant unless a strong and noble authority figure showed up to settle disputes, side with the oppressed, and make sure the widows and orphans were looked after. Kings and emperors operated under a pretense of this sort of justice, but sadly almost always (according to the authors and prophets of the bible) betrayed the expectation. The prophetic/eschatological notion of God as the true and noble judge of the world grows out of this very problem. It’s a hope for long-awaited rescue, not a threat of retribution. If it sounds scary or silly to us, it’s because we’re seeing it outside of the broader context of the bible’s story. In particular, the hope of judgment is rooted in two major biblical themes: creation and covenant.

A. Creation and Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

One could easily write an overlong essay just on this two-pronged topic alone, but for now an overview will suffice. When we talk about creation in the Hebrew Bible, we’re talking about more than the assertion that elohim made the world, as opposed to some other god, gods, or natural processes. Israel’s creation story is about the inherent order and goodness of the natural world, and God’s role as the founder and sustainer of that good order. This was never just a fact or a cultural truth-bomb to be lobbed in the faces of unbelievers, it was the basis for hope and positivity in the face of disasters both natural and human. It was also the basis for the expectation that God could and would rescue his beloved creation from those disasters. It is the foundation of God’s judgment – his rescuing, restorative judgment – of the world he loves.

Meanwhile, covenant is the bible’s ancient way of describing how God interacts with the humans that populate his creation. A “covenant” is a treaty or a contract, an, arrangement between ruler and subjects. At crucial points in Israel’s history (and prehistory), YHWH is depicted entering into a series of covenants with the Hebrew patriarchs. Noah, Abram, Jacob, David and Solomon each have covenant-renewing encounters with God. Each time the circumstances and terms are unique and contemporary, but the central promise from God is the same: to make his name, presence and blessing known to the whole world through his special relationship with Israel. By the time of the exile, prophets like Jeremiah (see Chapter 31) are rethinking the notion of covenant altogether, anticipating a radical new type of arrangement between God and all people (not just Israel). While creation describes the ancient, unchanging love relationship between God and the natural world, covenant concerns the ongoing and ever-evolving love relationship with human beings. To see how both come together to inform the hope of judgment, consider a passage like Psalm 96:

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 Let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before YHWH, for he comes,
for he comes to judge earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the people in his faithfulness.

B. Jesus and New Creation, New Covenant

Christians have historically been fixated on “judgment day” and the eternal fates of individual sinners, with little consideration for the fate of the world or – worse yet – an assumption that the world as we know it has already been scheduled for demolition. We have lost the threads of creation and covenant, and in so doing imagined a scenario of final judgment which is detached from the bible’s own vision of global hope and justice. Does the New Testament abandon the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God the good judge, rescuing and redeeming all creation? Certainly not. Romans Chapter 8 and the concluding chapters of John’s gospel are two prominent texts that connect the resurrection of Jesus with the advent of a new creation, as the natural world itself prepares to be reborn and refreshed. (See here for more on Romans and new creation, and here for more on new creation in John.) The stunning announcement of these texts is that, along with Jesus, the entire world that God loves is now bracing itself for long-awaited rescue.

Elsewhere, Jesus famously picks up Jeremiah’s new covenant language (see the Last Supper narrative in Luke 22), indicating that his own prophetic announcement (and imminent death and resurrection) is the herald of God’s “new deal,” a new type of arrangement between humans and the divine, an arrangement not written on stone tablets or in law books, but “written on the hearts” of human beings. Creation is renewed, and so are humans, no longer obligated to laws, rituals and religion, but free to know God and join with all creation in anticipation of judgment and rescue.

C. Summary – Restoration Not Retribution

Bleak “judgment day” scenarios are usually extrapolated from parables (like Matthew 25) and visions (like Revelation 20) that are taken out of their immediate contexts and the broader context of creation and covenant. God’s judgment of human beings, according to the bible’s own voices, is not an arbitrary and vindictive crashing of our earthly party. It represents one aspect of a much wider and more wonderful vision of rescue and redemption for every rock, tree, bird, squirrel and human being that God created and loves. But if, as we’ve considered and demonstrated, biblical eschatology is chiefly concerned with new and improved life here in this world, what are we to make of the bible’s talk about heaven?

III. HEAVEN: A FUTURE FOR GOD

“I have lifted my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22)

“YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH’s throne is in heaven;” (Psalm 11:4)

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)

It may seem odd to frame a discussion about heaven around the question of God’s future, but this propels us quickly to the heart of the matter. For too long we have thought about “heaven” strictly in terms of location. Our notion of heaven is typically that of a compound in outer space where God lives, and where we hope to go ourselves someday if our salvation is true. This is not how heaven is conceptualized in the bible.

A. The Hebrew Bible: Heaven Is Where God Is

One of the major surprises when we start paying close attention to Hebrew Bible’s presentation of heaven is that the dead people are not seen going there when they die. A few lucky individuals are “taken up” into heaven (e.g. Enoch and Elijah), but these are rare instances of passing from the one dimension directly into the other. The dead instead are collected in sheol, the abode of the dead, to join with their ancestors and await resurrection on the “last day.”

The ubiquitous phrase “heaven and earth” has two possible connotations in the Hebrew Bible: It can refer to the sky and the land, the physical contents of the created world, or it can refer to the two realms of creation: “earth,” the physical reality in which you and I are hanging about right now, and “heaven,” the realm of elohim and his reality. Elohim’s heaven is the place from which he rules over all of creation, the “administrative offices.” And while we have often imagined heaven in terms of an extreme (and unbiblical) dualism wherein heaven is the good place far far away from this bad place, the biblical language about heaven describes a reality much closer and more immanent. Heaven is a place which pushes up against earth, and which promises one day to overtake it.

Occasionally the thin curtain between the realms of earth and heaven is pulled back, and we get a glimpse “backstage.” A dramatic example of this is Jacob’s experience at Bethel and his dream of a “ladder to heaven” in Genesis 28. Elsewhere, in the Torah and the Prophets, the Temple emerges as the point at which the two dimensions meet, where God dwells in His created world and rules over it. Ezekiel goes so far as to envision the power and presence of God – which constitute “heaven” itself – flooding the abandoned Temple and flowing outward to fill the whole world with new life (Ezekiel 43). This is an explicitly eschatological dream that heaven will ultimately overwhelm the earth.

B. The New Testament: Heaven Is Already Invading Earth

The language of our English New Testaments may feed our confusion on the topic of heaven. We read Jesus’ announcement of the “Kingdom of God” (In Mark and Luke) or (more confusingly) the “Kingdom of Heaven” (in Matthew) and we envision a giant castle floating in the clouds. God lives in a kingdom, and someday I hope to go there. Once we adjust our understanding and hear “kingdom” as “rule” or “reign,” we immediately discover the connection between Jesus’ announcement and the eschatological hopes of his Jewish compatriots. The expectation was that God would arrive to rescue Israel and redeem the world, and Jesus announced that this was happening during and because of his prophetic campaign.

The picture of heaven colliding with earth is even more stark in the New Testament than we might recognize. In 1 Corinthians 15 (again) Paul speaks of “our heavenly bodies,” which we might take for a reference to “the bodies will have when we are in heaven,” but which in context seems to mean “the bodies we will inherit at resurrection which will come from heaven,” from God’s realm into the newly recreated world. Furthermore, in Romans 8 the apostle describes creation as “longing to be set free from its bondage to corruption.” This is a world waiting to be redeemed, not abandoned or destroyed! But perhaps the most vivid depiction of heaven’s “marriage” to earth is found at the very end of the bible, in Revelation 21 and 22, where the holy city of “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and is established on the earth. We are struck with the fundamental similarity between this and Ezekiel’s eschatological temple vision, with the important distinction that in Revelation there is “no temple,” for God’s presence in the world IS its temple.

C. Summary – Oh, Heaven Is a Place On Earth

The overwhelming sense of these and many other bible passages is that somehow, at the end (or rather, the new beginning), God and all of his restorative power is going to be unleashed from heaven onto the earth. With this will come resurrection, judgment, victory, redemption, and new creation. Every eschatological hope we have considered and many more are swallowed up inside this one. When heaven comes to earth, this hope maintains, the whole world is judged and set right, and its inhabitants discover a vibrant future instead of a bleak end.

CONCLUSION: Back to the Future

This is merely a framework for beginning to talk and think constructively about Christian eschatology. Many distinct biblical voices imaginatively explore these hopes and possibilities for their own times and circumstances. Israel’s prophets answered the horror of exile with the hope of divine rescue. Jesus announced judgment and vindication that would come “before this generation passes away.” Paul expected a messianic “appearance” (Greek parousia, what we call the “second coming”) that would bring resurrection  and new creation within his own lifetime. John of Patmos configured his eschatological Revelation around the fall of the Roman Empire. Thinking “biblically” about the future isn’t as simple as opening the book and reading the predictions, imagining them to be for and about us and our circumstances. There is no explicit “blueprint” in the bible for what will unfold in our future. What we discover is a wild and pervasive sense of hope and longing, a diverse collection of visions, poems, dreams and prophecies which manage to come to the same crazy conclusion: that this world has a bright, God-centered future. That what we do now matters, because the world and each of our lives will echo into eternity – not in a vague, disembodied, spiritual sense, but in some kind of redeemed, ongoing, embodied, terrestrial existence. Our best way forward is to find new and creative ways to express this same hope in our own moment, to embrace the expectation of resurrection (new life), judgment (rescued world), and heaven-on-earth in a way that speaks to the crises and fears of our modern world. This would be far more “biblical” and Christian than any doomsday prediction.