Category Archives: hell

Why do I believe? Part 13 — Not for Heaven’s Sake


Lots of folks, when they discuss the truth (or not) of faith, or when they try to sell Christianity to outsiders, spend a great deal of energy on issues surrounding the afterlife.  The crassest version, but one many of us have encountered, is encapsulated in the question “do you know where you’d be if you die tonight?”  The core message, of course, is that we’re all going either to heaven or hell, and that being true, we should choose heaven and make whatever earthly choices and/or behavior changes required to ensure that the heavenly outcome is ours.  At its extreme, I will never forget the time I met a career Baptist missionary in Honduras, who looked me in the eye and told me in all sincerity that if he didn’t believe in the certainty of hell for the unbeliever, he wouldn’t be a Christian.  To this day, I wish I would have asked him what he’d do (or wished he could do) differently.

Unsurprisingly, atheists have picked up the theme.  I have had more than one of the benevolent stripe of atheist somewhat condescendingly aver that if I needed the comfort of a happy afterlife to give me peace of mind now, that was all right as long as I didn’t bug anybody else about it.  And of course atheists who aren’t quite so magnanimous can get pretty steamed (not entirely without justification) about Christians who are so focused on the afterlife that they seem indifferent to suffering here and now … or those who are so sure this world is going to burn soon that they care nothing for ecology or stewardship.

But for me, the afterlife is really not a factor in my choices for this life.  Though it is difficult for both my believing and unbelieving friends to grasp, if I were to become affirmatively convinced that there’s no God, no heaven and no hell, and that this life is really all I’ve got, I don’t think I’d change much at all.  My charitable giving might change a bit; there’s no point in supporting any evangelical efforts if there’s no evangel.  I probably wouldn’t bother going to church, though I might still just because there’s not much that forms community like church does (although I must admit that a lot of “worship” is hard for me to tolerate even though I do believe it).

  • I wouldn’t cheat on my wife … our relationship here and now is too good to ruin regardless of whether it’d be sin or not.
  • I wouldn’t change my social/economic outlook on justice; although the best of Christianity gives a lot of sound foundation for justice, it’d still be clear to me that the powerful have no right to abuse the weak.
  • I don’t think I’d change my choice of career; my passion for international health comes right out of my perspective on justice, and my personal sense of purpose is strengthened when I’m able to help others.
  • I probably wouldn’t have started this blog, but on the other hand I have lots of opinions and like to say them, so I very well might have started a different one.

Ultimately, I don’t think the emphasis on afterlife by Christians is particularly helpful.  Not that there’s no biblical foundation to be sure.  Jesus certainly spoke about resurrection and God rewarding the just and punishing evil.  Paul did say that if there is no resurrection “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19), but if we keep reading it appears to me that the context is a persecuted church.  People who are dying for their faith can reasonably be described as “miserable” if they’re dying for a lie.  But here in our too-comfortable 21st-century West, any misery we may suffer has nothing to do with our hope in the resurrection.

So while I would not want to pierce the comfort of a bereaved widow who finds solace in the confidence that she will see her husband again, and while I would never wish to rob the downtrodden of the hope that some day justice will be served on those who oppress them, in the final analysis my own motivation for the Christian life is found in this life, or it’s not found.  The careful reader may notice that I have not even addressed the question of what I think will happen to me when I die.  This is deliberate.  I neither fear death (ultimately) nor have I any desire to hasten it.  I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t fear hell.  But whether or not I have the hope of heaven is irrelevant to my life choices today.

What IS a Christian, anyway?

Transparent cross superimposed over a question markI had a friend ask me today what my definition of a Christian is.  I resisted the question to some degree, as I remain extremely troubled by the obsession many have, with drawing lines to delineate who is “in” and “out” of fellowship, orthodoxy, or whatever.  I am not taking anything back that I said in my Word About Creeds.  Nevertheless, if I claim to want people to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ, it follows that I must have some idea about what this concept means…at least as I use the terms.

I hope I’ve made it obvious in my writing that while I believe the Christian church–particularly the church in the United States where I live–has severely messed up its witness and faithfulness to Jesus, I am not saying therefore that the people I criticize are (necessarily) not Christians.  It will give some Christians grief to see me quote the Quran at this point, but it’s eloquent when it says:

Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al-Ma’idah, 5:48)

In other words, I presume that *all* Christians (and others, for that matter) get some things right, some wrong, and that our merciful Father will sort it out some day if, in fact, the sorting matters to him.

I am also not saying that all those who meet the criteria I give below are going to heaven, and all who aren’t are going to hell.  The issue of salvation is an entirely separate question–and in fact the wrong question to be asking at this juncture.

But with these caveats, I offer the following four criteria that I believe sufficiently define one who follows Jesus:

  1. Jesus’ Divinity.  The New Testament is quite clear that Jesus represented himself as divine, and any follower of Jesus must acknowledge him as such.  This is not the same thing as endorsing classical Trinitarianism…as I have previously written, I personally believe that the “co-equal person” argument in the doctrine of the Trinity fails to wrestle adequately with those scriptures in which Jesus clearly delineated himself as other than, and subordinate to the Father.  I use the term “wrestle” quite deliberately, as I believe there’s a tension in the scriptural characterization of Jesus that can’t be fully resolved.  The Trinity is one limited, inadequate attempt to resolve it; my own characterization of Jesus as divine but submissive to the Father is another.  Either is a genuine attempt to be faithful to the way Jesus characterized himself, and either, I suggest, fulfills this first criterion.
  2. Jesus’ Humanity. Just as the scripture is plain about Jesus’ divinity, it is categorical that from the incarnation on, Jesus became honest-to-goodness human flesh.  He ate, he bled, he suffered, he partied.  The Gnostic denial of Jesus’ flesh is outside the pale.  The follower of Jesus recognizes his true humanity.  (note in this and #1, I’m avoiding the classic phrase “Fully God & Fully Man.”  I think that phrase is actually nonsensical and does nothing to advance either understanding or orthodoxy).
  3. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  The incarnate, fleshly Jesus really, truly died and was really, truly raised to life by the Father.  The many theological implications of this fact are the subject of some dispute, and I certainly have an opinion on them.  But there are genuine Christians who have very different opinions than I on what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished.  They are still Christians, and so am I.
  4. Jesus’ Lordship. This is the point at which the I most clearly depart from the idea that a “credo,” a list of “what I believe,” is of utmost importance.  If one “believes” that Jesus is Lord, that “belief” can only be expressed in submission, obedience, and discipleship.  The fact that Jesus is Lord means that all the other things and beings that pretend to the throne are NOT lord.  Nations, individuals, belief systems, political philosophies & parties, all are subordinated to the call and command of Jesus, or else he isn’t Lord, and no amount of “believing” otherwise can change that.

I hope you noticed that all four of these criteria start with the name of Jesus.  That’s no accident.  It is the name of Jesus, and his position in your life, that makes you a Christian, or not.  And frankly, those who are, and those who aren’t, are to be found in some unexpected places.

The SBC: Pro-Hell, Anti-Bell — Still Wrong!

Well, it seems the firestorm ignited by Rob Bell’s Love Wins just won’t let up.  Now the Southern Baptist Convention has passed a resolution On The Reality of Hell (June, 2011), in which they reaffirm their belief in eternal conscious punishment for all “the unregenerate.”   My thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her highlighting of this resolution (of which I had not heard), and to Mason Slater for linking to Rachel’s post in the first place.  (Incidentally, follow that link to Rachel’s post…she makes an interesting argument that if the SBC is going to insist on the “Biblical foundation” of their doctrine of hell, they have to abandon their doctrine on the “Age of Accountability” which is nowhere in the Bible.  Not my subject today, but it’s a compelling argument IMO).

Anyway, since the SBC did us the favor of putting scripture references into the various clauses of their resolution, I figured this would be a good time to re-examine the New Testament survey on Hell that I did a few years back.  For those who have not already seen it, you can download a table of all the passages I found on hell and punishment, and have a look at my commentary on them.
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New Testament Survey on Hell

I’ve written against the usual doctrines of hell and eternal punishment now and again on this blog…you can see the works by choosing the Hell category from the list at right. However until we changed to WordPress I never had a good way of providing my original source material for others to evaluate or critique. This post is just to make that material available. At the following link you can download a PDF table of all the references I found in the New Testament, that I believe contribute to the question of eternal destiny, along with my assessment of who the target audience was, and what insight (if any) each reference brings to the question. Here’s the document:

Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice

A common phenomenon within theological, political, and other discussions that get us worked up, is that someone frames a question as “either-or” and then others jump onto that argument as “for” one side or the other…without anybody really stopping to consider whether the question itself was properly framed to begin with.  The recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” seems to me a prime example of this.  The “either-or” of the Bell saga is, of course, the dichotomy of Universal Salvation on one hand, and strict Evangelical exclusivism on the other.

The rival positions are easy to characterize and even easier to caricature.  The Universalist argument covers a spectrum somewhere between “every good and sincere person will go to heaven, because that’s what a loving God would do,” and “because God is so loving, he’ll keep on trying to lovingly win even the inhabitants of hell so that eventually hell will be empty.”  In this range of thought, hell is either nonexistent, or destined for obsolescence.  Evangelicals respond with the doctrines of Original Sin and Universal Revelation, to insist that all humans are guilty before God and deserving of eternal, conscious punishment unless they deliberately and specifically appropriate Jesus’ saving work on the cross in atonement for their sins.  In this model, hell must be substantially more populous than heaven, and disproportionately populated with non-American (or at least non-Western) humanity who had the misfortune to be born where they wouldn’t grow up with the “truth.”

The controversy, and at times the vitriol, have flowed fast and furious.  But it seems to me that the vast majority of debaters have accepted without much examination, that these two extreme alternatives are all we have from which to choose.  I believe they’re both not just wrong, but badly wrong.  Part of the problem  is that both perspectives seem to circle around the assumption that what happens when we die is the point, the central focus, of faith.  As I have already written, I am convinced that Jesus’ teaching is far more concerned with the life he’s called us to live now, than with the nature of any afterlife we may encounter.  There are, however, errors to examine in both the Universalist and Evangelical positions.

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So, do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?

The recent debate around the blogosphere as to whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, has got me to thinking.  There seems to be a substantial contingent within conservative Christianity, that is extremely dedicated to the notion of a hell where those who do not “believe” will suffer unending, conscious torment.  Many of these people–dear friends of mine, some of them–are not angry, vindictive people in real life; in fact some of them are downright compassionate.  So why, I wonder, do they get so upset about the suggestion that there might NOT be eternal torture awaiting those who do not believe the right things about Jesus?

The simplistic answer, of course, is that they are passionate about the literal truth of the Bible, and since the Bible speaks of a literal hell, to discount it is to disrespect the rest of Biblical truth as well.  As I’ve pointed out before, however, the scriptural case for eternal, conscious torment is far too thin to support a dogmatic claim, and in fact a legitimate case can be made in scripture for annihilation or conditional immortality (a term I only recently encountered, but which accurately characterizes a perspective I found in the gospels).  The same can be said for the other simplistic answer: “that’s what the church has always taught,” because in fact a survey of church fathers reveals a far more nuanced and diverse perspective than that on display today.

So why the obsession with hell?  Although I have absolutely no proof for this speculation, I wonder if it really comes down to salesmanship.  I have known a number of “believers” whose initial entree to Christianity was a fear of the condemnation they believed awaited them if they did not believe.  I still remember the first time a Christian (this one was a Baptist missionary in Honduras) explicitly told me “If I did not believe there was a hell, I wouldn’t be a Christian.”  Combined with the definition of faith as assenting to certain truths, and the doctrine of eternal security to keep those who have “believed” in the “saved” column, it becomes reasonable to try to convince people to “believe,” as Malcolm X said of a very different struggle, “by any means necessary.”
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No one comes to the Father but by me…

I am the way , and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are, I suppose, a variety of possible candidates, but today I submit John 14:6 as the single most blatantly misquoted saying from Jesus’ entire ministry.  Lifted completely out of context, Jesus’ statement is usually presented as “Exhibit A” for Jesus’ establishment of the exclusive religion of Christianity as the sole route out of hell…and the reason everyone who doesn’t acknowledge the speaker’s version of orthodoxy is clearly hellbound.

Someone once said “a text out of context is merely a pretext,” and nowhere does this statement apply more forcefully than to John 14:6.  The context is a long heart-to-heart that Jesus had with his disciples at the Last Supper (see the beginning of John 13), on the subject of his impending crucifixion.  This particular discourse actually begins at John 13:31 and continues unbroken through chapter 17.  In it, Jesus is talking about his death and encouraging his disciples to stay strong, faithful, and together through the trials that are coming.  His disciples aren’t exactly tracking with his message, though…at least not at the beginning of chapter 14.  Having just told the disciples he’s going to prepare a place for them, Jesus reminds them that they know where he’s going and how to get there (John 14:3-4).  Thomas, not so much “the doubter” as the guy who’s willing to admit his lack of clue, blurts out that he has absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about:  “Lord, we haven’t a clue where you’re going, how could we possibly know the way?”  It is in response to Thomas’ spoken (and, I supect, the others’ unspoken) question that Jesus states “I AM the way…”

Jesus did NOT say “I am starting a new religion with you guys, and this religion is the only way to avoid hell.”  Hell’s not even part of the discussion.  Nor did Jesus say “no one can be saved unless he thinks in his mind that I am the son of God and I am dying for his sins.”  No, Jesus says “I AM the way” directly in the context of his having just told his disciples “you know the way.”  The life they have lived with Jesus during the past three-plus years of his earthly ministry, the jobs he has set them to do, the miracles they have witnessed, the teaching they have absorbed; all these things wrapped together have taught them “the way” to the Father, which is the person of Jesus himself.  When Jesus goes on in John 14:11-14 to encourage the disciples to believe that the Father is in him, even this is not for “salvation” the way we think of it…it’s so they can do what they’ve seen him do and more, “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Jesus’ words in John 14 (really, all the way through John 17) were spoken not as a warning to unbelievers, but as a comfort to those who already believe!

When Christians loudly proclaim “no man cometh to the Father but by me,” they are not talking about following Jesus.  They’re not talking about obeying Jesus.  They’re certainly not talking about staying faithful under hardship and persecution.  No, they’re talking about how wrong Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Liberal Christians, Humanists, and sundry other “infidels” are.  They’re usually talking about their certainty that all of the above are destined to burn forever in hell.  (For a current example, take a look at the discussion on my friend Kurt’s blog today!)

The gospel of Jesus Christ claims things about him that are true of no one else.  Nobody else is Jesus, and no other teaching holds the stunning uniqueness of the One who rose from the dead.   I am not advocating for the feel-good universalist straw man so often the target of the self-righteous quoters of John 14:6.  But to properly frame those places where Jesus’ words confront society, or other faiths, or the Christian church, we have got to start by representing Jesus’ own words faithfully.  Using John 14:6 to club “unbelievers” and universalists over the head is categorically NOT faithful to Jesus’ message.

McLaren – "A New Kind of Christianity" – Thoughts on John 14:6

Yesterday I discussed at length my criticism of Brian McLaren’s perspective on homosexuality, and to some extent sexuality in general, in his book A New Kind of Christianity.  Today I want to laud a point that McLaren has gotten absolutely right, in chapter 19 of the same book, entitled “The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?”  Here I’ll start by letting Brian speak for himself:

“When I’m asked about pluralism in my travels, I generally return to Jesus’ simple teachings of neighborliness such as the Golden Rule, saying something like this:  ‘Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them.  When you are kind and respectful to followers of other religions, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus, you are being faithful to him.’  Then I ask them how they would want people of other religions to treat them.  They typically say things like: ‘I would want them to respect my faith, show interest in it and learn about it, not constantly attack it, find points of agreement they could affirm, respectfully disagree where necessary–but not let disagreement shatter the friendship, share about their faith with me without pressuring me to convert, invite me to share my faith with them, include me in their social life without making me feel odd,’ and so on.  After each reply, I generally say, ‘That sounds great.  Go and do likewise.'”  (pp 211-212)

McLaren then says that often people’s next question is something on the order of “What about John 14:6?”  You all know that one…”No one comes to the Father but by me.”  I, too, have heard (and for a long time believed) this phrase of Jesus’ was the principal defense against universalism in the Bible.  Only problem is, and here Brian is spot-on, there is nothing at all in the context of that statement, that gives us any evidence at all that Jesus was making a claim of exclusivity when he said it.  Quite a different conversation was going on at that point, where Jesus had just been telling his disciples of his impending departure and death, and telling them they couldn’t follow him just now, but that they still  knew the way to the Father.  Thomas had just interrupted that no, they DIDN’T know the way (for that matter, they didn’t know what the heck he was talking about).  Jesus’ answer in John 14:6 is “but you DO know the way, I AM the way.”  To use this verse, woefully out of context, as the trump cards in an argument of “my religion is better than yours”, is doing complete violence to any reasonable reading of the text.

In this chapter, McLaren makes a compelling case for the notion that introducing people to Jesus is not the same thing as converting them to the religion of Christianity (in this vein, I have had some pretty conservative Evangelicals tell me of places in the world where Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are choosing to follow, love, and worship Jesus without giving up their respective religious practices).  He is not arguing universalism, though some may accuse him of that (his footnote #32 on p. 292 makes this abundantly clear).  He is, however, saying something you might have heard before on this blog (see my entire series on hell), that where you go when you die isn’t the point of calling people to Jesus, and that John 14:6 is not talking about where ANYBODY goes when they die.

Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who’ve never heard?

The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”

There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.

Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term “believe” as “intellectual assent to orthodox propositions” is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.

Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.

None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”

Eternal destiny, part 3: Eternal what?

An implicit point in many discussions of the state of a human being after death, revolve around the theory that we were created with immortal souls, which live on after corporeal death. The belief is that we will all live forever, either in bliss or torment. I did not find any conclusive evidence of this in the New Testament. In fact, the majority of the passages I found speak of resurrection from the dead, not a continued existence after death. A worldview that states that we are all “fully dead” (for want of a better term) at death, but that God will, at the end of time, raise us all either to eternal life or to judgment, is just as consistent—perhaps more so—with the scriptures I read, as is a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Furthermore, numerous passages in both the Gospel of John and the epistles, seem to set up a contrast between death or destruction on one hand, and eternal life on the other. The classic John 3:16 is a good example of this. The contrast is not between “eternally conscious punishment” and “eternal life,” but rather between “perishing” and “eternal life.” “Eternal death” (my phrase, not in the Bible) is also eternal—that is, death from which there is no resurrection or reprieve. The “second death” of Revelation may be just that.

I’m not necessarily advocating annihilationism (although I find it logically compelling). As my notes on individual passages will show, I in fact came across a variety of places in both the gospels and the epistles, some of which might be taken more to indicate an ongoing punishment, and others of which seem more to suggest a finality to the punishment—rather like the contrast between life in prison and the death sentence. Both are final, complete, and irrevocable, and nothing I found in Scripture suggests anything less.

My point is that an equally-honest case can be made, either for eternal conscious punishment, or for annihilation, depending on the Scriptural passages to which one gives more weight, and no clear-cut, conclusive pattern emerges. I may decide the preponderence of evidence points one direction, and another believer may see it pointing the other way, and neither of us is conclusively on solid Scriptural ground. I cannot agree to a doctrine which attempts to clarify a point that I believe the writers of Scripture—under divine inspiration—left vague.