Originally posted on 15 August, 2008
Some time ago I skim-read Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That (get it at Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). This past week, I have gone back to it, and am devouring it in depth. It is a story-based reflection on the issue of salvation, with specific reference to hell. It really has got me thinking, and has helped to clarify some questions (see previous post at this blog), if not entirely provide adequate answers. These are issues we should be dealing with in our churches, but are not.
I think a key part of the problem with our understanding of what it means to be saved, and the issue of hell, the life hereafter and “eternal life”, is that the historical church has created such strong camps/entrenched positions. I don’t find any of them convincing or coherent. And none of the traditional positions gives a “unifying theory of everything” – a consistent and coherent explanation of the whole of the Biblical witness. I find that I have sympathy (and concerns) with every position, from exclusivism (that everyone not personally, consciously, individually “born again” will be excluded from heaven), or inclusivism (that some will be saved through Jesus without ever knowing the name of Jesus), to conditionalism (that hell does not last forever – after a period of conscious punishment, the damned in hell are annihilated) or universalism (that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God through Jesus, with hell ultimately being empty).
The key to understanding the importance of the issue of hell, is not actually the concept of hell itself, but rather the God to which that concept points. “God loves you – like the greatest father’s unconditional love – and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the way He wants you to, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever!” Yes?
Lesslie Newbiggin summed up my current position quite well in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989, p182f) (buy it at Kalahari.net or Amazon.com) (as quoted by McLaren, italics are my comments):
I do not think that it is good enough to just fall back on our traditional answers in this case. The stakes are too high. I am going to do more work on this issue in the next few months, but for now, I do not think it is possible to come to a coherent view on hell (and salvation) without addressing at least the following issues:
- Why does the Old Testament make no reference at all to eternal, conscious torment? The Jewish tradition was consistently that of annihiliation at death, with the Pharisaic tradition of a resurrection (which most likely meant a temporary physical resurrection of the worthy, to enjoy the victory they hoped for at the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel) only emerging in the inter-Testamental period.
- What will it feel like to “have a party in the living room, while there’s torture in the basement” (McLaren’s concept)? How could we not be aware of hell (as we know it) when we’re in heaven? And if we are, then surely that won’t be heaven (as we conceive it)?
- Would the God I worship really impose infinite punishment for finite wrongdoing?
- If God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, then why do some people end up there? If its because God is somehow constrained by some higher authority – some “rule” or “legislative issue” of justice – then God is not really God, is He?
- What will happen to all those people who lived before Christ came to earth? And what will happen to the majority of people in history who have never heard about Him?
- If Jesus is going to return to earth from the clouds with a loud fanfare, and everyone will see him, what will happen to those who bow the knee then and recognise Him as God – will they be saved, or is it too late already? If they will be saved, is it not a really unfair advantage for them compared to people who have died without seeing that miraculous event? If they won’t be saved, why not – they have bowed the knee to Jesus?
- If only those who have heard about and rejected Christ are guaranteed to go to hell, how many times and at what level of quality/intensity must one “hear” the Gospel in order to qualify? (And in that case, wouldn’t it be better to just not tell people? And if so, why is it “good news”?)
- Was hell (as we traditionally conceive it) part of God’s original design, or is it part of a “Plan B”? If its “Plan B”, its a fairly horrible thought that the devil was able to so seriously mess up God’s intentions, and that there is no way for God to defeat him on this one. Its even scarier to think that it was part of the original design…
- But I know there are many (mainly reformed) people who do at least believe that there are some people that God “created for destruction” – people who have no chance of responding to even the clearest presentation of the Gospel, and are destined to hell forever, simply so that Christians can know how lucky they are that God called them to Himself. Do we really believe that God has created some people for destruction – do we truly understand the verses of the Bible that seem to say this? How does this square with everything else we know about God?
- The Bible is clear that God does choose some, but it is equally clear that He does this not for exclusion of others, but for the benefit of others: “blessed to be a blessing”. How does this impact our thinking about hell?
- How do we reconcile God’s justice and His mercy – both such strong themes in the Bible?
- Is judgement at the end of days an individual thing? Is God simply trying to save (individual) “souls”, or is He trying to save His whole creation? If so, what does that mean, and what part must I play? What part does my personal salvation play in the salvation of the whole creation?
- Have we confused salvation and judgement? Are they the same thing? Is it possible that all could be judged, and some be saved? Salvation by grace; judgement by works – these are two of the clearest themes in the Bible – how have they been reconciled?
- Who is more likely to go to hell: homosexuals, or those guys who carry “God hates fags” signs? (Thanks, Brian for that one)
- Why is it, in the Old Testament especially, that the oppressed cry out for the day of God’s wrath, but the oppressors fear it? Is our doctrine of hell linked to our status as “western”, “modern”, “enlightened”, “empowered” Christians?
- Would we lose anything, or do any injustice to the intention of the Biblical verses that talk about hell, if we read them with the following hermeneutic: that hell is simply a literary device, meant to warn us about the reality of God’s judgement, and to incite us to live appropriately?
- If all the passages about hell are literally true, then explain how we can have fire and darkness, why the worms will not die in the fire and brimstone, or why the concepts of sheol, hades, tartarus, gehenna and the abyss – all very distinct Jewish, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman or Mesapotamium concepts of the afterlife (or not, as the case may be) – are all interchangeably translated “hell” in our English Bibles?
- If universalism is “one of the most dangerous of concepts” and a “threat to the core of Christianity” (both are phrases I have heard recently), then how do you explain the following verses: Matt 20:1-16, Jn 10:16 and 12:32, Acts 3:19-21, Rom. 5:12-21; Romans 11:26, 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 2 Cor. 5:19, Phil. 2:9-11, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:16-23, 1 Tim. 2:4 and 4:10, Titus 2:11, Heb 2:9, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Jn 2:2 (Oh, and that’s virtually every book of the New Testament).
- God is God: why does he need a ‘Plan B’?
For now, these are just musings. But they are important ones – this issue of salvation is at the heart of the Gospel, and of who God is. We must get it right. And if we have been wrong, we must correct ourselves as a matter of urgency.
If you plan to respond to this post, please may I ask of you just two courtesies:
(1) If you plan to quote a Scripture, please do not do so from memory. Please do the work of going back to your Bible and reading at least the 10 verses before and 10 verses after the verse/sentence you wish to quote. Please check the context, and ask yourself at least the following questions: (a) is there anything in the passage that might indicate that the passage is not entirely literal (e.g. when Jesus talks of a place where they will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, it is in the context of “separating the sheep and goats”, and a list of actions on which such separation is done is clearly not prescriptive, but rather illustrative)? (b) Does the passage *specifically* indicate eternal, conscious, painful judgment?
(2) Please do not question my commitment to Scripture. It is *because* I am fully committed to understanding the Bible as the infallible word of God that I am asking these questions, and it is on the basis of a renewed investigation of God’s Word that I’m beginning to doubt the traditional positions on the issues I address at this blogsite.