An open letter to the gay community after SCOTUS

Dear LGBT people:

I’m starting to worry that some of you didn’t get the memo. Or maybe you’re not as good at destroying civilization as we were told. Either way, we were promised an apocalypse and, well, I’m sorry to say… you’re just not living up to expectations.

I mean, it’s been two whole days since the SCOTUS ruling, and you STILL haven’t turned up at my door to make my kids gay or replace my lady wife with a dude.

How many churches have you shuttered for not doing gay weddings? How many pastors have you rounded up? What are you even doing with all your free time now that you’ve won? As far as I can tell, the signers of the Manhattan Declaration are still freely moving about, enjoying their lives as much as before. (Well, maybe a little less now that you’ve apparently ruined their traditional marriages.) They’re even issuing new statements in case, in all the flutter, we forgot where they stand.

Maybe your paddy wagon is in the shop (getting some fabulous new detailing, no doubt). But you really must get on with it soon.

Otherwise, people will start to think that your only agenda is to love and be loved.

Sincerely,

A disgruntled alarmist

Will reading the Bible turn you into a liberal?

Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, believes reading the Bible is the best cure for fundamentalism. As he writes in this piece for the Huffington Post from 2012 (which has been making the rounds again this week):

The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

I think he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek with his use of the word “liberal.” This is not really a “liberal” vs. “conservative” issue—at least not if the insinuation is that all liberals are angry, ivory tower types set on undermining Scripture. More on that later.

While we should be careful to avoid overgeneralizing about either side (conservatives can and do read the Bible without significantly altering their core beliefs), I resonated with Carey’s story on a personal level. Like him, reading Scripture has led me to question many assumptions which I previously took for granted. Absorbing whole books—not just settling for a daily verse ripped from its original context—has made me wary of any statement that begins with, “The Bible clearly says…” Like Carey, I’ve come to realize the Bible is vastly more intricate—and a good deal more human—than I once thought.

For Carey, it started with the realization that the gospels are not (with the possible exception of John) eyewitness accounts of Jesus.

For me, it started with hell.

The year was 2011. That was when Rob Bell published his book Love Wins. “Farewell” became a thing neo-reformed leaders say to those they deem heretical. Friends were lining up on either side of the “is there a hell or not?” divide.

I had decided to read the New Testament for Lent that year. It’s sad to say—especially for a kid who grew up going to churches with the word “Bible” in their names—but it was the first time I’d read the whole thing from start to finish.

Given all the fuss about Love Wins, I decided to keep an eye out for hell as I made my way through the New Testament. I wanted to see if a clear picture emerged, if things really were as straightforward as Rob’s most vocal critics said they were.

Sightings of hell were few and far between—and not all that consistent. Hell is mentioned just 23 times in the entire New Testament. And even that’s misleading, because the New Testament uses three different terms, which translators have unhelpfully collapsed into the all-homogenizing English word “hell.”

The Bible has plenty to say about judgment—it’s hard to escape that as you read—but most of what it says bears little resemblance to the dominant evangelical portrait of hell as a place of never-ending, fiery torment. Judgment is more commonly depicted as the end of something—“everlasting destruction,” “second death,” etc. The “eternal conscious torment” view is supported by maybe two passages in the whole New Testament.

In short, painting a “biblical” picture of hell is no easy task. The Bible doesn’t lay out a uniform theology of judgment. It’s not as though God gathered all the human authors of Scripture for a preproduction meeting and said, “Let’s get on the same page here. Make sure each of you include the following three key points about hell…”

That’s because the Bible is a human book—or rather, a collection of human books. I happen to think it’s also inspired. But we have a tendency to talk about divine inspiration at the expense of the Bible’s humanity. And it’s time we restored the balance.

This, I think, is the real issue. This is why reading the Bible—really reading it—for the first time messes with your head. It’s not so much a “liberal” vs. “conservative” thing. It’s a “turning the Bible into something it’s not” thing.

I grew up thinking of the Bible as more or less something that fell from the sky—neatly packaged, never contradicting itself, containing all the answers. And it just isn’t that kind of book.

Instead, it’s exactly what you’d expect a collection of books compiled over several centuries to be. It’s messy. It’s diverse. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s narrative. Sometimes it’s a literary genre for which we don’t have a modern-day comparison. It’s dialogical. It’s not a monologue from God. It’s a two-way (and in some cases multidirectional) conversation.

Sometimes, that makes coming up with clear-cut answers, well… difficult.

We try to make the Bible give us a straightforward picture of hell, and instead it gives us three different terms—each with a distinct meaning.

We try to draw a clear-cut sexual ethic from Scripture—and we get David, the man who took at least seven wives and plenty more concubines and STILL managed to be called a man after God’s own heart.

We try to create a neatly harmonized account of Jesus, but the Gospels stubbornly resist our efforts to collapse four stories into one.

None of which is to dismiss or diminish the Bible. None of which is to reduce this discussion to the same tired old “liberal” vs. “conservative” polarization. I left fundamentalism a long time ago, but like Greg Carey, I still love Jesus and the church. I’ve devoted a good chunk of my career to sharing with others what he calls “the love and wonder we experience with the Bible.” I believe the Bible is a complicated book, but for me it’s a sacredly complicated book.

Reading the Bible holistically won’t necessarily turn you into a liberal. And that’s OK. But liberal or conservative, you might grow to appreciate that it’s not always a simple matter of “doing what the Bible says.” Like Carey concludes in his post, reading the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

And maybe a good dose of humility.

Related post: 6 observations on salvation, judgment, & hell after reading the New Testament

Shock-jock pastor meets the full (but not so manly) might of the British Empire

Mark Driscoll is mad. (Yes, again.)

This time, it’s about his recent interview with UK radio host and “timid Brit” Justin Brierley. A few extracts were released ahead of a profile piece in Christianity magazine. They include one where Driscoll challenges Brierley on everything from the number of manly men in his church (which is pastored by his wife) to whether Brierley believes in penal substitution. And here I thought the interviewer generally asked the questions.

Other highlights include Driscoll saying that British churches are run by “a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling truth,” and claiming the entire country doesn’t “have one young guy that anybody’s listening to who can preach the Bible.”

In other words, the problem with the British church is that it needs more strident celebrity pastors?

Then there was the bit where Driscoll — famous calling his theological opponents a bunch of “chicks and chickified dudes with limp wrists” — described the UK church scene as “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.”

When it came out that the presenter’s wife is a pastor, Driscoll launched into a “whose church is bigger?” competition, which he concluded with this statement:

You look at your results, look at my results, and look at the variable that’s most obvious [i.e. male leadership].”

Afterward on his blog, Driscoll characterized the experience as “the most disrespectful, adversarial, and subjective” interview he’s had since releasing his latest book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace.

He said he felt set up — namely, that the interview “had nearly nothing to do with the book or its subject matter” as expected. He complained of being “selectively edited and presented in a way that is not entirely accurate.”

So Brierley posted the entire interview online.

And yeah… he asks some tough questions, much as he did when he interviewed Rob Bell about his controversial book Love Wins. That’s what journalists do.

At least 20 minutes of the interview touched on Driscoll’s book directly or indirectly. Before starting, Brierley asked if it was OK to venture into other subjects as well. And his pointed questions were balanced by his oft-repeated admiration for Driscoll’s willingness to tackle the difficult issues head on.  

Another complaint was that Brierley ignored Driscoll’s wife, who was on the phone with him and was meant to be part of the interview. This one seems like a fair complaint. Grace Driscoll was asked just one question during the entire interview. Brierley quickly apologized for this at the end. More to the point, instead of complaining about it after the fact, why didn’t Mark Driscoll — as his wife’s defender, protector, etc. — speak up for her during the interview? Why did he never say, “Hey, my wife has some great insights to share about the book; let’s make sure we cover that, too”?

While we’re (kind of) on the subject, if you believe it’s wrong for a woman to “teach or have authority” over men, why would you co-write a book about marriage with your wife? What if a man reads your book — namely, the sections written by your wife — and learns something from it? What if he actually “submits” to some of her advice? Precisely how is that not “teaching or having authority” over men?

What’s unfortunate is that Driscoll had a number of reasonable things to say during the interview, most of which were overshadowed by his reaction to it. When asked about the provocatively titled chapter “Can We _____?” in Real Marriage, Driscoll gave a perfectly sensible rationale for his advice to young couples.

But why did he feel the need to chide the presenter as “scandalous” and “immature” for asking about this chapter in the first place? You mean to tell me it’s OK to write a chapter on all the things a married couple should and shouldn’t do during their more intimate moments, give it a provocative title designed to grab people’s attention, and then get irritated when a reporter wants to ask you about it?

There were plenty of other illuminating moments during the interview, both bad and good. Like when Driscoll demonstrated that he doesn’t fully understand the difference between single and double predestination. On the plus side, he offered that predestination and gender roles are second-tier issues, not litmus tests of orthodoxy. (Whew.)

But Driscoll’s dressing-down of the presenter near the end was just, well, sad. You can read a partial transcript over at Cognitive Discopants (= best blog name ever).

Driscoll asks Brierley how many young men have come to Christ at the church his wife pastors. Driscoll’s point — implied here, but stated clearly a moment later — is that he’s won more converts; therefore he’s right about women in ministry. When Brierley points out that a few young men have, in fact, come to Christ since his wife took the reins of their small church, Driscoll responds:

This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Setting aside the fact that throwing around Bible verses like weapons is a poor way to win an argument, Driscoll’s logic is, in essence: “I’m popular. I’ve got lots of people coming to my church. Which proves I’m right and you’re wrong.”

It’s an odd argument to make, especially for someone who has openly (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticized the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen. If numbers are a sign of God’s personal endorsement, then Osteen is even more right than Mark is.

Next, Driscoll asks what kind of men are to be found in Brierley’s church. “Strong men?” Then he asks whether Brierley’s wife does any “sexual counseling” with men. To which the answer is, not surprisingly, no. Like any sensible church, they have male leaders available to counsel other men about their sexual problems.

Then Driscoll changes subjects entirely, asking Brierley if he believes in the “conscious, literal, eternal torment of hell.” And so the litmus test comes out.

Brierley rightly asks what this has to do with the subject at hand, women in ministry. To which Driscoll replies:

It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone, or is he like a father who also protects and defends and disciplines?

I’m not sure who Driscoll’s trying harder to insult: egalitarians (who worship an effeminate teddy bear, apparently) or every mom on the planet (all of whom are apparently incapable of protecting, defending, and disciplining their children).

Over on his blog, Driscoll pleads with British churches not to compromise on “essential doctrinal issues,” which for him includes “the reality of a literal conscious eternal torment in hell.” Translation: if you don’t believe in eternal conscious torment, you’re not a Christian.

OK, but one of Driscoll’s theological heroes, John Stott (“whom I love,” Driscoll said during the interview) didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment. He was an annihilationist. Worse, he was British!

As the interview-in-reverse draws to a close, Driscoll tries one last time to prove that Brierley isn’t a real Christian — because it’s all about who’s in and who’s out — this time by asking whether he believes in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

From the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, Brierley’s answer is quite sensible: substitutionary atonement is one of the ways (but not the only way) we understand what happened on the cross. I should say “try to understand,” because precisely how Christ defeated sin and death is wrapped up in mystery beyond our ability to fathom.

But for Driscoll, that’s not good enough. Penal substitution is the “central, governing” idea of the cross. To which I respond with the same question I’ve asked of Calvinism in general. If that’s so, then why isn’t penal substitution clearly stated in the universal creeds of the church, much less Paul’s summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 (which, as Scot McKnight has demonstrated, provided the framework for the earliest creeds)?

Finally, a word of advice. (Not that you’re reading, Mark. But I’ll pretend anyway.) Every time you get torn apart for saying something careless, you complain that you were selectively quoted and taken out of context.

You’re a smart guy. You’re culturally savvy. The answer is staring you in the face.

If you’re tired of people throwing all the careless things you’ve said back at you, stop saying them.

It’s time to man up, Mark.

____________________

Update: Christianity magazine (the publication behind the Mark Driscoll interview) tweeted a link to my post earlier today. So I’ve posted a follow-up on why I think it’s important to speak up about Driscoll.

Salvation, judgment, and hell in the New Testament: Luke-Acts

A few weeks ago, I posted some broad-brushstroke thoughts about my experience reading through the New Testament, seeking out every passage that touches on judgment, heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long. This little experiment was inspired by reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins earlier this year. I thought I’d dive a little deeper into one book in particular, Luke.

Luke is one of two volumes from the same writer. Luke tells the story of Jesus, while volume two (Acts) unpacks the movement he ignited.

More than any other gospel, Luke highlights the radically inclusive nature of Jesus. Time and again, Jesus subverts the “natural order of things.” Those who think they’re entitled to God’s favor end up on the wrong side of things. Those typically excluded — women, foreigners, the diseased, etc. — end up pleasantly surprised.

The gospel of Luke mentions hell (a.k.a. Gehenna) only once, in Luke 12:5. Three times if you also count references to Hades (Luke 10:15; 16:23).

In Acts… not one mention of hell.

As for judgment, there’s plenty to be found in Luke. But it’s not always what you’d expect.

John the Baptist warns of an unquenchable fire in Luke 3. But he also connects fire with baptism. One fire, different results — depending on what kind of person you are.

Twice (Luke 9:25-26; 12:8-10) Jesus says he’ll disown anyone who’s ashamed of him. The second time, Jesus also warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

And just what is blasphemy against the Spirit? This statement is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ clash with those who cynically credit his work to the devil and insist he prove his identity by performing signs at their command (Luke 11:14-16).

Two things worth mentioning…

First, you have to know someone in order to be ashamed of them. These texts say nothing about those who’ve never heard of Jesus.

Second, Jesus aims his rebuke at those who knowingly, persistently reject him. Those who see God at work and call it the devil.

Elsewhere, Jesus prophesies that three Galilean villages — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum — will suffer a fate worse than Sodom because of their unbelief (Luke 10:1-15).

In Love Wins, Rob Bell reflects on a similar passage in Matthew, suggesting that maybe there’s hope for Sodom (p. 83-84). But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Luke’s text or the parallel account in Matthew.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are sometimes known as the “evangelical triangle.” This was Jesus’ home turf. Several of the disciples came from these villages. The evangelical triangle was home to some of the most devout, God-fearing people in ancient Palestine.

According to Luke, the fate of these otherwise good people who rejected the Messiah will be worse than that of the notoriously wicked who never met Christ (e.g. Sodom).

That’s because judgment is directly related to knowledge. Elsewhere, Luke quotes Jesus: “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows,” while those who know better “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47-48).

And in his next installment, Luke writes about a God who has overlooked human ignorance.

Does ignorance get someone off the hook for bad behavior? Not entirely. But the full force of judgment is reserved for those who ought to know better.

And then there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, Jesus describes Hades as a place of “torment.” There’s a “great chasm” separating Hades from paradise — though the rich man’s refusal to accept Lazarus as his equal, even after their fortunes have been thoroughly reversed, is as much a chasm as anything else in this story.

Most scholars will tell you not to read too much theology into parables. But this story does reveal another dimension of judgment: it is in part about evening the score, providing justice for those who didn’t get any in this life (see also Luke 6:20-26).

In fact, if there’s one group of people for whom it’s almost impossible to enter the kingdom of God, it’s the rich (Luke 18:18-29). Which is small comfort for those of us who find ourselves among the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet.

Last, we have the religious leaders — Jesus’ nemeses in all four gospels.

Near the end of his life, Jesus singles out the religious establishment in a parable about a vineyard owner who executes his wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). No one misses the point (which is remarkable for one of Jesus’ parables): the “teachers of the law and the chief priests” are the wicked tenants.

A few paragraphs later, Jesus warns that the religious leaders “will be punished most severely” for making a mockery of religion and exploiting the vulnerable (Luke 20:45-47).

So yeah… there’s plenty of judgment in Luke. We’re talking more than just a slap on the wrist, too:

“Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.”

“Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

“These men will be punished most severely.”

But Luke also seems to believe that not all sins are created equal. In God’s cosmic justice, the punishment always fits the crime.

This is a far cry from the brand of Calvinism which says that every sin — from breaking the speed limit to genocide — is equally repugnant in the eyes of a holy God.

But there’s more.

In Luke, Jesus is radically inclusive and divisive all at once.

When Jesus’ disciples try to stop someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, saying, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-51).

But in the very next section of Luke, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (This was in response to those attributing his powers to the devil, for what it’s worth.)

Jesus insists he came not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51), and he butts heads with the religious leaders… a LOT.

Yet Luke also says the religious leaders “rejected God’s purpose for themselves,” once more highlighting the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ message. Even the establishment — as corrupt as it was — was meant to be part of what God was doing.

It turns out God wants everybody, even misfits. Even outcasts. And even the ones oppressing the outcasts. That’s the whole point of Luke’s gospel.

One last thing to take from Luke: judgment isn’t our business. It’s God’s.

In Luke 9, as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem — toward his death — he and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village. The people refuse to welcome him. (Let’s just say there was a bit of ethnic hostility between Jews and Samaritans back then.)

The disciples ask if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village… which was just a bit presumptuous on their part, don’t you think?

Jesus will have none of it. Luke simply says that he “turned and rebuked them.”

There’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. To which Gandalf replies: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

The same warning applies to all of us to debate heaven, hell, and who goes where. It’s God’s business, not ours.

Even those who have a relatively narrow view of salvation should hope and pray they’re wrong — that God will withhold whatever judgment he’s got in store and spare whoever they seem to think will be on the receiving end.

After all, if you figure the odds based on the New Testament, those of us who qualify as “religious insiders” have a better chance of being on the wrong side of things… precisely because we’re so sure we’re right.

But the good news is that God wants everybody. Outcasts, insiders, everyone.

 

6 observations on salvation, judgment, and hell after reading the New Testament

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Shortly before Love Wins came out, I started reading the New Testament for Lent. Since Rob Bell had recently blown up the Interwebs with his provocative promo video, I decided to make note of every passage mentioning judgment, either directly or indirectly.

I finished just before Good Friday. I wound up with 75 some-odd pages of notes. For me, the experience affirmed much of what Rob says in Love Wins. But it clarified some areas where I have a different understanding of hell and judgment, too.

In general, I’m more convinced than ever that Rob has started an important conversation. We need to wrestle with the questions he raises Love Wins, not dismiss or distort them. Above all, we need to explore these questions without the vitriol that’s characterized much of the discussion to date. (This is, after all, the week of the Rally to Restore Unity.)

Here are some general observations…

1. Judgment is part of the New Testament story… a BIG part.

Like I said, 75 pages of notes.

It’s hard to read the New Testament and NOT get the impression that a day will come when God separates good from evil, darkness from light — banishing one from his presence. Maybe forever.

There’s hardly a book in the New Testament that doesn’t address judgment head-on. (Possible exceptions include Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John — all of which share one thing in common: they’re tiny.)

Speaking of tiny…

2. Hell is a tiny part of what the Bible has to say about judgment.

If you’re trying to craft a New Testament theology of judgment, you won’t get far by doing a word search on “hell.” In most translations, “hell” occurs just 23 times. And it may not even be the best translation, since “hell” is used for three different terms — each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.

I’ve said it before; and after reading the New Testament, I’ll say it again: our picture of hell owes more to a medieval caricature than it does the Bible. The fiery torture chamber that many of us imagine has little to do with the biblical picture of judgment.

3. Not all judgment is restorative.

This is one of the really big questions that Rob raises in Love Wins: do people get a second chance after death?

C.S. Lewis explored the idea of postmortem salvation in vivid detail. Martin Luther accepted the possibility, but cautioned it’s purely speculative. It can’t be proven from Scripture, he argued.

And that’s pretty much the sense that I get.

In the New Testament, there’s a strong hint of finality to judgment — or at least one aspect of judgment. Maybe those in hell can repent (as Lewis suggested) between now and some future, final judgment (i.e. the judgment depicted near the end of Revelation). But there’s a strong indication that at some point the curtain will drop. And whichever side you’re on, that’s it.

Yes, there is restorative judgment — i.e. discipline. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves,” and all that. But the Bible also talks about “everlasting destruction, “the second death,” and the like.

It’s one thing to suggest that “everlasting” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does, as Rob argues in Love Wins. But even if that’s so, there’s still the matter of words like “destruction” and “death,” which have an unmistakable ring of finality.

4. Annihilationism and conditional immortality are at least as plausible as eternal conscious torment — if not more so.

The fact that the Bible talks about “everlasting destruction” and “second death” is a big part of why I believe in an irreversible judgment.

It’s also why I think we should take annihilationism and conditional immortality more seriously. (They’re two related but different theories of what happens to those who reject God.)

In my journey through the New Testament, I found two passages that I think could be read to support the notion of eternal conscious torment. There were a heck of lot more that talk about destruction, death, etc. Not exactly happy stuff. But as John Stott and others have noted, it’s hard to reconcile these images with the evangelical notion of eternal conscious torment.

5. Judgment is focused on those who knowingly, persistently reject God and work at cross-purposes with him.

The Bible has a lot to say about judgment. The question is: judgment for whom?

Judgment, as depicted in the New Testament, seems focused on a rather narrow set of people.

In the gospels, Jesus mostly directs his judgment diatribes at religious insiders — i.e. those who should’ve known better and rejected him anyway. In his letters, Paul refers to the judgment awaiting those who knowingly, consciously reject God. Revelation depicts judgment as vindication for the persecuted faithful.

I didn’t find a single passage where judgment is directed at those who’ve never heard about Christ or those who heard a toxic distortion of the gospel. These are questions the New Testament doesn’t address directly, but there is reason to believe that people aren’t judged for their ignorance.

6.  Simplistic, dismissive answers will not do.

When you ask about the fate of those who never heard the gospel, there’s a tendency in some circles to quote Acts 4:12.

As if that somehow settles the matter.

As if this passage is somehow talking about those who never heard.(It’s actually a warning to the Jewish religious leaders that if they reject the Messiah sent by God, no one else is going to come and save them.)

It’s one thing to say Christ is the only way to God. It’s another matter to presume to say how God can and can’t use Christ to bring people to himself.

Quoting a single line of Scripture — out of context, no less — doesn’t do justice to the immensity or complexity of the questions at hand.

We have to do better than that.

Related post: Six(teen) views on hell

Photo by Joseph Novak on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

First book-length response to Love Wins (not counting certain book-length blog posts…)

Mike Wittmer (my former thesis adviser at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) recently published Christ Alone, the first book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

It’s a sign of the times that Christians can publish their reactions to things they don’t like so quickly. (Creating lightening-fast responses to the Da Vinci Code became a cottage industry after Dan Brown released his abomination against all good writing. Christian publishing has never been the same since.)

The quality of thought often suffers for the sake of speed to market. But I hope that’s not the case with Mike’s book.

I’m sure Mike will find plenty to criticize in Love Wins. (Though, given that he’s also the author of this book, he should find at least one or two things to like about Rob’s description of heaven, if he’s fair.)

Mike is committed to Reformed theology. But in my experience, he tends to present his views without John Piper’s rancor, Mark Driscoll’s adolescent tantrums, or Kevin DeYoung’s egregious misrepresentations of other people’s views.

I hope that turns out to be true of his critique of Love Wins.

Six (or sixteen) views on hell

Many Christians assume there’s only one way to think about hell — and everything else is heresy.

So I counted the different theories of hell, focusing only on those that find a home somewhere within the Christian tradition. (I’m not taking into account an atheist’s view of hell, for example.)

By my count, there are at least six major theories on the nature of hell. When you count all the variations, and add to the mix various ideas of who goes where… you end up with more than a dozen different perspectives.

1. Hell as a place of unspeakable torment

The traditional perspective, according to many evangelicals. But labeling yours the “traditional” view can sometimes be a cheap way of trying to win the argument without proving the merit of your ideas.

Besides, the Eastern Orthodox Church has been around way longer, and they have a very different take on hell. That doesn’t mean they’re right and evangelicals are wrong, but let’s dispense with unhelpful arguments over whose view is more “traditional.”

In any case, the “unspeakable torment” view says those who die without Christ experience unimaginable agony — and they’re fully awake for it. This view is often referred to as “eternal conscious torment,” because most adherents believe it’s an unending state. There is no reprieve, no second chance.

2. Hell as a ghost town

Next we wander into universalist territory.

There’s a difference between Christian universalism and plain old, generic universalism, though both end up with an empty (or nonexistent) hell. Generic universalism says everyone is basically good and all paths lead to God.

Christian universalism is different. It says there’s only one way to God. It accepts the reality of hell, but also believes those in hell are able to repent and escape.

There are, in fact, two varieties of Christian universalism:

  • The confident variety: Those who fall into this category are quite certain hell will be empty someday. God’s victory will be absolute and all-inclusive. (If universalism and Calvinism had a baby, this would be it.)
  • The hopeful variety: This is the universalism (if you can call it that) of Rob Bell and George MacDonald. They argue there is hope for every person who ever lived. They may even think it’s very likely that everyone will eventually embrace God — because God has all eternity to melt hearts, and he will never give up. But hopeful universalism stops short of saying everyone will definitely be saved in the end. It respects human freedom too much to go there.

3. Purgatory now, hell later  

Basically, this view says those who die apart from Christ go to hell, though it isn’t hell in the fullest sense. Not yet anyway.

Residents of this not-quite-hell are invited to switch their status from “damned” to “saved,” but the invitation has an expiration date. There will come a day of final judgment, at which point everyone must live with their decision for eternity.

This is the picture C.S. Lewis paints in The Great Divorce. For those who escape, hell will turn out to have been purgatory. (Though Lewis means something very different by “purgatory” than your average Catholic.)

It’s better to think of this kind of hell as “Hades.” Which is a word we actually come across in the Bible — though you may not know it, since it’s often translated “hell.” And it does seem to be rather like a waiting room for the dead.

When reading Lewis, you’ll find varying degrees of optimism about how many people find the emergency exit in hell. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says that, “Hell is locked from the inside.” But in The Great Divorce, he suggests that some do accept Christ’s invitation to escape.

4. Annihilationism

Basically, the unrepentant are exterminated after judgment, instead of being endlessly tormented. Apparently it’s the official view of the Church of England. John Stott, one of the most influential British Christians since C.S. Lewis, is a non-dogmatic annihilationist.

Moving on…

5. Conditional immortality

Not quite synonymous with annihilationism, but close. To most ears, annihilationism implies that God terminates the unrepentant person. Conditional immortality takes a different route to the same destination. It starts by questioning the assumption that humans are inherently immortal. In fact, only God is immortal, as Paul told Timothy.

The notion that we’re immortal — specifically, that our souls cannot die — doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from ancient Greek philosophy. The kind that said everything physical is temporary (and evil), while everything spiritual is forever (and good). It’s also known as Gnosticism, which the early church rejected as heresy.

Note how Genesis implies that Adam and Eve must keep eating from the tree of life in order to go on living. Once they’re kicked out of the garden, they’re denied access to the tree, and they eventually die.

Eternal life, then, is a gift which only God can give — not something we possess by right. To be condemned is simply to miss out on immortality. That’s why Paul says the “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And that’s why John describes the final judgment as the “second death.”

6. Subhuman existence

This view is something of a halfway point between eternal conscious torment and conditional immortality. It says that the more a person persistently, defiantly sins against God and others, the less they reflect the image of God. They become less than fully human.

And if they carry on like this until death, there will be no turning back. They will persist in the afterlife as ex-humans. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope, they will pass “not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.”

____________

And those are just the theories about the nature of hell. There are many more theories to consider about who will end up there.

There are exclusivists like John Piper who say only those who consciously put their faith in Christ — or as Piper, ever the good Calvinist, would say: only those who were predestined to put their faith in Christ — go to heaven.

There are accessibilists like Terrence Tiessen and possibly Ben Witherington, who leave room in God’s kingdom for those who never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. God judges, they remind us, according to our level of knowledge.

There are Christian pluralists like Dallas Willard, who say that God can even save adherents of other religions — that such people will meet Christ in the age to come and realize he was the one they were seeking all along.

There are weak and strong versions of Christian pluralism, with different understandings of just how far God’s undetected grace will extend.

And of course, there are agnostics who insist we simply cannot know — like a friend of mine who said recently, “I’m just going to let God worry about it.”

All of these views have found expression within the Christian tradition. Some are more popular than others. All of them appeal to Scripture for support.

So when someone argues that it’s really quite simple understanding heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long — remember… it may not be as simple as we think.

N.T. Wright on hell (part 3)

In Surprised by Hope, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright rejects fundamentalism’s almost gleeful obsession with eternal torment, as well as he perceives to be the naïve overconfidence of universalism.

Wright briefly considers “conditional mortality,” reminding us that immortality is not a natural part of human existence — despite what many church doctrinal statements profess with hardly a second thought.

Wright points to 1 Timothy, where Paul teaches that only God is immortal. He could just as easily have mentioned John, who writes that only the person who does the will of God “lives forever” and that “whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Or Revelation, where the “lake of fire” is a metaphor for “second death.”

God can share immortality with anyone he wants. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s a gift and nothing more. Immortality is not something we possess by right or by nature.

In the end, however, Wright’s view of hell falls somewhere in between eternal conscious torment and conditional mortality. Which means that for him, hell is something other than a land of limitless second chances.

Wright argues:

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around.

For example, those who love money not only worship it; they begin to see others merely as a potential source of revenue or expense. And so they dehumanize themselves and others.

Wright continues:

After death, [such people] become at least, by their own effective choice, beings that were once human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body… they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…

These creatures still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some even feel for the hardened criminal.

Now…if you read the last Harry Potter book, this might sound familiar. After being “killed’ by Voldemort, Harry wakes in an ethereal King’s Cross. (Note that he’s “more than disembodied thought.” N.T. Wright would be pleased.)

Before long, Harry notices something on the ground:

Something furtive, shameful… curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.

When Harry asks Dumbledore (who meets him in the other-worldly King’s Cross) what the thing is, Dumbledore replies, “Something that is beyond our help.”

The strong implication being that the writhing creature is what’s left of Voldemort’s soul after being spliced so many times, thereby reduced to something less than fully human.

That, according to N.T. Wright, is the fate of those who persistently, knowingly reject God. They lose the image of God — the divine imprint. They cease to be human, but they do not cease to exist.

And THAT is a fate worse than death.

To his credit, Wright acknowledges that he has “wandered into territory that no one can claim to have mapped.”

But two things are worth noting. First, this sort of hell has little to do with those who act (or fail to act) out of ignorance. I suspect that N.T. Wright takes at face value Jesus’ statement in John 15: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin.” For Jesus, responsibility and knowledge go hand in hand.

Second, Wright leaves the door open to the possibility that all sorts of people we instinctively exclude from God’s favor might find themselves on the right side of the pearly gates in the end:

The description of the New Jerusalem in [Revelation] 21 and 22 is quite clear that some categories of people are ‘outside’… But then, just when we have in our minds a picture of two nice, tidy categories, the insiders and the outsiders, we find that the river of the water of life flows out of the city; that growing on either bank is the tree of life, not a single tree but a great many; and that ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ There is a great mystery here, and all our speaking about God’s eventual future must make room for it… God is always the God of surprises.

My guess is that while Wright himself is not a universalist, he hopes for something very close to universal salvation.

And that’s where I find myself. Whether you think books like Love Wins are inspired genius or heretical drivel (or something in between), we should all hope the universalists are right in the end.

Or at the very least, we should hope that God’s mercy extends way beyond our capacity to imagine.

N.T. Wright on hell (part 2)

In Surprised by Hope (did you buy it yet?) N.T. Wright recalls his time at Oxford in the 60s and 70s, when it became popular for liberal theologians to suggest that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted.”

And this is where Rob Bell and N.T. Wright, for all their apparent similarities, seem to part company. Wright is far less hopeful about the duration and population of hell (or more realistic, depending on your perspective) for two reasons:

1. Universalism doesn’t deal seriously enough with evil. 

Mind you, we’re not talking about the breaking-the-speed-limit kind of evil. We’re talking about “genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race.” To this kind of evil, Wright insists, judgment is the only answer:

Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos.

He describes universalism as a kind of fast-food theology which has become “depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steeper reaches.”

And in one of the most rhetorically powerful passages in Surprised by Hope, Wright suggests (I’m trying hard to avoid typing “Wright writes”):

One cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own…

The massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.

2. Universalism doesn’t take into consideration the whole biblical picture of judgment.

Wright accepts that there are “those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God.”

He specifically rejects the idea put forth in Love Wins that God will continue to offer salvation after death until the last person in hell accepts.  Citing Desmond Tutu’s work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, Wright insists that you can’t have one (reconciliation) without the other (truth):

Where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.

Next up: So just how are we to understand hell?

N.T. Wright on hell

It’s no big secret that one of Rob Bell’s theological heroes is the former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright.

It’s not hard to see why, given how much they have in common. They share similar perspectives on the kingdom of God.

They share a common nemesis in John Piper (though Wright got a whole book out of it; all Rob got was one lousy tweet).

And both Rob Bell and N.T. Wright have written several books themselves (though apparently one believes in paragraphs and the other doesn’t).

Also, Wright is British. Deep down, I think Rob secretly wishes he was British. (I remember once introducing a friend of mine from the UK… Rob was beside himself with delight the minute he heard my friend’s accent.)

I’m making my way through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (stop reading and buy it NOW) and just came to a section called “Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity,” in which he explores the biblical notion of hell.

There are a couple of noteworthy points of comparison with Rob Bell’s Love Wins — and one or two points of departure.

First, the points of comparison…

Both writers reject what Wright refers to as “childish depictions of hell” — i.e. hell as a literal “lake of fire” (which is a rhetorically powerful oxymoron if there ever was one) or as a medieval torture chamber in heaven’s basement. However, by pointing out that such caricatures are what drive some Christians to universalism, Wright hints early on that he’s not about to embrace universalism himself.

Both writers agree that much of what the New Testament says about hell, particularly in the Gospels, has to be interpreted in light of its immediate context. In other words, “hell” in the Gospels is not so much about what happens after you die as what happens in the here and now. Or as Rob says in Love Wins, “Here is the new there.”

Also, Wright lends scholarly credibility to Rob’s understanding of Gehenna, the most common New Testament term for “hell,” as a trash heap and/or ancient pagan site outside Jerusalem. Here’s how Wright interprets Gehenna:

When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.

His message to his contemporaries was… unless they tuned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap.

When Jesus said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” this is the primary meaning he had in mind…

Jesus didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.”

Both writers also seem to agree that hell is not a central theme in the Bible. Rob quickly surveys every mention of hell in the New Testament (or, more precisely, every occurrence of one of three terms commonly translated as “hell”). Wright notes that hell “is not a major topic in [Paul’s] letters” and “is not mentioned at all in Acts.”

Which leads me to ask some questions I’ve raised before: What was it that first drew people to the Christian faith? Was it the threat of judgment? Or something else? In the book of Acts, how many times did the apostles use hell in their proclamation to outsiders? Well, N.T. Wright has answered the last one, and it was zero.

Next up, some points of departure between N.T. Wright and Rob Bell…