Heaven is for real. You’re just not going to end up there.

No, I’m not questioning your eternal destiny. (Well, maybe. But not how you think.)

The other day, a friend shared five things we get wrong about heaven. (I reacted by overenthustiastically quoting half the article on Twitter… which may have cost me a few followers.) All five things lead back to the question question of where. The answer to this question may surprise you if, like me, you grew up on a steady evangelical diet of “this world is not my home” and “I can only imagine.

But it’s not just the where that we get wrong. It’s the why. How did our view of eternity get so muddled? I think lot of it’s the result of how we answer one question: Does this world matter to God or not?

Did Jesus mean it when he talked about “the renewal of all things”? Or does he only care about snatching disembodied souls from the (not-so?) proverbial fire?

Is creation worth saving? Or is it destined to burn?

If God made this world to be his temple, will he occupy it again someday?

How we answer these questions will in large part determine why kind of eschatology we embrace. A world that matters to God is a world worth saving, not destroying. A world that matters to God is one worth coming back for.


(Not-so) Late, great planet…
It’s funny how one of Scripture’s most powerful images of God returning to earth became the basis for an escapist vision of the end.

The idea of the rapture—a faithful few being evacuated by Jesus before the world burns—hasn’t been around that long, historically speaking. It was developed by John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s and popularized more than a century later by the book The Late, Great Planet Earth — and by the Left Behind series a generation after that.

1 Thessalonians 4 is often cited in support of the rapture:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

But a rapture-friendly reading hinges on something the text never actually says: that Jesus will escort the faithful back to heaven after they meet him in the clouds.

The scene Paul describes mimics a royal visit by the emperor of Rome. These visits were not unlike those made by heads of state today — full of pomp and fanfare. N.T. Wright describes the scene in Surprised by Hope:

When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly.

But here’s the crucial detail. After you met the emperor—after you heard the trumpet call and hurried out the gates—he didn’t whisk you away to some far off place. You escorted him back into the city.

This is the picture painted by Paul. Notice how he never says, “And then we will go away to heaven.” More from N.T. Wright:

When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.

Heaven is indeed for real. But in the biblical narrative, we don’t go there to be with God. He comes here to be with us.

Highlights of the week

First, a helpful guide to persecution this holiday shopping season, from Rachel Held Evans:
Are you being persecuted?

I thought this was a really good perspective on the whole “fighting for a place at the table” issue, by Trischa Goodwin:

I’m not going to spend my days trying to get the attention of someone who ignores me when I extend my hand.  I will let people exclude me, because I know I cannot make someone see me if they refuse to look or hear me if they refuse to listen.

I also hate to be in a place where I am welcome, but others are not.  Even at a table where everyone is allowed a seat, if some of those seats are offered grudgingly, with averted eyes or conditions or shying away, I don’t want to sit at that table.

Most deserving of a “been there” solidarity fist bump, from Samantha:

It’s a frustrating feeling, knowing that you’re not actually being listened to, but that the person you’re talking to is sitting on the edge of their seat just waiting for you to stop talking so they can stab your argument with a brilliant sound bite about what the Bible clearly says.

Favorite N.T. Wright quote of the week (he spoke in Grand Rapids on Wednesday):

The biblical narrative calls us to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.

(Wright was commenting on Jesus’ statement to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,” in John 21. It’s the practical flip side to Wright’s big-picture view of the Bible as the story of Israel, brought to fulfillment in the story of Jesus.)

Second favorite N.T. Wright quote of the week:

Your theory of the atonement is always a function of your view of evil.

(During the Q&A, someone asked Wright what his view of atonement was. Wright’s point was that if you start by assuming the world is totally depraved and that evil is primarily a legal/transactional issue, then of course you’re going to gravitate toward penal substitution as your primary way of looking at atonement. If, on the other hand, you see the world as captive to sin and evil and in need of rescue, as Wright does, then you might take another approach to the atonement, without necessarily denying other facets.)

Currently reading (review coming soon):


My most read post:
John Piper’s mythical research debunking orientation

Favorite tweet (in response to my post on Piper):


Finally… some long overdue (but no less welcome) news:
The Church of England votes overwhelmingly for women bishops (The Telegraph)

Let there be: love as the act of letting go

During his talk in Grand Rapids last night, N.T. Wright shared something I wish he’d had more time to unpack. (When you’ve got 45 minutes to cover the whole big story of the Bible, there’s only so much you can do. Even if you’re N.T. Wright.)

Going back to Genesis 1, Wright drew our attention to the language God used to speak the world into existence: “Let there be.” We often hear it as the language of divine power and control, language that sets God apart from us. God says something should exist, and boom! It does.

But maybe we think this way because we haven’t asked why God made the world in the first place. Ancient philosophers wrestled long and hard with this question. If God was perfect goodness, they reasoned, anything he created — anything that was “other” than himself — would by nature be something less than perfect goodness.

Why create that?

For N.T. Wright, the answer is fairly simple: love.

God creates because God loves. We exist because God’s love can’t be contained; it needs an object outside itself. We exist because God wanted someone to love.

Which, when you understand the nature of love, casts a rather different light on the language used in Genesis 1.

“Let there be” is releasing language.

“Let there be” is not so much the language of power and control. It’s the language God used to release, unleash and send his creative power into the world, where it would then take on a life of its own.

Which, after all, is what you do when you love someone. You don’t coerce. You don’t control. You don’t impose yourself. (For those who think I’m in danger of judging God by human standards, where do you think we got this ethic of love in the first place?)

When you love someone, you unleash them. You give them a good start, point them in the right direction, prepare them for the road ahead. But then you let them walk it. You let them discover and try and fail and become for themselves.

That’s what God does with his creation.

Let there be light.

Let dry ground appear.

Let the land produce.

Let the waters teem.

Let the humans rule.

It’s the language of love, and it carries enormous risk. To let creation do this and that was to allow it to move in directions God might not have wanted. In love, God gave his creation freedom to flourish, but that also meant giving it freedom to fail.

“Let there be,” even if it means creation goes very badly wrong.

Which of course, it did.


Not many years ago, this would have been completely foreign to me. I wanted a God who superintended the minute details of the universe. I wanted a God who knew everything that was going to happen because he had already determined everything that was going to happen. I preferred “God is in control” to “God is love.” I even wrote a master’s thesis defending the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty against the “open theism” of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd.

If I’m honest, I wanted God to be in control because I wanted to be in control. Sounds paradoxical, I know. Yet in my limited experience, those who insist the loudest on God’s absolute power have a habit of clinging tightest to power themselves — of controlling others, or trying to anyway.

Which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what God did when he created us.

When we seek to control others, when we seek to dominate or impose our will, we commit an act of uncreation. We move against the flow of God’s creative power, saying “let me have” instead of “let there be.”

In order to participate in God’s creative work, to be co-creators with him (which is, after all, part of what it means to bear God’s image), we have to let go of power and control.


As a parent, this does not come easily for me. I want my daughter to turn out “right.” Heck, she’s only three, and already I worry: Will she be OK when she’s older? Will she even like us? Will she care about those in need? Will she fall in with the “wrong” crowd? Will she want anything to do with God?

The thing is, I can’t control how she turns out. I can try my best to guide her, give her a good foundation, point her in what I hope is the right direction. But then I have to release her to discover and try and fail and become for herself.

My wife and I brought her into this world. In our own very small way, we said, “Let her be.” And we have to keep saying it every day.

I’ve seen parents hang on to the illusion of control, falling into a tailspin of grief when their kids don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. I’ve seen parents use their unfulfilled hopes as a weapon of guilt — still trying to control their kids, still trying to force them into a predetermined mold.

And I worry every day that I’ll do the same with my daughter someday. Because I really, really want her to turn out well. But I can’t control her. To try to is folly. It is uncreation. To insist on control is to refuse our invitation to participate with God in the act of saying “let there be,” in the act of releasing our own small piece of creation to become what it will.

Because that’s what love does.

Doing the right thing when it counts

Eight years ago, John Kerry ran for president against then-incumbent George W. Bush. The campaign was seen by many as a referendum on President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the misguided war in Iraq.

There was just one problem, and it wound up costing Kerry the election.

Kerry, like most Senate Democrats, voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. At the time, President Bush still enjoyed post-9/11 meteoric approval ratings. Democrats were keen not to be labeled “weak” on foreign policy or “soft” on terror. So when the call to arms was sounded, the opposition marched obligingly in step.

By 2004, the public was souring on the ongoing occupation of Iraq, which put candidate Kerry in the awkward position of opposing a war he had once voted to authorize. To many, Kerry’s shifting position on Iraq looked more like political posturing than a principled stand. And for good reason.

Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign offers a cautionary tale on to those who would wait to do the right thing until it becomes the socially acceptable thing to do.

It seems the Church of England will have to learn this lesson the hard way. Having narrowly failed to approve women serving as bishops, the CofE found itself the subject of scorn, derision, and intense pressure from all corners. Last week even saw Britain’s conservative prime minister telling the Church to “get with the programme.”

So now, having failed to do the right thing for the right reason, the CofE faces the unenviable prospect of being pressured to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

The problem, summarized by N.T. Wright, is that progress isn’t always progress. The Church of England shouldn’t assent to women bishops because David Cameron tells it to or because it’s the sort of thing that social progress demands. It shouldn’t do so in order to salvage its last vestiges of cultural relevance.

The Church should embrace women bishops because Jesus accepted women as fully participating members of his kingdom — long before it was popular or politically correct to do so. Initially, the Church led on matters of equality; it’s only in recent history that it’s been leapfrogged by much of the rest of the world.

In the New Testament, women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus — the first to proclaim central message of the kingdom of God. Women were numbered among the apostles and deacons of the early church. To quote N.T. Wright:

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual, and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans 16:7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The kingdom of God carries a promise that all the old barriers which divide us will be swept away by the new creation — a new kingdom where all are welcome.

Sometimes it’s taken a while for the Church to give full expression to this ideal. (It took 1,800 years for the abolition of slavery to come about, for example.) Sometimes we’ve lost our way. When that happens, it’s the resurrection we should turn to, so we can be pointed in the right direction again.

Today, the main reason the Church of England should reconsider women bishops isn’t to appease an offended culture but so it may return to the values which Jesus instilled in his Church from the beginning — values which likely helped pave the way for the broader cultural embrace of gender equality.

A line in the sand?

I’ve been sharing a number of preliminary thoughts before I get around to reviewing Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, partly to buy some time so I can actually finish reading it. (One more chapter to go.)

In the meantime, here are some good reviews by Kurt Willems and Rachel Held Evans.

I said in an earlier post that The Evolution of Adam is not so much a book about creation vs. evolution as it is about big, foundational questions like: What kind of book do we think the Bible is?

But there’s another “question behind the question,” the importance of which can’t be overstated: What do you have to believe in order to be a “Christian”?

Ken Ham, president of the young-earth advocacy group Answers in Genesis, threw down the gauntlet, charging Enns with heresy and willful disbelief. Elsewhere he called The Evolution of Adam a “heretical book” and accused Enns’ publisher (a respected evangelical book company) of sowing “the seeds of doubt leading to unbelief.”

For Ham (and others), it’s quite simple. If you believe in evolution and/or if you believe the account of Adam and Eve is something other than exact, literal history, then you cannot be a Christian.

Now, I’ve long been uneasy with efforts to equate Christianity with a set of propositional statements which must be affirmed or denied, as if faith is best expressed in the form of a doctrinal checklist. This is reductionist Christianity. It bears little resemblance to the Christianity of the gospels or of James or of, well, pretty much the whole New Testament.

Emerging church types have been deconstructing this form of Christianity for several years, and they are right to do so.

At the same time, Christianity still involves believing something about something. Several years ago, Mike Wittmer wrote a book called Don’t Stop Believing, which is largely a critique of the “how you live matters more than what you believe” point of view. I don’t agree with everything he wrote, but I affirm the basic premise: it matters that we believe something about Jesus.

Emergent types rightly ask what good it is to believe in the resurrection, for example, if it doesn’t compel you to bring new life wherever you can. But it’s equally fair to ask: what good is bringing new life wherever you can if you don’t believe in the resurrection?

I would say that what has to be believed is the core Christian story. That is, what Paul defined as the “gospel” in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-7. It’s story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story — which, it turns out, is God’s plan for rescuing the whole of humanity from sin and death.

This is the story that churches like mine affirm every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist with these words:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

It’s the story the church fathers sought to encapsulate in our earliest creeds, such as the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.

If someone believes and seeks to put these words into practice, they have the right to call themselves a Christian. It doesn’t matter how they vote. It doesn’t matter what they believe about evolution or Genesis or Adam.

“But what about the slippery slope?” some will ask.

Answers in Genesis argues that even the slightest tolerance of any view of creation other than theirs will open “a door of compromise that will inevitably be pushed open further.”

If we reinterpret Genesis, they argue (without acknowledging that many of us would dispute the term reinterpret), we will inevitably reinterpret other teachings of Scripture, “such as the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ.”

To those who question the validity of the slippery-slope argument, they say, in effect, “I told you so”:

Well, that door of compromise has now been opened to such an extent that the gospel itself is under attack.

It’s fine to worry about a slippery slope. It’s always a good idea to check ourselves, to ask if we’re just trying to be clever or if we’re sincerely trying to understand the Bible as best we can.

But remember, as Pete Enns and N.T. Wright reminds us in this video: the slippery slope runs both ways.

Innovation for its own sake has a slippery slope that, if not guarded against, can lead farther away from authentic Christianity — without even realizing it.

But I would argue that Ham and others are headed down a slippery slope in the other direction — one that leads to a reductionist Christianity. One that misses the real point of Genesis and the story that follows.

Theirs is a belief system that emphasizes the how of creation more than the who or the why of creation (the latter two being what Genesis 1 and 2 are actually trying to tell us).

The draw a line around questions the Bible doesn’t even seek to answer.* And they go careening down a slippery slope of their own making, further and further away from the real gospel story.


*It’s worth noting there are many young-earth, six-day creationists who don’t draw a nonnegotiable line around this issue. They may feel strongly (and argue strongly) that Genesis 1-2 demands to be read literally, but to their credit, they don’t reject other Christians who see it differently.

So, who’s up for a little theocracy?

Yesterday, N.T. Wright rounded out the January Series at Calvin College by proving he doesn’t mind saying things that would make most people squirm.

The theme of his talk was “Why we’ve all misunderstood the gospels.” For him, the gospels are, at their core, a proclamation of theocracy, the news that God has actually become king.

Most of us don’t care for the word theocracy, and for good reason. You only have to pick up a history book (or visit Wikipedia) to see what happened last time the church held that kind of power. And before you think, Thank God that’s all in the past, take a look at the movement known as “Christian reconstructionism” or “dominionism” in America (as represented by groups like WallBuilders). Or the controversial anti-homosexual bill still being considered by Uganda’s parliament.

But Wright means something different by theocracy. He unpacks this by identifying four key themes from the gospels, and he says most of us have only heard two of them.

He starts with one of the overlooked themes: Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a major theme of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. (No wonder these guys endorsed one another’s books.)

All four gospels connect Jesus to the Old Testament narrative in their own way. For example, Matthew presents Jesus as leading a new exodus. Luke connects Jesus to God’s covenant with Abraham.

Many Christians connect the Old Testament story to Jesus only insofar as the OT prophets predicted something, which Jesus then fulfilled, thus proving the accuracy of the Bible. That’s all well and good, says Wright, but the bigger point is that “the ancient story of God and God’s people hasn’t come to a stop.” The story that Christians regard as our starting point is also the continuation of Israel’s story. Israel’s story is our story.

Most Christians are more familiar with Wright’s second theme: the story of Jesus as the story of God incarnate. Belief in Jesus’ divinity is embedded in our creeds, and most Christians (Wright included…and myself, for that matter) would agree the story doesn’t make sense without it.

But Wright insists we’re emphasizing the wrong note. The gospels aren’t so much concerned with making the point that Jesus is God (rather, this seems to be assumed), but with how Jesus, being divine, reveals the next chapter of God’s story.

God has a story?

Yup, says N.T. Wright.

That story reached its low point in the story of Israel, when God became fed up and departed the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10). From then on, God is missing in action. He is notable mainly for his absence. The temple liturgy becomes empty ritual because the priests are kneeling before an empty throne (so to speak).

But the gospels announce that God has come back in the person of Jesus. This is why Mark begins his story with God’s spirit — the same one that departed the temple centuries before — descending on Jesus like a dove. It’s why John opens with, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally tabernacled or, as Wright says, pitched his tent] among us.”

According to Wright, Jesus shows who he is “not by striding around, being divine all over the place” (BEST quote of the afternoon), but by acting out the part of the ancient covenant God — the God who has come back to be king.

Third, many Christians read the gospels as the story of how Jesus founded the church. To which Wright responds, “Jesus wasn’t founding a church, because the people of God had been going ever since Abraham.” (Second best quote of the day.)

Again, if we listen to the first theme (Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story), we see that Jesus isn’t forming a new people so much as he’s creating a whole new identity for God’s people. And if we pay attention to Israel’s story, we realize this was the plan all along, because God’s promise to Abraham included all nations of the world.

The redemptive agenda is, as Wright puts it, “an agenda for a renewed humanity and for a renewing humanity through which God renews the world.”

Finally, there’s the fourth (and generally ignored) theme: the story of how Israel’s god defeated the powers of the world.

It’s no accident Luke mentions Caesar Augustus near the beginning of his story.

It’s no coincidence Matthew depicts a hapless Herod (Israel’s “king,” installed by Rome), desperately trying to kill the infant Jesus, whom he regards as a threat to his rule.

It wasn’t just to prove Jesus’ divinity that Mark has the centurion at the cross confess that Jesus was “the son of God” even though (as Wright points out) every coin in his pocket said otherwise. (Roman coins from that time bore the image of Caesar, along with the inscription “son of God.”)

And it’s no accident that John features a dramatic confrontation between Pilate, Caesar’s authorized representative, and Jesus, God’s authorized representative — debating their competing notions of truth, power, and kingdom.

God is becoming king, Wright says, but crucially:

The gospels demonstrate not only an alternative king, but an alternative mode of kingdom. We’re going to do ‘power’ in another way.

God reveals how he’s becoming king in the Sermon on the Mount:

God doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the brokenhearted. . . . God doesn’t bring about his kingdom with superior power of the same kind, but with another kind of power altogether.

In other words:

Kingdom and cross cannot be separated. The kingdom is launched in Jesus’ life and ministry, but established in his death and resurrection. The cross is the victory of the kingdom-bringer.

Which means that we are “called to be kingdom people AND cross people.” You can’t have one without the other.

The prophet Isaiah anticipated both a triumphant king returning in power AND a suffering servant, sacrificing himself for his people. Because we read about one in Isaiah 52 and the other in Isaiah 53, we tend to think of them as separate categories. But the chapter numbers are an artificial division, in this case obscuring the fact that Isaiah 52 and 53 are part of one poem. (Which, incidentally, is why we should read the Bible without chapter and verse numbers.) The triumphant king and the suffering servant are one and the same.

Theocracy, as seen through the gospels, isn’t about self-righteous Christians competing for power, working the system, and imposing their will on others. It’s about creating an altogether different system where the meek inherit the earth, the hungry are fed, and broken hearts are mended.

Wright’s next book, How God Became King, releases in March.

The King Jesus Gospel (or, what I’m going to tell my kid someday)

One day when I was five, I knelt down and prayed the sinner’s prayer. That was the first step of a lifelong journey, guided first by my parents, then by other Christian leaders and mentors as well. I’ve identified myself as a Christian ever since.

Not everyone can say the same. In the introduction to The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight observes that, even by the most conservative estimates, more than half of those who pray the exact same prayer won’t grow up to be active followers of Christ.

Unless you’re superstitious — unless you believe the words are some type of magic incantation — there’s only one conclusion. For most who pray the sinner’s prayer, nothing happens.

I have a 17-month-old daughter. We had her baptized last year. For my wife and me, her baptism signified her initiation into the covenant community. But to see it as some kind of automatic guarantee is to be just as superstitious about baptism as some people are about the sinner’s prayer.

I want to pass my faith on to my daughter. I want it to stick. But she’s my first kid, and, well… I’ve never done this before.

That’s what was on my mind when I picked up Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011).

I’m a theology nerd. I actually like reading theological books. I burned through my Christmas gift card money stocking up at four different bookstores last week. But when I picked up Scot’s book, there was more on the line than mere intellectual curiosity.

Scot’s premise is that the gospel isn’t sticking because what we’re proclaiming isn’t really the gospel. It’s a set of propositions that reduce the gospel to a legal transaction between God and individuals. It’s “the plan of salvation.” It’s “sin management.” Or what Scot calls “the soterian gospel” (from soteria, Greek for “salvation”).

And it isn’t working.

Evangelicals focus on getting people to make a “decision” for God. Liturgical traditions (like the one my wife and I now belong to) focus on making people “members” of the covenant community. Both, Scot argues, need to do a better job of making disciples out of these “deciders” and “members.”

And he argues that the best way to do that is to start telling our story.

Not the four spiritual laws. Not the five things you need to be sure to say when you ask Jesus into your heart.

The story we need to tell, according to Scot, is the story of Jesus completing of the story of Israel.

Scot begins by asking a painfully obvious (but important) question: what is the gospel Jesus preached? And what is the gospel the apostles preached?

Actually, he asks the second question first. And he finds his answer in 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the most explicit summation of the “gospel” to be found in the New Testament. (The apostle Paul starts by referring to this text as “the gospel I preached to you.” Doesn’t get more direct than that.)

The gospel Paul goes on to expound is nothing more (or less) than the story of Jesus: dead, buried, resurrected, appeared, ascended, and someday returning so the rest of us can join him in resurrection. And all of it “according to Scriptures” — i.e. in fulfillment of the story of Israel.

This text, Scot notes, comes from one of the earliest books in the New Testament. It predates the four gospels (or, as Scot would have us say, the ONE gospel according to four witnesses). It formed the basis of the church’s earliest creeds — including the one my church recites every Sunday.

This gospel sees Jesus not so much as the centerpiece of a legal transaction between us and God, but as a king (which, after all, is what the term “Messiah” suggests) who is coming to reverse our usurpation of his rightful kingdom, as well as the death and devastation that followed. It’s the story of a God who is coming to make peace with the world.

Yes, this gospel involves many of the same things the soterian gospel involves — repentance, forgiveness of sin, etc. But it is a much bigger gospel, bigger than me and my felt needs. As Scot writes:

If the Story of Israel finds its completion in the Story of Jesus and if that is the gospel, we must find the problem [that needs fixing] within the fabric and contours of Israel’s story and not just my needs in my story. . . .

Jesus’ word for the solution is the kingdom. . . . If kingdom is the solution, the problem was about the search for God’s kingdom on earth and the problem was the absence of God’s kingdom on earth.

Sure, I found things to nitpick in Scot’s book. Personally, I thought he was a little hard on the “Jesus vs. empire” view put forward by scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley. (Sorry, Scot, but I’m an N.T. Wright fanboy. And I’ll bet that’s the first time THAT phrase has been used.*)

But I loved this book. The King Jesus Gospel is a much-needed reminder of what the real gospel is — you know, the one that actually means “good news.” In particular, Scot’s restatement of the gospel story on pages 148-153 is worth the price of the book, all by itself.

I still have to figure out how to translate that story for my daughter when she’s old enough, but I have a much better idea what I want to tell her, thanks to Scot’s book.


*OK, so I was wrong. A Google search of the phrase “N.T. Wright fanboy” yielded no fewer than 1.8 million results.

Oh, and for more on Scot’s book, watch this video (which I’m pretty sure was filmed about a mile from my house)…

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?