Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Conversation on Hell

Over at New Ways Forward, I entered into a discussion about Hell.  I put it here since it falls in line with recent posts and it articulates more of my view on Hell.

Andrew: I find that people often have trouble moving out of an either/or paradigm. If one does not believe in an eternal hell, then one must not believe in discipline or consequence- everything becomes a free for all. I have no trouble with hell in theory, but I get tripped up over the word eternal. The way Hell is popularly articulated would fly in the face of most of the story of scripture. Any claims God would make to “Father” would be laughable. The story of the prodigal becomes pretty meaningless. God is not patient, God does not always persevere, God keeps records of wrongs, and hope dies.

Yep, I don’t think that should be the Christian story.

Grant: I find it hard to dismiss the idea that Hell exists and that some people will end up there. Although what Hell truly is, is another question. I like what Tim Keller said (following CS Lewis) – the fire imagery is probably metaphorical, but it’s a metaphor for something far worse than a literal fire. To those who follow Jesus and say “Thy will be done” God grants them eternal life. To those who refuse God allows them to continue in their chosen existence and in effect says to them “Well OK, Thy will be done”.

If Jesus said that he is the way the truth and the life, then he must in some sense have come to save people from ways that were not the way, that were contrary to truth and life. If following Jesus leads us to real life, and real truth, then other ways do not lead us there, they lead to error and death. Here is exactly where I see Hell fitting in. In choosing not to follow Jesus people are in effect choosing death over life. In short I think Hell (whatever it may end up being) is something chosen by people rather than a place people are sent to. That way I see that God wills all to be saved but some choose not to accept the offer and prefer to declare their independence from God. God loves everyone but not everyone reciprocates. God never forces people to love him. If he did, could we really call that Love? God is patient and God perseveres but he has set a time limit on his patience. Endless patience is not patience but acceptance of the way things are. God is patient but wants to give everyone a chance to respond. But He will not wait forever. Doesn’t mean he’s not patient. God does persevere, he also suffers long the sin of his creation. Hope does not die this way, it is very much alive for those who follow Jesus. There is no hope for those who chose not to follow Jesus.

There are other options I don’t know much about – annihilationism and conditional immortality are two I’d like to explore.

I’m not sure what Andrew means when he says the way hell is popularly articulated. I assume he means that people present salvation as fire insurance?

Well that’s how I see it…..

Andrew: No, wasn’t making a comment about salvation… just that most folks would say hell is a place of torment, that it is eternal, and that you only have till you die to get it right.

It may be that God set a time… 3,2,1… and the door is closed forever. However, if that is the case, he may be god… but he is no Father.

Grant: Hi Andrew, thanks for clearing that up. I hear you on that point and I suspect that many people naturally recoil from this doctrine because of the way it is presented. I was told that you never preach about Hell without a tear in your eye for obvious reasons. I suspect that many times it has been preached with air of smugness and superiority, as if the preacher was some how happy that people ended up there. I know there are also emotional issues attached with this doctrine, especially when we have close friends and family members who don’t know Christ. It’s heartbreaking to think about their fate to be honest.

But I must respectfully disagree with you on that point about God as Father. I don’t think it Hell undermines it. I don’t think your conclusion logically flows from your point about Hell. I actually think it is the other way around. If God does not have a limit on his patience and time limit for those who persistently rebel against God then he is not good and he is not just. He is also a bad father.

Would we call a man a good earthly father if he allowed his children to run wild, get into situations that harmed them and the family? Would we call him a good father if he never tried to stop the bad behavior of the child? If the Child ignored the ultimatum from the parent- stop this or face the consequences – would we call them a good father if they didn’t make good on their promise of punishment?

Of course we wouldn’t. We would call them a bad father. In fact we couldn’t even call them a parent. They are the servant of a child who is allowed to do what they want. They’re even worse than baby sitters. Yet this is what i see many people expecting God to do. They expect him to allow people to persist in sin, in open rebellion against him forever. Can we really call God good or Father if he allows evil to persist forever? Can we really say that God is just if he leaves evil unpunished?

While I would like all people to be given a chance to repent after death, I don’t find a lot of scriptural support for it and as such I can’t bring myself to believe it on an intellectual basis. On an emotional basis I’m holding out for it. I once heard someone say “I’m not a universalist, but God might be.” If God chooses to let everyone off the hook at the end of time, who am I to complain? It would be awesome, but I’d have a hard time understanding why God chose to forgive people like Stalin or Hitler who died unrepentant sinners.

I know I didn’t touch on the eternal side of things, and this comment is already WAAAYY too long. But let me point you to a good sermon on the topic that helped me clarify my understanding of Hell. It’s by Tim Keller – here is the link:

Andrew: Thanks Grant for your response. However, I still hold my position. It is common for people to believe that because I do not accept an eternal Hell, I would assume that God would be an overly indulgent Father who cannot discipline his children. I think nothing of the kind. I think God can discipline, protect, enforce rules, and do all the things a good father does without that going hand in hand with assigning a child to an eternal torture chamber with no hope of release. These are two different points, but it is a separation that most Christians have trouble seeing – let alone wrestling with. Again, I don’t think anyone will be let off the hook, I think everyone will have to come to grips with the way they have harmed others… and I don’t think they can move on until they have come to term with those realities. I don’t think anyone moves on unrepentant… But there would be no reason for a father to have a cut off point… I do not believe any parent would… however, I can completely picture an annoyed sibling desiring the father to have a cut off point…. and it is our fellow siblings who have penned and edited the scriptures.  :)

Grant: Hi Andrew, thanks for the response and I still respectfully differ with you.

I do think you’ve got a lot of assumptions in your comment that are unwarranted. I’m not sure Hell is something assigned to someone as it is chosen by the person who goes there. In effect God says to that person “OK, if what you want is independence from me, then you can have it.” The person who dies with unrepentant heart simply does not want to be with Jesus following death. Note the story in the Bible of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When the rich man dies and ends up in Hell, he first response is not “Get me out of here.” He asks Abraham for a drink to ease his burning tongue. He is content to stay there and continue his life apart from God, although he does want his stay to be somewhat more comfortable.

Let me also pose a hypothetical question to you. What if you punished, disciplined, loved, protected and enforced good rules on your own child, yet no matter what you did they continually chose to ignore you, go their own way and denounce you as their parent? What if they sought to have the legal relationship between the two of you changed so that they would never have to ever be known as your child? What if they wanted to completely and utterly declare that they had nothing to do with you? How would you feel?

Devastated to say the least. If that were me I would spend the rest of my life chasing them, pursuing them, loving them until my last breath. Yet if they constantly resisted my advances, refused to see me and consistently declared me to dead to them, what could I possibly do to make them love me? I could never force them to love me. At some point I would have to allow them to choose what they wanted to do. It would be heartbreaking (and I would spend my life pleading with them to choose differently) but if they didn’t choose to love me what could I do? I could never force them to love me. In effect they have shunned what could have been a wonderful life with healthy relationships and love, for their own independence. While it might be hard to believe this ever happening in today’s world it is exactly what we have done to God as human beings. God doesn’t want anyone to choose that sort of relationship with him, and he pursues us relentlessly, but he cannot force us to love him. Love that is forced is not love at all.

Andrew: Grant, before I continue, let me say that I appreciate your respectful dialogue. I find few people in online conversation that can hold an opposite view but resist the urge to get into taunts and jibes. Refreshing.

In response to your hypothetical question: I can imagine your scenario, and I agree that it would be hurtful and I cannot ever make my child love me. But here is where I think a Father’s response differs, as a Father, I would never refuse the return of my son. The door is not locked. My son, regardless of how he has rejected me, what he has said, what he has done, ALWAYS has an open door waiting for him.

The one thing I have realized as a parent is that I will always love my children more than they love me. This is not lack of love on their part, but surplus of love on mine. I think there are some parents who, whether consciously or unconsciously, react negatively when they discover this and because they never received a surplus of love from their parents- dysfunction begins and is perpetuated.

I think the god as described by popular Christianity, the one who sends people to Hell (no sane person chooses torture) is a bit of a dysfunctional father. He cannot abide a child not returning his love, and so the child must be punished. I think dysfunctional parenting is so common that we do not react when we see its markers being attributed to God.

I was watching the play Cinderella last night, and as I saw the step sisters desperately trying to get the glass slipper to fit, it occurred to me that this is what many Christians are trying to do with Hell. They feel that they have to believe it, so they squish and they push. They begin to attribute to god things that would be considered psychotic and evil were we to attribute them to any man. But for sake of orthodoxy we have learned to call evil good in this case. The reality is, this slipper is one that will never fit, no matter how we contort. It is better to throw it away.

Grant: Thanks for the kind words Andrew. I was watching NT Wright last night on Homosexuality and the Church. One of his main points was that we need to get to a place where we can have civilized discussion instead of a shouting match. I think that hit the nail on the head, and it could be applied to just about all controversial points of Christian doctrine. I must confess I am partial to shouting matches, so I’m glad this has not turned into one. I think back to my earlier more Pharisaical days where I regularly denounced anyone who differed with me as heretical. I have had to repent of much in my short time on the planet. So I am glad you find my tone refreshing. I aim to keep it that way.

I think we’re on a similar wavelength with the doctrine of Hell. I believe that all who want to return to God will. I’m a firm believer that God will never turn people away who want to repent, and I believe that God is sovereign in the affairs of the world to ensure that all who want to return to him will do so during the course of their lives. I would love to believe in post-mortem repentance, but I just don’t see it in the Bible. I think there are two questions here. First is the precise nature of Hell. The second is how does one end up there? While I’m not 100% sure of the precise nature of Hell, I am a little more sure that people who end up in Hell have chosen that path as I have argued in other comments.

I still find no good reason to dismiss the doctrine of hell in regards to the way I have outlined in my previous comments. I think there are far more problems with rejecting Hell than there are with accepting it. Theology is very much an interconnected web, and removing one doctrine quickly affects others. Firstly, without the reality of Hell Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross becomes incredibly ambiguous, as does the notion of salvation. Salvation denotes rescue, but what did Jesus rescue us from? In fact if God will never send anyone to Hell and will always allow people into heaven then why bother to repent and follow Jesus? Why not just do your own thing? Why not be an Atheist or a Buddhist instead? If the outcome is same for everyone irrespective of what I do on earth then what does it matter how I behave or what I believe? In effect by removing Hell we are saying “Let us do evil so that good may result.” It would be a strange and sad world where that was allowed to happen. I know God is capable of other methods of discipline and punishment, and I know not everyone would do evil so that good would result if there was no Hell. But if we will all end up in the same place and position, then what does it matter what we believe or do here on earth? If we admit that not everyone will end up in the same place then where do those who remain unrepentant before and after death go? Will they be given a chance to repent after death? I don’t see it in the Bible, as much as I would like it to be true. Yet I still see significant problems with that view. Why bother to preach that people need to repent in this life and follow Jesus if they will be given a chance in the next life? Why not do as we please and wait to repent in the next life?

I’ll finish with a comment on popular Christianity. It is by no means as homogeneous as it would appear, and often what gets media coverage are the most controversial stories. Think of how much media coverage that “God-hates-fags” church gets relative to their size. Nor is popular Christianity always the most orthodox. Joel Osteen’s health wealth and prosperity teachings are very popular with some Christians but decidedly outside the realms of orthodox Christianity. That said I do understand the damage that many popular Christian movements have caused. Think about the Left Behind books and how they popularized a rapture theology. I know because for a long time I thought the main goal of Christianity was to escape this world. It’s been a long journey for me to see that following Jesus has real implications for this world here and now. That following Jesus means working to see this world restored and redeemed, to see Gods kingdom come here on earth as it is in Heaven.

Apologies for the long comment! I hope I don’t put you to sleep with my epistle…I pray Gods richest blessing on you and your family in this Christmas season. I pray that you may know the unspeakable depths of the love and mercy of King Jesus. And I pray that the Holy Spirit may dwell richly with you, that you may in turn be a blessing to others. Grace and Peace.


Bob said...

Interesting discussion, Andrew -- as always. I never leave here lacking something to think about.

Happy New Year!

Don said...

I find it interesting, especially with my background, that no discussion can take place without a predominance of scripture references being included by those who believe the traditional theory of hell. Just once it would be refreshing to see them discuss the subject without constant references to scripture as if it is the only source to use. Thanks for posting this

Don said...

I also wanted to add that I have no problem with using the Bible for reference, if you can acknowledge that it is only someone's interpretation of the meaning.

Andrew said...

Thanks gentlemen! Happy New Year!

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