Archive for category Heaven and Hell
“Hell is the absence of God”. This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience. Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes. And what Christian would not choose the presence of God in Heaven? If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’. Hell is the last death, annihilation. This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.
But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell. Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own. Classic examples are Father Damien, Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned. This is where they find God. This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven. Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.
The other day I suggested that, to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus. Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?
But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic. Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others. No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back. Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world. Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.
Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like. It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden. It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells. Of course, the chances of this happening does not look good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.
At that time Jesus and his disciples entered a prosperous land. Hearing of his arrival, many of the people came to hear him speak. Thousands gathered around him.
” I bring you good news. God loves you, all of you. You have no need to fear or worry. Eternal life is yours. Peace and happiness are at hand. “
The crowd began to murmur. They didn’t understand what he was saying.
“How is this possible? How do we get this eternal life you speak of ?” they asked.
Smiling, Jesus spread his arms wide. “Just follow me. I am living this life right now. I have come to share with you the Way of eternal life and how to be in tune with God. You may hear all kinds of people on television pitching their self-help programs, but there is good reason there are so many of them. They don’t work. Not for long. But follow me and I can assure you of eternal life.
” OK, so what’s the catch? How much does this cost? What kind of sacrifices do I have to make?” a man asked.
“There is no catch” said Jesus. “This life is free. No fees. No purchase necessary. No sacrifice.”
“Alright”, another shouted. “Tell us. What is this secret?”
“Simple” said Jesus. “Love each other as much as you love yourself and love God with all your heart. The only way to love God is to love others.”
“How do we do that?” someone asked
“Always put the needs of others before your own” Jesus said. ” Visit the sick and imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Take in the homeless. And -very importantly – forgive everyone, especially your enemies.”
“That’s crazy!” someone shouted. “We don’t live in some sort of dream world. We have families to take care of – we can’t just bring bums and vagrants into our homes!”
“I have to worry about my kid’s college tuition!” another shouted “I can’t buy clothes for a bunch of slackers. Let ‘em get jobs and buy their own.”
A woman stood up, shaking her fist. “What kind of fuzzy-wuzzy crap is this? Love your enemies?! I guess you expect us to love all those elitist god-haters that want to destroy this great nation? You just want us to open our arms to foreign heathens as they pour into our country, taking our jobs, speaking their own languages, praying to the wrong gods and plotting violent revolution? You’re just a sissy wing-nut that hates his own country!”
The angry crowd turned their backs and began to leave, grumbling and shaking their heads. Nervously, Jesus glanced around. Looking up, he smiled and suddenly jumped on a nearby boulder, waving his arms frantically.
“Wait! Wait!” he cried. “There is another way! A better way! Come back. Give me another chance.”
Most ignored him but some turned back. “This better be good”, they said. They sat down on the grass and waited.
Jesus sat down in the middle of them. ” OK, the other stuff was good, but that was only half the story. This is the real deal. You see, there are these two places called Heaven and Hell….
Posted by Christian Beyer in Bible, biblical literalism, Calvinism, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Crime and Punishment, Culture, Current Events, damnation, Emerging Church, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Fundamentalism, God, Gospel, grace, Heaven and Hell, Hell, Heresy, Heterodoxy, Jesus, Justice, Morality, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, reformed church, Religion, Religious Right, Religious Tolerance, sacrifice, salvation, Sin, Spirituality, Substitutionary Atonement, Theology, Universalism on March 10, 2011
As long as I can remember my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is there.” This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine. Though she didn’t know it, this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy that says all of us, even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing: Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.
Not long ago Rob Bell was in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics) because his recent book, “Love Wins”, suggested that no one goes to Hell. He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.
The ensuing progressive Christian defense of Bell was great. Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine obscures a lot of the Gospel message. But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.
Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable. Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation. Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God. As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.
I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality, Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus. Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?
No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in. Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
It’s that simple. Because that means that you just haven’t gotten the point of the Gospel.
I remember talking with some friends about a member of our church, an old gentleman who had just passed away at a fairly advanced age. He had been a member of the church for a very long time, longer than any of us had been members. A bit standoffish, more than a little grumpy, he was the type of fellow who didn’t invite folks to get to know him very well.
One of my friends said that he regretted not getting to know this man, that he hadn’t taken the time to sit with him, especially in the last few days of his life. He regretted never having asked the man if he was ‘saved’. My other friends heartily agreed.
I was fairly blown away by this. In fact, I remember this conversation as the beginning of the end of my romance with Fundamentalism. It was the first time that I realized how different my understanding of the Gospel was from theirs.
What was the point of asking an old man, that you never bothered to know over the years, what his beliefs were on his death bed? What did the question really mean and what would he have said anyway? I think that what this question really meant was “Do you believe in precisely what I believe? Because if you don’t then you will go to hell”. I think my friends would have no problem admitting that.
I won’t bother explaining why I think that this is wrong. If you get it, then you get it. If you don’t, we’ll, then you won’t.
Recently on ABC’s “Nightline” there was an interesting debate over whether Satan is for real or just another myth. (You can link to the debate or read excerpts here.) Lively, and fun (as Marc Driscoll said) I think they missed the boat by not including a Jew and a Muslim in the conversation. It might be even more fun, and perhaps enlightening, to hear their interpretations of who Satan is.
Personally, I don’t believe in Old Scratch, for a number of reasons:
1). The Satanic scenario of good vs. evil is way too similar to many other common myths of the past.
2). The original authors of the Bible were Jewish and Jews historically have considered Satan to be a metaphor.
3.) It makes no sense for God to conjure this fellow up – we have all the resources at our disposal to do evil without the need for some supernatural being devoting his existence to leading us astray. And it is too darn easy to blame our evil on the Devil.
4.) It’s almost impossible to tell where real scriptural support for a ‘living’ Satan (if there is any) ends and folklore begins.
5.) What difference does it make? I mean, does a belief in Satan help you become a better person? Or perhaps…
It was surprising to read in the above linked article that 70% of Americans believe in Satan. Until I considered the prevailing content of the 400 or so cable channels on my TV as well as the pulp magazines that face me at the grocery store check-out. I don’t know that our nation’s level of sophistication is altogether that high. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the same 70% believe in guardian angels. (Maybe Michael Landon is performing a miracle somewhere at this precise moment.)
I don’t think it necessary, however, to discard the idea of Satan completely, as long as we recognize that it is a convenient trope – an anthropomorphism. For the sake of discussion, it is useful to refer to things as having the characteristics of an individual personality: the fury of Mother Nature, the whims of Lady Luck or the blindness of Justice. Satan is another useful metaphor – the mere mention of ‘him’ sums up the thrust of a psychology text, but without all the big words.
This is because Satan so easily embodies the characteristics of our selfish and wounded personal egos, as well as what the owners of those egos are capable of doing. He knows that his destructive behavior is ultimately futile, but he just keeps on being bad. This is the main reason, I think, it made sense for Jesus to use the concept of Satan in his teachings (whose students, by the way. were Jews who may or may not have believed in a distinct person called Satan).
One of the participants in the “Night Line”debate, “New Age” spiritualist Deepak Chopra put it this way:
“Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. …So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues.”
Making an important point about the difference between belief and experience (which, from a spiritual perspective, might be called ‘faith’) he later said:
“All I have to say is belief is a cover-up for insecurity,” Chopra said. “If something is real, you don’t have to believe in it. You should be able to experience it. And the most fervent believers in the world are the cause of all the problems in the world right now, OK?”
I have to agree. When considering many of the more egregious acts committed by religious people around the world, they all seem to have this one superstition in common: they believe in the Devil.
Following up on my last posting on the excellent little book Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt by Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg, I wanted to share what these two ministers have to say about the Presbyterian(USA) view of election, a thorny issue that has resulted in a lot of interdenominational warfare:
If, then, God mysteriously and graciously elects or chooses for salvation because God loves us so much and is so passionately willing to seek us out in life with that salvation, we may well ask, what are we elected to?
Moving away from the heaven and hell afterlife categories, most Presbyterian-types would concede that there’s plenty of hell to worry about and, we hope, plenty of heaven to celebrate in the earthly here and now.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order state that God elects God’s people both for “service and salvation”, which means that God freely chooses God’s people both (1) so that they may receive grace in life for healing and wholeness and (2) so they will serve God among God’s people, this for upbuilding the larger community which is God’s world…..
…Yet there is a distinction we need to clearly make. It’s between serving others and living with an agenda for others. Living with an agenda for others is self-motivated and self-serving. Serving as the Lord of heaven and earth calls us to serve demonstrates an openness that is not manipulative but rather leads each one to be available for serving others respectfully and for serving with others respectfully. We’re called to serve in this way, realizing that such others may, or may never, recognize God’s grace blessing in whatever ways God’s grace does bless them. Such others may, or may never, chang their lives to be “more Christian” in our judgment. Such others may, or may never, culturally be “as we are” or in agreement with us on matters of faith and practice.
And if God is truly sovereign, it also can be said that God works where there is no naming of God’s name, that God works among those who don’t “know God” as we have experienced God, and that God works where we believers do not perceive or understand God to be working. This understanding of God who is truly sovereign allows God to be truly God on God’s terms, not according to our understanding of God. It does not take away our freedom of choice in life-decisions, nor does it take away the component of human choice from the complex makeup of the universe. This understanding does deny that we humans ever have the power to “save” ourselves with our own choices.
Wow! I never would have believed that someone could explain the doctrine of election in a way that I could (almost) agree with. This certainly ain’t your great-great-great-great grandfather’s Calvinism. And it certainly isn’t close to the double predestination -”God chose me for heaven and you for hell“- theology we are getting from the pulpits of today’s popular Hyper-Calvinist preachers , who are generally not members of the PC(USA) but of the PCA, SBC and various independent reformed churches. The PC(USA) must have poor JC (that’s John Calvin, not Jesus Christ) spinning in his grave.
I’ve been fortunate to land a part-time job working with youth at a local Presbyterian (USA) church. Realizing that I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the doctrines of any denomination aside from Roman Catholicism and Methodism, I picked up a little book called Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt – a Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and other Confused Presbyterians written by two Presbyterian ministers; Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg. The book is published by Geneva Press, an arm of the Presbyterian Publishing Company so I figure that it’s pretty orthodox.
I’ve found the book to be very refreshing and the theology is right in line with my own evolving beliefs. Their use of the phrase “Bible Belt” doesn’t refer to a geographical place but a theological and spiritual state of mind, one that I am very familiar with. In particular, I appreciated their discussion of heaven and hell, a topic which has been a bone of contention when talking to Hyper-Reformed Calvinists.
The question of heaven and hell are of primary importance for the neo-evangelical in the Bible Belt. In many ways, the concern about the destiny of one’s soul in the afterlife is the motivating force for accepting Jesus into your heart. As we noted earlier, many neo-evangelicals consider the future salvation of your soul to be dependant on your conversion, your acceptance of Jesus into your heart. “If you don’t, God won’t save you.” Therefore, the ultimate reason for accepting Jesus is to ensure your place in heaven. The life of faith is really just a kind of ‘heaven insurance” so that you can be certain of being fitted with wings and a halo. You “take out the policy” by believing and doing the right things, and then it’s paid off when you die and you get your reward. Heaven is the place for people who paid the right dividends on their hell insurance. (we never thought of ministers as insurance salespersons, but it fits the metaphor.)
Obviously, there are a number of problems with this view of the world, or the afterworld. Not the least is the prevailing attitude that it’s always “our people” who get into heaven and the bad guys, usually anyone who doesn’t quite believe and act the way we think they should, who end up being cast into hell. Heaven becomes an exclusive country club for the beautiful people who can look down at those sinners in the ghetto of hell and feel sorry for them.
Well said, though I am embarassed to say that not too long ago the idea of my faith as ’heaven insurance’ would have had a nice ring to it. If I get nothing else out of this little book I’ve learned a new word that will be seeing some regular use: neo-evangelist. I love it.
In Isaiah 46 the author talks of two of the ancient Babylonian Gods, Bel and Nebo:
1 Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
their idols are borne by beasts of burden.
The images that are carried about are burdensome,
a burden for the weary.
2 They stoop and bow down together;
unable to rescue the burden,
they themselves go off into captivity.
I was curious about what all this meant and found an informative article written by Dr. Allen Ross on Bible.org. This line was of particular interest:
“Bel” is belu, which is the equivalent of ba’al in Western Semitic. Bel is the Semitic title for the ancient Sumerian god Enlil, Lord of the Air.
The Lord of the Air? Where had I heard that before?
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
OK, close, but not quite. Anyway, this is one of the two or three scripture verses that those who are anxiously awaiting the End Times serve up as evidence for the impending Rapture. Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s a pretty long stretch of the imagination to take these verses literally. Even so, what if Paul wasn’t talking about Jesus being the Lord in the Air? In Ephesians 2 he specifically refers to Satan as the lord of the air:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient
What if Jesus takes only those who are “dead in Christ” and then leaves the rest of us – those who are still alive – not to the Lord IN the Air but the Lord OF the Air?
Jeesh! That’s not too encouraging.
Just a few of my opinions. The funny thing is, I used to believe most of these things not too long ago.
1 – I doubt that the scriptures were ever meant to be read literally, or formatted between two covers and called the Bible, with numbered verses and the words of Jesus written in red. I doubt that the Bible is the actual Word of God. It is a collection of ancient, spiritually oriented scriptures and, as St. Paul said, is useful for spiritual instruction, which implies it’s not the only end-all, go-to, book for everything you wanted to know about the universe but were afraid to ask
2 – I doubt the book of Genesis is historical or factual in almost any way. I doubt that Adam and Eve were real people. I think they are biblical metaphors for mankind in general. I doubt that the Garden of Eden was a real place. I think Eden is a metaphor for a world that is in harmony with nature. I doubt that there was a global Flood and i doubt that God nuked Sodom and Gomorrah. I doubt that science and the theory of evolution are incompatible with faith.
3 – I doubt the literal doctrine of the Fall is supported by scripture. I doubt that Satan was ever a real being, a fallen angel, but he is a damn good metaphor for man’s ego run amok. I doubt that mankind is essentially depraved and wicked but learns to be this way.
4 – It follows, then, that I doubt the doctrine of Original Sin
5 – I doubt God ever ordered anyone’s army to rape, pillage, steal or enslave.I doubt if God ever ordered tortuous death sentences or ritual sacrifices. Therefore, I doubt that Leviticus or Deuteronomy set good standards for today’s politicians and leaders.
6 – I doubt that people of the twenty-first century are supposed to respond to God in the same way the ancient Israelites did. So, I doubt that all those old Jewish laws (on diet, slavery, sex, tithing etc) are obviously applicable today. God may not change but people do, thank God.
7 – I doubt that God has preordained everything (although God may have preordained some things, but I doubt that as well).
8 – I doubt that God has chosen some people for salvation and others for damnation. That would be a pretty wicked God. The NeoCalvinists are nuts.
9- Anyway, I doubt the doctrine of Hell, where God infinitely torments (or allows the torment) of finite people, judging them infinitely guilty of finite sins. I doubt God is beholden to any sort of legal system and I doubt that God is really all that into judging as it is.
10 – Therefore, I doubt that Jesus’ death was some sort of legal blood sacrifice necessary to pay our way out of Hell.
11 – I doubt (nor do I really care) if Mary was a virgin.
12 – I doubt if any of the Old Testament writings are predictions of Jesus. These “prophecies” are poor ‘reasons to believe’ because the only ones who see these predictions are those who already call themselves Christian.
13 – I doubt Jesus had super powers and could predict the future. I doubt he was holding himself in check in order to get the job done, just ‘pretending ‘ to be a man (even though I believe he may have performed miracles).
14 – I doubt that Jesus was the ‘perfect’ sacrifice’ (akin to an unblemished lamb slaughtered to appease God) but that his sacrifice was ‘perfect’ ; he was innocent and undeserving of the punishment he received for proclaiming the Good News (which was really bad news for the ‘powers that be’). He forgave his tormentors and executioners and did not forsake God while on the cross, which is much more ‘perfect’ than any other example I can think of.
15 – I doubt that women are in any way supposed to follow men, take a back seat, not teach or preach or lead in church (or anywhere else).
16 – I doubt that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Navajos, Druids, Wiccans, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists or atheists are held in less regard by God than Christians or Jews
17 – I doubt that only Christians are ‘saved’ . In fact, I doubt that most Christians are ‘saved’. But salvation is not about heaven and hell; it is about being saved from our false selves and living the life God intended for us. I believe that Jesus points to and shows the ‘Way’ of this ‘eternal’ life but he is not THE WAY himself (because what does that really mean, anyway?). Jesus Way IS very narrow; there is no room for hatred, selfishness, or arrogance. It is the way of love and forgiveness.
18 – I doubt that there is a place called Hell. I doubt that God would have any reason to make such a place, unless, of course, God is sadistically deranged. And that is too horrifying to contemplate.
19 – I doubt the United States of America was ever intended to be a Christian Nation. I doubt that the words “Christian” and “nation” are ever compatible.
20 – I doubt that it is possible to readily define or identify an authentic “Christian”. I doubt that there are 34,000 different Christian denominations (as some sources say) but that really there are around 34,000 different religions that all claim they are “Christian”. I doubt that Jesus and religion will ever mix very well,