What If Christians Need Empowerment More Than Oversight

I’m an author and blogger from an unapologetically low church, Protestant background. I currently attend an Episcopal Church where I value our leadership while I continue to heed the insights of the pastors and family members who have invested in me. I see authority as much more of a Holy Spirit driven patchwork than those from a traditional high church background.

There remains an ongoing debate in many Christian blogging and writing circles about the place of accountability for bloggers and authors. Those from a higher church background are concerned about the possibility of error being pushed from more or less unaccountable bloggers in a theological wild west.

For instance, Jen Hatmaker’s support for LGBT relationships has received significant scrutiny. The merits of accountability aside, many noted that such scrutiny has hardly been applied to the many, many men who have built massive parachurch platforms while advocating for dubious if not outright heretical and/or violent theology. Even men who supposedly answer to elder boards or denominations have gone clear off the rails, with Robert Jeffress clearly leading the pack of unhinged conservative pastors where being “under authority” hasn’t done a bit of good.

I personally value accountability, although I maintain a low church view of it that surely won’t wash for my high church friends. I’m OK with their ire in this regard, but I also think we can move toward something better together.

I have long thought that the answer for the theological wild west of evangelicalism is better empowerment and teaching for the rank and file evangelicals. Back in 2007, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek megachurch lamented his own failure to teach his people better discernment and study. They had become too dependent on their leaders to spoon feed them theology and spirituality, and I frankly believe that too many churches are more than happy with the control that this arrangement affords them. Hybels’ assessment was spot on, and it’s worth our consideration today.

The answer to the evangelical wild west isn’t a stronger sheriff who keeps people from following dangerous outlaws or from joining unruly mobs. Rather, we need better information and more empowerment for the average Christian. We need to help people spot the counterfeits themselves and to evaluate their theology and spirituality better.

Someone once wrote about Christians as a kind of “priesthood of all believers.” There is a holy calling and responsibility on all of us. We all have our role to play in seeking the truth, living out of the authentic guidance of the Holy Spirit, and encouraging others to join us because they see the fruit of God in our lives.

I would much rather spend my time helping my fellow Christians examine the fruit of certain ministries and public teachers than to place restrictions on these ministries or to try to shut them down through external authorities. When these writers and teachers do step out of line, we can surely hold their publishers accountable, but the more effective long term strategy has more to do with what we teach and live than who we regulate under authority structures.

We have the God-given power to embody the goodness of the Holy Spirit. We have the wisdom of the Spirit to see the good fruit or bad fruit of others. Leaders can help us in this regard, but I hardly see the benefit of a system where leaders give their authorization to certain blogs and not to others.

Leaders can empower their people to spot a counterfeit and to help their congregations make decisions accordingly. This strikes me as truer to the spirit of the scriptures than a more hierarchical authority structure. Again, I’m biased here, and I am happy to agree to disagree.

Rather than setting boundaries around our theology and spirituality, I see leaders as the people who are guiding us toward Christ at the center. They should be the people who model the genuine love of the Father, the generosity of the son, and the wisdom of the Spirit to the point that boundaries become more of an afterthought. When we see the fruit of God’s presence in their lives, all other paths into error will become more of an afterthought.

Kim Davis Wouldn’t Issue Marriage Licenses to Abraham or David and Here’s Why That Matters

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As the door to the county clerk’s office swings open, Kim Davis prepares to flee to a back office, fearing reporters and yet another same sex couple seeking a marriage license.

Instead, a tall, elderly gentleman wearing a turban walks in with an elderly woman shoving a young woman toward the counter. The young woman’s eyes are downcast. She shuffles forward and bows toward Davis.

“Peace to you,” the tall elderly man says.

“Look,” cuts in the elderly woman, “We’ll be quick. We just need you to issue a marriage license to my husband and her.” She pointed at the young woman. “Her name is Hagar.”

Hagar continues looking down as Davis tries to make eye contact.

“We’re having… problems conceiving,” the man offers.

The elderly woman shoots him a look of daggers.

“I’m sorry,” Kim cuts in. “You two are already married?”

“Yes,” replies the man.

“Does she even want to be married to you?” Davis asks, glancing over her shoulder for a deputy.

The elderly couple burst into laughter, leaving Davis visibly shaken.

“As if THAT even matters!” the elderly woman cuts in. “Hagar does what I tell her to do. If I want her to bear my husband’s child, that’s none of your business.”

Now the man grows cross. “That’s how our culture assures each family has a male heir. Who are you to tell us how to run our family?”

“Deputy! DEPUTY! I need a deputy up here right now!” Davis calls to the back.

As the woman prepares to really let Davis have it, the door opens again and a short but muscular man strides in wearing a jeweled crown and resting his right hand on a massive sword at this side.

“Good day Abraham! Sarah!” he says with a bounce in his step. “Is there much of a wait today? I have a few new wives to add to my harem.”

“It’s slow going today, King David” Sarah replies.

A large company of women, children, and guards swarm in through the doors behind David.

“Let’s see…” the king says, counting the women assembled in the waiting room. “This week I’ve got three, four, five, six licenses. OK, just six. It’s been a slow month.”

“I’m afraid times are changing,” Abraham says to the king as deputy clerks scramble from their desks to relieve the retreating clerk.

“It’s not that Kim Davis lady again, is it? Do I need to get Abner on this?”

“No! Don’t! That will only make things worse,” Sarah says. “Look, she sent her deputies out to issue the licenses. I guess she doesn’t support the prophecy that our descendants will be as numerous as the sand. I mean, how else does she expect that promise to be fulfilled?”

“Hey,” David cut in, clearly distracted by Hagar. “Who is this beautiful lady? I’m sure I could match whatever your price is for her. If I’m already getting six licenses, what’s one more?”

“Sorry, David, but Hagar’s my only ticket to future descents,” Abraham replies. Hagar slips behind Sarah to avoid the king’s intent gaze.

“She needs to do as we say,” Sarah added.

“Well, I don’t think you technically NEED to marry her,” David offered, “But… spoilers!”

“Um, excuse me,” cut in a short man with glasses and paisley tie behind the counter, “But we can’t issue a marriage license if she’s not willing to marry you.”

David, Abraham, and Sarah laughed long and hard at this suggestion.

“Yeah, I don’t think you understand how marriage works,” David replies to the deputy clerk. “Don’t worry, she’ll want to marry him if she knows what’s good for her.”

* * * * *

While we can’t precisely imagine how the Bible’s patriarchs would react to our culture today, there’s good reason to believe they would be jarred by our definitions of marriage, family, and morality. Even if the Old Testament Law offered mandates that were far more merciful and just than those in the surrounding cultures, we’d still most likely arrest people who lived according to several of these laws today.

As we try to figure out what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus today, we can get hung up on perfectly imitating the standards in the Bible, forgetting that the Bible’s standards have been anything but “standardized” from one generation to another. God’s laws have adapted and shifted with each culture.

This isn’t a wishy washy free for all. It’s a call to a higher law and a deeper morality.

The higher law of love and the deeper morality of justice govern how we apply the teachings of scripture. Pervading it all is the grace and mercy of God who is willing to reach out to people in any time and culture.

If God could respond to the patriarchs with grace and mercy despite marriages that fall dramatically short of what we would consider moral or sacred today, is it possible that there could be situations where God operates with love and mercy within our culture today, even in the places that run counter to the standards of the patriarchs and other biblical writers?

Do you see where I’m going here?

Unless we’re willing to treat the likes of Abraham and David as unrepentant sinners over their marriages who would be excommunicated from our churches today, we must admit that God acts with mercy within particular cultures.

I see God extending mercy in the midst of their social constructs.

It’s telling that David is described as a man after God’s own heart rather than as a serial adulterer.

Somehow God looks into our hearts and determines whether we are receptive to his grace and mercy.

This is why it matters to talk about how we would respond to the likes of Abraham and David. God worked with them right where they were. The invitation to them remains the same for us today. The grace for them extends to us as well.

Jesus issued the most basic of all invitations to would-be followers, saying that anyone who is thirsty, heavy-hearted, or weary should come to him. The wording on the invitation is spare and just about as basic as it gets.

Are you thirsty for God?

Do you desire to seek God with your whole heart?

COME!

Whether you are affirming or not, gay or straight, the same invitation applies to you. The messengers don’t get to alter Jesus’ invitation. The messengers don’t have access to the guest list.

We are charged to look for people who are thirsty or weary and to then issue the invitation.

Whether you are gay or straight, affirming or not, we all suffer from the same two fears:

  1. Discovering the invitation doesn’t apply to us.
  2. Getting deleted from the guest list.

Even the stand of county clerk Kim Davis against same sex marriage is rooted in a fear of the fires of hell—in other words, supporting same sex marriage will delete her from the guest list. By the same token, Kim Davis and her supporters believe that the message of Jesus to LGBT folks is “Repent or burn!”

The message from Jesus was quite different: “Are you thirsty? Then come!”

Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost. So if you’re feeling lost right now, I have good news for you: Jesus is searching for you.

He’s not hunting you down to cast you into the flames. He’s seeking you in order to bring you home. No matter what the other messengers have said about the invitations or the guest list, they aren’t allowed to judge anyone and they don’t know anyone’s heart.

I want you to imagine Jesus speaking directly to you:

“I am a doctor who has come to heal the sick…”

“I rejoice over every repentant wanderer just as a farmer rejoices over finding a lost sheep…”

“I will run out and embrace you if you return to me…”

I don’t get to change the invitation that Jesus issued. I’m not in charge of limiting the scope of his love. The Gospel of John says that God “So loved the world…” If you’re in “the world” right now, then I have good news for you.

You are a precious creation of God.

You are being earnestly sought.

You are beloved.

There aren’t caveats or check boxes for your sexuality.

Who am I to judge another man’s servant?

Who am I to change the invitation Jesus issued?

Who am I to judge with finality on how God relates to people in today’s culture?

I’m not in charge of convicting anyone of sin. I’m not in charge of telling people with different sexuality from my own how to relate to the Bible. I’m a messenger tasked with telling as many people as possible that they are invited to join Jesus at his table. The more lost they are, the thirstier, the more unworthy, the better.

It’s as if we’ve imagined the cross is a barrier from God rather than a beacon showing us the way to redemption.

Can you see Jesus hanging on the cross with his face beaten and bloody as the crown of thorns digs into his brow?

Can you see his determination to bear his pain and agony as he defeats sin and death on our behalf?

Can you see how he bears that isolation and excruciating pain with each passing second?

This was not the act of someone determined to judge, condemn, or set up yet another barrier between humanity and God.

The cross was God’s ultimate expression of love for us and identification with our suffering. The cross was our rescue.

The cross is God’s saving power for all of us, and it is freely to given to all who will receive it.

However you think you fall short, I want to know if you can see the cross right now. If you can see the cross, then you are called to come forward to be healed and reconciled.

You may pile up excuses or remember that someone said you are unworthy because you’re too judgmental, too distracted, too gay, or too greedy.

Bring your flaws to the cross. They’re your ticket.

If you’re weary and unworthy, then you are just the kind of person Jesus wants to come forward. The temple veil has been ripped in two, and now we are all officially out of excuses for avoiding God.

Whatever you believe, whoever you’ve slept with, whatever you’ve been told, the cross is for you and will always stand strong and steady for you. The invitation stands, the words have been etched with the blood of God’s Son. No human being can change that.

God is not meticulously scanning our lives in search of a reason to send us away. God is meticulously scanning our lives for any moment to reach us with a word of love that will sound too good even if we do manage to pause long enough to receive it.

Here is the word he has for you:

“You are loved more deeply than you can ever imagine. The more unworthy you feel, the more I want to heal you. My love will fill any gap you imagine between us. I’m seeking you right now. You’re welcome home any time. Your invitation always stands. Come!”

I’m Not Eager to Lose But I’m Working on It

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I like to think I’m the most insecure person ever. You may disagree because you know for a fact that you’re actually way more insecure. Whether or not I own the title as the most insecure person ever, I’ll bet we can all relate to the desire to prove ourselves in order to alleviate our fears about ourselves.

What if I don’t fit in?

What if people mock me?

What if someone secretly resents me?

I want to prove that I’m OK and that I belong, and that can especially hold true with my faith and beliefs. I’ve spent a good deal of time demonstrating definitively that anyone who would ever question my beliefs or my place within a particular tribe is misguided, stupid, or just plain mean. I’ve devoted plenty of time devising ways to support arguments for either my place or the place of friends who hold to beliefs similar to my own.

It’s disconcerting when you spend the majority of your life considering yourself a Christian, and then someone comes along shouting, “Not so fast! I have definitive proof that you’re not only in error, you’re an enemy of your faith!”

Even if the claims are baseless, they’re still really jarring. We all want to prove that we’re OK and that we belong. No one wants to be left out of the group. We all have such a strong desire to belong that we’d rather fight back than lose an argument that could insert even the slightest bit of doubt.

This is why forms of black and white thinking or fundamentalism become so appealing. If you’re a true believer with flawless beliefs and practices, no one can call you out. Better yet, if you take the offensive against anyone who pushes against the boundaries, you become a hero and defender of the insiders. The defenders of the insiders are the least likely to be called out because they become indispensible.

If you’ve seen any of my Rohr for Writers posts and you’re familiar with Rohr, you may know that Rohr encourages more of a centered set approach to theology and life in general. We define and orient ourselves by what we’re pursuing rather than maintaining particular boundaries of beliefs. Centered set thinking believes that, in the case of Christianity, life transformation happens in the pursuit of Christ rather than in keeping a list of rules. You could say that the epistle to the Galatians directs us toward centered set thinking:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Galatians 3:1-3, NIV

We are changed by what we pursue, not by what we defend.

IN order to adopt a more centered set approach to Christ that leaves the boundary making to others, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to step back and let them win. We’ll have to accept that in the eyes of some people we’ll have lost and become outsiders.

Along this line of thinking, Rohr writes about the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare in his book Eager to Love in order to make a case for preemptive losing. As you may guess by the title, Rohr argues that Francis and Clare weren’t eager for a debate. They were eager to love, and the most perfect way they found to love was from a non-competitive position. They chose to lose right from the start rather than minister out of influence, power, or control.

Rohr notes that Francis and his friars were mocked and abused in the early days of their ministry. People didn’t honor Francis and his friars because they looked like fools and losers. They had left money behind in order to beg for their daily bread. They left secure work behind to rebuild crumbling, abandoned churches.

Who would give these men money or food?

Who would go to their crumbling churches?

People beat them up, spat on them, and insulted them.

If Francis and his friars wanted to win, to be influential, and to belong to the class and power systems of their day, these insults would have been devastating. It’s a wonder that they didn’t give up.

However, they chose to begin by losing. Without wanting to win, they were free to love others. They didn’t fight for a place at the table. They set up their own tables where anyone was welcome.

There’s a really big challenge in looking back on the saints from so long ago: everyone wants to be on the same side as the saint in question. In fact, Rohr’s misgivings about his own Franciscan order are clearly evident throughout Eager to Love. Even the Franciscans aren’t sure how to live like St. Francis! It’s certainly tricky when an order established as an outsider receives a certain amount of insider status. All the same, Rohr’s portrait of Francis sticks with me and challenges me to think and live quite differently than what is natural.

My default in life is to fight for my place. I want to belong. I want to be liked.

Who would choose to let people mock him and laugh at him?

Who in his right mind would choose to be left out?

Who would choose to lose?

Perhaps a madman of sorts would choose to lose because he no longer wants to fight. He sees how empty that fight has left him. And when you’re tired of fighting, you may as well try something else.

I’ve grown weary of fighting for my place, even if I struggle daily with my desire to belong and to be respected. I don’t know what this will continue to look like each day, but I’ve been trying to stop fighting against my theological opponents as much as possible. I’ve long since tried to stop defending the boundaries of my faith in order to work on a more Christ-centered, centered set approach.

Nevertheless, I’m still tempted to defend the wisdom of a centered set approach. I would far prefer for my approach to become the majority position that is respected and honored—preferably with a book deal or two tossed in for good measure. I have a feeling that the people who establish themselves as the defenders and boundary keepers will generally work to solidify their positions.

I’m not sure how I’ll know if I’ve “succeeded” at losing, but I’m still giving losing a shot.

I’m eager to love, even if I’m still not eager to lose.

I suspect that my eagerness to love will be determined by how much I’m willing to lose.

 

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Revelation and God’s Place in an Unjust World

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I have the honor of writing for Red Letter Christians today, which is one of my favorite blogs, about the role that the book of Revelation should be playing as we try to figure out God’s place in a violent, unjust world. Hint: It’s not here to help us spot a future “Anti-Christ” figure…

 

Injustice appears to be the main thread running through the news these days.

Systemic racism has been exposed when a police officer, according to all eyewitness accounts, murdered an unarmed African American teenager.

Islamic State militants have killed religious minorities in Iraq and continue to threaten thousands upon thousands of Christians.

Violence could erupt again at any moment in Gaza.

These national and international events are but a cross section of disturbing news in our world that range from persecuted Christians in China to the staggering number of African Americans who are locked up for longer prison sentences than whites.

Who could fault anyone for asking, Where is God in the midst of injustice and persecution?

The writers of scripture give us a compelling answer to this question, but many Christians today–especially Christians in the West–have missed it. That is because the Bible, in part, deals with our questions about God’s place in an unjust world through the book of Revelation—a book that many have tragically (and, at times, comically) misunderstood.

Read the rest at Red Letter Christians.

Where Was God Last Week?

Family home destroyed in Gaza.

Let’s not mince words here. There were quite a few moments last week where a direct intervention by God would have been really timely:

  • Israeli bombs falling on children playing soccer on the beach in Gaza, to say nothing of the homes being demolished and the civilians who are losing their lives in the current conflict.
  • A civilian airliner was shot down over Ukraine.
  • Children from Central America are fleeing gang violence and rape, seeking refuge across the U.S. border.
  • Not to mention the communities in Africa struggling to find clean drinking water and viable farm land, human trafficking that’s destroying lives throughout Southeast Asia, and the civil war sweeping through Iraq.

Where is God right now?

When I wrote about this particular issue for my Christian Survival Guide, I had other tragedies in mind. However, we don’t have to look long before we find particular moments that punch us in the gut and leave us speechless. Perhaps one of these events from last week did that to you. I know they did that to me.

As I wrestled with these events and the place of God, I confess that I can’t line up certain ways of reading the Bible with what I’m observing. I can’t say that God is predestines every event according to a precise plan.

Also, throughout scripture, God routinely offers people choices, saying their actions will determine what kind of future they have.

I would rather have no God than a God who mysteriously orchestrates the death of children for a higher purpose.

I know that some people join me in that assessment, while others can handle that tension better (I only use the word tension to be charitable to their perspective). I also admit that my point of view doesn’t resolve every question or problem. Nevertheless, we are left with these pressing questions:

What should we make of a God who doesn’t always deliver us from evil?

Where is God when great acts of evil are unleashed in our world?

It’s not enough to say that Jesus bore evil on the cross. That’s a good starting point, but it comes up empty from my perspective. Yes, he didn’t fight back. Yes, he bore evil and defeated it by rising again. There is some comfort in that, but it doesn’t resolve the role of God right now. What is God actually doing about the problem of evil in our world?

I don’t think I can resolve this in a single blog post. And even my chapter on God and the problem of evil in A Christian Survival Guide is more of an overview, but let me offer a direction to explore.

What if part of the resolution to the problem of evil is Pentecost?

There is a trajectory throughout scripture of God desiring to dwell among his people, of renewing their hearts and minds, and even guiding them. “God among us” strikes me as the goal throughout the Old Testament prophets. When Jesus came, he wasn’t setting up a one-time, God among us event that ended with the cross and resurrection. He was leading us to something bigger: Pentecost.

The point on which everything in the ministry of Jesus turns for me is Pentecost. The cross and resurrection established God’s take on suffering—suffering alongside us, overcoming evil with resurrection. However, the power of God was released into our world through Pentecost.

Pentecost establishes God’s new way of interacting with our world—his Spirit working through us. Jesus reminded his followers that he would not leave them as orphans because the Spirit would come to dwell among us. That isn’t to say God’s presence in the world is limited to the Holy Spirit, but if we’re wondering “how” God interacts with our world, part of the answer may be found by looking at the indwelling Spirit.

Is God present in the world? Yes. In many ways and places.

However, one of God’s chosen ways of interacting with our world is incarnational and relational, guiding those who have received the Spirit and are willing to let him guide them. How is the Spirit leading us to interact with the pain and suffering in the world? How can God use us to bring redemption and restoration?

This isn’t the efficient, lightening strike resolution I’m personally longing for. I’d still like God to step in and shield the innocent from artillery and missiles. I can’t resolve the problem of a powerful God stepping back as these tragedies unfold. However, I don’t see God working behind the scenes to make these things happen.

I see God dwelling among us, mourning with those who mourn, and empowering those willing to change things.

If we want to find God in the midst of suffering, we should no doubt look to the cross, but don’t stop there. Look at Pentecost. God is bearing our pain alongside us. God is here to help us bring peace and redemption.

Pentecost means that God may well be right here alongside us, encouraging us to ask all of the same tough questions and to never settle for a trite answer.

Hell Is a Made-Up Place

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What are we talking about when we talk about hell? I’m convinced that many of us don’t know.

Is hell an actual place?

Can we know anything about what happens in hell if it is a place?

Where exactly do our details about hell come from?

I’ve heard from a number of pastors and scholars that we can’t deny the reality of hell as a literal place because Jesus talked about hell a lot. Since I was resolved to let the Bible determine what I believe about hell and eternal punishment, I hardly gave it another thought, even when Rob Bell told us that Love Wins and the collective evangelical church lost its mind over what exactly that means.

WA Christian Survival Guide a Lifeline to Faith and Growthhen I started exploring every topic that has ever shaken my faith or the faith of someone else for my Christian Survival Guide project, I had to face the fact that I’d been avoiding hell. I didn’t want to think about it.

And so I finally let myself ask the question I’d been avoiding, Does God punish humans eternally for a decision made during 80 years (give or take) of life?

I’ve heard the arguments that God’s gift of eternal life is so wonderful that denying it requires eternal punishment since God’s infinite holiness demands infinite torment for those who oppose him. That represents a line of thinking I simply can’t follow, and I don’t think scripture warrants it either. I’d like to offer a brief overview of the chapter on hell from the Christian Survival Guide that delves into the details about hell.

As an evangelical, I can’t help but begin in the most obvious place…

 

What Does the Bible Say about Hell?

Beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say?” hardly settles things for us. The Bible doesn’t even have a single word for hell.

If you’re reading the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol tends to refer to the place of the dead. Jewish scholars later translated Sheol as “Hades” in their Greek translation.

While Hades tended to be viewed in a negative light, that was primarily rooted in the fact that those in Hades were no longer alive. While they weren’t able to enjoy the pleasures of the living, they weren’t necessarily suffering eternal conscious torment.

In fact, the idea of judgment and suffering in the afterlife took on a far richer form in the intertestamental writings. As the Jews suffered at the hands of foreign invaders, they looked ahead to a day when God would vanquish their enemies and punish them. By the time the writers of the New Testament came around, the concept of punishment after death had been evolving. It was far from a single concept that was passed down from one generation to another.

In the New Testament we find two words for “hell,” and neither necessarily demand an eternity of conscious torment. While you can certainly make a case for that based on several passages that mention “eternal fire,” it’s not as cut and dry as many believe.

For instance, Jesus spoke frequently of the Jewish leaders being cast into Gehenna, an alleged garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem that had once been used for child sacrifices by the Judean kings. The word carried a clear implication of being outside of God’s Kingdom and separated from God’s people in some way, but it’s a theological leap to say that Gehenna equals eternal conscious torment in hell.

When Jesus speaks of God’s judgment, he speaks of eternal fire, but that’s not the same thing as saying the people “in” the fire are eternal. While one could argue for eternal torment based on those passages, they don’t demand hell as a place of eternal punishment. And it’s especially problematic to connect the eternal torment passages with the Gehenna passages since those are two different images given to two different people.

(Check out Scot McKnight’s series on hell for a bit more about the relevant passages, especially his overview of Jesus’ statements about eternal fire.)

As the early church fathers parsed the words of Jesus and the Apostles, they engaged in some of their sharpest arguments over the eternal nature of the soul. If your soul has suffered a “second death” and has been consumed by fire, can your soul exist forever?

In fact, the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles fail to clarify things. Rather, they focus primarily on God’s judgment. Mind you, that judgment is a frightening prospect, but we are also far removed from the literary and mythological world of the New Testament.

Even when the book of Revelation touches on judgment, the beast the devil are the only ones who are explicitly tormented forever (Rev. 20:10, NIV via BibleGateway). And let’s not forget that the ENTIRE book of Revelation is chock full of symbols, imagery, and metaphors. Even if we read about people being tossed into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15), should we really expect a literal lake of fire?

(For more about interpreting Revelation, see my book The Good News of Revelation).

Based on the symbols and imagery connected to God’s judgment, there is no denying that disobedience is serious. Rejecting God’s ways in order to follow our own brings about disastrous consequences. I’m not making an argument for a “There, there,” grandfather-type of God who chuckles about “those kids” down there who are killing, violating, polluting, oppressing, and abusing each other.

Those who reject the mercy of God found in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ run the risk of being “left out.” God is just and sin must be eradicated. Evil and death will be defeated.

Does the New Testament give us cause to speak in great detail about the afterlife, let alone speak of a literal place of eternal torment called hell?

Can we precisely understand how the New Testament writers re-appropriated the Greek word Hades?

Can we dive into the first century Jewish psyche and grasp the meaning of Gehenna, with its burning fire and dark history?

Can we pinpoint what “eternal” or “everlasting” fire is or what its intended to accomplish?

Evangelicals committed to scripture are all over the place on hell:

  • The universalists argue that the fire of God’s judgment is purifying and restorative (I understand that traditionalists argue one cannot be universalist and evangelical).
  • The annihiliationists argue that it consumes the soul, rendering eternal life impossible.
  • The traditionalists argue that this fire means everyone outside of God’s Kingdom suffers eternal conscious torment.

Can you see how big this mess is?

Christians, at least American evangelicals, have become dogmatic about a theological concept rooted in terms we most likely fail to understand.

 

Can We Blame Dante for Our Concept of Hell?

This is something I’ve heard from a few people. While I have yet to see a truly compelling argument that traces the history of hell form the New Testament to the present day and makes the necessary literary connections to back up such a claim, Jon M. Sweeney has taken a strong step in that direction.

Sweeney’s book, Inventing Hell, argues that Dante’s version of hell has done more to influence the way we read the Bible than we suspect. While I felt that he fell short of proving that assertion, he did a masterful job of reconstructing the various ancient views of the afterlife and offers some thought-provoking reconstructions of the New Testament world.

Inventing Hell reminds us that the literary symbols and mythological stories of the past can’t be ruled out when we interpret the Bible. The writers of scripture were reacting against or recycling the ideas and stories of their day. Paul had no issue preaching about the resurrection to unwilling listeners, but he also used mythological figures such as the “Unknown God” and popular poetry to introduce the story of Jesus.

It’s quite likely that interpreters of scripture have allowed Dante’s epic poem to reshape how they read scripture. The Bible says very little about the actual details of hell, so if we think we know what hell is like, we may have to blame Dante.

 

Where Does This Leave Us with Hell?

If anything, I want to remind us that the traditional concept of hell as eternal conscious torment isn’t a done deal based on a “plain reading” of scripture.

I especially want Christians to take another look at scripture without assuming they already understand what words like Sheol, Gehenna and Hades precisely mean.

The truth is that Gehenna and Hades touched on both a mythological and religious way of thinking—a way of thinking that often blended myth with religion in ways that we find hard to grasp today. There were historical places, events, and stories that shaped what people made of these words when they heard Jesus and the early Christians use them.

Sincere followers of Jesus may believe that the fire of judgment is an eternal punishment, a final annihilation of those rebelling against God, or a purifying fire. We’re so far removed from the original languages and cultures, I don’t know how anyone today can claim to absolute certainty here.

Perhaps the most revealing question for us today is this: “Why do we need hell to be eternal conscious torment?”

If you’re convinced that the Bible teaches it, that’s fine. But Christians disagree on plenty of other issues related to biblical interpretation and translation. Why make more noise about this one in particular? Why excommunicate someone who believes God is more merciful?

Perhaps the fixation of American evangelicals with hell as eternal conscious torment has more to do with our desire to make heaven look better and to make ourselves into the ultimate “insiders” for all of eternity.

The afterlife has been evolving throughout the writing of scripture, and it’s fair to say that it has evolved as Christians continue to interpret scripture. God will judge sin and evil, but I have no idea what that will look like. Given that the Bible hardly has a uniform way of naming hell, let alone describing it consistently and explicitly with clear details, it’s far more likely that we’re the ones who have made up the notion that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.

 

There’s a lot more I could write about this. In fact, I HAVE written more about this.

I’ve been intentionally light on biblical exposition in this post because I did a ton of that in my book. This post is more of a summary of that content. Check out the chapter in A Christian Survival Guide about hell for a more thorough exploration of the relevant passages and some other perspectives from theologians in the church. I spend quite a bit of time pulling together the relevant passages and offer up some points for further reflection, including a suggested reading list.

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