It’s quite sad, actually: it seems to me that most Christians do not know how to relate to Jesus outside of the concepts of Heaven and Hell. For too many, God simply does not make sense unless the bulk of humanity can be consigned to eternal torment while a select lucky few, with the right accidents of birth, who happen to decode the mystery in the absurdly short time allocated to them, are spared so that they can grovel at God’s feet for the rest of time. So it makes sense, then, that a common response to my assertion that Heaven and Hell are not real places is: “So why did Jesus have to die then? If Heaven and Hell are not real, what is the point of Jesus?” Like a backstage pass to Paradise was the whole point of Jesus’s existence. Or worse: “So you mean Hitler and me both end up in the same place? Where is the justice in that?” This from the very people who would have no questions around the justice of the outcome if Hitler had said the sinner’s prayer seconds before dying. It would be funny if it were not so tragic.
From the very outset, most Christians see God as angry and violent, and this informs how they live and how they relate. The default position from which most Evangelicals and Protestants begin doing theology is this: God is angry and it is all our fault. And when God gets angry, bad things happen. All Protestant and Evangelical Christianity begins to make sense of God from that basic presupposition. From the get-go, the basic picture of God is of a cosmic child-abuser.
And so, while it ought to be obvious that the concept of Hell is completely incompatible with the concept of a loving God, as is typical with the victims in an abusive relationship, Christians find ways to justify the violence: “Sure, God is loving, but He is also holy and just”. As if they are completely separate things. As if there is no way of understanding holiness and justice in nonviolent ways. As if these are contradictory parts of the character of God that need to be reconciled, rather than love being the trait through which justice and holiness can be expressed. In the minds of most Christians, the only legitimate expression of justice is through violent retribution, and holiness is only achievable via the violent expulsion of everything “unclean”. If God says He* loves us, how do we explain the violence? The way any victim of abuse does: we deserved it. Christians solve the conundrum by inventing the penal substitution theory of atonement, in which Jesus becomes a convenient way for God to demonstrate love by absorbing His* own violence, which would otherwise have fallen on us. Yes, God is pissed off and violent, but at least He loves us enough to let Jesus stand in the firing line. It is beyond twisted.
And it takes a lot of undoing, because this perverted atonement theory has now become the lens through which we read the gospel accounts. We make staggering assumptions about the texts based on our retrospective readings of this theory into the gospel narratives. But, quite simply, the gospels say nothing that supports a penal substitution understanding of Jesus’ death. And outside of penal substitution, Heaven and Hell are concepts that make absolutely no sense. Yet Jesus, it is claimed, talked about Heaven and Hell all the time.
Only he did not. We think he did because the lens of penal substitution atonement theory that undergirds contemporary Protestant and Evangelical theology encourages us to read that way, but let me invite you for a moment to consider what those writings say without that lens. In no particular order, I offer the following observations:
At no point does Jesus ever refer to “Hell” in a way that can be justifiably interpreted as “a place of eternal punishment”. The three words that are used in the Bible, and which are commonly translated into English as “Hell”, are Sheol , Hades, and Gehenna. Sheol is simply the place of the dead. In the Hebrew writings, Sheol does not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked; it is simply the place where the dead go. Later, under the influence of the Greeks, the word is replaced by Hades, but the essential character of the place remains essentially the same. Neither Sheol nor Hades carry any suggestion of torment for the unrighteous. The third term, Gehenna¸ is slightly more complex. It is the name of a real valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. It has a history of association with child sacrifice, and the phrase “passed through fire” is often a reference to the ritual child sacrifices to Molech performed there (see 2 Kings 23:10), a practice which Jeremiah protested was not sanctioned by God at all (Jeremiah 7:31). Thereafter, Gehenna is often used as an iconic representation of the wickedness into which society can descend and a warning of the grim repercussions of allowing this sort of degeneration. Being condemned to Gehenna, then, in Jewish thought, is a symbolic concept (not a literal destination) that does indeed imply action against the wicked, but it is purgative more than punitive, and is certainly not a permanent sentence. In short, there is no reference to “Hell” in Jesus’ teachings that even remotely compares to a place of eternal torment.
Don’t take everything literally. Christians today have this bizarre habit of reading everything literally. We forget that the Biblical writings were not written by Western post-Enlightenment rationalists, but by Eastern mystics. To read them literally is to misread them, often. When Jesus refers to places like the “outer darkness” and “the weeping and gnashing of teeth”, he is not referring to eternal separation from God. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a common expression that signifies deep regret, and the “outer darkness” is a symbolic concept denoting removal from the vibrant hub of the Kingdom community, but there is nothing to suggest that this is permanent or torturous (indeed, in Matthew 8:12, those in the outer darkness are still described as belonging to the Kingdom). They are metaphors that are, in each instance, used by Jesus in parables to describe the state of being arising as a natural consequence of not relating to one another in love. Likewise, references to places of torment in Jesus’ parables ought not to be read literally. One does not infer from reading the Lord of the Rings that Middle Earth exists. Stories convey non-literal truths. One does not infer from the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one that only 100 people will be saved. That is not the point. Why then do we insist on taking the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) as evidence of a literal Hell?! (In which case, could it really be considered Heaven if we can see the people suffering on the other side, which the parable also implies?)
Jesus never mentions Heaven. Not in the Evangelical sense of the word, anyway. He refers a lot to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of God”, but as I have argued elsewhere, these terms refer to ways of living in community here on earth. They have never been used by Jewish thinkers to refer to some otherworldly Utopia. Rather, they speak to a transformed earth, after the Messiah has restored Creation.
Jesus never suggests that his mission is to win us a free pass through the Pearly Gates. On the contrary, his entire ministry is about teaching people how to relate in the here and now. From Jesus’s teachings it is clear that the Kingdom is not a prize to be won, but a way of being in community to strive for, a way of being and being-with that affirms life. The Kingdom of God is simply life as God intended it to be.
Heaven and Hell are not the primary thrust of Jesus’ teaching, nor of the gospel writers’ narratives. Life is. Restored relationship are. The crime and punishment motif of penal substitution theories is entirely absent, and can only ever be inferred. Take for example, some of these commonly quoted statements:
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. “ (John 20:31)
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. (John 1 :12)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Look carefully. Take off the heaven and Hell lens and you will notice something: not one of them explicitly endorses a penal substitution theory of the atonement. Not one of them makes the explicit claim that by not believing, one is condemned to eternal torment. Not one of them directly equates “life” with “Heaven”. Yes, all of them suggest that receiving Jesus is the only way to life, the only way to know God. But that is something different entirely.
And to make sense of the claims these verses are actually making, as opposed to the ones we have assumed they were making, we need to have a sense of context. I have spent several posts unpacking what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God”, and I have discussed that what the Jews of Jesus’s time would have understood by “resurrection” and what we think of as Heaven are different concepts, so I won’t rehash that material here, but you need to accept that the cultural filters through which you are reading the texts are inadequate. You are incapable of reading the gospel narratives as their writers intended them to be read because you are too far removed from those texts in terms of culture and time. Once you accept that what you think you are reading is probably not what was being said, and that context matters, you are on the path to understanding.
Heaven and Hell are not mentioned in the sermons of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts. Nor do any of the gospel writers tie them to the Passion narrative. If you regard Heaven and Hell as being at the heart of the gospel message, that startling omission really ought to strike you as odd. Peter does not mention either Heaven or Hell, or Jesus being punished in our place, at the great Pentecost sermon (Acts 2). Steven, when he justifies his faith in Jesus at his trial (Acts 7) makes no mention of these things either, and instead makes a protracted case against violent religion, stating outright that Jesus was murdered by humans but raised by God. Neither the gospel writers nor the early church preachers ever implicate God in the death of Jesus – there is no mention that God’s wrath was somehow being satisfied in the slaughter of Jesus. They preach Jesus, his death at human hands and his resurrection by God’s, but there is not even a mention of Heaven and Hell. And the obvious inference is that these things are not part of the gospel message.
The creeds of the early church do not mention Hell or Heaven, or penal substitution. The council of Nicaea in 325A.D., in constructing a statement of Christian faith, has only this to say about the death of Jesus: “He suffered, and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven”. No mention of punishment for sins, no mention of penal substitution, no mention of Hell, and the only mention of heaven does not translate as “paradise”. At the council of Constantinople in 381, when the creed is refined, even then God is not implicated in the death of Jesus – responsibility for the suffering of Jesus is laid squarely at the feet of Pontius Pilate. Again, no mention of Hell and certainly no suggestion of God punishing Jesus for our sins. These are much later additions to Christian theology, that were completely foreign to the early church. The only way to continue to justify adherence to penal substitution atonement theories and the consequent obsession with Heaven and Hell is to either be completely ignorant of church history or to deliberately ignore it.
For the first several thousand years of Jewish history, God doesn’t mention Heaven or Hell to Hens chosen people. Doesn’t that strike you as not only strange, but as downright irresponsible? If there is an imminent danger of eternal conscious torment, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to warn those you claim to love of the danger? Yet there is a deafening silence from God throughout the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – on this point. The Old Testament priests don’t think to mention it. The prophets completely overlook it. Jesus seems more concerned with life here on earth, and the early church simply ignores it. If Heaven and Hell are a reality, then God’s approach to the whole thing seems to be: “If they don’t please me, they will burn for all eternity. There is no possible way for them to know that; let’s see if they work it out…”
That, by the way, is how I know most of you don’t believe it either. If you did – if you actually believed that your loved ones would suffer indescribably for all eternity if they didn’t “receive Jesus”, it would cripple you. You would spend every waking moment trying to find ways to convince them and you would be utterly devastated if they would not believe you. I could not stomach the thought of being responsible for the eternal suffering of complete strangers, let alone those closest to me. But despite this, Christians are content to submit to a comfortable routine of singing pretty songs at church, having pot-luck dinners and doing weekly Bible-Studies. Life seems to go on. Just saying.
Don’t feel bad – I am not trying to make you feel guilty. I am simply observing that we intrinsically recognise how ludicrous the notion of eternal conscious torment is, and that is okay. Hopefully one day you will find the courage to stand with me and say: I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. They are singularly unhelpful notions, designed to either bribe or terrify people into compliance with a set of social norms. It is not acceptable to centre a ministry around either: if you focus on Hell, then you manipulate through terror, and if you focus on Heaven, you manipulate through desire. Manipulation is not a loving way to relate to others. The gospel message is not about Heaven or Hell. It is about Jesus. And Jesus is more than an atonement theory; he is a model of what it means to live in the Kingdom, the one who unveils the ugliness and violence behind our religious and political and social systems, he is the promise of ways of being-with that value individuals. He is the way and the truth and the life.
*New readers, please note that I only ever use the masculine pronoun for God when referring to problematic God constructions, which seem invariably to reinforce patriarchy. I prefer the gender-neutral Hen, which I think is a more accurate representation of God’s completeness.
In your bio you say, “God saw how badly I needed grace, how little I deserved it, and was gracious anyway.” I don’t see why you needed grace if the penalty of sin is not death. The lake of fire is the second death. (Revelation 2:1; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Read all about it. Then, try to pry the penalty for sin apart from atonement. Please explain.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The penalty for sin does need to be death for there to be a need for grace. Our sin always hurts people – ourselves and others. Sin breaks relationships and engenders ways of relating that are – in the broadest sense of the word – violent. Showing grace gives people the space to be better, to be different. When Jesus encounters sinners, he never calls for their deaths, but recognises the humanity in them. Like the woman at the well, or Zaccheus – the list is enormous – the sinners Jesus interacts with walk away determined to change their lives because of the grace he showed. Not once in these encounters does grace mean ‘letting people off the hook because they actually deserved to die’. In fact, Jesus does not mention the penalties for their sins at all. Instead, he affirms the humanity in them, and requires that they restore broken relationships, not that they “pay the price”. Grace is not about refusing to exercise your own moral authority, it is about restoration. That is what I have experienced.
The primary problem with sin is not that it is a crime that deserves punishment; it is that it is a wound that requires healing. Jesus comes as a healer, not as a judge, and you would need to do some quite disingenuous reading of the gospels to come to any other conclusion. Atonement, as it is presented in the gospels, is never a matter of crime and punishment; it is always presented as brokenness and healing. Jesus repeatedly, for example, when he quotes Scripture, omits all references to the violence and vengeance of God. Instead, he preaches enemy love and self-sacrifice. His entire ethic is nonviolent, and he claims that if we have seen him we have seen God. To centre theology on Jesus is to be compelled to refuse penal substitution.
Quite aside from the fact that penal substitution atonement theory does not exist in the theology of the early church. You would need to explain to me why I need to adopt an atonement theology that finds its genesis with Anselm in the 11th Century and which was essentially the work of Reformer theologians. Why do all of the oldest Christian churches not subscribe to it? Church history itself argues against penal substitution as a legitimate atonement theory.
Your argument from the Revelation quotes is entirely tenuous, in the sense that a) the fact that you use the verses in the way you do makes the presupposition that the entire Bible is the inerrant word of God and therefore if one verse says something (even assuming the meaning was clear and required no interpretation) we can base entire theological positions on it because said verse will be consistent with all other verses in the Bible; b) they take the verses literally. Virtually the entire book is symbolic and allegorical and suddenly I am expected to take these verses literally? , and c) an interpretation of Revelation that reads God as violent is inconsistent with the God portrayed in Revelation itself, as well as the teachings and lived ethic of Jesus.
My apologies – I have not meant to sound as harsh as this has come across. It is the price of having to squeeze what is actually a mammoth amount of reading and thinking into a very short comment, which is already becoming too long.
Your lengthy and articulate response is well appreciated.
Surely, God is violent in his wrath. This is clear throughout the Bible, OT to NT, and especially Revelation.
Jesus Himself spoke of people going away to eternal punishment. Matthew 25:46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
But you are correct that you and I do not agree on your method of interpreting Scripture.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think our differences in understanding the nature of Scripture are going to prevent our coming to any sort of agreement here. I do not see the Bible as the inerrant word of God; it is a collection of writings about God, by different people in different cultural and social contexts, and thus which invariably contradict at times. While the Bible is useful, it is still a text produced by people and therefore flawed. The question for me is this: do you accept Jesus as the full revelation of God, which is what he claims in John 14. If so, then where the picture of God as presented in Jesus and the picture of God as presented in Biblical texts are contradictory, I must accept the Jesus picture. And Jesus is completely nonviolent. There is absolutely no getting around that. Even in Revelation, Jesus is non-violent. The blood on the robe of the lamb is his own, as he confronts the powers and principalities, and the sword he bears comes out of his mouth, it is not wielded by his hand. The whole symbol is of self-sacrifice and a commitment to peace as a means of disarming the enemy. While the wrath of “God” in the Old Testament and certain parts of the NT is depicted as violent, this is never evident in Jesus, either in his teachings or his ethic.
We are writing in response to your post titled “Eyes towards Heaven”. We write as brothers in Christ who are personally acquainted with you. We write out of concern for you and your readers. We write out of concern for the truth.
We, like you, start on a note of sadness. You are sad out of sympathy for “most Christians who simply do not how to relate to Jesus”. We are saddened that having known us, and worked with us, you would put up such a gross caricature of what it is we believe. We are among those who affirm heaven and hell. We fall within the impossibly wide net you cast of “most Christians” and “most Evangelicals and Protestants”. How it is that you can pronounce on what most Christians believe is another question. Perhaps the only way is to put up a straw man. A straw man has his utility – he is weak and light, which makes knocking him down easy on the intellect. He is also faceless, which makes knocking him down easy on the conscience. But we are not faceless to you, and so what you have written about what we believe is, well, sad. It is sad because it is not true.
Just to give you a few examples from the first paragraph… We believe in heaven and hell. But we do not believe that heaven is for a “select lucky few” (Rev 7.9). We do not believe that it has anything to do with “an accident of birth” (Rom 4, Gal 3) or anyone’s capacity to “decode a mystery” (Eph 3.3). We do not believe that those in heaven will “grovel at God’s feet for the rest of time”. On the contrary, we we will reign with him as his Sons and Daughters (2 Tim 2.12; Rom 8). All this in Christ. He is the goal of our faith. With the Father, and the Spirit he is the centrepiece of the heavenly reality. To count him “a backstage pass” is beyond blasphemy. We do not believe it.
And that’s just the first paragraph. There is more of the same throughout, but to deal with it all would be a bore to everyone concerned. One more example will suffice. We do not believe in heaven as some sort of cloud-floating, ethereal “otherworldly utopia”. Heaven is this world redeemed, renewed and fit for the immediate presence of God. It will be more physical, not less.
In sum, the caricature is unwarranted, unhelpful, and a discredit to your substantive arguments, to which we now turn.
You make a number of theological statements that seem to be drawn from a mix of Tom Wright, Steve Chalk and pop psychology. Most of them are contestable, but one in particular appears to be at the heart of your critique: “the concept of Hell is completely incompatible with the concept of a loving God.” You go on to contend that God’s love and justice should not be viewed as contradictory parts of God’s character. We agree. In fact, righteous anger over injustice is the outworking of love. The opposite of love is not anger. The opposite of love is hatred, often manifesting as indifference. We experience this in our own love relationships. When we see someone we love deeply damaging themselves and others around them, it is precisely because of our deep love that we get angry. Of course, God’s love and anger are perfectly pure, whereas ours is always tainted by sin. Becky Pippert puts it so well:
“God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
But do God’s justice and anger need to end in hell? To answer “no” is to misunderstand the nature of sin and misrepresent the nature of hell. In the caricature, hell is where those who were not lucky enough to decode the mystery end up, almost by chance. In hell they are pleading for mercy but their pleas fall on the deaf ears of the Sadist Judge. The biblical teaching on sin is very different. No-one in hell will want to leave. That’s because sin is self-separation from God. It is the intentional self-alienation from the source of all that is good. In the end, God’s wrath is revealed in giving us what we want (Rom 1.18, 24, 26, 28). In your description of Gehenna (the NT term for hell) you use the words “decent” and “degeneration”. Its interesting that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (which you also quote), once the rich man has been cast into hell, he never asks to get out. On the contrary, he persists in the very same sin that got him there: he continues to treat Lazarus as nothing more than the beggar at his gate. Hell is a degeneration into what we choose for ourselves. In the words of CS Lewis, Hell is “the greatest monument to human freedom.” It is eternal by God’s will, and for the mere fact that no-one will want to leave.
You are also very concerned that God should not be depicted as violent, which, it seems, is driven by a concern for non-violence as a general principle. But we feel you are missing the crucial role that the final justice of God plays in securing non-violence in the here and now. Miroslav Volf, who witnessed the horror of Balkan violence first-hand, writes:
“…in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence… My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”
Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who witnessed the horrors of communist oppression first-hand, observes something similar:
“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ … if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”
Herman Bavinck saw all of this coming a hundred years ago. On the doctrine of eternal punishment, he writes:
“…it needs to be greatly acknowledged that since the eighteenth century the idea of humaneness and the sense of human sympathy have had a powerful awakening…No-one, however, can be blind to the reality that this humanitarian viewpoint also brings its own imbalances and dangers… Before that time every abnormality was viewed in terms of sin and guilt; now all ideas of guilt, crime, responsibility, culpability and the like are robbed of their reality. The sense of right and justice, of the violation of law and of guilt, are seriously weakened to the extent that the norm of all these things is not found in God but shifted to the opinions of human beings and society. In the process all certainty and safety is gradually lost. For when the interest of society becomes the deciding factor, not only is every boundary between good and evil wiped out, but also justice runs the danger of being sacrificed to power.”
To a greater or lesser extent, all three men argue that if we want non-violence in our society now, then that peace must be underwritten by the final justice of God. As we’ve argued above, that final justice is the violence of giving people over to the perpetual torment of their own degenerative sin. In the end, under the sovereignty of God, the violence will be self-inflicted.
These arguments can be extended from specific concerns with violence, to concerns with justice in general. With Volf, we are horrified by the proposal that there be no ultimate justice for Milesovic and those of his ilk. Should Chairman Mao also be forgiven or ignored or reformed merely because some feel that makes God more palatable? Stripped of the judgement and hell described above, the god you are proposing is outrageously unjust and undeserving of our worship. On the evidence of the 2oth century alone, a god who is indifferent to final justice makes a sick joke of human history.
But all of this theologising and philosophising is secondary. Our primary authority has to be what God himself has said about heaven and hell. And so we turn to your analysis of the gospels. For now, we will play by your rule and restrict our response to the gospels (though we think the rule itself is entirely arbitrary).
“At no point does Jesus ever refer to “Hell” in a way that can be justifiably interpreted as ‘a place of eternal punishment’.”
“Don’t take everything literally.”
To paraphrase these two arguments, being condemned to Gehenna is purgative rather than punitive, and certainly not an eternal sentence. Anything in the gospels that indicates otherwise is misinterpreted metaphor.
Let’s try and apply these arguments to a single verse from the gospel of Matthew. The consequence of Jesus final judgement (Matt 25.31) is that “these [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25.46). By your arguments above, we are to understand the word “punishment” not as punishment but as purgatory, even if the ultimacy of the context and the lexical evidence go in the other direction. We are also to understand “eternal”, not as eternal but as temporal and this-worldly. We have a licence to do that because we mustn’t read the verse literally, but metaphorically. And yet metaphors aim at carrying meaning over from the image to the reality. It would be a strange and confusing use of metaphor to attempt to communicate a limited this-worldly process by labelling it eternal. And what does Mark mean in a parallel passage (Mark 9.43, 48; cf. Matt 18.7-9) when he quotes Isaiah in describing hell as the place of ‘unquenchable fire…where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’? Is the metaphor of a worm that never dies and fire that never goes out conveying the idea of something temporary, limited and purgative? Or is it more likely to be conveying that which is irreversible, unlimited and punitive? Moreover, what makes application of your interpretation to Matt 25.46 more difficult, is that the same word “eternal” is also applied negatively to the devil and his angels (v41), and positively to the life that Jesus offers (v46). Is the victory over the devil and his angels time-bound, purgative and insecure? Is eternal life a limited offer only? Is our future precarious? Either both eternal life and eternal death are in fact this-worldly and temporal (in which case sin and death win), or the word eternal is entirely redundant, or you are asking us to give the opposite meaning to two occurrences of the same word in the same verse. It seems a lot to ask. The only other alternative is that eternal means eternal.
The problem compounds when we go beyond the bounds of the gospels. There are a number of similar contrasts between eternal life and eternal punishment (e.g. Heb 6.2, 9.12; Jude 6-7, 21). Moreover, unsurprisingly, the word eternal is applied to God himself (Rom 16.26; Heb 9.14; 13.8). Hebrews 9.14 is an interesting case:
“11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
In the context eternal redemption is applied to the believer by the eternal Spirit of God. Moreover, key to the logic of the argument at this point in the letter is that the priesthood of Christ is superior to the Mosaic priesthood, precisely because the former is eternal while the latter is temporary. Once again, we have to ask, does the same word have two conflicting meanings? If not, if God is eternal and therefore the redemption he offers is eternal, then what do we make of the eternal judgement in Hebrews 6.2 (cf. Heb 9.27)? Is it temporary? On what unbiased reading of the text could you arrive at that conclusion?
There is more to say to your other arguments from church history etc., but the word of God should be the last word. We will allow ourselves an epilogue that speaks to how we approach the word of God.
You make much of the cultural filters and compliance with social norms that blind us, your opponents. And yet you conceive of love as affirmation and tolerance, justice as correctional services, salvation as community, and God as gender-neutral. It is interesting that the Jesus you present would pass every test of political correctness posed by your own culture in your own time. To paraphrase what Albert Schweitzer said of a liberal approach to the bible years ago: when they look down into the well of the evidence for Jesus, they tend to see their own reflection.
Peter, is there any chance that you too are reading the Bible through cultural filters, and that you too are subject to the pressure of social norms?
Please prayerfully consider that the greatest scandal of all when it comes to Hell, is that Jesus endured it, so we wouldn’t have to.
Yours in Christ our Judge and King,
ROYDON FROST AND MARTIN MORRISON
Dearest Martin and Roydon
I first need to say this: I regard you both as brothers in Christ, and do not for a second question your love of Jesus nor your devotion to God. I have nothing but respect for both of you. I need to make it clear that I am not offended by anything you have written and am delighted that you have responded at all. It is important to me that you understand this because I do not wish for you to interpret this response as impertinent or disrespectful in any way, and if I cross that line I do apologise unreservedly.
Please know that my intention is never to attack people directly; I intend only to attack theologies. To this end, the “caricature” is a necessity, not a straw man. I am, of course, aware that they are generalisations and do not apply to everyone. In much the same way, when one describes characteristics of Zulu culture, or Afrikaans culture, or English culture, one is aware that people have different ties to their cultural roots and that individual identity is rooted in the way that people differ from the template rather than the degree to which they conform to it. Still, the cultural templates act as the scripts and the backdrops for the stage on which individual actors act out their unique interpretations of those templates. In much the same way, theology forms the backdrop against which individual Christians interpret and act out their roles. I know that this differs from person to person. But my generalisations remain fair as templates nonetheless, and significantly impact on how Christians make sense of God. I am not attacking the individual interpretations, but the template which informs them, arguing that we would respond very differently were we to grasp the stage directions better. It is certainly not a straw man who is easy to knock down.
By way of example, I will use your response. I know that your response comes from a place of love and I am touched by it and honoured by it. That is why I choose to ignore the offensive nature of parts of it. I do not believe that you intended offense, and I know you both to be respectful and loving people. Nevertheless, the theological underpinnings of your argument shape your response in a way that requires me to challenge them because I believe they are problematic and offensive, I believe, even though I know it is unintended and I am take no offense.
Let me explain. I want you to understand something about me: my theology is driven by a burning desire to love and follow Jesus, and I do not allow any barriers – including accepted church doctrine – to get in the way of that, even if that makes me unpopular. I have deep problems with much of the way the church thinks and the culture it creates, although I recognize that this is not born from a place of malice. I spend a lot of time poring over the Scriptures and reading scholarly work on Jesus. It is a commitment to understanding Jesus that I suspect few of your congregants could match. You would think that a deep yearning to be ever more faithful to Jesus on his terms rather than my own would be commendable. And yet the response from the church and its members can be typified in one of three ways: open hostility where I have been told I am going to hell, to the extent that many of my Christian and non-Christian friends have expressed shock at the violence of the responses; or an attempt to manipulate me into changing my mind and keep quiet by trying to make me feel guilty for those I am “leading astray” (which is what you insinuate when you say that you feel sad for my readers); or complete indifference. This last one is perhaps the most abominable. I need to stress here, once more, that I am not offended in the slightest, and I am commenting here on the nature of the responses not documenting my own. I think it is a telling comment on the church that many believe that my stance will lead to my damnation (which in itself is a sad comment on God, if God would condemn someone who longs passionately to serve faithfully simply on the basis that he happens to arrive at the ‘wrong’ theology), yet they say nothing. To many of these people I have been a brother in Christ, like family, yet they are content to watch me walk to what they believe to be my eternal destruction without uttering a word. I have to conclude that either deep down they do not believe in hell, and therefore feel no compulsion to attempt to rescue me, or alternatively that they do not love even one of their own enough to try put me right, in which case how do can they love strangers or their “enemies”, as Jesus commanded?
I know this is not what you intended, but when you state the wish that I would “prayerfully consider” my stance so that I might arrive at “the truth”, you are making the assumption that I do not do so. You assume that if I did, I would arrive at the same conclusions you do. But I have- I seek the heart of God through prayer and scripture studies more vigorously than most – and I did not. The church’s generalized theology does not allow them to accept this and so I must be either exiled or condemned; I think it is fair to say that no church leader has yet made a genuine attempt to recognise where my concerns are coming from – rooted in a love of Jesus, and a deep desire to find the heart of God – nor has anyone actually attempted to listen to my concerns out of love and engage in constructive dialogue. Again I reiterate that I am not offended by this: I expect it because although the individuals are loving and gracious, their theologies determine their responses and they are not – I believe – loving theologies at their core.
Hence I critique theologies, which are general by nature. As a sidenote, I wish to point out that if this is my experience of the church , where any questioning of doctrine to attempt to make it make sense in the light of Jesus, is met with a startling lack of love, and I am sufficiently confident in the robustness of my opinions and secure in my faith in Jesus to be able not to take this lack of love to heart, imagine how somebody less secure in their faith and sense of self must experience the church? If genuine attempts to understand the nature of God are met with hostility and the implicit threat of being ostracized, you create a culture of oppression in your church that I believe is completely unChristian. And I do not believe this is intended by the people involved. The theology enables it.
I operate from a principle I hope we can all agree on: that Jesus is the full revelation of God. With that starting point, I must conclude that anything that claims to reveal something about God that conflicts with this revelation of God in Jesus must be rejected. The reason I insist in starting with the gospels (although I by no means believe that there is nothing of value outside of them) is that this is where we find Jesus, through whom all of our Biblical exegesis must take place. If I want to understand God, the starting point has to be Jesus.
It is at this point that we are going to find our first point of difference: you call the Bible the Word of God. I do not believe that this is faithful to the Scriptures. It is very clear to me that Jesus and not the Bible is – as the writer of the fourth gospel claims – the Word of God. The only logical conclusion to reach from here is that if anything, even in the Scriptures, contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus, it is to be rejected. The Bible cannot be given the same status as Jesus – that is idolatry.
My obsession with non-violence which seems to puzzle you finds its roots in Jesus. It is his consistent teaching and his lived ethic. At every turn, Jesus renounces violence. He preaches that we ought to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and be merciful, and makes the startling claim that in so doing we will “be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect”. Jesus very clearly equates perfection and holiness with our capacity for love not only of our friends and kinsmen, but of our enemies too. Jesus urges his followers to imitate God, whom he says is merciful and kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6: 35-36) And he interprets his Scriptures in this light too. If you look, for example, at his reading of his mission in Luke 4: 18-19, he is clearly identifying himself as Messiah, but his reading of Isaiah 61 speaks volumes about his theology:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What gets the crowd riled up against him on this occasion is his omission of the last line of the text he quotes: “and the day of vengeance of our God”. And this is not a once-off incident. Consistently in his quoting of Scripture (Paul does it too), Jesus omits the verses that speak to the vengeance of God. It is completely disingenuous to attempt to make Jesus endorse any form of violence or to contend that the God Jesus preaches is violent. His commitment to peace is a hallmark of his ministry and his ethics. And if I accept that Jesus is the full revelation of God, then I must accept that God shares this ethic.
Indeed, this is how the early church understands Jesus. If they are characterised by anything, the early church stands out because of their resolute refusal to retaliate in violent ways, and by their inclusivity (they refuse to recognise that social boundary markers like male/female, Jew/Gentile, slave/free have any validity in Christ – yet you accuse me of adopting a postmodern stance on this?). To me it is an inescapable reality that Jesus is committed to nonviolence and enemy love and that this constitutes the core of his teachings.
And quoting a couple of verses from Jesus’ parables that seem to reference eternal punishment is, if I may put it bluntly, proof-texting. Parables have specific rules for interpretation, and should not be read as if they were theological truisms. If we were to take the parable of Lazarus as a description of the afterlife, we would have to believe, for example, that paradise includes constantly being able to see the suffering of those in hell, which makes a mockery of any notion of paradise. But Jesus did not intend the parable to be a description of the afterlife: we must interpret it by its own rules: Jesus was talking about privilege and neglect of the poor, about loveless religion that legitimises exploitation in the name of holiness. He was certainly not attempting to describe the afterlife. One does not infer the existence of Middle Earth from a reading of Lord of the Rings simply because that is not the kind of truth the text is attempting to convey. Furthermore, no matter how one ought to understand the word “eternal”, if the interpretation of Jesus’s words does not line up with the consistent teachings and the lived ethic of Jesus, then it cannot be accepted as a legitimate revelation of God. In other words, if our interpretation even of certain words of Jesus promotes a violent God, which contradicts the peaceful paradigm through which Jesus demonstrably operates as a rule, then our interpretation is wrong.
It is in that light that I have to reject certain theologies held within Protestant and Evangelical churches. If God condemns anyone to hell, then God is not practising what Jesus preaches – then God is not “kind to the ungrateful and wicked”, as Jesus claims. Then God does not send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, as Jesus said. If God cannot love God’s enemies and turn the other cheek, then God operates according to a different moral standard from the one God expects of us. And the stock response I get to this, that “God’s ways are higher than our ways”, does not cut it here, especially given that these words reference God’s peaceful and merciful disposition as opposed to our violent and retributive ones.
And I cannot accept that the non-existence of hell would make a mockery of notions of justice. On the contrary, I think its existence does. It means that the punishment (and here I find your argument contradictory – you claim that it hell is not a place of punishment but a reality we condemn ourselves to by election, yet your argument for the necessity of hell as an outworking of divine justice is premised on justice being punitive) is the primary purpose of justice, not restoration of the sinner. And the punishment does not fit the crime: an eternity of torment is not commensurate with any crime, even those of Mao. If this God were committed to justice, He would stop at nothing to reform the sinner, not leave them to suffer, even if it were self-chosen. Love would necessitate that God recognise that they were incapable – for psychological and social reasons completely outside of their control – of choosing appropriately and would work to bring about their healing. Which, by the way, is what we see in Jesus’s teachings, where the Shepherd leaves the 99 to save the 1, and at the cross where Jesus forgives them “because they know not what they do”. If God’s plan required hell, it would imply that God was either content to leave people to suffer, despite being sufficiently powerful to prevent that eventuality, or that God was unable to prevent that eventuality. Quite apart from the fact that the notion of Hell is patently unbiblical – there is not a single word translated as Hell that is used in the Bible that can be used to validate our concept of eternal punishment as Biblical.
I think it is Protestant notions of sin that are erroneous and unbiblical, not the ones I am proposing. I am not saying, as some suggest, that sin is not a problem that leads to death. I am simply saying that the metaphor through which we understand the nature of sin is wrong. We see the problem as a judicial one – sin is a crime that needs to be punished. But that is not the metaphor Jesus uses for sin. He refers to sinners as the sick in need of a doctor. You do not punish the sickness out of somebody; you heal them. Jesus identifies as a healer, not as a judge, when it comes to sin. And I return to my previous point: it is Jesus, as the full revelation of God, who ought to inform our understanding of the nature of God.
So I do not question church doctrine because I am trying to be difficult. I question doctrine because to me much of it seems to genuinely hinder an engagement with Jesus as the full revelation of God. And ironically, it is the church that seems to be the most resistant to my attempts to develop a Jesus-centred theology. My questions are these, and they have yet to be answered:
1)Why must I accept the concept of Hell when the whole Satan/demon/ Hell mythology is almost entirely derived from the book of Enoch, a text that the early church fathers rejected as part of the canon; when none of the early sermons recorded in Acts make even a passing reference to it; when the notion does not exist in Jewish thinking for the bulk of Jewish history, appearing only after Jewish contact with civilisations and cultures that held similar views; when none of the words that are translated as hell actually mean a place of eternal torment? Why must I accept a doctrine that blatantly contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus as merciful to sinners?
2) I think church history is one of the most powerful arguments against the doctrines you are proposing. Why, for example, does the Nicene creed make no reference to hell, nor to penal substitution if these are so foundational to the faith? Why were these beliefs not espoused by many of the key early church fathers – Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Irenaeus? Why must I accept as foundational doctrines that find their origins in the 16th Century Reformer thinkers rather than in the early church?
Martin and Roydon, I truly appreciate your taking the time to engage with me and to construct a thoughtful response. I want you to know that I am honoured and touched by it and take no offense (even though I consider some of it to be offensive in principle). I am sorry if I have hurt you by insinuating that you are unloving . That would certainly be an unfair accusation. I know you and the members of your church to be loving and committed to following God, and if I have generalised, it is only because I need to define the template of the theology that I think is problematic – I did not intend to be seen to attack the individuals who adopt that theology and live it out in diverse ways. But I also need you to understand that the theologies need to be attacked, because they leave people like me, who have a passion for Jesus but deep issues with current ways of thinking about God, with no place to talk through those issues. We are – in essence – told to conform or shut up; to toe the line or risk being ostracised. I have seen the ugly side of the church. I have felt the hostility and the indifference that come from thinking differently and not just accepting what I am told. And in sharing on the blog, I have found that many – even within your own congregation – share that experience. And this culture of condemnation is enabled by the theology that frames individual beliefs, even though I know those individuals to be loving and sincere. I do not know if you will respond to this – there is no expectation that you do. But I don’t want to fight, I don’t intend to offend. Unfortunately, sometimes speaking up against what I see as an (unintentionally) oppressive system means people will take offense and I wish I could avoid that but I cannot. It also means saddening people who will based on their theologies, conclude that I am condemning myself. I accept that and regret it but it is unavoidable. I aim to follow Jesus, not to please men. I know you understand, for I know that to be your heart too.
Love and Peace