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    Entries in Hell (4)


    Does Ignoring Jesus Equal Choosing Hell?

    I put this photo up on my Twitter feed on Saturday:

    Anyone care to comment?


    Mark Galli, Francis Chan, and the Question of Hell

    On July 5, Christianity Today posted Mark Galli's interview with Francis Chan on his latest book, Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up, a work written in response to Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  The interview examines Chan's motivations for composing the book, his views on hell, his thoughts on Rob Bell, his burden of responsibility for representing God and the message of the Bible truthfully, and his discomfort with the idea of eternal, conscious torment as punishment for rejecting Jesus Christ.  Galli also leads Chan to discuss the importance of the doctrine of hell in light of its pervasiveness within the pages of Scripture.

    Concerning biblical interpretation, I though Galli (in bold) was able to draw out Chan's thought on method, and on the dominant, overarching themes we often focus on when reading Scripture.  Here is the exchange:

    I would say for me the most compelling thing is that it's woven all through Jesus' teaching. You can't possibly talk about him and what he said faithfully and ignore judgment and hell.

    Yeah. I read Scripture pretty simply even though I've been through seminary and everything else. I try to read with an open mind and be led by the Spirit. I try to picture myself stuck an island reading it over and over and ask, What would I naturally conclude? What would be the thing about God that I'd be most struck by? I would definitely be shocked and awed by his love, but I'm more stunned by his power, and his seriousness, his holiness maybe even more than his love. I don't want to say his love's no big deal. He loves us but nonetheless the reoccurring theme is about his power, his glory, his holiness.

    Two items here are of note.  First is Chan's method, what he describes as a simple approach to reading the text.  Second is Chan's focus, or the primary themes that burst forth from the pages of the Bible as he reads the text.

    Chan's description of his methodology indicates that he holds to the idea of the perspicacity of Scripture, an approach held by many evangelicals.  Perspicacity is an uncommon word in our day, but connotes the idea that the message of the Bible can be clearly perceived by the one reading it.  Stated differently, there is nothing within the pages of Scripture that cannot be grasped through careful reflection and open mindedness.  As someone who possesses Baptist heritage, and as someone who continues to believe in soul competency, this idea resonates with me deeply.

    Yet, I know all too well that the story of the Bible is deeply complex, and its interpretation comes to us within the context of an existing and ongoing discourse.  We call this discourse the practice of theology.  And, again, as someone with Baptist heritage, the idea of a theological tradition can be difficult to maintain, particularly with slogans like, "No creed but the Bible, no cause but Christ".  And while I respect Chan's method, that being reading the Bible simply, his account is, frankly, too simple.  As he indicates elsewhere in the very same interview, the testimony of the saints throughout time is critical for our own reflection on doctrinal matters, including the question of hell.  I do not intend these remarks to denigrate or dismiss Chan, but rather to remind us all (myself included) that biblical interpretation is a complex and difficult task.

    Secondly, there is the question of theme, and here I believe Chan's observation is important.  We live in a time where the love of God is the biblical theme that trumps all, but the definition of love, and what a loving God might be like, is often determined by a sentimentalized account of God and an "I'm OK, you're OK" anthropology.  Chan's insistence that his reading of Scripture causes him to reflect on God's power, glory, and holiness, is a welcome corrective.  Through those lenses, the love of God takes on new meaning, and refuses to be sentimentalized.


    Brief Thoughts on 'Love Wins'

    Rob Bell has caused a stir, and if you've missed it, should I say you are among the lucky ones?

    Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is, and will continue to be, a controversial book.  That is because Rob Bell says, essentially, that we've missed the boat on hell and heaven.  Hell can't possibly be a place of eternal punishment, and, in fact, hell is a place someone will reside as long as someone continues to resist the never ending and always pursuing love of God.  Even after someone dies, the opportunity to turn and to be enfolded in to the love and presence of God will never cease.  Heaven is everyone's eventual destination, and our present calling to heaven has much more to do with obedience to divine command, or bringing heaven to earth, seeing God's reign manifest in our present reality.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has failed to grasp the meaning of the orginal language, has done bad exegesis, has a wrong conception of God, has missed Jesus' point, and is a peddler of a fear-based religion that seeks only to control and burden ordinary people, or, at least, so Bell suggests.

    There are many people that may find this book compelling, for it is indeed a "fresh take", or, should I say, a fresh incarnation of an old idea, and is largely opposed to the common stereotype of "old time religion"--hell-fire and brimstone preaching that presents God as a bloodthirsty tyrant more eager to condemn people to an eternal fire bath than to actually bring them in to his presence.  Instead, Bell wants us to see that God is a loving God, that God desires to bring all people to eternal salvation, that heaven and hell are temporal realities that come into play in our everyday, rather than eternal realities that one enters upon death (though they are that, too).  And this is an idea many Christians might find pertinent, and a welcome alternative to modern evangelical theologies that have denied our responsibility to work for justice and to live faithfully in this world.  This idea may also draw those in who have a multitude of friends that are "good" non-religious people, or who are adherents of other religions.

    I have been asked by numerous friends what my thoughts are on this book.  I was actualy surprised by the number.  Because the book caused such a dust-up, I refused to buy it.  I waited patiently for it to come to me via my public library's hold system.  Therefore, I'm off pace, and these thoughts are anything but timely.  But for those who asked, this next paragraph is for you.

    Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, though interesting, compelling, and clearly written, is wrought through with mangled biblical exegesis, unfair stereotypes, and inflammatory rhetoric.  Bell "poisons the well" early and often.  He denies the certitude of others on matters of heaven and hell as unfounded, and then turns right around and boldly proclaims that he is right.  He tethers his position to the fact that other Christians in the past have likewise believed what he is proclaiming, thus seeming to weight his own authority by means of some consensus.  Never mind the fact that you could assume almost any position, orthodox, heterodox, or whatever, with regard to Christian theology, and find yourself in the company of someone.  It is always a question of whether you are in good company, not simply that you have company.

    I have read the "Bell corpus", if I may call it that.  While I credit him with stirring my thoughts at a critical stage, and while I continue to consider him a "brother from another mother" in Christ, I think his time is now past.  I stopped buying his books after Sex God.  Everything else has come from the public library.  While we, as Christians, may enjoy reading authors like Bell and Brian McLaren and picking apart their every word, we'd do well to spend as much if not more time reading the classics, reading people like Luther and Calvin and Wesley, and Augustine and others.  Their ideas are more worthy of debate, for in ten or twenty years, their words will still carry weight and hold relevance.  Rob Bell's books, on the other hand, will be collecting dust on the shelf.

    Interesting read.  But theologically, biblically, and pastorally, poor.


    Carrots and Sticks? Anything but.

    The Religion Newswriters brought to my attention a recent Time Magazine treatment of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In the article, titled, "Rob Bell's Hell: A Threat to the Evangelical Business Plan," it is argued that the consternation concerning Bell's theology is not only rooted in a passion for orthodoxy, but fear and trembling over the prospects for fundraising in an evangelical world without hell.

    In my opinion, Time's coverage has it wrong.  The presentation of the Christian gospel, as it is preached by evangelicals, is a stereotype, a misrepresentation.  I could even call it bad reportage, and intentionally misleading.  It's common for people to dismiss Christianity in this country due to concerns that preachers are only out for your money, and will threaten and coerce you by holding damnation over your head in order to pry your earnings from your tightly closed fists and into the coffers of the church.  This myth continues to serve as a buffer between the public and the actual claims of Christianity, which is why some churches have even chosen to remove the offering from the liturgy during worship services.

    Bill Saporito, the reporter presenting the story, does well in outling Paschal's Wager, a very famous rational argument that posits believing in God is the most rational choice, even if no god exists.  In the event that one is correct, an eternal reward ensues.  If there is no god, one has lost nothing, and likely has gained from living a life of humility, charity, and goodwill.  He quotes two philosophers who are experts in "game theory," a subfield of rational choice theory.  But he fails to directly quote ONE evangelical leader saying anything, directly or indirectly, with regard to heaven and hell as the end game of the Christian religion.  The end of Christianity is neither heaven or hell, but God, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I won't deny that there are preachers and ministers, and subsequently lay people, who present Christian faith in terms of carrots and sticks.  Hell is there to scare us into shape, and heaven is there to draw us toward choosing to live a good life.  But the Christian religion, whatever else might be said about it, is grounded in a different mechanism: grace.  On Good Friday, we would do well to remember that Christianity centers upon the cross and resurrection of Christ.  Heaven and hell are not earned, they are rather subsidiary doctrines standing beneath assertions pertaining to creation, fall, atonement, and eschatological hope.  Christ died for us, to reconcile a lost and fallen humanity unto God, so that the two might dwell together in peace, and, in doing so, extend that same peace to all of creation.

    It isn't surprising that the carrots and sticks treatment appears in Time.  As an aside, it was a prevalent framework for religion that I encountered while in the Religious Studies department at The University of Kansas.  I was often perplexed when this framework was applied to other religions, Buddhism in particular, where the ultimate goal of religious practice is not heaven and hell, or union with God, but rather enlightenment, entailing that we ultimately escape from the suffering of the illusion that is this life through ascent to a unified and all-encompassing state of consciousness.

    As a final word, it is not heaven and hell that motivate me in giving of my finances to the ministry of church, but rather looking upon the cross, seeing the immense cost that Jesus was willing to pay for me, for us, on Good Friday.  In contemplating that scene, how can I not give?  How can I not give of my own resources to help others in knowing God, having their physical needs met, justice being served, setting apart leaders to pray for us, etc.?  I don't buy my way to heaven, or out of hell.

    Jesus did that, after proclaiming, "It is finished." And he did by grace.