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The Most Important Question?

Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?

credit: atomicjeep (flickr)

The doorbell rang.

Of course.

Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.

Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”

But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.

“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.

Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”

That was four years of college tuition well spent.

But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”

And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?

Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”

That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.

Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.

Valery Everett (Flickr)

Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die?  Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?

Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:

  • Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
  • Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
  • Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
  • Why are you afraid?
  • Why do you think about evil things all the time?
  • Do you believe that I can do this?
  • Who is truly a part of my family?
  • Why did you doubt?
  • Who do people say that I am?
  • What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
  • Can you endure what I will have to endure?
  • What do you want me to do for you?

Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.

Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.

What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.

[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]

Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

A prayer for Sunday (John Chrysostom)

I’m cheating a little with today’s prayer, since it isn’t actually a prayer. But, the end of Chrysostom’s Easter homily (ca. AD 400) is so powerful that I thought it worth posting this morning. Have a blessed Easter!

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.  2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book.  Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation.  What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?”  In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis.  (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity).  Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up.  Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption.  At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist.  Is there any correlation between these men?

Origen

The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time.  The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for.  According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.  He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day.  It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them.  However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan.  The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.”  Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise.  Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved.  In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice.  He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.”  Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself.  Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox.  He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart.  Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.

Barth

When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck!  According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation.  Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election.  As the subject he is the electing God.  As the object he is the elect man.  Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them.  (He had a major beef with Calvinism!)  If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved.  This is what Barth hoped for.  The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen.  When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label.  Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man.  Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth.  You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine.  Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic.  He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.

Bell

So where is Bell?  Again, good luck.  I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth.  Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption.  If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.  He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57).  Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time.  It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91).  Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love.  Hell can be a place we go to after death.  The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.”  Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open.  (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?)  Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance.  He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115).  If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation.  (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!)  Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want).  However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism.  Jesus is necessary.  Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  In this sense Bell is exclusive.  Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all.  Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).   He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155).  Buddhist will use a different name.  Muslim’s will say Allah.  In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in).  Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message.  The message is really love.  So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation.  This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.

If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth.  There is the hope of universal reconciliation.  I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men.  At that point our desires would be in line with God’s.  However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen.  Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem.  Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does.  Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus.  Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now.  Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.”  More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17).  If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it.  They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it.  In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.

Flotsam and jetsam (3/25)

I’ve been on a mini blog sabbatical the last couple of days. It’s spring break around here. And, while I never actually take time off for spring break, I do use it to get caught up on all the projects that have been piling up around my office. It’s my version of spring cleaning. But, here are a couple of interesting posts from the last few days.

I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.

That is, people become Universalists because they need to, not because it’s true.   All who become Universalists do so because they fear the consequences of their loved one’s rejection of salvation.

No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.

The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite.Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.

It is sometimes stated that the life of the historical Jesus ends with his death, and there is a sense in which this is true. Historical study can only provide access to the human life of Jesus, and his human life, like all human lives, ended when he died. The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history, and for this reason cannot be studied with the tools of historical study, either to confirm it or deny it. This does not mean, however, that one cannot attempt to evaluate the historicity of some of the events mentioned in the stories that also include details connected with the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection.

  • Roger Olson has an excellent post on what he means by “the new fundamentalism,” the growing “via media” between traditional fundamentalism and post WWII evangelicalism.

What I see emerging, that in my opinion is not being recognized by most evangelical leaders, is a third way–a via media between movement fundamentalism and the postfundamentalist evangelicalism.  People from movement fundamentalism are emerging out of their isolation into this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”  People from postfundamentalist evangelicalism are adopting this third way and calling it “conservative evangelicalism.”

Before you criticize, be sure you understand the person and perspective with which you are taking issue. If you lack understanding you are essentially picking a fight with an opponent who does not exist. You’ll make a lot of noise, sell a few books, or attract people to your blog, but your criticism lacks wisdom and integrity.

Sometimes we need to sound like universalists

In an interesting post this morning, Scot McKnight argues that sometimes we need to sound like universalists because that how the Bible sounds at times.

I will put it this way: there are passages that sound univeralistic, that sound like somehow God will reconcile all things in the End, and that if we don’t occasionally sound universalistic we are not being as biblical as God — and as Jesus and Paul. Yes, these passages are not the only ones to consider, but — let this be said — neither are they cushioned or cautioned or cornered off by Jesus and Paul so they don’t give the wrong impression. What the Bible is talking about here is that God’s grace will win. God will make all things right. I’m not a universalist but I want this language to be the way I talk about these topics.

I think this is a very helpful way of framing the discussion. The Bible does press the language of God’s grace and sovereignty at times in such a way that it sounds like universalism is the only possible conclusion.

My only concern is that we not sound this theme without also allowing the rest of the biblical picture to come out.  So, I appreciated McKnight’s balanced conclusion at the end of his post:

To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God.

Along the way, he also offered a stern and timely rebuke for those who seem to delight primarily in being right (on both sides of this discussion), losing sight of the true immensity of this difficult subject.

It’s a good post that is worth checking out.

In defense of those criticizing Rob Bell

How much does a person have to write, say, or communicate, before we’re allowed to criticize him or her? Is a blog post enough? A podcast? A short video? Or, do I need to wait until you’ve written an entire book before I’m allowed to criticize you?

A number of bloggers are very annoyed today. Apparently they’re upset because a couple of bloggers, namely Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, had the audacity to criticize Rob Bell for saying things that sound rather universalistic. No one seems to be questioning whether they should be disagreeing with universalism; these bloggers are upset that they’re criticizing Rob Bell without having read his forthcoming book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he supposedly develops these ideas.

Okay now, I’d be the first to agree that we shouldn’t criticize books we haven’t read. That’s never a good idea. But, that’s not really what’s happening here. Both Taylor and DeYoung were careful to point out that they had not read the book in question. Instead, they were commenting on the publishers description of the book, the promo video that Bell produced in support of the book, and the pre-release chapters that Taylor got to read. That’s a fair amount of material, more than enough to offer some good food for thought.

Indeed, it’s far more than many bloggers have in their possession when they criticize someone. I find it interesting that many people have critiqued Mark Driscoll with far less. I routinely see his short You Tube videos  subjected to criticisms every bit as harsh. (I’ve critiqued one or two of these myself.) And, I would definitely question how many bloggers who criticize him have actually read any of his books.

So, why is this any different?

On the substance of the concerns, I don’t really have anything to add. From what I’ve seen, it does sound like Bell is encouraging a universalistic understanding of Hell. And, since I think that’s a bad idea, I would have no problem criticizing it. I wouldn’t try to critique the book, since I haven’t even seen the pre-release chapters, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t critique what material is out there. We all do that all the time.

For a good, balanced discussion of Bell’s position, see Trevin Wax’s recent post on the subject.

Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).

Flotsam and jetsam (12/8)

I’ve been busy wrapping up the fall semester for the last couple of days, but here some interesting links you might want to check out.

  • Brian LePort is wrestling with his Christmas Conundrums. (I vote “no” on lying to your kids about Santa, “yes” on Christmas trees, and “sort of” on buying gifts).

Flotsam and jetsam (9/29)

Conserve water, or this fish dies!

 

Morning links (9/20)