How fundamentalists create hell(s)

Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clarke recently called my attention to a worrisome phenomenon taking place in the deepest centre of fundamentalism in the United States.

His post was meant as a parody.

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The Harrowing of Hell House

As the Christian Nightmares blog reminds us, it’s that time of year again. October means Halloweeen — trick-or-treating, haunted hay rides, and — at places with names like “Greater Works Deliverance Ministries” — it means Hell Houses.

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Hell Houses are an irredeemably bad idea — a combination of the very worst forms of evangelism with the very worst forms of community theatre. The only thing worse than their warped soteriology and eschatology is their stunted, politicized, culturally shaped notion of what constitutes human sin. Or maybe the writing and acting.

They’re so very awful — and, ultimately, cruel — that some might be tempted to respond by, perhaps, Creating a Scene.

Disclaimer: I do not, of course, advocate interrupting, disrupting or otherwise interfering with any actual Hell House production. That would be uncivil and even, potentially, a misdemeanour. So the following suggestions are just a joke. No one should actually do any of these. Certainly, definitely, absolutely, probably not.

Option No. 1: If not for you meddling kids.

Cast size: 4

Props required: purple dress, bulky rust-colored turtle-neck, large-framed eyeglasses, chartreuse V-neck, cravat. (Optional: Groovy van, Great Dane).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Velma Dinkley, Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, Fred Jones, and Daphne Blake.

When the first demonic characters appear, Velma loses her glasses and stumbles, blindly into the performance space. After she blunders into the “demons,” Fred and Daphne step forward to unmask them, after which Shaggy says, “Zoinks! It’s the youth pastor!”

Scoobies

Option No. 2: The Hell House in the Woods.

Cast size: 3-5.

Props required: Short-sleeve white dress shirts, unfashionable ties, pocket-protectors, ID badges, clipboards, lab coat, sweater vest (for optional Roger the Intern).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker’s characters from The Cabin in the Woods. Pretend to be orchestrating the demonic characters of the Hell House and the torment of the teenagers playing humans in the cast, but maintain a business-like, corporate attitude. Calmly explain to other attendees that the torments of Hell may seem cruel and unpleasant, but that we must placate the ancient ones and its the task of these sinners to be offered up to them.

Cabin33

Option No. 3: Who you gonna call?

Cast size: 4

Props required: Matching gray jumpsuits, proton packs, high-tech-looking goggles,  four large trenchcoats (to hide the jumpsuits and proton packs), smart phone with Jackie Wilson mp3 cued up.

Attend Hell House dressed as the Ghostbusters. At the first appearance of demonic characters, whip out the proton packs and start firing. As you are escorted off the premises, hit play on “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and sing along, enthusiastically, on the way out.

Cautionary reminders: Don’t cross the streams. And if anyone asks you if you’re a god, say yes.

GB

Option No. 4: He descended into Hell …

Cast size: 1-12

Props required: White robe, beard, sandals, shepherd’s crook, stigmata. Bathrobe/sandal/beard costumes for assorted patriarchs and prophets (see Acts 7, Hebrews 11 for casting suggestions).

Arrive dressed as Jesus of Nazareth. At the first mention of Hell, shout “Come with me if you want to live” and begin escorting the dead from the Underworld and into Paradise (outside). The gates of Hell House will not prevail against you.

Harrowing2

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I just discovered hell houses through this post. I’m truly horrified by their wretched theology.

These Conservative Evangelicals worship an evil demon they call God.

He CURSED people with a sinful nature in the first place and will eternally torture them for misdeeds they were BOUND to commit.

Never mind the fact that the concept of sinful nature can’t be found within the Bible.

Never mind that the concept of everlasting torment is at odds with or unsupported by almost all Biblical texts.

Any human acting like the Conservative Evangelical god would be seen as a psychopathic monster.

I am also appalled by their focusing on sexual immorality and drugs while ignoring sins related to social justice and lack of charity.

Let’s consider one of their favourite passage for arguing for endless torments:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he
will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered
before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a
shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are
blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for
you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me
something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I
was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you
clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you
came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord,
when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you
something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in
prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry
or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and
did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

In other words, NON-believers practising charity are worthy of heaven whereas BELIEVERS failing to do it are worthy of hell, meaning irremediable destruction.

This passage does NOT teach that all people dying as non-believers will be eternally tortured. Quite the contrary. It teaches salvation by work , a doctrine Conservative Protestants passionately detest.

I am extremely confident that many loving and humble people DYING AS ATHEISTS will be in heaven where they will gladly accept to worship the good God they did not believe in after having repented for their trespasses.
It would not shock me that much if many religious self-righteous bigots won’t inherit eternal life and will end up being no more i.e. returning to dust.

Let us give the say to the leader of the Church of Rome for a while:

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

Can all religions be true?

Chuck Queen, a good progressive Christian writer, posted a very thought-provoking text on religious pluralism.

 

Keeping Jesus, Letting Go of Christian Exceptionalism

The degree to which Christianity will contribute to a more equitable and just world will depend largely, I believe, upon the degree to which Christians can let go of their exclusive claims on God and deepen their actual commitment to the way of Jesus.

This letting go will not come easy for many steeped in traditional forms of Christianity. Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched within the general Christian culture—and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive and unjust polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.

The wave of controversy sparked by a Coca-Cola ad which ran during the Super Bowl is a good example of how embedded in our culture American exceptionalism is. The ad featured diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful in languages other than English. Apparently, some (or perhaps many) Americans believe that true Americans must speak English regardless of what other languages they may know.

Many Christians believe just as strongly that God’s true people must speak the language of Christian faith.

An English teacher once told me that in the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City was not any greener than any other city. The wizard had put green spectacles on everyone so that to them everything appeared green.

Many of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them.

Surely the time has come in the evolution of our spiritual development to take off our singularly-colored glasses so that we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world filled with diverse traditions.

Harvard religion professor Diana Eck was once asked by an elderly friend in India: “Do you really believe that God came only once, so very long ago and only to one people?”

Professor Eck said, “This very idea that God could be so stingy as to show up only once, to one people, in one part of the world, exploded my understanding of incarnation.”

Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional.

Truth is truth wherever it is found.

This means that Christians like myself who take the Bible seriously need to evolve in our interpretation of biblical texts once considered pillars of Christian exceptionalism.

Take John 14:6 for example, where Jesus says:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

How can this text be interpreted by those who relinquish Christian exceptionalism? There are several possibilities:

1. It can be applied to the risen, cosmic Christ who works anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, remember, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name may actually be the cosmic Christ.

2. The statement “except through me” can be understood to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God regardless of what their particular beliefs may be.

Acts 10:34 supports this interpretation:

In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

3. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is in terms of Christian particularism. The phrase “no one” can mean “none of you.”

In other words, “This is not true for everyone, and doesn’t have to be—but it is true for Christians.” John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is, however, how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into God’s truth and life.

All three of the above readings of John 14:6 are at the heart of the reasoning we find in John Shore’s popular animation below:

On one hand, letting go of Christian exceptionalism means that the God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s household. We all belong to one another as sisters and brothers in God’s family. So we must find ways to work together for the common good, and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.

On the other hand, deepening our Christian commitment to the actual way of Jesus means taking his life and teachings seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed or believed.

Anne Howard of The Beatitude Society shared recently how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old, a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted Yuri, a friendly Russian man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus, or even believe in God,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Anne’s mother wisely responded, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

Yes! A transformative faith is a faith that transforms how we live.

We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not. However, if we truly follow the way of Jesus we should be exceptional

– in the ways we love and forgive others,
– in the way we pursue truth wherever the truth leads us,
– in the ways we care for the suffering, indentify with the marginalized, and engage in social justice,
– in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and invest in the common good.

If more Christians could let go of their Christian exceptionalism while deepening their commitment to Jesus, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.

 

OneWayToHeaven-300x300

Here was my response to this:

 

Hello Chuck, that’s really a terrific and awesome post you just wrote 🙂

I think there are three things which needs to be distinguished here:

1) Will God only grant everlasting bliss to those dying as Christians?

2) Does God only manifest Himself in the Christian and Jewish religions?

3) Are all religions legitimate ways to get closer to the Almighty?

I passionately reject 1) and do believe there will be many conversions beyond the grave. I find it profoundly blasphemous to assert that the Good Father will eternally torture anyone who perish without believing in Him.

I also find that 2) is utterly wrong.

Conservative Evangelicals like quoting the parable of the sheep of the goats for proving the alleged eternity of torments in hell.

 

grazers

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

But they are facing a HUGE PROBLEM.

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.

Interestingly enough, the apostle Paul himself thought that Pagan poets writing about Zeus could get important things about God right!

However I don’t think that 3) is true. God cannot simultaneously endorse religions whose core messages are contradictory .

If Jesus was really (in some mysterious sense) God’s incarnation whose death and resurrection reconciled us with Him in some way (which is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution), then it naturally follows that a Muslim does not get to paradise by following the Koran or a Buddhist through the careful use of meditation. I do believe that many will find God on the other side of the grave ( along many noble atheists ) but it will be through Christ rather than through what they subjectively considered true during their earthly life.

Conversely, if Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is true, Christians won’t be saved through Jesus but because they (more or less unconsciously) followed the Eastern path of enlightenment.

I applaud you for wanting to give a more human face to American Christianity, but I don’t believe that the problem lies in the uniqueness of Christ BUT in the widespread conviction that all of those passing away as non-Christians have earned an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber .

HELL-ETERNALLY-104841758075

Once one has dropped away this abhorrent doctrine, one is free to express one’s humanity through art and creativity and by working along Atheists, Budhists, Agnostics, Muslims… of good will to change the world even while thinking that important points of their belief systems are wrong.

Taking an agnostic stance is, of course, another logical possibility, but thinking that all these religions are true at the same time is irrational.

I hope you won’t take this as a personal critique. I really admire your strong willingness to spread God’s radiant love everywhere and I do hope we’ll have opportunities to interact in the future.

Progressively yours, Marc 🙂

 

To which Chuck answered:

 

Marc, you have shared a lot of food for thought here and raised some important issues. Maybe I can comment on what I think are the crucial ones. I would answer “no” to all three questions. What I like about Christian particularism as oppossed to Christian exceptionalism is that I can only say what is true for me as a Christian and my Christian community. I believe God speaks in all sorts of ways and means and there are many other ways of encountering God other than the Christian way. But certainly all religions have their toxic expressions. I like to say that while not all paths lead to God, God will travel down any path to get to us, to make known to us God’s love and grace and vision of human possibility.

I am still growing, evolving, changing with regard to my understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and the ontological relationship between the human Jesus and the living Christ. My thinking recently is that the “the living Christ” is more of an an archetypal symbol of what it means to be truly and fully human. I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe that the human Jesus in a resurrected state actually functions as God functions, though it does seem that the early Christians came to this view fairly early. Maybe I’m getting way too theological here. And I’m not sure what we believe about such things matters much.

What matters for me is “the way” of Jesus as presented in our sacred tradition — that “way” is truly transformative. I’m sure the core elements of the way of Jesus (compassion, love of neighbor, nonviolence, self-surrender, humility, commitment to a just world, etc.) are part of other paths as well, but I am not knowledgable enough about other religions to speak with any authority here. You might note in my comments to Wolf that I refer to myself as a hopeful universalist. I can’t say for sure everyone will eventually choose to face the many ways they have hurt and offended others and choose to love, but I hope that is the case. I don’t believe God ever gives up on a person, however long it takes, though I cannot imagine what that might look like in a different sphere of existence (afterlife).

What I am very confident about is that the way of Jesus as presented in our Christian tradition could change us and our world if we followed it.
I suspect that is what God cares about – that we become mature, loving, good, caring, etc. human beings. I look to Jesus as the definitive image of what that looks like. I’m sure there are other images and “icons” — but Jesus is mine.

 

I think it is vital to have such respectful and friendly discussions about these issues without resorting to rhetoric and loaded words.

 

 

 

Intelligent design, eternal torment and the restoration of everything: an interview with Kevin Miller

I had the immense privilege to interview the great and incredibly gifted movie maker Kevin Miller. He is a unique person in many respects and an outstanding Christian having left behind a great part of his conservative Evangelical baggage.

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Leaving Conservative Evangelicalism

Lotharson: Hello Kevin, I’m very glad you accepted to give me this interview. Could you please sum up your personal and religious background for the benefit of our readers?

Kevin Miller: I was raised in a theologically liberal but morally conservative home. My grandfather was actually a minister in the United Church of Canada, which is probably one of the most liberal Christian denominations in the country. However, at age 9, I had a “born again” experience at an evangelical Christian Bible camp. I pretty much kept that experience a secret though b/c my parents were pretty antagonistic toward that way of thinking. In my teens though, both of my parents underwent a similar experience, and we wound up attending an evangelical Mennonite Church. From there, I attended a Bible College, eventually earning a degree in youth ministry. After college, I spent 8 months in Kenya doing missionary work. Then I came back to Canada and went to university. That’s when my life and faith sort of imploded. I didn’t have any real Christian community around me, and all of the stuff I had been suppressing all those years came out. So I spent a few years wrestling with a lot of demons before finally emerging from the wilderness due to a reencounter with some friend from Bible college–and also a powerful reencounter with God. I felt like the prodigal son who had finally come home. But I still only had one foot inside the circle, so to speak, b/c I felt that somehow I’d been brainwashed or indoctrinated during my time spent in the evangelical world, and I didn’t know how to move forward. Thankfully, some good mentors came into my life around that time and started to provide me with a framework in which to analyze my experience.
Kevin Miller: I’ve always been a pretty analytical person, constantly questioning things. It’s probably some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism, b/c it makes it pretty difficult to buy into a particular theological system or faith community. I always tend to find myself on the boundary. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable.

Academic persecutions against intelligent design?

Lotharson: This is quite a fascinating story and helps better understanding your works and creations. My next question would be about your thoughts on intelligent design (ID). You wrote the script for the movie “Expelled” describing the academic intolerance towards ID. What did motivate you to do this?

220px-Expelled_logo

Kevin Miller: I was recruited for that project following the release of my first film, “After…,” a psychological thriller that takes place in the subterranean world beneath Moscow. How that goes together with the battle between Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design I’ll never know. Originally, I was called in to attend some development meetings about what was then a hypothetical film about Intelligent design starring Ben Stein. I was really passionate about the topic (it appeals to the frustrated academic in me). But I actually told the producers not to hire me, b/c I didn’t think I had the sense of humor the project required. However, a few days later I got the call, and I was on the job. I had never worked on a documentary before and I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully some of the other people around me did. So what motivated me? An intense interest in the topic as well as the opportunity to work on another film and to stretch myself creatively. Oddly enough, that set me on a path I had never anticipated in terms of documentary films, to the point where that’s what I’m best known for now.

Lotharson: Okay. Do you personally believe there’s a real academic persecution against ID?

Kevin Miller: I would call it more of a bias against Intelligent Design as a viable explanation for the origin, complexity and diversity of life and the origin of the universe. One one level, many people see ID as merely a Trojan Horse for some form of biblical creationism. I disagree. While most proponents of ID are people of faith, the brightest lights amongst them are truly seeking to engage in a scientific enterprise, particularly in the area of information theory, for example. The question is, what is the best explanation for the information we find in DNA? Ideally, scientists will always infer to the best explanation, follow the evidence wherever it leads. However, how do we define “best”? This is where the rule of parsimony kicks in. The best explanation is always the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest number of unverifiable assumptions. As Richard Dawkins likes to point out, God is pretty must the most complicated explanation someone can offer, because now you have to explain where God comes from. Even so, as Dawkins admits in the film, the idea that some form of intelligence may be responsible for the universe and everything in it is neither inherently religious nor unscientific, even though it may be friendly to a theistic worldview. But scientists are not philosophers. They are observing, measuring, experimenting, etc. If you watch Sean Carroll ‘s recent debate with William Lane Craig, for example, you can see that many non-scientist ID proponents are simply speaking a completely different language than cosmologists, biologists, and other scientists who are on the front lines running the numbers. They’re trying to solve complex equations, to explain mechanisms according to physical laws, not philosophize about how those mechanisms and laws came to be.
All that to say, I don’t think there is any more persecution against ID than there is against astrology or leprechauns. If anyone from any of these communities came to the table with a viable model to explain a natural phenomenon, people would pay attention.
I remember asking Michael Behe how science would be different if ID was the prevalent theoretical model. He had no answer. That troubled me. No surprise his interview didn’t make it into the film.

IntelligentDesign

Universal salvation

Lotharson: Thanks! I agree to a large extent with what you’ve said. Ironically enough, you were yourself “expelled” by the same conservative Evangelicals complaining about this alleged state of affairs. Could you please tell us more about this?

Kevin Miller: I wasn’t exactly expelled. I was just prohibited from teaching a course on documentary filmmaking at Trinity Western University (located in Langley, BC, Canada) due to my views on hell. Ironically, I was allowed to screen “Hellbound?” there several months earlier, and a few months after being barred from teaching on campus, I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy event DEFENDING my views on hell. So go figure. It’s a strange world. I will say, however, that my views on many subjects have shifted substantially over the past decade, thanks in large part to my extensive interaction with the atheist community re: “Expelled.”

Lotharson: How did your views evolve?

Kevin Miller: Well, you can’t undergo the sort of scathing criticism I faced as a result of “Expelled” without it affecting you. I made a point of trying to engage our critics in a meaningful way, and I took their criticisms of our film and my own views seriously. Through discussion and debate, you get to see things from a number of different sides. And I came to see many of the things I felt quite certain about didn’t quite merit that level of certainty. I guess you could say that’s when the serious deconstruction of my belief system began, and it’s been an ongoing project ever since. My departure from traditional evangelical beliefs about hell is just a small part of that process.

Culture war and bigotry

Lotharson: I guess that criticism from atheists and other non-Christians can be quite a help for reaching more reasonable views. The problem I have with ANTI-atheists is that they constantly resort to mockery and emotional bullying, in an useless and oftentimes counter-productive way. Did you experience that too?

religionisrape

Kevin Miller: Mockery and bullying is present on all sides. That’s something that disillusioned me during “Expelled.” I found that many people on all sides were more concerned with scoring points against their opponents than seeking the truth through meaningful dialogue. It’s an understandable occupational hazard though, b/c you can only go around the Mulberry bush so many times before you get frustrated at your opponents’ seeming inability to grasp the obvious truth to which you have committed your life. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Righteous Mind,” most of us arrive at our philosophical/theological positions via an emotional rather than a rational process. So until we have some kind of transformational emotional experience, we remain rather impervious to rational arguments launched against our views. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see emotions running high. Emotion is at the heart of everything. So is identity. We don’t respond well when our identity is threatened.

Lotharson: Precisely! Jon Haidt is quite an outstanding scholar and I greatly appreciate his efforts to overcome the culture war. Now I’d be interested to know more about your views of hell.
Who were the authors who influenced you the most as you were considering the possibility of universal reconciliation?

Defense of Christian universalism

Kevin Miller: It all started with Brad Jersak, author of “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.” I edited the book for him back in the fall of 2008. That experience is what convinced me I had to make a documentary on this topic, although I wasn’t in a position to begin pursuing it until nearly three years later.

The thing that struck me about Brad’s book was how little what I was taught about hell was actually in the Bible. He also introduced me to the various streams of interpretation regarding final things throughout the history of the church. I should have known this stuff (I’d been to seminary after all) but it was all new to me. I should also note that I was well prepped for this mind-shift due to another book I had edited for Wayne Northey. It’s a novel called “Chrysalis Crucible.” It really got me questioning the connection between God and violence.

Another book, coedited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, called “Stricken by God?” faced this question head-on, arguing that the atonement and nothing to do with God punishing Jesus for our sins. Once you start to think along those lines, the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment pretty much falls to the wayside. In terms of universalism, some key influences were Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Richard Beck, Brian McLaren, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker and Julie Ferwerda. They showed me that a viable case could be made for a non-retributive view of God and hell. Of course, Michael Hardin is also front and center throughout. So is his “rabbi,” Rene Girard.

Lotharson: The following passage is widely seen as extremely problematic for universal reconciliation. Matthew 25:46 (NET) “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals use the following syllogism:
1. We know that the saved will live eternally in bliss
2. The damned will be punished in the same way the elects are rewarded
3. Thus the damned will suffer eternally.
What’s your take on this text?

sHEEPGoats
Kevin Miller: This isn’t nearly as problematic as it appears. It all comes down to the word translated as “eternal.” In Greek, the term is “aionios,” an adjective that means “of an age” or “age-long” rather than “never-ending.” So it can be interpreted as either qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps both. At any rate, in this parable, the righteous will receive a reward in keeping with the age to come and the wicked will receive a punishment in keeping with the age to come.

There is no reason to assume the reward or punishment will last forever. Furthermore, the intent of this parable isn’t to provide a systematic theology of the afterlife but to emphasize how strongly Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The other thing I chuckle at when people try to use this to establish a belief in hell as eternal torment is that the qualification for avoiding hell has nothing to do with faith. In fact, the sheep had no idea they were doing anything that merited a reward. Works is the deciding factor here, in particular how we treat the poor. So if proponents of eternal torment want to use this parable to bolster their case, they’ll also have to concede that faith doesn’t enter the equation.

The only thing that matters is righteous action–at least if you read this parable in isolation. And if you want to combine it with other parables and verses that emphasize faith, you’re sort of stuck in a contradiction. Unless, of course, you want to say the good works are the fruit of faith. But then I’ll remind you that the sheep had no idea they were serving God by helping the poor. So once again, it’s problematic.

sheep-goat-salvation-works

On inerrancy and picking and choosing

Lotharson: These are good points! I also find it quite stunning that Evangelicals PICK and CHOOSE which parts of the passage they take at face value and which parts they allegorize for avoiding “salvation by work”. Do you agree with me that there are conflicting voices in the Bible, so that inerrantists INEVITABLY have to cherry-pick things?

CherryPicking
Kevin Miller: Everyone cherry-picks. You have to. Even Paul and, dare I say it, Jesus cherry-picked! If you look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, for example, he pays virtually no attention to the original context of many of the verses he quotes.

Peter Enns does a great job in “The Evolution of Adam” of explaining how Paul’s view of Adam’s role in human sinfulness is completely absent from the Old Testament. He adapts Scriptures and theological ideas for his own purposes. In doing so, he was merely in keeping with his times. Many of his contemporaries did exactly the same thing. And how often does Jesus pluck a verse here or there and then completely revolutionize the traditional interpretation?

All that to say, circumstances shift constantly. Therefore, so does our perspective on the Bible. All of us suffer from confirmation bias–the tendency or perhaps the temptation to pick and choose passage of Scripture that support what we already believe. That’s the thing that struck me about Jersak’s book when I edited it. Speaking back to the evangelical world in which he had spent most of his career, he said if we are going to be biblical about hell, let’s be biblical.

That is, let’s listen to everything the Bible says about final things, not just the parts that support what we already believe. That’s a highly problematic approach for someone who desires a hermetically sealed theology, but it’s the only approach that is in keeping with integrity. All that to say, we all tend to take parts of the Bible literally and allegorize other parts as it suits us. The key is to be aware of this tendency and to work consciously against it. This is where peer review can play a key role–as long as the entire peer review process isn’t biased in the same direction!
Speaking of which, I have a bit of a pet peeve re: peer review. Academics like to hold it up as the golden standard, an almost infallible means of achieving truth. The thing we often fail to consider is how the entire peer review process can be just as biased–perhaps more heavily invested in a bias–than individual academics. So if the peer review process holds individuals in check, what holds the process in check? I’m sure you wouldn’t put much stock in an astrologist’s insistence that his or her conclusions were correct because they had been peer-reviewed by other astrologists. 🙂

 

Hell and cognitive dissonances

Lotharson: Yeah, this is why Conservative Evangelicals and militant atheists peer-reviewing their own community are truly laughable 🙂
Conservative Evangelicals often argue that atheists cannot live consistently with their assumption that they and their loved ones are insignificant molecular machines. While I largely agree with this, I am convinced that the cognitive dissonances they are facing are FAR WORSE.
For they believe that most people will eternally suffer as a punishment for sins they could not have avoided, having been cursed with a sinful nature by the almighty Himself. Do you agree with this assessment?

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Kevin Miller: Here’s the thing: Theists argue that unless there’s a creator, everything is meaningless, and our attempts to create meaning absurd, because if God or some sort of equivalent being (or race of beings) doesn’t exist, the only determining factors in the universe (or multiverse) are chance and necessity. We are nothing but stardust come to life for a brief moment, so to speak. Atheists counter this assertion by saying we don’t need an ultimate being to give our lives mean. We can assign our own proximate meaning to other people, objects, events, locations, rituals, etc. If theists are completely honest, they’ll have to admit that’s pretty much what they’re doing anyway.

As Richard Dawkins points out, challenge a Christian with horrific commands from the Old Testament (such as the stoning of adulterers), and they’ll say those rules don’t apply anymore. As we noted above, we all pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to ignore. So as Dawkins points out, even though people like to say the Bible or God is the ultimate authority, we are still applying some sort of standard that actually supersedes the Bible. In fact, the only reason we believe the Bible has any authority in our lives is because we have become convinced of his validity or inspiration. And even in this case, it’s the arguments in favour of the Bible’s authenticity that are our true authority. So when it comes to ultimate meaning versus proximate meaning, I think the atheists are onto something.
As for cognitive dissonance, this is certainly one of the key problems facing Christians who believe in a God who violently punished his son on the cross and then threatens to punish the wicked forever in hell. This runs smack into cherished beliefs about God loving his enemies, love keeping no record of wrongs, etc.

Think about it: If God is perfectly loving, and if our own love is perfected in heaven, how could we possibly tolerate people suffering forever in hell? Our compassion would grow in proportion to our awareness of their suffering. Therefore, if anyone winds up in hell, I can’t see how we all wouldn’t be there, with the “righteous” ministering to those who are suffering. The only way around this is for God to either render us unaware of the suffering of our loved ones or for God’s love to be revealed as something completely different than what Christ taught.

 

Fundamentalism and child abuse?

Lotharson: I once stated that folks STRESSING the doctrine of eternal torment too much to their kids are abusing them. This made many of my readers angry and I regretted having written the sentence since it gives the impression that all people teaching Eternal Conscious Torment are abusive. This is not what I meant since my secular Catholic parents taught me that (concerning evildoers) and I never felt abused at all.
That said, I still believe that fundamentalists terrorizing their children in the hope they will “make a decision for Christ” are abusing them. Do you think this is the case and that this can really cause them deep psychological wounds?

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Kevin Miller: If it’s abuse, it’s unintentional. I was “saved” through a gospel presentation that included a threat of hell. And I believe it affected me psychologically in such a way that it essentially derailed the next two decades of my life. But the people who presented that version of the gospel to me were some of the most loving people you will ever meet. Years later I was at a function where I witnessed a kindly old Mennonite lady making a similar presentation to my own young children–who had never heard of hell–and I was horrified. I didn’t want to see them inflicted with such a horrific view of God. There’s a meme going around where God or Jesus says, “Let me save you… from what I’m going to do if you don’t let me save you.” I think that gets right to the bedrock on this one. Think of a parent saying that about him or herself to a young child. It would be considered abusive or at the very least highly coercive.

Calvinism and predestination to eternal torment

Lotharson: I agree it is almost always unintentional. Calvinists are arguably the most vocal opponents of universalism. They believe that God created evil and caused Adam and Eve to fall because He needs to SHOW OFF his punitive wrath. Without eternal torments, he would be unable to maximize his glory and his undeserved grace. What’s your opinion on this?
Kevin Miller: I have to quote Michael Hardin here and say that Calvinism or Reformed Christianity is nothing but paganism dressed up in Christian clothing. The God who would do such a think in no way resembles the Jesus of the gospels, who was a friend–not an enemy–of sinners.
When I say “paganism,” BTW, I mean no affront to modern day pagans. What I mean is they have basically taken the old, sacrificial view of God of pre-Christian religions and made him the center of the Christian faith–which I see as an apologetic against exactly this sort of God. Jesus never demanded sacrifice. Rather, he sacrificed himself. So I would say Calvinism is 180 degrees away from Christ.
At least my interpretation of Jesus. 🙂

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Lotharson: 🙂 Some Calvinists I talked too agree that (according to all criterion of human justice and love) the god they worship is a fiend. But they went on saying that we cannot judge God by our own morality and that He defines what is good and bad. What is your response to this?
Kevin Miller: I would agree. God does define morality. And, playing by their own rules, if Jesus is God, he defines morality in ways that utterly defy their theological system. So it seems to me they have two choices:

1) admit that Jesus was lying or

2) admit that God has a double standard–one form of morality for humans, another for himself. Either way, the results aren’t pretty. Either love never fails, never keeps a record of wrongs, always hopes, always perseveres (cf. 1 Corinthians 13) or it doesn’t. Calvinists are saying it doesn’t. So not only are they contradicting Jesus’ teaching that what makes us perfect like God is love of enemy (Matthew 5), they are also contradicting the clear teaching of Paul.
Lotharson: Most Calvinists I know are nice people. But what could occur if they began imitating the behavior and attitude of the God they profess to believe and trust upon?
Kevin Miller: Exactly. As Frank Schaeffer likes to point out, most people who believe in such a punitive view of God live above their theology. They’re far nicer than the God they worship. And thank God for that! But on a meta-level, I believe our entire society reflects a version of the Calvinist God, b/c our entire justice system is based primarily on retribution. Not only our justice system but our prison system, our economic system, our theological systems, our war machines, even the way many people discipline their children is a shadow version of the punitive God who demands sacrifice in order to achieve peace. This is one of the key insights of Rene Girard and Michael Hardin, who have had a huge influence on me over the past few years. Our entire society is based on scapegoating and sacrifice. It’s how we create culture. This is why Michael says toward the end of “Hellbound?” that the entire church is missing the gospel. That’s because the gospel isn’t divine sanctification of our sacrificial machinery; it’s the antidote to it, it’s the foundation for a new kind of community–call it he Kingdom of God–based on self-sacrifice instead. In this regard, I think we have completely missed the radically subversive message of Christ. It undercuts everything.

 

Libertarian free will?

Lotharson: It seems to me that you agree with Calvinists that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, am I right? Is everything determined by God?
Kevin Miller: Wrong. I believe we are co-determining–at our core, humans are imitators. We look to others to see what we should desire. And then we compete with each other for these objects of desire or states of being, thinking it will give us the sense of identity or immortality we seek, anything to transcend the fear of death that gnaws at our insides, the feeling that we are insignificant. I tend not to look at people as individuals but as members of a herd. The “self illusion” is one of the most problematic illusions we face right now. Alongside it is the notion of free will. We are pack animals for the most part, and our powers of volition are much weaker than we imagine. I’ll go back to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind“) on this one. Also Bruce Hood (“The Self Illusion”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”), Richard Beck (“The Slaver of Death”) and Rene Girard (“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) on this one. All of these writers and many others point to a similar conclusion.
Lotharson: Okay, thanks for the correction. I didn’t know you believe in libertarian freedom. You once said that freedom is just a mean to the end of our salvation. But what if freedom is an end in itself? What if God’s main purpose in creating us was that we develop a good personality naturally desiring Him, so that those lacking it won’t inherit eternal life but BE NO MORE? Is it not conceivable as well?
Kevin Miller: I would hope the end game is self-actualization, that we all become the ultimate fulfillment of our potential. Exactly how that is achieved doesn’t concern me all that much.

 

Palestine and Christian sionism

Lotharson: Okay. I have a last question. Many Evangelicals support unconditionally the state of Israel. A young pastor once told me that the modern Palestinians are the descendants of a people that Israel refused to annihilate during Joshua’s conquest, and that the struggles of modern Israelis can be traced back to this ancestral “sin”: they should have left nothing which breathes alive. What are your thoughts on this issue?

PalestiniansKids
Kevin Miller: Despite having co-written “With God on Our Side,” which criticizes extreme forms of Christian Zionism, I’m not sure if I know enough about the situation to comment on it. However, I will say this: I don’t believe God ever told the Israelites to annihilate anyone in the Old Testament. Second, many evangelicals fail to distinguish between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Israel is a secular state created in 1948. Within that state are Jews, Palestinians and all sorts of other people. No Christian should ever support any secular state uncritically. So how the State of Israel treats the Palestinians living within its territory (as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) is a completely separate issue in my mind from historical/theological concerns going back to Joshua’s purported conquests of Canaan.
What we can say for sure is that treating anyone as a second-class citizen is wrong. So are acts of terrorism. Whenever theological ideas are used to justify either action, they go against the clear teachings of Christ.

Lotharson: Okay Kevin, this marks the end of our discussion.Thank you for all the time you’ve granted me! I wish you all the best for your ongoing projects.

 

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

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Fostering communion and unity with committed Calvinists?

 

Zack Hunt (The American Jesus) just wrote a thought-provoking article about the implications of Calvinism (also called Reformed Theology). It is a fictional letter to John Calvin.

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Dear John,

Ok, first off I know, “Dear John” letters are usually written between former lovers and we were never even friends. But, John, I tried. I really, really did.

I’ve heard for so long that my frustrations with Calvinism were really due to your Neo-Calvinist followers giving you a bad name. That made sense to me. After all, I couldn’t believe some of the rephrensible and callous things being said and taught today would be derived directly from someone of your theological prowess. So, I wanted to give you a chance at redemption in my eyes.

Since you’ve been, um, not present in the body for the past 450 years, I thought the best way to get acquainted with the real Calvin would be to read the work you are most famous for. I’m talking, of course, about your Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In my effort to get to know you better I spent my last semester at Yale in a class devoted entirely to the reading and discussion of your epic work. I admit we didn’t make it through every single chapter (forgive us John, but the book is nearly 1,000 pages long and we needed time to discuss what we read each week), but we did make it through almost all of it (we mostly skipped a few chapter at the end about church polity). And even with those handful of overlooked chapters, I’m still willing to bet we made it through more of the Institutes than many of your followers today have read. (I say this as a Wesleyan, who has read far far too little of what Wesley actually wrote.)

I have to admit, John, you’re a brilliant guy and a great writer. Your passion and honesty were obvious from page one and at times refreshing given the way we so often dance around what we really think in the church today. I really admire your conviction and willingness to say what you believe to be true even if it wasn’t the popular thing to say. Without a doubt, you had some great things to say and, at times, I even found myself close to shouting “Amen!” Like the time you called out those who want to believe in the absurd notion that God can predestine some to heaven while not necessarily also predestined everyone else to hell, ”This they do so ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.” (3.23.1)

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Ok, maybe, that amen wasn’t exactly for the reason you would like, but still, it counts for something, right?

Anyway, class is now over, our reading of your monumental achievement complete, and I’ve had some time to process everything you said.

So, can I be totally honest with you, John?

You crushed my hope for reconciliation.

I found your theology to be every bit as appalling – and maybe even more so – than your followers.

To be blunt, as a Christian, I don’t recognize your God and I have no clue what the good news is in the Institutes. That some people are saved no matter what? I guess that’s good for them. But you’re clear that God also creates people for eternal damnation,

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, other to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death. (3.21.5)

And you also say that God tricks some of those same people he dooms to hell into thinking He loves them by “instilling into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption” simply so he “better convince them.” (3.2.11) John, what kind of perverse and manipulative God would do that?

But it gets worse.

Much worse.

For, according to you, God ordains every single horrific act of evil that has or ever will occur.

As you explain over,

Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to his decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer. (1.16.6)

And over,

As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. (1.17.1)

And over,

Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. (1.16.9)

And over again, God is behind every act of evil that ever takes places,

I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (1.17.5)

In other words, if a child is raped, a family murdered in their sleep, or an entire population of people sent off to the gas chambers, that wasn’t just the act of evil men. It was the will of God.

And, of course, God doesn’t just have it out for us in this life; God has it out for some people for eternity too because as you say, “Those whom the Lord favors not with the direction of his Spirit, he, by a righteous judgment, consigns to the agency of Satan.” (2.4.1)

You say all of this wrath is due to our depravity. Ignoring Paul’s words affirming the complete opposite, you say ”wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God” (3.11.2) And as if to drive your point home at just how much God hates us, you claim that it’s not just adults that God despises, but infants too because they ”cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” (2.1.8) John, you go to great lengths to establish the total depravity of man, and I agree that we are indeed sinful people. But in the end, based on your own argument, the one looking the most depraved is God. For it is God, not humanity, who ordains evil and institutes eternal torture regardless of act or decision.

Yes, John, you’re right. All of these quotes and points are lacking in their immediate context, but they’re not random thoughts. They are, as you demonstrate so well, the logical conclusions of your theology of divine sovereignty and, therefore, at the very heart of what you believe about God. Worse, this isn’t a case of you overstating without thinking through the conclusions. You’re clear that this sort of God who ordains genocide, murder, rape, children abuse, and every other conceivable horrendous act is the God you worship.

Not surprisingly, you say that we should fear this God, not just honor and revere Him, but actually be terrified of Him. (3.2.26) I suppose on that point we are in at least partial agreement. If this is a God who arbitrarily ordains the death of children and the torment of people before they’re even born, then of course we should fear this God.

Which is why, John, I’ve got to be brutally honest with you.

I think your God is a monster.

I don’t say that casually or based on a handful of random one liners. I say it based on the foundation of your theological project and your insitence on a God who both ordains evil and creates people simply to torment them for eternity. John, this is not the God I find in the Bible, nor is it a God I think is worthy of worship. It’s a God who can only be feared for His arbitrary, callous, and evil ways, and pitied for his enslavement to wrath.

To me, John, your God looks nothing like Jesus of Nazareth. And, for me, that’s a big problem.

Now, John, it wouldn’t be a good breakup letter if I wasn’t clear about why I don’t like you like that anymore (or I guess ever did). I’m know a lot of those reasons are obvious already, but in the spirit of your Institutes, I don’t want to leave any room for doubt as to why we need to go our separate ways.

First, John, as awed as I am by your intellect, you’re way way way overcommitted to your theological system. I know your methodology and meticulousness are derivative of your training as a lawyer, and while those can be great qualities in a person, in your Institutes your utter devotion to your theological system creates an unbelievable callousness that is totally foreign to the Jesus I meet in the gospels. Experience, reason, compassion, and even huge chunks of scripture are sacrificed on the altar of your theological system. Relationships require compassion, humility, and at a times a bit of flexibility. John, we’ve all got some work to do in those areas, but that’s especially true for you.

You also have a tendency to talk about of both sides of your mouth. This isn’t good for a relationship because it means I can never really trust what you’re saying. F0r instance, in order to acknowledge the obvious reality of freewill while defending your hardcore understanding of divine sovereignty, you try to create a make believe difference between compulsion and necessity, as if just because we necessarily have to act in a certain way because God has ordained it so, we’re not actually compelled to do that. (2.3.5) John, that makes no sense. Likewise, you argue that even though everything is determined by God long before we even exist, we’re still responsible for out actions. (1.17.5)

Look, I get it, you’ve got a system to maintain and you need to make sense of sin and guilt. But, John, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either we freely choose to sin and are therefore responsible, or God causes us by divine decree to sin and, therefore God is ultimately responsible. Which leads us to the worst doublespeak of all in your book. You make is clear that God ordains evil, but isn’t the author of it. John, buddy, as you heard throughout your lifetime, if God is the source of and the one who ordains evil acts, then God is the author of evil. Which means your God isn’t really as loving and good as you would have us believe. In fact, your God is pretty stinking evil.

Which is why, John, it’s hard not to conclude that Calvinism is a sustained exercise in the defense against the obvious. By which I mean you’re constantly on the defense against the obvious conclusions of your claims. To your credit you offer up an exhaustive defense, it just runs counter to basic logic. There’s just no way around the fact that you’ve simultaneously created a God who is the author of evil while rendering the Christian life irrelevant because if our eternal fate is already sealed, there is absolutely no point in bothering to live in any particular way.

Also, John, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but your use of Scripture is just awful. I know, I know, I know. Who am I to criticize the great John Calvin’s exegesis? But buddy you cherry pick scripture like it’s your spiritual gift. You completely ignore the context of the verses you pick. And, with only a few exceptions, either ignore or dismiss out of hand any and all passages that contradict your position. But, John, I’m not sure that’s the even the worst part of it for me.

As a fellow Christian I know this might be a little hard to hear, but you deal surprisingly little with what Jesus himself actually had to say. Sure, you talk about his role in salvation plenty, but when it comes to supporting your various claims, you seem to quote everybody but Jesus. In fact, I’m pretty sure you quoted the entire book of Romans. And yet the words of Jesus himself were few and far between. Knowing your bravado, I’m sure this wasn’t the case but it was almost as if you intentionally ignored him because some of the things he threw a huge wrench your system that could bring the whole thing crashing down on itself, like that pesky John 3:16-17 loving the whole world and not just the elect nonsense or that stuff in Matthew 25 or James 2 where salvation by faith alone seems to be an unwelcome guest.

But, John, I think the ultimate problem between you and me is the starting point in your grand theological endeavor. For you, everything begins and ends with the glory of God. I wholeheartedly agree that giving glory to God is an important thing. But John, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading if you think that receiving glory is God’s primary interest in and purpose for mankind. If anything, the Bible is a sustained account of God’s disinterest in glory. It’s the story of a God who desires above all to be in a loving relationship with His people and God’s willingness to do anything to make that happen, including abandoning all sense of glory even to that point of death on a cross.

But perhaps the most ironic point in your emphasis on glory is that in your attempt to glorify God you destroy that very glory through your understanding of divine sovereignty and election. For if God ordains murder, rape, and abuse, while creating some people – maybe most people – for eternal torment, then that God is not worthy of glory. Period.

Now, I know your followers today will tell me I’m “misreading” you and don’t understand what you’re “really” trying to say. I heard a lot of that this semester as we tried to reconcile the words on the page with their practical implications. But this letter isn’t about the 450 years of interpretation and reinterpretation that have followed in your wake. I’m responding to the words you yourself wrote. And, for me, what you wrote was far too often abhorrent.

And can I tell you something else, John? I don’t think your followers today are nearly as comfortable with your theology as you are. At least, not a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong. You’re on an incredibly high pedestal for them, but time and time again I see them jumping through hoops and doing mental gymnastics to avoid or at least soften the very clear claims you’re making. And I see others rejecting out of hand some of the things you said, while trying to hold on to the rest.

But I get that. We all want to defend our heroes. The bigger issue I have, John, is that you have a tendency (cause I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all like this) to create incredibly arrogant and sometimes hateful followers who are just a cold, calculating, and callous in their theology and selective in their use of scripture as you are. Just like you, too many of your prominent followers today denounce their critics as heretics while praising God for a whole host of evil things that happen in the world from earthquakes and tornadoes to the marginalization, oppression, and destruction of people made in the image of God.

John, I don’t know how to say it any other way – you’ve got a bad habit of making disciples that aren’t very christlike in their love, mercy, compassion, and grace towards others.

Now, I know if you were still around to respond, you would probably tell me like you did so many of your opponents, that I’m “virulent dog” (3.23.2) or maybe a satellite of Satan (3.17.1) because in my “rebellious spirit” (3.21.4) I have the audacity to question your understanding of God, God’s sovereignty, and election which I should never do (3.21.1-2) because by doing so I ”assail the justice of God.” (3.21.7)

Maybe you’re right.

Maybe I am an agent of Satan lost in my own heresy and sin and I just don’t realize it.

But John, I don’t think I am. Like the millions of Christians that came before you and billions that have come after, I believe in a God who confronts sin with grace, defeats evil with love, and offers redemption to all.

Which is why, John, it’s not going to work out between the two of us.

Maybe when I see you in heaven and we both see things a bit clearer, we can try this relationship thing again.

But for now, I think you would agree, we need to go our separate ways.

It’s what’s best for the both of us.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

Here follows my answer.
This is truly a wonderful post which expresses what many people think silently.

My first experiences with Calvinists (link) were kind of traumatic. There is one thing I didn’t mention in the above link: I also read a German reformed pastor stating that Hitler was God’s tool for punishing the Jewish people for having rejecting His son (forgetting to mention they rejected Him because God Himself predetermined it) and that this should be a strong reason for us to warn this sinful world, because God is going to do something far worse at the end of times.

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I (try to) love my Calvinists as fellow human beings, but I cannot view consistent ones as my fellow believers because they worship an evil demon they call God.

They uphold their belief system by resorting to countless fallacies and absurdities, and if you expose their errors, they will inevitably quote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55.8)

But there is a big irony here. Reading the verse in its immediate context shows it is all about reconciliation, that God invites all evildoers to give up their wicked ways and come back to Him. This verse seems rather to indicate that God is much more loving, much more forgiving than any man can be and even than any man could ever imagine to be.
For reformed theologians, this verse means than God is probably more vicious than the worst criminal who has ever lived.

They say that people deserve to be eternally tortured because they constantly commit misdeeds. But they almost never mention (at least in public) that:

1) God predetermined the fall of Adam and Eve and cursed us with a sinful nature (link)

2) God predetermined every one of our evil actions (link)

calvinistfreewill

The most crazy aspect is that God does all these things for SHOWING OFF His glory by pouring off his unquenchable wrath on those who were not elected before their birth .

Consistent Calvinism is a horrendous blasphemy and a very sophisticated form of devil’s worship . I’m sorry but I cannot be honest to God without putting it this way. I don’t find it pleasant at all to have to say this, and it is my hope that these people will moderate their views in such a way I’ll no longer have to see them in that manner. I don’t like conflicts for the own sake of feeling right and would largely prefer to peacefully coexist with them, were their mistakes not so egregious.

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I don’t seek communion with (consistent) Calvinists, only confrontation but always in a spirit of love (at least that’s what I’m aiming at), reminding myself that they are valuable, wonderful creatures, their horrible ideas notwithstanding.

Finally, you say that Calvinists misinterpret many Biblical verses. I agree that it’s the case, but for honesty’s sake we should recognize that the Bible itself also contains odious stuff (link), such as praying God to dash the children of one’s foes to the ground.
The Bible (along books of C.S. Lewis, Ellen White, John Wesley…) contains the human experiences of people with God, perhaps even the reports of genuine miracles but a careful and intellectually honest study of its content and context forbids us to view it as the voice of the Almighty directly talking down to us.

Unlike the opinion of militant atheists (link), you can find lots of wonderful things within its pages (when properly interpreted in their historical and cultural context) but unlike the convictions of Conservative Evangelicals, it also encompasses heinous things (link).
The basis of our theology cannot be a composite document speaking with conflicting voices but God’s perfect love and justice (as exemplified in Christ), which is necessarily far greater than that of the best (purely) human being having ever lived.

 

Edit: I’ve been harshly criticized for having said that consistent Calvinists worship an evil demon. Should I perhaps not become more moderate and consider them as Christians who are really wrong in some respects? The fact is: I don’t know and my views will perhaps evolve in the future. I don’t hate these folks and would be glad to view them as siblings in Christ. But (at least in the cases mentioned in this post and in the links) it seems really hard.

 

 

On hell and a psychopatic mindset

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randaul Rauser wrote a new amazing post about the problem of hell (understood as a never-ending torture).

BildI agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that terrorizing small kids with this is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.

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Randal wrote

 

In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!

That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: ”If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.

Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.

Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.

Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.

 

Here was my response.

 

Hello Randal, thanks for this new amazing post of yours.

I find it amazing that even hardcore Calvinists such as Paul Helm grant the point that nobody should WANT eternal conscious torment to be true.
This logically entails that they are themselves morally superior to the god they profess to worship.

 

That said, I think that Robin Parry confronts us with a false dichotomy .

Either we believe that people are going to be tortured forever for sins they could not have avoided (having been cursed with a sinful nature).
Or we believe that all of them will inherit eternal bliss.

But there is another alternative, namely that:

1) God did NOT curse us with a sinful nature (the authors of Genesis agree with me on that one).

2) God will grant eternal life to everyone truly desiring Him and there will be lots of conversions beyond the grave (inclusivism).

3) Those not desiring God won’t suffer forever but they will be no more.

Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

Interestingly enough, many secular European folks told me that if there were a good God, they would not be shocked at all if He were to act in the way I have just outlined.

 

Petition against an egregious evil in Florida

Fred Christian is waging a campaign against a crying injustice which leads many of us (Continental Europeans) to view the so-called American dream as an unbearable hopeless nightmare.

 

“Petition Background

I am a 43 year old Florida Resident who never has had health insurance in my adult llife time ! I am one of over one Million Florida Residents who need a little help from my State! Our lives could be shortened by illneses that could have been prevented with access to Medical Services that would potentially keep us alive and heathy! For example I am an asthmatic and access to Medical Services would help, people like me greatly !  “

 

This is an aspect of Martin Luther King that the ruling class wants us to forget.

 

Such as an injustice in an allegedly godly nation is a spit in Christ’s face.

 

I think that proponents of the Christian Right should reconsider their priorities.

Jesus did not threatened prostitutes and homosexuals with hellfire (meaning the lost of one’s existence) but religious bigots and those failing to apply charity.

 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

SIGN THE PETITION AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

Hell, callous indifference and embarassment

Jonny Scaramanga has written a fantastic post describing a discussion between a fundamentalist Christian and a secularist about hell.

Liz Weston hell

I must say that I really admire Jonny. He went through horrific experiences as a fundamentalist child which led him to reject Christianity altogether.

Yet, unlike the New Atheists (also called antitheists) who engage in vicious attacks against all believers, Jonny is an extremely loving and respectful person, even towards fundies.

I think that all people cherishing an open society (where freedom and tolerance are fostered) should join their forces against those threatening its very foundation.

This is what Jonny wrote:

Fundamentalists: you have not been trying very hard to save me. Either you do not really believe I am going to hell, or you do not care. Which is it?

I wasn’t going to post this until next week, but I needed to get it online while the relevant Big Questions episode is still on BBC iPlayer so you can see what I’m talking about.

Liz Weston is a member of Christ Church Southampton. She was on The Big Questions this week to defend fundamental Christianity against the charge that it is harmful to children.

Let me say this first: I like her. She got a lot of bile from Twitter atheists when the episode aired, but I chatted to her after the show and she was genuinely nice. I got the feeling that we could have spoken for a long time and found many areas of common ground. Liz was shocked by my experiences of fundamentalism and expressed genuine regret. She was also far more tolerant than I was in my fundamentalist days. I got the feeling that where we disagreed, we could have done so without it being a source of animosity.

So yes, I think Liz Weston is a good person, and that’s important to remember in light of what I’m about to say.

 

The crucial exchange came about 44 minutes into the programme.

“Nicky Campbell: So who’s going there [hell]?

Liz Weston: Anybody who hasn’t put their faith in Jesus and trusted in Him as their saviour, his death on the cross to pay for their sins… But you can go to heaven, and it’s your choice if you decide to reject Jesus.

Amanda Robinson: But I have, so I’m going to hell.

Liz: That’s fine! You’ve chosen to reject Jesus. That unfortunately is your choice and I’d love to convince you otherwise but, yeah…

Then she shrugged, and laughed.

She looked a person full in the face, told her she was going to hell…

And she laughed.

Let’s imagine an alternative scenario: instead of Liz Weston, God-botherer, and Amanda Robinson, criminologist, this was a confrontation between a qualified therapist and a person with a life-threatening addiction.

Let’s say Liz is the therapist, and Amanda Robinson is a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or has a chronic eating disorder. Liz has the only solution, and it will definitely solve Amanda’s problem. Without it, Amanda is inevitably going to destroy herself in the slowest, most agonising way. How would we expect Liz to act?

Liz would be distraught. She would implore Amanda, through tears and agonising pain, to accept her help before it’s too late. She would be doing everything in her power to get through to her. Nothing else would matter. Every other point of discussion would be put on hold. Amanda cannot see her own need for help, but Liz can save her. The frustration of the situation would put Liz on bended knee, begging Amanda to let her in. If this failed, Liz would be broken, defeated, shattered by her own impotence and inability to help.

She probably wouldn’t laugh.

The situation Liz claims to believe is much worse. In our hypothetical scenario, there would at least be an end to it: Amanda would eventually die, and the suffering would end. In the case of hell, Liz believes the suffering is eternal, without a moment’s respite. Yet Liz was able to look at Amanda and laugh when she told her about it.

Either Liz does not really believe this, or she does not care.

This is repugnant. It shows how the fundamentalist doctrine of hell can corrupt the moral compass of an otherwise good person.

If Liz does not care, then the Christian claim to moral superiority is in tatters. The claim that only Christians are capable of expressing true love, because of the Spirit of God within them becomes absurd. Her religion is evil, and her claim to morality is bankrupt.

If Liz does not really believe it, she shouldn’t say it.

So which is it?”

Afterword: For the record, I believe that the most charitable interpretation of these events is also the correct one. I think Liz laughed because she was embarrassed. She knew how awful it was to tell Amanda she was going to hell. Now I’m sure this is the source of considerable cognitive dissonance for Liz. I am not saying she is lying when she says she believes in hell, but I think this demonstrates she doesn’t actually believe it as wholeheartedly as she says.

Also, I don’t mean this to be a witch-hunt against Liz Weston specifically. As I said, I liked her. This is a specific example of a wider phenomenon I’ve observed – evangelical Christians acting like they don’t care (much) as they tell someone they are bound for hell. It’s just that this one, usefully, happened to be televised.

 

Interestingly enough, I pointed out similar things in my post entitled “On Hell and Cognitive Dissonance“.

Conservative Evangelicals are unable to live consistently with their belief that every person dying as a non-Christian will be eternally tormented owing to sins she could NOT have avoided, due to God having cursed her with a sinful nature she never asked for.

Deep inside, most of them realize that this doctrine (combined with the claim that God is perfectly loving and just) is an affront against reason and morality.

While I believe that the Bible often has contradictory voices about quite a few topics, I fail to see any verse teaching eternal torment.

When properly interpreted, I think that the authors believed in conditional immortality, meaning that those rejecting God won’t inherit eternal life and perish.

But what does “rejecting God” means?

I think that progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser gave us a nice example illustrating what it does NOT mean.

To quote myself :

I am an inclusivist but not an universalist because I consider it very likely that at least some people will reject God beyond the grave.

Conservative Evangelicals typically defend Exclusivism (only those dying as Christians will inherit eternal life) using the following reasoning:

1) The Bible is the full and unique revelation of God (which is the central pillar of Evangelicalism)
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore only Christians will get to heaven

Yet as Randal Rauser pointed out, this is an extraordinarily offensive assertion.

“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”

Now against this backdrop turn to the encounter between a cacique (or tribal leader) and his Franciscan captors. In this encounter Hatuey, the cacique, has been told he will be executed (for no greater crime, it would seem, than not being Spanish), but that he can still save his soul before his body is slain:

“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present, an artless rascal, something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before, and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian Faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”

It is extremely blasphemous to state that Hatuey won’t have any chance to reach heaven.

So I think that the above reasoning can be turned on its head:

1) As perfectly loving God must give a post-mortem chance to many of those who have died without Christ
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore the Bible cannot be the full and unique revelation of God
4) Therefore Evangelicalism is wrong

(Of course many people would contest 2), thereby invalidating the conclusion).

Finally Greg pointed out that the parable of the foolish and wise virgins has to be taken at face value, thereby showing that people not having chosen Christ during this life won’t be given a second chance.

A huge problem is that as a conservative Protestant, there are quite a few things in the Bible that Greg cannot interpret literally.

The parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates that very well.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.”

So I am confident that many people having died as atheists will inherit eternal life because the god they rejected was nothing more than a hideous idol they were taught to worship.

It is worth noting that Jesus never threatened prostitutes, tax collectors and homosexuals with a destroying fire but only self-righteous bigots.

I consider it very likely that while many loving atheists will joyfully accept God/Christ/forgiveness on the other side of the grave, Fred Phelps (the God hates fags pastor) will be judged and lose his life forever.

I fail to see why this is immoral, and many secular Continental Europeans I know agree that (if there is a God) such a fate would be a just reward for the life he spent spreading hatred, thereby developing a heinous personality making him unworthy of everlasting bliss.

 

Cosmos reborn (happy theology on the new creation) by John Crowder

The question of heaven, hell, election and predestination are hot topics troubling many unbelievers for the answer to it has heavy repercussions for God’s moral perfection.

I was therefore extremely interested as I received a free copy of this book through the Speakeasy ministry of Mike Morell.

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The author is a revival pastor having “a passion to spread the exuberant love and joy of the supernatural gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In what follows, I am going to offer my critical thoughts on the content of the book.

Christian mysticism, logic and contradictions

The author made it clear that he belongs to the strongly charismatic and mystic wing of the Church. While it does not correspond to my psychological makeup, I don’t think there is necessarily something wrong with that.

Crowder rightly points out that “American revival religion has a very low threshold for mystery” which I would add is by and large true for the entire modern Western society.

I agree with him that “Eastern and Western thought need one another, just as you need a right and left side to your brain.”

He shares the view of the great reformed apologist Francis Schaeffer that having made the laws of nature independent of God is the cause of modern Western materialism.

“Newton took deism, viewed the laws of nature as independent. “

“Kruger says, “It seems to me that we are giving ourselves far too much credit, assuming that ‘ordinary’ things like laughter, fellowship, caring, working, giving ourselves for others, being parents, making music, creating things are simply ‘human’ and have no Jesus or any Holy Spirit in them. Our dualisms have blinded us, and we don’t even know it.””

They are in good company in believing this since no less of an atheistic philosopher as Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “the whole worldview of modernism is grounded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are an explanation of the phenomena of nature”.

Crowder went on quoting Albert Einstein: “the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.”

I think that caution is required here. Unlike many village atheists, Einstein believed that there is an unfathomable mystery underlying the whole Cosmos, but he was by no means a atheist, believing instead in a form of pantheism.

I started out disagreeing with Crowder as he wrote that

“Just like Calvinism and Arminianism, Universalism as a theological model ultimately relies on human logic to resolve mystery. It says that everyone will definitely, automatically, eventually make it out of hell with utmost certainty – if hell even exists at all. It is dogmatic in areas where scripture is fluid and open ended.”

I think there is a real danger that our embrace of mystery can lead to an embrace of logical contradictions as well.

I found the following passage deeply problematic:

“though it may seem mystical and hidden to you – you have even transcended the laws of time, physics, gravity and more in Christ! We no longer have the excuse of the seasons … I’m not prepared. I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough education. He has fully filled you, equipped you and given you everything – whether you know it or not.”

This reflects an irrational tendency within the Charismatic community which has serious consequences as we shall see in an other section.

Biblical inerrancy and belief in contradictions

While he did not clearly speak out in that respect, I glean from his writings that Crowder holds fast to the Chicago statement of inerrancy, according to which every writer of the Bible made no mistake as he wrote his part(s) of Scripture.

To his credit, he clearly emphasizes that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.

“True Knowledge is more than data – He is a Person. “
“In the world of theological complexity, we can rest in two things for sure … that God is Love and that Jesus Christ is the Word of God.”
He also pointed out that inerrantists all too often confuse the message of Scripture with their own interpretation:

“How often do you hear someone militantly say, “I don’t need theology. I only believe what’s in the Bible.” What they are really saying is that they only believe their interpretation of the Bible.”

However his commitment to inerrancy leads him to quite  a few contradictions.

Biblical atrocities

“We are not dealing with two different gods between Old and New Testament. We’re dealing with two separate ways of God dealing with mankind”

“When Christ is given His place, then the scriptures fall into place. Otherwise, you’re looking at an impossible, conflicted and illogical rulebook of haircut patterns and genital mutilations.”

“In every instance I must see His love – even in the most difficult, traumatic, genocidal passages.”

Well the most likely interpretation is that theological ideas evolve with time and that neither Ezechiel nor Jesus shared a belief in the justice of collective punishment and genocides.

The nature of salvation: grace or work?

The same can be said about his analysis of the part of the Bible pointing towards the importance of good works for one’s salvation.

“The apostle James tells us that faith without works is dead. This is a beautiful truth, and one that is often misunderstood and distorted. Always read James through the lens of Paul, not in addition to Paul.”

How so? Why could we not as well read Paul’s writings through the lens of James?

Or why could we not use the historical method to conclude that both authors most likely did not share the same view of salvation?

It is kind of misleading for Crowder to confidently write that

“In fact, the average Sunday Bible Belt Christian flips open to the Sermon on the Mount and assumes he has to accomplish the whole thing to be saved! He doesn’t realize that Jesus was still preaching law, prior to the cross (preaching it hotter than Moses).”

since this is only one possible interpretation among others.

The victory of the Christian

Crowder takes the view of Evangelical theologian and pastor Neil Anderson according to which Christians no longer have a sinful nature and therefore possess the ability to overcome to a large extent sin in their life.

Rejecting the penal substitution theory of the atonement, he wrote that

“The Bible never says that the death of Christ was to reconcile God to us. The death of Christ was to turn us back to God.”
“On the cross, Jesus was not changing God; He was changing you.”

“We are not in a time-process of becoming holy; we are in a process of discovering how holy we’ve been all along.”

He wrote a particularly interesting sentence which parallels the practice of mindfulness meditation:

“We are not in a time-process of becoming holy; we are in a process of discovering how holy we’ve been all along.”

Apotheosis or how to become divine beings

He went on writing about a theory considered as a blasphemy by most conservative Evangelicals, namely our becoming gods through our union with Christ, quoting different Biblical and Christian writers.
For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.
– Athanasius
“I  said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.’”

Psalm 82:6
“Augustine said, “If we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods.”96”  

“And again we see Thomas Aquinas write, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us share in His divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

He concluded with an amazing quote of C.S.Lewis:

“It is a serious thing,” says C.S. Lewis, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

Prosperity Gospel and manifestation of the spirit

One of the most troubling aspect of the book was its conveyance of prosperity teachings.

“”In our own ministry, we have seen a most extraordinary display of miracles … hundreds healed of tumors, cancers, deafness and blindness. And the more phenomenal displays such as people floating off the ground, rain falling inside buildings, huge sums of money appearing in pockets or supernatural weight loss of twenty, forty, even eighty pounds!”

At other places he defends the so-called Toronto blessings involving “being drunk in the spirit”. There is a huge danger here for it clearly conveys the ideas to unbelievers (and other believers as well) that they belong to a crazy cult.

His promises of well being are really dangerous.

“Power, right living, good marriages, healthy children, liberation from poverty … it’s all your inheritance available now, as we discover what’s already ours. ”
“The admission of hunger is an admission of lack. A hungry child is a sign of bad parenting. It is an assertion that Christ’s sacrifice was not a good enough meal for you. “

This can all too easily lead countless Christians living in poverty to think that the problem lies in them.

Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism

This finally leads me to what I take to be the central question handled in this book, namely the nature of salvation. I want to show the main problem with Crowder’s line of thinking.

The universal character of salvation

Crowder made it clear that he rejects the theory of limited atonement and believe that Christ died for everyone, writing that it leads to “a god of our own making who is conveniently less moral than we are”.

“there is a very real universal aspect to the atonement that Western evangelicals frightfully deny.”

“There is no limited atonement any more than there is a limited incarnation. Fully man for all of humanity.”

“As death came through one man, so also the resurrection came through one man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive”

“Paul does not limit his context to Christ’s relationship to believers but gives fundamentally the same account of His relationship to all men,” adds Barth. “

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:21-22).”
How many died in Adam? Ummm … all? Well we’re talking about the exact same all here made alive in Jesus Christ. How quick we are to have faith in the one man Adam to bring death to all … yet how fearful is the suggestion that the one man Christ could bring life to those same dead men! Some rabid evangelical may call you a Universalist!”

He however is not a “dogmatic universalist” because he apparently also believes in the possibility of rejecting God.

“As C.S. Lewis said, “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
“All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
“Heaven and hell are both full of forgiven sinners. It’s just that those in hell refuse to accept their already given gift of acceptance.”

Faith as God’s gift

Nevertheless he also embraces the notion that we cannot ourselves generate faith but that this can only stem from God, approvingly quoting John Calvin:

“The reality of our adoption is not one we can force. For those of us who would charge into claiming our ‘adoption’ as yet another thing to accomplish, the good news is that adoption is under the Holy Spirit’s jurisdiction,” said John Calvin. “Our adoption—God welcoming us into His relationship with His Son—is brought about by the Spirit, ‘without whom no one can taste either the fatherly favor of God or the beneficence of Christ.’

Crowder further wrote:

“When you tell people they have to believe in Christ, you’re actually preaching law, not Gospel.”

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25-26).
This is the whole point! Salvation is God’s business. You can’t do anything to be saved.”

“His command to believe, like every other command, highlighted our inability to do it. The guys He most instructed to “believe” (the disciples) were also the guys He clearly said did not believe.”

Logical tension

According to the beliefs of Crowder in the universal offer of salvation and faith as God’s gift, the following syllogism can be built.

1) God wants everyone to be saved

2) Humans can do absolutely nothing to be saved, this is a pure gift of God which cannot be refused

3) Thus God will offer it to everyone

4) Therefore everyone will be saved (dogmatic universalism).

Given his own presuppositions, Crowder should ultimately be certain that everyone will spend the whole eternity with God.

Conclusion

This book will probably be mostly interesting for readers having a mystical approach to the Christian faith and sharing the Charismatic commitment of the author.

However I recommend everyone to take with a grain of salt his assertions, some of which being highly problematic.

Nevertheless it must be recognized that this book raises a lot of vital questions, even if some of the answers fail to be consistent.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

Eternal hell and conditional immortality: an interview with Chris Date

 

 

Hell (understood as eternal torment) has been widely soon as Christianity’s most damnable doctrine by many atheists and skeptics. Very few people, however, ask themselves if that teaching can truly be found within the page of the Bible.

In what follows I interviewed Chris Date, a prominent proponent of the view of conditional immortality about this hot (if not burning) topic.

https://i0.wp.com/grapplerschurch.tv/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ChrisDate.jpg

Lotharson: Hello Chris, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation.
Could you, for the benefit of my readers, sum up your personal and religious background?

Chris Date: Sure. I was raised without any influence to believe in God (that I recall), although I found out later in life that my parents both believe in Jesus Christ. While very young, I expressed fleeting interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, because family members and friends were among those groups. I also had some brief interest in Wicca as a teenager. Otherwise, however, I was an atheist into adulthood, and mocked Christians and Christianity. My now wife and I got married as atheists when I was 20, which was 14 years ago, and around 2 years later I became a believer in Jesus and quickly became interested in theology and apologetics. My wife was born again a few years later. I’ve been a software engineer at a prestigious Northwest software company for the past 12 years or so, though one day I hope to move into full-time ministry, or to become a University professor of Bible and theology.
I should say I also have four sons, ages 12, 8, 4, and 5 mos.

I really wish you will reach that goal 🙂

Eternal conscious  torment and annihilationisn

Let us focus now on the topic of that interview.
What are (in a nutshell) the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment and annihilationism/conditional immortality?

 

The traditional doctrine of hell, or final judgment, or personal eschatology–however you want to put it–holds that the day is coming when all the dead will rise bodily from the graves, and those who have saving trust in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in the blissful presence of the Lord with the saints. Those who deny Jesus Christ, however, will be judged and punished according to their sins, which will entail an eternity of spiritual, psychological, and/or physical torment separated from God and his people. It’s important to emphasize that this is not a disembodied eternal state. The formerly dead bodies of the lost will have arisen, blood once again pumping, lungs once again expanding and collapsing, muscles once again flexing, etc. And it is in this immortalized body, incapable of dying, in which the lost will suffer for eternity somewhere in the physical universe. Annihilationism, on the other hand, more historically known as conditional immortality, is the view that immortality and everlasting life are not intrinsic to our nature, and that it is instead a gift which God gives only to those who have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe the lost will rise from the dead with the saved, but those who have not united themselves with the source of life will not live forever, but will instead die a second, permanent death–annihilation. Traditional “dualist” Christian annihilationists or conditionalists, who believe humans are comprised of an immaterial soul united with a physical body, would say that in the first death only the body dies, but that in the second death both body and soul will die (Matt. 10:28). Many other conditionalists are “monists” or “physicalists” who believe man is a physical creature who does not live in any sense while dead, and that their hope in an afterlife is found only in the resurrection. Either view–dualism or physicalism–is compatible with the biblical teaching that eternal life is a gift given only to the saved and that the risen lost will die a second death.

Thanks for your summary!

 

Mortal souls of the Old Testament

1) I think that a sound interpretation of the Bible should first seek to understand the oldest texts in order to interpret the most recent ones.
Critical scholars believe that many writers of the OT did not believe in an afterlife.
The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any that go down into silence. But we will bless Yahweh from this time on and forevermore. Praise Yahweh!
Psalm 115:17-18:

Turn, O Yahweh, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your covenant faithfulness.
For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”
Psalm 6:4-5

What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Psalm 30:9

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Ecc. 9:10

“The grave cannot praise you, death cannot celebrate you: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth.”
Isaiah (38:18)
I personally find these passages extremely compelling.
How are those texts interpreted by Evangelical traditionalists and conditionalists?

Traditionalists would say that either those passages reflect a yet underdeveloped understanding on the part of the biblical authors, and that via progressive revelation the Lord revealed more about the afterlife in the New Testament, or they would say that they are talking mostly about goings on in this world, of which the dead will not have a part, without excluding conscious activity in another realm. Some conditionalists would say the same thing, particularly the dualist conditionalists I mentioned in answering your previous question. Other conditionalists, however, the physicalists or monists I mentioned, would say that these texts indicate that man is not conscious in death, that death is like a “sleep” in which one is unconscious. However, there are hints of an afterlife to be found in the Old Testament, hints pointing toward resurrection and eternal life. Definitely, though, whatever understanding and expectation they had of a future life was underdeveloped, and the New Testament provided more detail.

http://ivarfjeld.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/lakeoffire.jpg

Divine threats in the old covenant

 

2) If eternal torment is far worse than a violent death, then why did not God clearly warn the Isrealites during the overwhelming majority of the OT time? Would it not be loveless and irresponsible to give them the impression that the wage of sin is “only” destruction?

Boy, I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of a traditionalist, and it’s tough. I’m not sure how one might answer that question. I suppose a traditionalist might say that the ancient readers of the OT understood “death” and “destruction” differently than we do, that they viewed it as some form of conscious separation, from one’s body or from one’s God, and so therefore they wouldn’t have necessarily ruled out the traditional view of hell. Traditionalists might further say that there are hints of the traditional view of hell to be found in the OT, such as in Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 66:24 (neither of which supports their view, as perhaps we’ll see in a bit). And so in the interest of charity, I’m not prepared to concede that God would have been unloving and irresponsible in not fully revealing the traditional view of hell (if it’s true) in the OT; he may have done so more clearly than we moderns think. That said, it does seem clear to me that throughout the OT, the punishment for sin was seen as death, being cut off from one’s people and from life on earth. And eschatological punishment was seen in the same way, such as in the aforementioned passage in Isaiah in which God’s people are vindicated in the valley of Gehinnom when God slays his enemies and leaves their corpses to rot and smolder in fire. I would not say that the absence of the traditional view in the OT would make God unloving and irresponsible if it’s true, but I would say the fact that there is such an utter dearth of evidence for it in the OT, and an overabundance of evidence for conditionalism in it, that therefore my view is heavily favored.

Yeah precisely.

Unquenchable fires and dying worms

3) Quite a few passages in the Old Testament speak of an unquenchable fire consuming the wicked and of worms eating them.
““…rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. …you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them” (Isa. 1:28, 30–31)
“But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.'”
Jeremiah 17:27
” 47 … Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. 48 All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
Ezekiel 20:47-48
“1 For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze … so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name … 3 You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing”
Malachi 4:1-3
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Isaiah 66:24
Likewise we find several references to the “gnashing of teeth” within the OT.
“The sinner shall see and be angry, he shall gnash his teeth and consume away” (LXX-Psalm 111:10″
“”All thine enemies have opened their mouth against thee. They hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up; certainly this is the day that we looked for; we have found, we have seen it (Lamentations 2:16).”
Many centuries later, Jesus used a similar language for describing the fate of the wicked.
“The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42).”
“Luke 3:17
His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The traditionalist claim is twofold:
a) Jesus saying can only be interpreted as meaning that the damned will be literally eternally tormented. Conservative Jews of His time only interpreted these passages in this way.
b) the OT itself refers to the destruction of the bodies of the wicked, but it is actually also a metaphor for their everlasting pain
Did I correctly characterize their position?
If so, does it hold water?

Chris Date: Well many traditionalists simply aren’t familiar with several of those OT references you mentioned. Their claim is that Isaiah 66:24’s unquenchable fire means a fire which will never die out, burning forever and ever, never consuming its fuel, and that its undying worm is a maggot which will forever have food to eat, never consuming its host. That host, in the minds of most lay traditionalists, is the living bodies of the lost in eternal torment in hell. Traditionalists more familiar with the debate recognize that that passage explicitly identifies the maggot’s host and the fire’s fuel as corpses, but as you suggest, they would say nevertheless that the unquenchable fire and undying worm can only be understood as promising everlasting torment in risen bodies in hell, by means of metaphor or analogy (since what Isaiah refers to are corpses, not living bodies). However, as you have noted, there are many passages in the OT in which unquenchable fire is used, and in the vast majority of them–certainly all the ones which are relevant to this question, since they involve the fiery wrath of God–unquenchable fire is not a fire which will burn forever, never dying out. Rather, it’s a fire which is irresistible, inextinguishable. It is unstoppable. What would happen if you arrived home from work to find fire fighters trying desperately to put out a fire, and one of the fire fighters told you they are not going to be able to quench the fire? Well, obviously, it would burn up the house. That’s what this idiom of unquenchable fire means throughout Old and New Testaments. The same is true of the undying worm. It’s an unstoppable scavenger, much like two other places which I can’t recall off the top of my head, in which Israel is told that her corpses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth and that no one will frighten them away. The fact that the scavengers can’t be frighted away does not mean that they will forever have food to eat, but that they won’t be stopped from fully devouring their food–the corpses. Likewise, the undying worm is a maggot which won’t be prevented by death from fully consuming its food–corpses. As for the other passages you mentioned, many traditionalists seem to have this strange idea that I quite frankly can’t relate to, that the mere presence of texts which speak of some sort of conscious experience in judgment rules out any possibility of annihilation. And yet, violent death is immediately preceded by sorrow and anger, and its infliction entails pain and agony. Nowhere does the Bible indicate that these experiences will last forever. Finally, yes, traditionalists tend to think that Jews of Jesus’ time all believed in eternal torment, and interpreted OT passages as saying so. Yet, this belief is based on old, outdated research based on limited access to ancient Jewish literature. Modern research, with its access to numerous Dead Sea Scrolls, has revealed that ancient Jews of the afterlife were mixed, that many of them believed in annihilation, and that none of Jesus’ language would have been universally understood by his audience as referring to eternal torment.

Okay, that makes a lot of sense.

Lazarus and the rich man meet sheep and goats

4) A current argument for endless torment looks as follows.
a) The parable of Lazarus shows that hell involves pain
” The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 ”
Luke 16:22 -23
b) this pain will last eternally in the same way the bliss of the chosen ones will be forever.
“46These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew 25.46
What problems do you see with this?

Well the problems are twofold. First and most importantly, the parable isn’t even set in hell. It’s set in Hades, the underworld, the place of the dead. The rich man’s brothers are still alive, and he, dead in Hades, pleads that someone would go and tell his still-living brothers to repent. None of this would be possible in the eschaton. Besides, the text explicitly states he’s in Hades. And we know that one day mankind will be raised up out of Hades, given once again living bodies, at which point they will be finally judged. So there’s simply no good argument to be made for the traditional view from this parable. Secondly, there’s little reason to believe Jesus intends for the parable to be taken as a realistic description of the afterlife in the first place. Scholars of ancient Jewish literature have found several very similar stories that are sort of life fairy tales, or folk tales, not intended to be taken literally, but communicating a moral point. And Jesus appears to take these and turn them on their head, sort of telling his hearers that they’ve got things all wrong when it comes to the rich and the poor. Imagine, if you will, if Jesus were to come to us today and tell a story very similar to Humpty Dumpty, but whereas the king’s men in the original could not put Humpty back together again, in Jesus’ version the king himself puts Humpty back together again, as an illustration that God will one day raise his people from the dead. No one would think that Jesus was saying the afterlife would literally be like what happens in Humpty Dumpty. We’d all recognize that he was co-opting a common fairy tale of our day in order to communicate spiritual realities, like he does in all his parables. So I don’t see any reason to take the parable literally. But let me reiterate that that’s only secondary. Even if one is inclined to take Jesus’ parable as a generally realistic account of the afterlife, the most it could lead one to do is embrace dualism and a conscious intermediate state awaiting resurrection. Again: The parable takes place in Hades, not hell.

And what about the paralell between eternal bliss and damnation?

Chris Date: Oh, sorry. Yeah, Matthew 25:46 says only that the punishment will be eternal. It doesn’t say what the nature of that punishment will be. Conditionalists affirm that the punishment of the damned will be as eternal in duration as the bliss of the saved. Where we disagree with traditioanlists is when it comes to the *nature* of that eternal punishment. Traditionalists see it as an eternity of conscious suffering of some sort; conditionalists, on the other hand, recognizing that the Bible says the wages of sin is death, believe that the punishment awaiting sinners is death, and that when they die the second death at the final judgment, they will be dead forever. It is, therefore, an eternal punishment. Now, traditionalists will tend to push back and say that “eternal punishment” necessarily entail some sort of everlasting process of punishing (even though the text provides no such indication). At this point, I point them to places in the book of Hebrews in which the author speaks of the “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” purchased for us by Jesus Christ. Jesus is not and will not be forever undergoing the process of saving and redeeming; he accomplished that once and for all by his life, death, and resurrection. Rather, “salvation” and “redemption” in these passages are nouns that refer to the outcome of the verbs “save” and “redeem,” respectively. “Eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” thus speak of the eternity in duration of the results of a saving and redeeming process. Likewise, “eternal punishment” speaks of the eternity in duration of the results of a punitive process. The process is execution; the outcome is death.

 

The killer of body and soul

https://i2.wp.com/static.someecards.com/someecards/usercards/MjAxMy0zZDZhZTg2YmI1NzM1NjZi.png

 

 

5) A famous prooftext for annihilationism is
“28 And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28”
There are two traditionalist strategies for dealing with it.
a) “Kill” is actually a mistranslation of the greek word which could also means “ruined” or “lost”.
According to your own experience, do most traditionalist argue that one should not fear those who can “ruin the body”?
Or do they accept that it means “kill” in this part of the sentence while meaning the ruin or desolation of “body and soul” in the second part?

Well actually, it’s not “kill” in the first clause that traditionalists question. It’s “destroy” in the second. Oh wait, that’s what you said 🙂 Yes, you’re right. They think that the Greek word translated “destroy,” which is apollymi, means something like “ruin” or “desolate,” and they’ll point to some places where food spoils (apollymi), or oil is wasted (apollymi), or a sheep is lost (apollymi). However, as Dr. Glenn Peoples explains in an article at Rethinking Hell (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels ), the word is used in a particular way by Jesus in Matthew 10:28, and in every other relevant occurrence in the synoptic gospels when the word is used in this way, it means something like slay or kill. And of course, context determines which meaning in a word’s semantic domain is the intended one, and in Matthew 10:28 Jesus is contrasting those who can’t do something–kill the soul–with those who can. So we have every reason to understand “destroy” in the second clause as meaning something like “slay” or “kill,” and the traditionalist “ruin” explanation just doesn’t hold muster.

b) the second strategy consists of recognizing that “destroying” is the right meaning, but that it is a threat that God is never going to actually carry out, it just describes His ability to do so.
What’s your take on this view?

Chris Date: I think it’s silly. I’ll say the same thing Glenn Peoples said when he addressed this response in episode 4 of our podcast (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples): Jesus might as well have said, “fear the one who can turn you into a chicken.” Of course, the threat doesn’t carry any weight if it’s not something he might, in fact, do. What’s more, the disciples whom Jesus was warning faced the real danger that people might kill their bodies. So I think we have good reason to believe that there are those who face the real danger of being destroyed in body and soul. And of course, this conditionalist understanding of Matthew 10:28 is consistent with myriad and varied passages elsewhere in Scripture which promise the same fate for the lost.

 

The smoke of their torments will rise forever

 

6) the apocalyptic imagery of John speaks of eternal torment in a very vivid manner.
“And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
Revelation 14:11
Is that not a clear proof that at least the exiled apostle thought of hell as endless pain?

Chris Date: Quite the opposite. Revelation is, as you say, a genre of apocalyptic imagery. Its interpretation requires careful exegesis. The picture of smoke rising forever comes straight out fo the Old Testament. In Isaiah 34:10 smoke rises forever from the remains of Edom, which in the prophetic picture is destroyed; Abraham saw smoke rising from the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah, which had been destroyed. This picture, of smoke rising forever, is kind of like today’s mushroom cloud. When one sees smoke rising forever in a mushroom cloud, one doesn’t think of everlasting flames, but of utter destruction. That is what this image communicated in John’s vision. You can see this where it’s employed elsewhere in John’s vision. The harlot, Mystery Babylon, is said to be tormented in flames in the vision (Rev 18), and the great multitude in heaven cries, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Rev 19:3). Yet, when interpreting this vivid, perplexing imagery, the angel takes a great millstone and throws it into the sea, explaining that all of this imagery communicates that the city represented by the harlot will be destroyed, and will not be found any longer (Rev 18:21ff). What’s more, the imagery of drinking God’s wrath is imagery communicating slaughter (Job 21:20-21; Jer 25:15-33). And the imagery of sulfur and fire comes from those passages I already mentioned–Gen 19:24-28; Isa 34:9-10–in which cities are destroyed. ALL of the imagery in this passage would have communicated to its first century readers the idea of utter death and destruction.

 

Eternal torment and the redemptive death of Christ

7) If the traditional view is true, Christ was just ready to suffer a violent and painful death (limited in time) in order to save people from eternal torment.
Yet the apostle Paul would have been ready to eternally suffer for the sake of the salvation of his fellow Jews.
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ,
for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
(Romans 9:3)”
Since traditionalists argue that eternal torment is far worse than a violent execution, should we conclude (given the truth of their assumptions) that the Apostle Paul was infinitely more noble and heroic than the Son of God Himself?

Chris Date: To be fair to traditionalists, no, I don’t think we should. Jesus, by virtue of being the Godman, divine and human, was of infinitely greater value than Paul, and a traditionalist could say that Jesus’ death was of infinite value and therefore he didn’t need to suffer eternally, and nor was his sacrifice any less profound than the one Paul was willing to make. However, it’s important to recognize that over and over again the Scriptures indicate that as our substitute (whether one thinks of him as a penal substitute like I do, or as some other form of substitute as many critics of penal substitution do; either way, the atonement was substitutionary) what Jesus did in our place, in our stead, was die. He died, in our place, so that we won’t have to. And he didn’t die in some vague, esoteric, metaphorical sense; no! He physically died, was rendered a corpse. How different from the traditional view of hell in which the risen lost are punished by suffering pain in immortalized bodies that live forever! In conditionalism, on the other hand, Jesus suffered the death penalty in our place so that we can be given life that lasts forever, and those for whom he didn’t die (in a Calvinist view like mine), or those to whom the merits of his sacrificial death are not given (in a non-Calvinist view), must therefore suffer death.

One last thought on this point. I think the danger of traditionalism is not that it risks making Paul more sacrificial than Jesus. Rather, I think it risks coming dangerously close to heresy when it comes to the atonement. You see, when traditioanlists are asked why Jesus didn’t suffer forever on the cross, they’ll typically say that the few hours of suffering he experienced is equivalent in some way to the eternity of suffering awaiting the risen lost. But consider what that does! If the eternity of punishing awaiting the lost was entirely paid for in the finite duration of Jesus’ suffering, why did he go on to die? His death would have been arbitrary and unnecessary, when it’s what the Scripture emphasizes as the central aspect of Jesus’ atoning work. That’s the problem with traditionalism.

 

The apostles and fiery brimstone

8) Why did the apostles almost never mention hell, let alone eternal torments, if it were of such importance?

Chris Date: Good question! Paul speaks of “everlasting destruction” in 2 Thess 1:9, and more generically of wrath and so forth in places. But you’re right, they don’t speak much about final punishment. So I don’t know a traditionalist would answer your question. I would answer the question by saying that the most serious aspect to final punishment is in what is missed out on: eternal life. And so by talking so much about the gift of life, the apostles were implicitly warning of final punishment which entails the everlasting deprivation of life.

https://i2.wp.com/revivalhut.com/wp-content/uploads/worship11.jpg

 

Reconciled with God but agonizing

9) New traditionalists (such as Phil Fernandez or French theologian Henri Blocher) argue that only the saved ones will inherit eternal life. The damned will EXIST (but not live) and suffer eternally, but be utterly reconciled with God who is obliged to torment them endlessly for justice’s sake. Does this picture of “victory” hold water?

Chris Date: Well regarding the first of those two issues, as I explain in an article at Rethinking Hell (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/10/obfuscating-traditionalism-no-eternal-life-in-hell), the Bible explicitly says that resurrection entails bringing a formerly dead back to life, and so by biblical definition, the traditional view of hell entails the lost inheriting eternal life. There’s simply no escaping that. It may not be the same “eternal life” spoken of in the NT, but it is a form of eternal life, and I think honest traditionalists need to own up to that without trying to dodge it. The risen lost, in their view, will NOT merely exist forever, they will live forever in bodies which never die again. As for the lost being reconciled with God, that’s something a few modern “reconciliationists” believe, and I’m frankly not familiar enough with the nuances of their view to say much about it other than that their reconciliation with God does not entail their being united with him and his people forever. In other words, they remain lost, and eternally. Of course, this view fails for the same reason all other variations of the traditional view fail: the Bible says everlasting life will be given only to the saved, and that the risen lost will instead die, perish, be destroyed. As for the biblical picture of God’s victory, and which view of hell is most compatible with it, I’d encourage your readers to listen to episode 4, to which I already linked above. In it, Glenn Peoples explains why the biblical picture of eternity is most compatible with conditionalism. He also lays out the case briefly in our upcoming publication, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, which we expect to be published by Wipf & Stock this Spring.

Degrees of punishment

10) Can conditional immortality account for degrees of punishment?

Chris Date: Yes, and in a variety of ways. One way is by allowing for an infinite number of combinations of type, intensity, and duration of suffering involved in the destructive process. The ultimate punishment they pay is death, but its infliction involves degrees of suffering, accounting for degrees of punishment. Another way is by allowing for degrees of shame. Some may be remembered forever in far greater contempt than others. Either way, degrees of punishment are completely compatible with conditionalism–in fact, more so, I think, than with traditionalism. After all, any difference in degree of torment fades into nothing after a trillion trillion years of it.

https://i0.wp.com/www.planet-wissen.de/kultur_medien/religion/inquisition/img/intro_inquisition_marburg_g.jpg

 

Aggressive rhetoric and emotional bullying

11) I deal quite a lot with the New Atheists (anti-theists) on my blog. Their arguments are generally extremely shallow, but they often sound quite convincing due to their use of a very aggressive rhetoric involving a huge amount of emotional bullying.
It looks like that many (though not all) traditionalists uphold the strength of their position by resorting to a similar strategy.
This seems quite clear to me after I watched a “discussion” between Michael Brown and Edward Fudge and many callers which rang like a true inquisition.
Do you think it is a fair assessment of the situation?

Chris Date: In some cases, maybe even many, yes. I’ve experienced it; many other conditionalists have as well. But I think this is something we all, as human beings, tend to do. We’re fallen sons and daughters of Adam; we’re prideful and we want to be right. And so we tend to bully others into thinking like us. Traditionalists aren’t the only ones guilty of it; we all have to repent of it in certain areas of our lives, including myself. Our primary goal at Rethinking Hell, and the thing I’m passionate about that drives me to invest time and effort into this topic, is to nurture Christian unity and charity. Too often Christians treat the issue of hell as a topic worth dividing over–and not just dividing over, but worth treating one another with contempt and with disrespect. We want to do what little we can to remedy that, but encouraging frank and honest disagreement, as well as intellectual rigor, but done with brotherly love, respect, and charity. If traditionalists, conditionalists, and even universalists can present a united front to the world, including those New Atheists you mentioned, treating each other with respect and charity when we have our in-house debates over hell and other secondary issues, I think we’ll be far more effective agents for change in the world.

That’s entirely true and I also need to constantly keep myself in check for avoiding intellectual pride and self-righteousness.

Annihilationism and emotional reasoning

12) How often do you hear the complain that conditionalists are liberals who reject the “clear teaching of Scripture” on purely emotional grounds?

Chris Date: Ha! I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that. But it’s simply untrue. In my case and some other conditionalists, emotions never played a role. We were convinced solely by exegesis of the text. In fact, my emotions tugged me in the direction of the traditional view I had already held. I desperately wanted to avoid adopting a position that would close ministry doors to me and would cause apologists and theologians I respect and admire to think poorly of me. But my commitment to Scripture forced me, kicking and screaming, to become a conditionalist. Many conditionalists, it is true, first began questioning the traditional view for emotional or philosophical reasons, but they didn’t simply embrace conditionalism on those grounds. They returned to Scripture to see if perhaps they and most other Christians had gotten it wrong. And having done so, they discovered the utter dearth of biblical support for the traditional view, and the overwhelming reams and reams of evidence in support of annihilation.

13) Is there a hope that annihilationism will soon be considered as a respectable Evangelical position in the near future?

Chris Date: Yes, I think it’s inevitable. It’s already becoming one. Christian scholars like Basil Atkinson, E. Earle Ellis, Dale Moody, John Stott, John Wenham, Richard Bauckham, David Instone-Brewer, Gordon Isaac, Douglas Jacoby, I. Howard Marshall, Preston Sprinkle, and John Stackhouse (to name just a few) have embraced the view, and as more and more of them continue to do so, traditionalists will be less and less able to treat annihilationism as if it’s a fringe movement held only by liberals, sentimentalists, and cultists.

14) How many percent of conservative Evangelicals hold to conditonalism?

Chris Date: Oh I have no idea. We’re a minority in America, but a growing one. Actually, we may not be a minority in conservative Christian academia; John Stackhouse and Edward Fudge have said that many Christian academics have told them that they are persuaded by our view, but can’t say it for fear of losing their jobs. In Britain I think we’re an even larger minority, if not a majority. But again, in terms of numbers, I can’t begin to guess.

15) I want to talk a bit about Calvinism. I am strongly opposed to this doctrine but realize that many of my arguments could lose much of their strength if hell means the cessation of existence.
Yet I have not (until now) dealt with reformed condtionalists because I consider their number to be extremely small.
Am I justified in that assumption?

Chris Date: Yes, I think so.
And…Let me just say that while I am Reformed…Many of the Rethinking Hell “staff” are not. Rethinking Hell does not official endorse any view of soteriology over another.But yes, you’re right, there aren’t many of us Reformed conditionalists.

16) To conclude, I want to say that while I reject the teaching of Biblical inerrancy, I really find that your exegesis and that of Dr. Glenn People is very serious, scholarly and intelligent. You represent the very best of Conservative Evangelicalism to my mind.
Could you please sum up the most useful ressources my readers interested in the topic could take a look at?

https://www.logos.com/product/20263/the-fire-that-consumes-a-biblical-and-historical-study-of-the-doctrine-of-final-punishment-3rd-ed.jpg

Thanks! I appreciate that. I recommend your readers purchase either Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, in its 3rd edition now with Wipf & Stock, or his Hell: A Final Word. The former is more scholarly; the latter more popular-level. They would also benefit from purchasing his two views book with Robert Peterson, Two Views on Hell. It’s available on Kindle for cheap, I think, and your readers will get both sides of the debate. I also highly recommend your readers keep an eye out for our upcoming Wipf & Stock publication, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. They can learn more about it here: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/12/rethinking-hell-book-announcement. It’s in the final stages of editing and we expect it to be published this Spring. It’s not yet available for preorder by itself, but if you have any readers that are anywhere near Houston, they can preorder a copy of our book as part of their registration for our inaugural Rethinking Hell Conference this July, which they can learn more about and register for here: http://www.rethinkinghellconference.com/2014/. And, of course, we have a bunch of resources available at http://www.rethinkinghell.com. There are a ton of articles on a variety of related issues, and for your readers not yet familiar with our view, they should probably start by listening to episode 4 of our podcast (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/09/episode-4-the-case-for-annihilationism-with-glenn-peoples) in which Glenn Peoples gives a positive case for our view, and then episode 7 (http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/episode-7-traditional-objections-answered-with-chris-date) in which I answer common objections from traditionalists.

http://blairmulholland.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/rethinking-hell.jpg

Alright Chris! Thank you for all the time you gave me, and I truly hope this was not too exhausting for you 🙂

You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it.

The Central Message of Jesus

Deutsche Version: die zentrale Botschaft von Jesus.

As I pointed out previously, Christian fundamentalists and former fundamentalists having turned into militant atheists have the very same view of the Bible for what concerns morality and theology. Every command attributed to God is completely consistent with the others and the truth of Christianity (or the moral character of God) stands and falls with the validity of the smallest allegedly divine order find within the pages of Scriptures.

But is it how Jesus viewed things?

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40

Jesus did not tell to the asking person:

You should stone your disobedient children.“ or

Fool! How dare you ask such a silly question to me! Every command is equally important!“

But he said that the entire Jewish Law can be traced back to love for God and love for one’s neighbour as for oneself. And the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that our enemies also belong to our neighbours.

The phrase „And the second is like it“ is particularly intriguing.

It is very likely that Jesus meant that the purest way of loving God is by loving the people he created in his image. This aspect is particularly visible in one of Jesus’ descriptions of the final judgement:

But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 25:32 Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them

one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 25:33 He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 25:34 Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 25:35 for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me

drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. 25:36 I was naked, and you clothed me.

I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’ 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? 25:38 When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? 25:39 When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ 25:40 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothersr ,

you did it to me.’ 25:41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from

me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave

me no drink; 25:43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t

clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ 25:44 “Then they will also answer, saying,

Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’ 25:45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 25:46 These will go away

into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Mattew’s 25:31 – 25:46

This passage sounds certainly hard, but it shows it is all about love: non-believers having loved the poor people are called into the presence of the Lord whereas believers having ignored their needs are driven out of His presence.

Now we have to deal with a troubling passage:

18“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:18-19

It is very easy to find commands in the Torah not only failing to foster love but also going in quite the opposite direction.

Jesus seemed to be well aware of this as he said

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-48

While not explicitly formulated in any passages of the Old Testament, the principle “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is implied by numerous texts.

(Interestingly enough, it can also be found in the writings of many allegedly enlightened modern secularists).

So if he really literally meant we ought to literally obey the Law then he was literally inconsistent.

Such a cognitive dissonance could perhaps be understandable for a Jew of his time unwilling to deny the validity of what was considered as a divine tradition.

But I doubt that Jesus was inconsistent in that respect, I believe He really meant that love is the ground of everything AND that the law was fulfilled in Him, perhaps in a metaphoric way.

I’m still struggling to understand Jesus attitude towards the Law.

But we can be quite sure that Love was the foundation of his entire ethic even if he might have been culturally unwilling to let go of the inspiration of the Law, the logical implications of his central teachings notwithstanding.