HELL 7

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

One must understand the end toward which we are moving with God in order to interpret and understand the points along the biblical narrative’s trajectory.

In other words, if a person believes that eternity in Hell is the end toward which the majority of people throughout history are heading, then it is only natural that they would interpret specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible toward that end.

But, what if there is an end toward which we are moving that isn’t eternity in Hell?

And what if this end is the interpretive lens that will help us understand specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible differently?  

I would suggest the end toward which we are moving, that is in line with the prophetic vision throughout scripture, has always been the restoration of all things.

It is the realization of a renewed cosmos in which God will be all in all, in which death will no longer prevail, and whole and healed individuals and relationships will flourish.

It is the belief that, at the right time, all things in heaven and earth will be brought together into perfect unity in the Christ, also known as the reconciliation of all things.

And this makes the goal of God’s justice restorative in nature, rather than retributive.

When I was in college and dating Jenny (who is now my wife), there was a Friday night in which we were planning to hang out. As the minutes, and then the hours, began to pass, I became increasingly impatient, frustrated, and angry that she was taking so long, not answering my phone calls, and basically ruining our Friday.

But after several hours of waiting in my room with no response, there was finally a knock at my door. And as she walked in, my anger was evident. I was fuming mad and peppering her with a litany of questions.

Where have you been?
What have you been doing?
Why are you so late?
Why didn’t you answer my calls?

I am certain I wasn’t listening to anything she was saying. There wasn’t an answer that would satisfy my anger.

But then, instead of trying to answer my questions, she just handed me a card.

And it wasn’t just any card.

It was a card that she had meticulously and patiently and lovingly crafted for me over the three previous hours. And it detailed, in overwhelming specificity, all the memorable moments we had shared together as a couple and how much she loved me.

I got very silent.

Like stick-my-foot-in-my-mouth silent.

And then, despite my anger and bewilderment, and the fact that it would have been easier for her to simply withhold the card, or just break up with me because I didn’t come close to deserving the card, she demonstrated her unwavering love by giving it to me anyway.

My anger turned to regret.

And it was her kindness, not her justified retaliation, that made me see my ugliness. It was her kindness, despite how I violated our relationship, that changed my heart.

When you are confronted with the reality of an undeserved kindness, it can be transformative.

And that is what we find in one of the most misunderstood parables of the Bible- The Rich Man and Lazarus. Many have used this moral story as a definitive proof text for eternity in Hell, but it is far from it.

In the parable are two characters- the rich man and Lazarus.

From the grave, or after his death, the rich man is confronted with how he treated Lazarus, a poor beggar, during his life. Upon facing the truth of how poorly he treated him, he was filled with sorrow.

So what do we know about this parable?

The rich man represents Israel. We know this because, in the last line, Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead.”

And like the majority of Jesus’ parables, this parable is an indictment of the arrogant religious leaders of Israel for how they viewed themselves and how they viewed and treated others. But more importantly, the parable is teaching them the necessity for living righteously in the present.

A few things to note.

In this parable we find words like Hadestorment and suffering.

So it seems pretty obvious that this parable is telling us about what eternity in Hell is like, right?

Not so fast.

What if I told you that, in facing the truth of his life, the rich man is being tested and refined? And what if I told that he is not being tormented by a wrathful God, but transformed and restored into a right relationship with God and others? And what if I told you that what he is experiencing is not suffering, but rather the pain of regret and the consuming sorrow of facing this truth about himself?

Well, that is what the biblical text actually suggests.

The rich man is experiencing odynáō, which is a Greek word that means consuming sorrow, not physical suffering.

More importantly, the word básanos, which is translated as torture in this parable, means a touchstone. A touchstone is a black silicon tablet, like slate, that is used to test the purity of soft metals.

To me, this implies that there is a process one goes through to determine the quality of one’s life.

Absolutely fascinating.

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes:

Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed (or tested) by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.

Interestingly, this is exactly what we find in another parable referred to as the Unmerciful Servant.

For context, Peter asks Jesus how many times a person ought to be forgiven. Jesus responds that we should not simply forgive seven times, but rather forgive “seventy times seven,” which is a direct reference to The Year of Jubilee within Judaism.

According to Jewish law, the Israelites were instructed to celebrate a Sabbath year at the beginning of every seventh year. This meant that every seventh year the land, animals, and people were to be given a rest from work. It was a time for rejuvenation and replenishment.

And then, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years (49 years) the people would celebrate by proclaiming freedom throughout the land, returning land to their original owners, and cancelling all debts. The poor would no longer be oppressed and all slaves would be set free.

This was The Year of Jubilee.

It was a time of resetting and righting inequities and injustices.

So what about a cycle of 70 Jubilees times seven?

Theologian NT Wright writes, “That sounds like the Jubilee of Jubilees! So, though 490 years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and lasting freedom.”

So to Peter, Jesus is suggesting that we keep forgiving until all is restored, that we keep forgiving until all is made right, that we keep forgiving until all are made free, that we keep forgiving until all are redeemed, and that we keep forgiving until every debt is paid.

That’s when he tells the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

It is a story about a king who forgives the debt of a servant who owes him ten thousand talents, or about twenty years worth of wages. The servant then goes to a fellow servant who owes him significantly less money and demands that he repay it immediately. But because his fellow servant could not repay it, he threw him in prison.

Based upon the context in which this parable was told, with the Jubilee of Jubilees hovering closely in the background, where do you think this parable is heading?

How do you expect the king to now treat his servant who was unmerciful to the other servant? And if the king represents God, how do you expect God to treat those who unmerciful to others?

The way the story is typically translated and understood by Christians is that, like the King, God will torture people in Hell who are unmerciful to others.

But shockingly, guess which word shows up in this parable?

Básanos.

It says that the king, in his settled, controlled anger (orgē), hands the slave over to the inquisitor, not to be tortured, but to face the truth of who he had become and to test the quality of his life until the debt is repaid.

But see, that is the kicker. What debt needs to be repaid to God?

The only debt that needs repaid is love.

In the context of the Jubilee of Jubilees, or in light of the “greatest redemption,” we know that God is a God of forgiving all debts in love, forgiving until all is restored in love, forgiving until all is made right in love, forgiving until all are made free in love, and forgiving until all are redeemed in love.

And that is the thing about facing the refining fire of God’s love, or facing the inquisitor, or being salted with fire, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is not for the sake of retribution and punishment. It is for the sake of individual transformation and wholly restoring a person into a right relationship with God and with others.

And to be honest, that’s why so many Christians misunderstand so many passages throughout the New Testament, because they read it as if the whole point is wrath and punishment rather than forgiveness, mercy, and restoration.

For instance, many Christians read Romans 9, not as a set of rhetorical questions that Paul is asking as a part of a larger thought, but as an apocalyptic horror story read without context in which God creates objects of wrath for the purpose of destruction.

I, however, read the larger thought of Romans 9-11 as a fitting end to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

It is about how God’s kindness and mercy will ultimately prevail and lead to Israel’s restoration, despite her unrighteousness.

In fact, Romans 11 ends by stating that, despite everyone’s disobedience and unrighteousness, God has “mercy on them all.

Imagine that.

Whether it is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus or the King and the Unmerciful Servant, or whether it is Jesus’ words about forgiveness and the Jubilee of Jubilees or Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, what we consistently find woven throughout every word and every account is a forgiving and merciful God who is always working for the restoration of people and relationships, who is always working toward Eden, who is always working toward shalom.

And it is this kindness of God that leads to repentance and transformation and whole and healed relationships.

Just like Jenny’s kindness when I didn’t deserve it.

It was her forgiveness and mercy that helped me see the truth of who I was and what I had become. Sure it produced a grief and sorrow within me that was painful to face. But it led to my own transformation and then to a restoration of our relationship… and then to a beautiful marriage with three kids.

The truth is that some people are able to discover the kindness and mercy of God, and then face the reality of who they have become. Some sooner than others. Some even be in this lifetime.

But whether it’s now or sometime in the future, we all will face the consuming fire of God’s love. But it’s not the fire of Hell for eternity we have been threatened with our whole lives.

I know a few of you were salivating and licking your chops, imagining that I left Hades dangling without address. No worries though. In HELL 8, we will finally get to HELL. Yes, we are going to go there. All the way.

Peace…

Brandon

HELL 6

This series must be read in order. Start with HELL 1 here.

I remember watching the Christmas classic Home Alone for the first time when I was about seventeen years old. If you haven’t seen this movie, it is about an extended family rushing to leave for a Christmas vacation, but through the rush of the early morning chaos, they accidentally leave eight-year old Kevin at home.

Running through the early part of the movie was a rumor in which Kevin believed that a scary-looking, bearded, old man named Marley had murdered his family and half the neighborhood with a snow shovel and was storing them in garbage cans full of salt. Marley was known by those who heard the rumors as the “South Bend Shovel Slayer.”

And as you can imagine, while Kevin was trying to overcome his fear of being left at home alone, he had a couple of encounters with old man Marley that further terrified him, not least of which was their encounter at a church service on Christmas Eve.

Although petrified upon facing the old man, Kevin discovered from Marley that all of the rumors and mischaracterizations about him were untrue. Not only was he at the church that night to watch his granddaughter sing, he was also secretly hoping to reconcile a broken relationship with his son. In one of the most revealing lines of the movie, Marley tells Kevin, “You don’t have to be afraid. There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”

I’m not much for movie examples like this, but it could not be any more perfect in the way that it captures how the majority of Christians misconstrue God as a violent and retributive deity, while God is really a god of peace and love and wants to reconcile with every child.

There are bits and pieces about God that have been read flatly from the Old Testament. There are passages and parables about God that have been taken out of context from the New Testament. There are words about God that have been egregiously translated by committees trying to maintain doctrines, theologies, and beliefs developed hundreds of years after Christ but that the majority of Christians now believe as orthodox teaching.

Like old man Marley, people have formulated ideas about God and what God must be like. One could say that, “There’s a lot going around about God, but none of it’s true.”

I recently asked a few dozen of my Christian and post-Christian friends how they have always understood “God’s wrath.”

Taken together, their responses described a schizophrenic deity that sometimes loves people so much that he would be willing to die for them, but then at other times, a deity that views people, especially non-Christians, as objects of impending vengeance and destruction who he dangles over a chasm of hell-fire for simply existing, or for not loving him back the right way.

It’s the open-armed God of love and restoration inviting us into a relationship of shalom, but whose dark side, the wild-eyed and vindictive god of retribution, is always around the corner ready to bash in our skulls if we step out of line.

And just so you don’t think I am over dramatizing the bloodthirsty monster god motif, Brian Jones writes in his book Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It):

Jesus rescued you from falling into the hands of Someone larger than your mind can conceive, stronger than the combined strength of a trillion nuclear explosions, a holy God destined to unload the complete, unrestrained force of His wrath on you for offending His holy nature.

Hell isn’t your friend’s biggest problem; God is. Hell is simply the end result of God’s justified wrath. It’s the final permanent expression of his anger towards those who have purposely chosen to reject His lordship over their lives.

There is no other way to say it, but this mindset is sick and twisted and sadistic.

And it is heartbreaking how a God described by Jesus as love-essence and who was enfleshed so beautifully in Jesus, has been reconstituted into a distorted and monstrous deity that hates us so much and thinks so little of us that the only thing that would satisfy his wrath and keep his “holiness” intact is to “violently torture his son his on a cross.”

But even if your image of God is not quite so horrific and contorted, you may still be wondering how God is going to deal with serial killers, sex traffickers, genocidal maniacs, perpetuators of systemic enslavement and oppression, rejectors of God, and the like.

These people deserve God’s wrath for the way they have shaken their defiant fists at God and hurt other people along the way, right?

I guess it depends on what the word “wrath” actually means and then toward what end we are ultimately moving.

I submit that the word “wrath” isn’t “like a trillion nuclear explosions” unloading God’s fury and rage on the unrepentant. Even more, I submit that the end toward which we are moving with God is not retributive in nature, but rather restorative.

Let’s start with the Greek words for wrath.

There are only two words in Greek that have been translated as wrath in the New Testament. They are orgē and thumos and neither mean anything close to the meanings we now associate with God’s wrath.

Understanding each word will be absolutely essential as we look at parables and other passages throughout the New Testament that mention God’s wrath.

Orgē, which is translated as wrath throughout the New Testament, means a settled anger.

It is not explosive rage or vengeance. It is not hostile or retributive.

Orgē “proceeds from an internal disposition that steadfastly opposes someone or something based on extended personal exposure.” (Source: HELPS Word-Studies, Gary Hill)

In other words, as a person exists in relational disunion (sin) with God, and then continually lives out of that disunion by perpetuating wrongdoing and injustice (sin), it angers God.

But it is a settled and controlled anger.

Not explosive.

God longs for all of creation to exist in shalom, for each of us to live in oneness and wholeness with God, within ourselves, and with others. However, when a person rejects this freedom and love in God and then goes on to abuse others and perpetuate injustice, it angers God.

But it has nothing to do with an outburst of rage, vengeance, or retribution toward anyone.

It is an anger, but again, it is settled and controlled and fixed.

The other Greek word, which is also translated as fury or wrath and which is now my favorite Greek word ever, is thumos.

Despite what your Greek translation books state, thumos is an ambiguous word that is difficult to translate. It is better translated as “spiritedness” than “wrath.” (Classical Wisdom)

Plato used an allegory to demonstrate this spiritedness in which two horses, one black and one white, steer a chariot. The dark horse represented man’s desires, which can be chaotic and lawless. The white horse represented the spiritedness of thumos, which can be noble, courageous, and heroic. The idea was that when both horses are in balance the charioteer can successfully navigate the chariot.

To take this idea of thumos further, it is one’s passion that can manifest in a variety of emotions, from love to joy and from grief to anger. The key is how the thumos is harnessed. Plato suggested that the spirited energy and passion of thumos can be guided either toward negative or positive ends. But when directed positively, it can be guided in beauty, truth, and goodness. And on that positive end, thumos stands up for what is right, is ready to defend what is good and right, and is even willing to sacrifice itself when opposed, surrounded, and ready to be killed.

This is why it is dangerous to flatly translate thumos as anger or wrath. Because in verses attributed to human beings, thumos may very well mean anger or wrath, as the black horse of chaos and lawlessness overrides that which works toward beauty, truth, and goodness.

But when thumos is applied to God in Jesus, it is a spiritedness and passion to stand up against injustice and lawlessness. It is the deep resolve to defend the cause of the weak, the outcast, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the victimized, and the oppressed. It is the passion to sacrifice, even to the point of death, for beauty, truth, and goodness to flourish for all.

And I don’t think it is any coincidence that when thumos (thymou) is mentioned in Revelation 19, it is Jesus who rides in on a white horse named Faithful and True. Yes, the white horse motif not only captures all of the cultural nobility of the time, but in light of our discussion on the spiritedness and passion of Plato’s white horse, it captures so much more.

For it is Jesus, in his passion, who stands up against the oppositional forces in honor, not to wage a retributive war against evil, but to sacrifice himself in order to demonstrate that it is love, not vengeance, which is victorious.

It is Jesus whose robe is described as sprinkled in blood (his own blood) before the battle even began. It is Jesus who tramples the winepress of his own passion. It is Jesus whose sword is the truth of all that is good and righteous and pierces the hearts of all mankind. And it is Jesus and his kingdom of love that prevails and will shepherd all people justly.

Had the New Testament writers wanted to use a Greek word that implies supernatural anger and rancor and the “ultimate sanction against taboo behaviors,” they would have chosen a word like mênis.

But they didn’t.

They used orgē and thumos.

God’s orgē is settled and controlled and solidified against those who reject the life found in God and who perpetuate injustice. But it is the spirited passion of God that stands in truth and love against injustice and lawlessness and that consumes like a refiner’s fire so only beauty, truth, and goodness remain.

In HELL 7 we will explore Romans 9, the parable of Lazarus, and the parable of the unmerciful servant that discuss God’s wrath in order to determine if God is working toward a retributive and punitive end or a restorative end.

Peace…

Brandon

HELL 5

If you haven’t read HELL 1, HELL 2, HELL 3, or HELL 4 please start with those posts here.

God is not a vengeful, wrath-filled god ready to punish the unrepentant by sending them to Hell for eternity, but rather a Father who has always been seeking, pursuing, and longing for a relationship with us.

Even when we have created relational distance from God (sin), even when we have lived out of this disunion (sin), the Father has always been welcoming us back with open arms saying, “You are always with me. Everything I have is yours. Even when you have walked away.”

There have been those thus far in this HELL series who view God very differently and who believe I am painting too generous a picture of God by focusing on God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness to the neglect of God’s wrath and judgment, which we will get to later in this post and next. But first, it is essential to understand the nature and character of God before we can even begin to understand anything else.

I view the biblical narrative as an unfolding revelation of God’s true nature and character that ultimately and definitively culminates in Jesus.

Early in the story, rays of God’s true nature would occasionally break through the dark clouds and shadows of human misconception. But even in that time, God’s full revelation was still obscured and not fully visible.

What we find in the biblical narrative is a story of humanity projecting and attributing their tribalism, barbarism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, misogyny, and genocide onto God (like many still do today). And through the millennia, we find God patiently and lovingly absorbing these character assaults, while bearing with, and many times accommodating, these mischaracterizations until God’s full nature and character is finally (and ultimately) revealed in Christ.

How extraordinarily patient and loving and beautiful is the God revealed in Jesus.

In Jesus, the true light of the world, God’s nature and character was fully revealed without occlusion. And what we discover is, not a hostile, retributive, or punishing disposition, but a patient, forgiving love that gives of itself, even to the point of death, for friend and enemy alike.

And that is who God has always been.

So in all the ways God was previously understood, and in all the ways we have manufactured a god in our own image, these inferior portraits of God should all now completely fade into how God is understood through the embodied and crucified Christ.

The revelation of God in Jesus supersedes all other caricatures of God, because it is the only image that fully captures who God is.

Despite Old Testament depictions of God as a petulant, vindictive, vengeful, and monstrous deity, we are to no longer view God in that way. Because in Jesus, Paul writes, we discover the “image of the invisible God.” And, as Jesus says about himself, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

We can trust both of these voices in their conclusion that the nature and character of God is exactly like Jesus.

Even more, in Jesus’ actual teachings, he begins to redefine people’s ideas of God.

While there are countless examples of Jesus revealing the true heart of God as non-retributive, non-violent, and enemy-loving, one of the single greatest examples may not even be evident to the casual reader.

On the Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue, as was the custom. And when he got there he took the scroll of Isaiah and began to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

   because he has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

   and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

And while reading this passage, announcing the Year of the Lord’s Favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee), would have been shocking enough in its audacity, positioning Jesus as the one whom Isaiah was referencing, it is even more shocking in what Jesus didn’t read.

He didn’t really finish the sentence.

The entire line should have read, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.

Jesus lists all of the attributes that are true to God’s nature and character when reading the scroll… but then drops the single attribute that is inconsistent with the true nature and character of God.

And you know what? Jesus has quite a track record of doing that.

But why does Jesus spend so much time reframing people’s conceptions of God through his parables, through his teachings, through his life, and in this case, by selectively editing a prophet?

It’s because people had an incomplete and inferior picture of God, and it took Jesus to reveal the complete and final picture of God.

You may be wondering how understanding the true nature and character of God will help us understand God’s judgment and wrath, and then ultimately how we understand Hell.

Well, we have to know what kind of God we are dealing with in order to understand each of them accurately.

Because if God is really like Jesus, and not the retributive, vengeful, threatening character we have grown up believing, but rather a God who loves us, welcomes us, and longs for a relationship with us, then maybe our conception of God’s judgment and wrath have been off as well.

JUDGMENT

Even though God loves us, continually welcomes us, and desperately longs for a relationship with us, God also gives us the freedom to choose this relationship or to completely walk away from it without the threat of vengeance or retribution.

God never forces or coerces a person into a relationship.

We know this because we established that those characteristics are inconsistent with the God we see in Jesus.

True love can never be forced or coerced. And a loving relationship can never be built upon the fear of punishment. It has to be freely chosen.

Look at it this way.

If a husband tells his wife that she must love him, repent of all the ways she has betrayed him, and then ask for his forgiveness, or he will punish her for the rest of her life, common sense would suggest that, even if she went through all the necessary motions, she would never truly love him.

That’s because threatening a person into a relationship never allows a person to freely choose the relationship.

It is motivated by fear, not the choice to love. And God never works through fear, threats, damnation, or punishment to lead a person back into life and love.

When a person makes a conscious decision to walk away and live in relational disunion from God (sin) and to live out of this disunion (sin), even though God is lovingly standing there with open arms and welcoming them back into an abundant relationship, they have the freedom to choose this path.

But walking away from this relationship with God, the one in whom all life and love is found, is the punishment in and of itself, as they are ultimately choosing a path that leads to non-life.

Do you see that?

If God is the giver and sustainer of all life, then walking away from God is choosing non-life. For there is no life outside of God. But again, God always gives a person the freedom to choose the path of disunion and non-life.

And to me, this is not so much a judge reviewing a laundry list of “sins” and then ruling that a person is guilty and deserving of death, as much as it is a person standing before the judge saying, “This is the path I have chosen for myself and this is what I want.”

To that end, the judgment of God is simply giving a person what they have freely chosen- the freedom to walk away from life and into non-existence in the end.

In light of understanding God’s nature and character and what God’s judgment is, we can finally begin to discuss what the wrath of God is. That will be the subject of HELL 6.

Peace…

Brandon