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 2

If you have not read the first post in the HELL series, you can read it here.

Let’s just dive headfirst into this.

If you believe the creation narrative in Genesis, your first observation should be that evil existed before the first humans were created.

I know that is a heavy idea and something you may have never fully considered, so you may want to reread that sentence a few more times before continuing.

Evil existed before the first human beings.

Evenmore, evil existed before their first decision to break shalom (sin) with God by literally, or figuratively, eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

And that point is essential to understand because, to our knowledge, the first humans, like us, did not have any say on entering a reality in which evil already existed.

People talk so much about Original Sin, the first sin of Adam disobeying God’s command, and then act like it is something uniquely terrible that this first human did. But we were put into a reality in which disobeying God is absolutely inevitable. There can be no other way. And it doesn’t matter if it was a guy named Adam, a gal named Eve, a kid named Cain, or any one of us today.

Just by virtue of being birthed into a hostile world in which evil already existed, we were placed in an impossible situation.

To me, it’s like a dad putting his toddler in a muddy backyard and then expecting her to stay absolutely clean.

But actually, it’s worse than that.

It’s like a dad putting his toddler in a muddy backyard, expecting her to stay completely clean, and then threatening her by saying, “If you get muddy I am going to lock you in the basement the rest of your life and torture you, unless you say you are sorry.”

You may be thinking, “Ok. I see your point, but the father offered to forgive her if she would just say that she is sorry.”

To which I would simply respond, “Should his little girl be obligated to say she is sorry for being placed in the muddy backyard by her father in order to avoid the father’s judgment, wrath, and torture?”

Any reasonable person would admit that this little girl was placed in an impossible situation, without her consent, and with a threat of punishment that seems completely illogical and sadistic. She never asked to be put in the muddy backyard in the first place. And forcing her to say that she is sorry for getting dirty seems ridiculous. And threatening her with a lifetime of torture is absurd. If this happened in your neighborhood, you would demand that child protective services be called and the father locked up.

A good father would never do this to his child.

And this is no different than our own existence on Earth.

If God created a reality in which evil existed before humanity, and then we were placed within that reality with the certainty that “we would sin,” then how is the burden on us? Isn’t the burden on God to resolve the situation of evil and not blame us for the impossible situation God put us in?

The fundamental question is, “Ought any human be punished for eternity for entering a reality, in which we did not agree, and to which we did not have any say, and for which we were never the original cause for evil?”

Because, if I had the choice of entering a reality in which the deck seemed impossibly stacked against me and the rest of humanity, with the incredibly large percentage of us going to Hell forever and ever and ever, I would have simply chosen to never enter this reality. The cosmic odds would be against taking that kind of risk. But see, we weren’t given that choice.

So, as it currently stacks up, if this predominant narrative of going to Hell for eternity (also called Eternal Conscious Torment) is true, then 95% of the people who have ever lived on this planet are destined for an eternity of suffering in the everlasting flames of Hell. Out of the approximately 110 billion people who have lived on Earth from the beginning until now, there have only been 5-6 billion Christians since the time of Jesus. And that’s a lot of people who will burn forever.

But are we supposed to believe that every person in history, except for professed followers of Jesus, will be burning in the flames of Hell for eternity?

What about every single person born before the death and resurrection of Jesus?

What about people born before the death and resurrection of Jesus, but who lived in the farthest reaches of the planet and who never heard of Jesus?

What about every single person born after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but who lived in the farthest reaches of the planet and who never heard about Judaism or the saving grace of God through Jesus?

What about every single person born into other religions and who never knew otherwise?

What about every person who ran away from God because their parents physically, emotionally, and verbally abused them in the name of God?

What about every person who never wanted anything to do with God because of the hateful wrath of those who yelled and screamed and damned and condemned in God’s name?

I have to tell you, and I am going to be brutally honest here, if God created a such an immensely difficult and impossible reality, and then made the entire point of it a single decision that we would make to determine whether we would spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, then God has already failed. There is no way any single person can look at 100 billion people burning in Hell for eternity, the overwhelming majority of which who never knew anything about Jesus, and think that God is anything close to victorious.

There is no Good News in that no matter how you spin it.

Again, if evil existed before a single human was created, then it is God’s situation alone to remedy. And if the majority of human beings are sent to Hell for eternity for something we did not create, cause, or choose in the first place, and then we are born into a random situation that is completely outside of our control, then God is immeasurably more horrific than the worst tyrant or dictator we could ever imagine.

The good news is that God is not a tyrant. And this is not the fate of mankind.

In fact, the idea of burning in Hell for eternity is utterly inconsistent with a God that we are told looks exactly like Jesus. Because if Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God, then how could the two be so radically different from each other?

And then, how could Jesus, not just preach radical, unmerited, unconditional forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love to friend and enemy alike, but then have the audacity to tell us to be the exact same way, if the God he represents is the complete opposite of that, demanding the most severe retribution and punishment for enemies?

We must conclude that we are either more moral and ethical than this God, who is willing to send billions of people to Hell for eternity? Or, we must conclude that we have monumentally misunderstood who God is and what God’s heart is for each one of us and what the fate of mankind is.

I know this all may be disorienting and hard to process. There is no question that you are likely thinking of all the verses and examples from the Bible that you could use to refute this post, but be patient and breathe. We will get to all of those verses and passages in short order. This is just the first step of many.

After reading this post, you may wondering why Jesus had to die if he is not saving people from an eternity in Hell. I am glad you asked. Read about that in HELL 3.

HELL 1

This is a thoughtfully written ten part series on Hell. I implore you, don’t just read the first post and run from it. Read the rest. It is well-considered and plentifully sourced. If, at the end, you disagree with the thoughts… no harm whatsoever. But please, read and pray and consider as you go along. Peace and love… Brandon

 

When I was a little kid I thought that Hell was deep in the ground.

And the Devil was there with fire.

And pitchforks.

And demons.

And a lot of thirsty people.

 

No matter who you are, some sort of Hell concept is imprinted in your mind. And whether it was formed by your past or current church experience, from watching pre-1990’s cartoons when you were little, from your hyper-zealous religious friends that you now keep at arm’s length, or from any other cultural reference, there is some sort of caricature of the Underworld each of us carries with us.

I was recently reminded of how pervasive this idea of Hell is in our culture when my almost eight year-old son started asking me about it. He didn’t hear about Hell from my wife or me. He didn’t hear about it from the church we attend. He constructed his idea of Hell from bits and pieces he picked up from television and the internet.

And I actually think this is a pretty amazing fact.

While much of late 20th and early 21st century American Christianity is responsible for permeating our culture with certain ideas of Hell, it is surprisingly pop culture that continues to perpetuate these caricatures. And these caricatures are what Will used to piece together his conception of Hell. One thing I should note here. Will told me that, in addition to the Devil and fire, Hell actually has ice sometimes. Not sure if he has heard the “when Hell freezes over” line, or if he has somehow watched an episode of Game of Thrones (he hasn’t), but I had to chuckle.

I don’t want to pretend as if the idea of Hell hasn’t been significantly influenced by many present day Christians, either.

Because it absolutely has.

I saw an online conversation the other day in which someone, who identifies as a Christian, simply questioned the concept of Hell and then was summarily attacked and ripped to shreds by the Christian hellhounds. For many modern day Christians, Hell is as foundational to belief as the Holy Trinity. And if you question it, you are out of line, at best, or a heretic, at worst. For much of modern day Christendom, Hell is a monolithic, unshakeable idea that should never, ever be questioned.

As one who questions everything, I have always found this fear of questioning by many Christians to be curious. Maybe it is the way I am wired, but I don’t believe something just because it is the only message in town or because someone says I should believe it. It could be the twenty plus years in sales that has made me skeptical of anyone selling anything, but I simply don’t buy the narrative unless I have researched, studied, and asked questions from every angle.

There is a reason why the Scriptures say that the primary posture of those looking for deeper truths in this life is to, “ask, seek, and knock,” rather than taking everything at face value. For if we are to seek and find ultimate Truth, then it is an essential discipline to question everything that stands in the way of that Truth. From my perspective, if the foundations of an idea are sturdy enough to withstand honest questioning, then maybe it is an idea worth believing. But again, I am not going to believe something just because someone tells me to believe it. I have played the telephone game one too many times growing up.

So while it is true that fear is a huge reason why few ask questions about Hell, I also recently discovered another reason which I think is equally pervasive.

The majority of Christians don’t ask questions about Hell because there isn’t, in their estimation, an alternative explanation for “what we are being saved from,” or “why we need a Savior.” From the perspective of many Christians, you have to have a Hell because Jesus had to die for something. And if he didn’t die to save us from Hell, then why did he die?  

To me, this is an absolutely heartbreaking perspective.

We have created a faith system in which the sole purpose of Jesus was “dying on the cross” to “save us from an eternity in Hell.” And faithful church-goers perpetuate this narrative because no one is offering a different perspective. But honestly, who is going to offer a counter-narrative when it breaks from tradition and may very well cost a preacher their job.

I guess that is the luxury of my position as a writer and why I can speak without filters, because this isn’t job security for me. I just ask questions, dig to find answers, and call it as I see it. And I am not interested in towing the company line if the evidence points in a different direction. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my conclusions are always exactly right, but it does mean that I am at least honestly wrestling with tough questions and honestly seeking where the evidence leads.

The truth is that I do, indeed, believe that we need to be saved and that we do, indeed, need a Savior. But it’s not from Hell. It has never been Hell, at least the Hell that each of us has grown up with, or that has been caricatured in our culture. We are not being saved from something, but saved into something. And that something is way more beautiful and life-giving than anything you can imagine.

So, if you are fearless and not afraid to ask tough questions, challenge your suppositions, and suspend your beliefs and judgments about Hell, then let’s walk together over the next four or five posts to get a clearer idea about who God is, what Jesus was working toward in his life and ministry, and what the ultimate fate of humanity actually is.    

Peace…

Brandon      

To read the next post in this series, HELL 2, click here.