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.

 

 

Benefit of a Doubt…

Over the years, I have had tons of people comment and reach out to me on this blog to ask questions, get clarification, and seek additional insight on a variety of topics. I love getting questions from people who are on their own faith journey, who are deconstructing their long held beliefs and belief systems, and who are asking tough questions through it all.

Maybe this is the way faith should have always been, people being honest about their questions, their struggles, and about their doubt. But we have long been in an era of ungraceful self-assuredness and self-righteous certitude that has pushed the inquisitive seeker away, and it has been likely rooted in our lack of understanding in the biblical narrative leading up to Jesus and in our fear of not having all the “right” answers to “keep people in the faith.” And, at the same time, we have sadly behaved as if we are communities of perfection, communities without a doubt.

To that end, we have left no room for honest movements of wrestling, questioning, or doubting. In fact, we have shamed, looked down upon, or even repudiated those who have been wrestling with their faith and then asking hard (but really good) questions about their faith and belief systems. We have acted as if there is no room under the grace of God for a little doubt, or that somehow the Almighty God is not capable of handling a few tough questions. 

Of course, this is ridiculous.

There is room for doubt in the grace of God… and of course God can handle our wrestling and our tough questions. But day after day and story after story from friends and acquaintances remind me over and over how poorly we operate within that space of grace and how incapable we are of walking through tough questions or a little doubt from fellow seekers. And it should not be surprising that many of these people have abandoned our churches in order to wrestle through their faith and deconstruct their belief systems, either in isolation or in more accommodating and graceful communities.

This is one of the main reasons the Church has lost a generation.

And if you don’t have any idea what I am talking about then this is why a generation has been lost.

The truth is that the church ought to be the community in which people can ask the toughest questions and wrestle through the most difficult topics because it has the grace enough to push the edges and love enough to handle the tension.

And it’s amazing how far grace and love can go in creating a healthy church community when a church is comfortable residing in the mysteries of God and existing in a humble posture of unknowing, while always holding the door open to fellow seekers and wanderers/wonderers.

I remember a time, as a young 30-something, when I was leading a Bible study of five or six couples. One week, at the beginning of the study, on the first question of the study, this new guy came in with his own question-gun blazing. Not only was he questioning the questions I asked… he was questioning me and my house-of-card faith. My flimsy card house was no match for his semi-automatic. He decimated me and my faith. I was so rattled that I closed out the study after ten minutes. I wasn’t prepared for questions or thoughts outside of what I knew about my faith.  It was brutal.

But even now, being in a place where I am well-studied and well-versed in the Bible and in answering tough questions of faith, I understand that people rarely want canned “Bible answers,” or lessons in how they need to read their Bibles more, or platitudes on how we will “pray for their faith.” People need room to wrestle and grapple with their faith. They need us to be with them without cheap one-liners or generic platitudes. And they need graceful and loving people to gently walk alongside them through it all.

We are shepherds, not judges.  We are those who walk among, not ahead. We are those who walk as fellow seekers, not as those who have already crossed the finish line.

This reminds me of some sage advice I received early in my marriage when someone told me that the best thing I can do when my wife is struggling through something. They told me to ask her, “Do you want me to fix your problem or just listen?” They were spot on. Much of the time my wife just wanted me to be there listening to her… rather than trying to fix the problem.

And that’s where we are at in our culture.

Yes, there is truth. And yes, we may have all the biblical answers. But there is a generation of people who are genuine seekers, askers, and knockers who are looking for a safe space, filled with the grace and love of God, to dig below the surface of tradition, to challenge the status quo of belief, and discover a more vibrant and robust faith that is built upon more than surface-level assumption and convenient ritual.

But in order to be a faith community that can handle tough questions, we have to be built upon and rooted in the radical grace and love of God, rather than faith-limiting fear.

And despite this being a seemingly self-evident fact, the reason I know this to be true is because I, too, have had (and continue to have) questions about everything I believe and I am in regular, daily community with others just like me.

What I have found is that asking questions, even and especially the hardest questions of faith, does not diminish or undermine my faith. To the contrary, and in so many ways, asking tough questions has actually strengthened my faith. Being that I am never satisfied, and all too unsettled with cookie-cutter answers, I am always pushing to understand more deeply and find greater clarity in what Jesus meant for his followers. I continue to seek, ask, and knock even when it may challenge or make others uncomfortable.

And while I am a better man of faith for it, I am not sure if I have ever felt that my questioning of, or having doubts about, the status quo, our tightly held belief systems, or long practiced traditions has ever been welcomed or encouraged in the church context.

I wonder how many prophetic voices the Church has silenced for self-preservation? How many people the Church has lost in it’s self-righteousness and self-assuredness?

The Church of the future is one in which we walk alongside each other patiently and graciously in love, wrestling together through the tough questions, finding peace in our unknowing, and embracing long-suffering as a community through moments of doubt. This Church will be known, not as a uniform entity comprised of perfect people with all the right answers that one needs to emulate. But rather, a diverse community with open doors that welcomes, and is not afraid of, honest questioning, seeking, and dialogue.

For both our individual faith and the faith of our church community will be better for it.

Always seeking…

Brandon