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.

 

 

Good News? (A Quasi-Political Post)

I need you to trust me.

If you have followed my writings over the last decade you know that I do not like politics. In fact, I hate politics. I believe the confluence of politics and religion has been one of the greatest dividers and antagonizers within the Church as a whole. And, as a result, I spend my energy working to unite people from all political persuasions into the only thing that can cover a multitude of sins, a multitude of ideologies, a multitude of political persuasions- the love of God.

For it is the love of God, singularly, that can save us from ourselves, as impossible as that may seem sometimes.

But at the same time, you should know that since I do not care for either political party, I try to speak as much unbiased truth as I can, regardless of political affiliation. I don’t have skin in the game.

So with all of that being said, please know that my intention with this post is not to make some political statement, or to take some supposed political side, because I am not. Neither right nor left, blue nor red, liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat will save us. I am simply trying to work through some of the great divides I observe within the American Church in light of political influence and power.

This post began writing itself last week when I saw an article about Vice President Mike Pence, who by the way is from my hometown and my alma mater (Columbus, Indiana and Hanover College), addressing a pastors conference (and now the Southern Baptist Convention) in which he was a surprise speaker. It was this specific line that hit me, and then subsequently made me reflect upon it. It was when he told the audience of pastors to, “share the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Maybe that line doesn’t really stand out to you. In fact, I would be surprised if it did stand out to you in any appreciable way because it is the very backbone of Christianity and a very common thing for a Christian leader to say. So it’s no real surprise that someone would say something like that at a preachers conference.

But the reason it hit me in such a weird way the other day was because there is a growing number of Christians, like me, who see how un-Christlike our government is, whether it be the current administration or past administrations, and the Vice President’s call to “share the good news of Jesus Christ,” seemed to ring a bit hollow in light of the current un-Christlike administration.

I need to be clear here. I am not at all doubting the Vice President’s sincerity or his allegiance to his faith. That’s not it at all. As you will soon see, the main point of this post really doesn’t have anything to do with the Vice President or the administration. I truly believe that from Pence’s perspective, he believes that the work he is doing, and the work that the Trump administration is doing by proxy, is largely in alignment with the “good news of Jesus Christ.” And his rally cry at the preacher’s conference was his clarion call for them to join him in this good news mission. Again, I do not doubt his sincerity or allegiance to his faith at all.

I just believe it is mistaken and misaligned.

The problem is that there are those of us who see the “good news of Jesus Christ” differently, who see that the character and policies of the Trump administration (and the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations of the past) as un-Christlike, and who believe that any pronouncement of the “good news of Jesus Christ” ought to be accompanied by a people resolved to be like the Christ they profess to follow.

I want to be consistent, though. I am not saying that I believe a country should, or even could, be Christlike because I don’t think that is even possible, nor is it what Jesus ever intended. But, when Christianity is so actively and vociferously bandied about by the current administration, and then used as their basis for policy decisions, it begs for serious accountability and critique by those who take following the way of Jesus seriously.

So here are a few questions I would have.

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if it has no real bearing on us becoming more like Christ in our lives?

Ought not the preaching of the “good news of Jesus Christ” be accompanied by lives and initiatives that look Christlike?

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if the policies of the United States are rarely Christlike, or not Christlike at all?

What is so good about the “good news of Jesus Christ” if it really isn’t good news for people living today?

Does the Good News have any real world influence, or is it just something that guarantees a future in heaven?

Of course these questions are rhetorical, but they really bring to light the deeper problem we have within American Christianity in how we view the “good news of Jesus Christ,” and what it ought to mean for the here and now. And believe me, this problem is at the very center of the issues we have with each other in the larger American Church.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, we have two very different and distinct understandings of what the “good news of Jesus Christ” even is. And it is this difference in understanding that has led to very different ideas about what that means in the world and then how that ought to be expressed.

Some Christians believe the “good news of Jesus Christ” is the saving work of God through Christ accomplished through the death of Jesus on the cross in order to defeat sin and death, thereby satisfying the wrath of God and granting forgiveness to all who repent and are baptized so that they may go to heaven for eternity in a spiritual afterlife.

The limitation of this understanding of the “good news” is that it does not offer a cohesive moral lens through which to see the world. Because this understanding is largely end-oriented, it is significantly limited in how to view (and relate) to the world presently.

That is why many within this version of the “good news” have adopted the most accessible lens in front of them to understand the world- the Judeo-Christian American lens.

Within the vacuum created by only using Jesus as a means of salvation, but not the lens through which they view all things, they needed some sort of lens to make moral sense of our country and world. And the Judeo-Christian American lens was the most accessible, because it was the one handed down from generation to generation in America.

The problem is that the Judeo-Christian American ethic is a mishmash of selective and inconsistent ethics from the Old and New Testaments. And those who see the world through that Judeo-Christian lens seek to impose those values on the governmental system as their ultimate goal, because they believe it is what God has always wanted. The Judeo-Christian American ethic is believed to be fundamentally and unequivocally Christian by those Christians who use it as their lens, even though its ethics are thoroughly un-Christlike.

A Judeo-Christian American ethic is not a Christlike ethic. There is no such hybrid entity within Christ. To be a Christian means to follow the ethic of Christ. It does not mean ascribing to a mishmash of selective values that can be molded to your liking, or to your political leaning.

I am not pointing a finger of judgment here, because this is the quasi-Christian mumbo-jumbo that we have all been sold for generations. The problem is that a Judeo-Christian American ethic is not a Christlike ethic and we are mistaken if we believe they are synonymous.

However, there are those, including me, who believe that the “good news of Jesus Christ,” which Jesus and Paul referred to as the “good news of the Kingdom of God,” is an entirely different nation and citizenship without boundaries or divisions or hierarchies, and whose values look exactly, and consistently, like the king in this kingdom… Jesus.

Yes, we still believe that the forgiveness of God was given to all as a peace-offering through Christ crucified, that sin and death were triumphed over in the resurrection of the Christ, and that God longs for all to repent (for all to change their minds about God and be transformed in the process of reconciling their relationship) and to be immersed heart, mind, body, and soul into this new reality of living, this Kingdom of God.

But it goes much further than that. Jesus isn’t simply a means to an end. Jesus is the means and the end. Jesus isn’t just good for getting to heaven. Jesus is the template and the lens by which we pattern our lives and through whom we see all things.

The good news of the Kingdom of God stands in sharp contrast to the selective and inconsistent morality of the Judeo-Christian American lens.

For example, when we say “pro-life,” we believe that God loves all life from womb to tomb, not just in the womb, because that is what Jesus taught and what Jesus embodied. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that all people are loved and worthy. And in this Kingdom, like Jesus, one does not see enemy-combatants or people worthy of death row or illegal aliens or garbage human beings or humans referred to as animals. We simply see people who are made in the image of God and loved by God. We see, like Jesus, people that we are to love with our heart, mind, body, and soul. And that may make us stupid and worthy of ridicule for loving so recklessly, but it is consistently with who Jesus called his followers to be.

And that is just one difference, among so many, between the selective and inconsistent Judeo-Christian American ethic and the universal and consistent good news of the Kingdom of God. It is easy to know how to see the world and other people when Jesus alone is the lens through which we see all things.

Let me give another example to illustrate the profound difference between the two lenses.

A Pew Research article posted on May 24, 2018 looked at whether or not the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees.

Of every single demographic analyzed in the study, from age to gender to class to ethnicity to education level, the groups MOST AGAINST the United States accepting refugees were the white, Protestant Evangelicals at nearly 70% and white, Protestants at 50%.

The people of Jesus. The people of compassion. The people who have become the very “body of Christ” in the world. The people of the “Good News.” The people who are to see others as Jesus sees them, is the single demographic MOST AGAINST accepting and helping a refugee.

When a Christian religion adopts a lens through which to view the world that is in stark contrast to the lens of Jesus, this is exactly what we end up with. Whether or not one breaks an American law, whether or not a person deserves the help, whether or not the person comes from another country or not, the good news of the Kingdom of God welcomes in and cares for the foreigner, the outcast, and those pushed to the edges of society. The good news of the Kingdom of God has deep, deep compassion for the poor seeking a better life, for those being hunted and killed by their own domestic oppressors, and for those seeking religious asylum from violent regimes. A people who understands the good news of the Kingdom of God is not singularly concerned preaching about the self-sacrificing Christ. We are resolved to pattern our lives after, and see the world through, the self-sacrificing Christ.

That’s the difference.

And I believe that is why there are so many Christians who think that the current administration is “doing the Lord’s work,” while there are just as many of us Christians who believe the current administration is an affront to Christ. Because without making Jesus the lens through which all things are seen, one can pick and choose which ethical concerns are “more important” or more “politically satisfying” or “more in line with American interests,” than with the Jesus they profess to follow.

It may be time for us to have deeper discussions with each other about what the good news is and what it really means for the world today.

Peace…

Brandon