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 3

If you haven’t read HELL 1 and HELL 2, please start here.

In my previous post, I called into question the idea of God sending people to an eternity burning in Hell, also known as Eternal Conscious Torment.

As you can imagine, there were many responses and questions to the post.

There were those who asked, “What about God’s judgment?” And others who asked, “Are you saying that anything goes then?”

All great questions.

And while we will get to those questions later in the series, the most prominent and important question that will actually help us begin navigating this topic of Hell is, “If there is no Hell, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”

For those who asked that question, there is an inextricable connection between the cross and Hell.

Within this framework, the cross is the only thing that keeps people from going to Hell, because it is where God’s anger and wrath were directed on Jesus rather than us. Jesus literally absorbed all of God’s anger toward us because of our sins and, as a result, saved us from God’s judgment and sentence to Hell for eternity.

Deep breath.

If you go to any church service on any given Sunday or hang out with Christians long enough, you will very likely hear something like this, “Thank you Jesus for what you did on the cross for us.”

And what that means is, “Thank you Jesus for dying on the cross to save me from my sins.”

Growing up in church, I heard all about sin. I sang all the songs about how the only thing that would “wash away my sins” was the “blood of Jesus.” And I was told that I needed to be saved from my sins so that I wouldn’t go to Hell when I die.

I had this idea that there were these sins that were infecting me and I was a terrible person for letting them do their bad work in me.

And if it wasn’t the old hymns that I sang that continued to tell me how “full of sin” I was and how I needed to “be made clean,” it was the Apostle Paul writing in Romans about how sin “rules” me and “enslaves” me. That sin “seized” the opportunity and “sprang to life” in me. That sin was “living” in me and “putting [me] to death.”

The implication was that these entities, these sins, were active and alive and doing something to me. And that to be “saved,” I needed to be washed of these sins that I have allowed to rule, reign, enslave, deceive, and kill me.

The thing we failed to recognize was that Paul was a writer who used literary devices to teach people and help them understand difficult concepts. In fact, after the section in which he uses personification to bring the concept of sin to life, he writes, “I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.”

Paul straight up tells the people that he is using literary language since they are having a hard time understanding sin.

Paul anthropomorphizes sin, or gives it human characteristics, as a teaching tool.

But as modern day readers, we have a real tendency to read ancient Scriptures flatly and at face-value, taking everything literally. And as a result, we have taken this literary language and created theologies and doctrines about sin as an entity that infects us and enslaves us and that needs to be cleaned, cured, washed away, and put into remission.

All the while, we have been told that we are horrible wretches who deserve God’s wrath, punishment, and Hell because of our sins. And then, we have turned Jesus and the cross into a cosmic magic trick to take away these sins, these dark stains, these evil blemishes so that we will be saved from God’s wrath and escape the flames of Hell.

But of course,  I have a few questions about all of this.

What if this narrative has been wrong all along? What if our misunderstanding of Paul’s literary language led us to certain conclusions about sin that were just plain wrong? What if sin isn’t something that has to be cured or put into “remission” in order to save us from Hell? What if sin is something else entirely? And what if an accurate understanding of it will help us understand what Hell really is?

I don’t know about you, but I am eager to find out.

I have previously written about the original Greek word for sin, hamartia, and that it means to be without a share in, or to miss the mark, or to stray. As you have heard before, it is a Greek archery term that indicates “missing the mark.” It is a relational position. In fact, to go a bit deeper, the root words for hamartia are- a/ (not) and /meros (a part, share of), which I find absolutely fascinating.

The word hamartia indicates that in our relational disunion with God, we are not taking part in our part or share of this abundance.

THAT IS THE DEFINITION OF SIN.

And it sounds a whole lot different than everything we’ve been told.

When we live out of our relational disunion with that which is LIFE and LOVE, namely God, our lives begin to look less than LIFE and LOVE. And that is truly what SIN is. It is living out of disunion with God.

Sin is NOT a thing. Nor is it an entity that infects us. It is a position of disunion out of which we begin to live our lives. And our sins are simply an outflow of this broken relationship. So when you hear a line like, “For the wages of sin is death,” it is not talking about an entity that infects us and causes us to die. Rather, it is the price we pay for living in disunion from the One who gives life.  

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that God’s intention for us has never been about sending us to Heaven or Hell because of our “sins.”

God’s intention has always been welcoming us back into a relationship, into union. It has always been about reconciliation, or bringing each of us back together with God in wholeness (shalom). It has always been about God offering us life in an abundant relationship and longing for us to enjoy our portion of this abundance.

You don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few parables and stories of Jesus. Because what you will discover is absolutely, positively mind-blowing. And I promise you have never looked at sin, the cross, or the idea of Hell from this perspective.

Read the next post in this series HELL 4 here

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.