Monday, October 29, 2007

Divine Wrath

[This is an except from the book The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald]

Hell is usually seen as the full manifestation of God’s wrath. The theological issue concerns the nature of that wrath. God is not like some pagan deity with a bad temper who may “lose it” at any moment. New Testament scholar Chris Marshall writes that wrath

designates God’s fervent reaction to human wickedness. God’s refusal to tolerate, compromise with, or indulge evil … wrath is not a chronic case of ill temper on God’s part but a measured commitment to act against evil and injustice in order to contain it and destroy it … it is not so much a matter of direct, individually tailored punitive intervention as it is a matter of measured withdrawal of his protective influence and control, a refusal to intervene to stem the deleterious effects of human rebellion.

A key biblical foundation for the idea that wrath is primarily God’s withdrawing his protection is found in Romans 1:18-32, where God’s wrath is revealed from heaven when God gives people up to pursue their self-destructive sinful desires. The wrath is God’s letting them slide down the path to destruction. In Joel Green’s words, “wrath is … God … handing people over to experience the consequences of the sin they choose (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; cf. Wis 11:11-16; 12:23).”

If we think of hell as the state in which God allows the painful reality of sin to hit home, then we can understand both the terrible imagery used in Scripture to portray such a fate and the urgent warning to avoid the wide road that leads in that direction. It also removes the objection that God is being presented as a cosmic torturer hurting people until they agree to follow him. God does not torture anybody – he simply withdraws his protection that allows people to live under the illusion that sin is not necessarily harmful to a truly human life. The natural (though none the less God-ordained) consequences of sin take their course, and it becomes harder and harder to fool oneself into believing the seductive lies of sin anymore. In this way hell is educative and points us towards our need for divine mercy.

Divine wrath is experienced now (Rom 1:18-32) and in the future (Rom 2:5, 8; 1 Thess 1:10; 5-9; Col 3:6). It is John’s Gospel that really brings out the connections between the two. John writes that “whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already …” (John 3:18). The eschatological condemnation that stands over those who are not born from above (John 3:1-15) is not only their future destiny but also their present experience. This means that we should not set God’s present and his future wrath up as if they were totally different kinds of things. God’s wrath in the present is a foretaste of the same phenomena that some will experience in the future. So understanding something of the nature of wrath now will give us some theological orientation for better understanding future wrath.

Well, as far as the church goes, God brings punishment; but it is always to protect them and to rescue the offender. Divine judgments in the present age are usually seen as reformative and educative (Heb 12:5-11; Tit 2:11-12; Rev 3:19; 1 Cor 11:29-32), though they are occasionally destructive (Acts 5:1-11). 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is an interesting case study. Paul asks the church to hand a consistently sinful church member over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” The punishments serve as a call to repentance. Chris Marshall writes that the purpose of God’s punishments is “ultimately redemptive and restorative. The point is not to torment human beings but to enable them to see their moral frailty and their consequent need for God’s healing assistance.” My suggestion is that we see the punishment of hell as fundamentally the same kind of punishment, albeit in a more intense form.

One text that brings out the perspective on punishment I am commending to readers here is Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness … For men are not cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.

This text of Lamentations reflects on Israel’s exilic sufferings and especially the sufferings of those who have been left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem. Right at the heart of the book lies this word of hope. Yes, the Lord has brought us grief and has cast us off but he derives no pleasure from treating us in this way, and he will not do so forever. Because of the Lord’s faithful, covenant love the final word is Restoration! …

… Once we see that God’s justice is more than mere retribution but is also restorative, and once we see that divine punishments are more than deserved but also corrective, then a way is open to see God’s final punishment as another manifestation of this very same justice and not something qualitatively different. It is retributive but also restorative. It is deserved but also corrective. Divine wrath can be seen as the severe side of divine mercy. It is just as much an act of God’s love as is his kindness. Granted, it is a side of God’s love it would be better not to experience but it is none the less loving for that.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Drew Marshall

I love this guy. I just learned about him the other day and have been poking around his website; reading his blogs and listening to archived broadcasts. He hosts Canada's top Christian radio program. He is funny, irreverent and authentic. His pet peeve is "North American cultural Christianity". He openly calls Benny Hinn a fraud. He interviewed the Canadian Wiccan High Priest and the head of the Canadian Church of Scientology on his show. Today he will be interviewing David DiSabitino, who made the documentary "Frisbee: Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher", which I've blogged about in the past. Recently Marshall hired two college students, a male "agnostic" and a female "pagan" to visit five churches with with him and discuss their reactions on the air. His website is

Apparently, Marshall caused quite a stir in Canada when he appeared on "100 Huntley Street", Canada's top Christian TV show which appears to be something along the lines of "The 700 Club". It was such a disaster that the episode has never been rebroadcast and was removed from the online video archives of "100 Huntley Street". Mail poured in to the TV program; 60% in his favor and 40% against.

See what you think...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Book review: Amish Grace

On October 2nd, 2006, we were all shocked and horrified at the news that a man in Pennsylvania had barricaded himself into a one-room schoolhouse with ten Amish schoolgirls, lined them up on the floor and shot each one in the head. Five girls died. Five survived. The man then turned the gun on himself, committing suicide as police stormed the building.

The public’s disgust at this heinous crime turned to amazement as reports began to circulate about how the Amish community was dealing with the tragedy. Although the Amish themselves were extremely reticent to speak to the press, tales began surfacing of how they were responding in completely unexpected ways. For example:

• Within hours of the shooting, Amish leaders sought out and consoled the family of the gunman (who was not Amish).
• According to survivors the eldest of the victims, 13 year old Marian Fisher, had told the gunman “Shoot me first”, probably in hopes of buying the other girls more time and to set an example for them of how to die courageously.
• More than half of the attendees at the gunman’s funeral were Amish friends and relatives of the victims.
• As donations poured in from around the world, the Amish decided that a portion should go towards providing for the wife and children of the gunman.
• Almost immediately, the Amish, including the parents of the slain and wounded girls, expressed their forgiveness towards the gunman.

Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center of Elizabethtown College and author of numerous books about the Amish, was at the scene within hours of the crime and worked as a liaison between the Amish and the press.

Kraybill, along with Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher – both college professors and experts on Amish culture – have written a book that not only details the events surrounding the schoolhouse shooting, but also allows us to look beyond the subcultural trappings of buggies, beards, black hats and bonnets to see a people who are courageously gentle, earnestly devout and very human. The book, entitled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, provides rich insights into how the Amish were able to respond so quickly and in a way that dumbfounded the world.

The book is divided into three parts:

Part One chronicles the events themselves: the shooting, its aftermath and the reactions of both the Amish and the general public.

Part Two provides a look at Amish history, theology and culture and highlights how forgiveness is central to the Amish way of life.

Part Three delves deeper into the meaning of forgiveness as contrasted with similar concepts of pardon and reconciliation. The Amish practice of “shunning” is examined to see if it is contradictory or complementary to forgiveness. Lastly, the authors explore what lessons we outsiders can learn and apply from the Amish, while making it clear that much of the secret of Amish grace comes from the culture in which they are so deeply rooted: a culture which most of us would find far too constraining on our personal freedoms.

I found Amish Grace to be a profoundly moving book. I literally consumed it from cover to cover while on a cross-country flight, having to stop periodically to compose myself and wipe away tears. The authors write in a style that is sensitive and avoids sensationalism. The book, like the Amish themselves, is thoughtful, frank, fair, understated and challenging. Above all, it is inspiring.

For more information:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Things I do on an airplane to amuse myself

I have to travel on a regular basis, typically by air. This is where I get a lot of my reading and writing done. But I always try to book a window seat so I can engage in another pastime I've developed to while away the hours in the plane: I load up Microsoft Streets & Trips (without the GPS) on my laptap, set the zoom level to about 175 miles and track what I'm flying over. I'm able to locate and identify rivers, lakes, highways, towns, etc., and watch the steady progress of my flight; periodically scrolling the screen to keep myself in the center, as if the world is turning under me.

As I type this, I'm over Southern Idaho flying in a Northwesterly direction towards Seattle. Looking down I can see I-15 and the tiny towns of McCammon and Inkom; places I'll probably never see at ground level. Not too far ahead is the small city of Pocatello and then the American Falls Reservoir. I know from my map that the Craters of the Moon National Monument will be coming up beneath me in mere minutes, even though it's not in the range of my window view yet.

The middle seat is unoccupied. Sitting in the aisle seat is a well-dressed Korean businessman. He seems slightly perturbed by the way I keep staring out the window, then referring back to my computer; back and forth. We're over Ketchum and Sun Valley now and he is openly staring at me. Perhaps he thinks I'm a terrorist of some sort. Or maybe just an odd person.

There are a lot of reasons why I like this airplane mapping game. It keeps me in the moment. I know where I am, where I've been and what's coming up ahead. Maybe that gives me the illusion of a slightly expanded view of both time and place. There's also a feeling of accomplishment each time I'm able to recognize something from this perspective. It reminds me of the travel game my parents gave my sister and I, to keep us busy on long car trips, where we could score Bingo! by spotting a cow and a bus and a barn and a railroad-crossing sign.

I wonder about the people below me as I pass overhead. What's it like to live in Inkom, Idaho? Who made all those dirt roads and for what purpose? Where is that lonely car going on that arrow straight road through the center of that valley? What's that man-made geometric pattern doing in the middle of nowhere?

If only it were this easy to track life itself. To see the big picture and correspond it to the map. To know exactly where I am, where I've been and where I'm going. So often I forget the lessons from my past that I thought I'd learned. And where I think I am at present so often turns out to be completely off the mark.
And the future could go in any direction.

This reminds me of last week's Bible study at the jail. We read the story in John 1:35-39 where Jesus gets His first two disciples. They see Him walking by and begin to follow. Jesus turns around to them and says, "What do you want?" "Where are you staying?", they ask. "Come, and you will see.", replies Jesus mysteriously. And that's how it is following Jesus. He says, "Follow me.", and we want the details. Where to? For how long? To do what? We want to see the map. He just smiles that sly smile and says, "Come, and you will see."


I turned my laptop towards the aisle and showed the Korean businessman what I was doing. I pointed out on the map where we presently were. He laughed and asked, "How far Tacoma?"

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Last year, about this time, we had a great discussion on The Narrow Path about Halloween.

This year the discussion has been revived. Steve F posted a link to an excellent article about Halloween which you can read here. I recommend that you take a few moments and read it.

I've maintained for a long time that Christians make themselves (and Christianity as a whole) look foolish when they buy into alarmist propaganda about Halloween or Satanic Ritual Abuse (remember the big SRA scare/fad in the '80's?) or Proctor & Gamble's logo or any number of other urban myths and hoaxes.

We are called to be people of light and truth. We should diligently seek out the truth and bring it to light for others, not perpetuate myths, lies and hysteria.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Quaker Wisdom

"Even in the Apostles' days, Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in these matters; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practice.

For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and Life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk."

- Isaac Pennington

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm usually no too crazy about mimed skits set to music. That particular form of artistic expression is just not my cup 'o Kool-Aid.

So, the first time I watched this video of a just such a church skit, I must admit, I gave it about 10 seconds and then shut it off. However, I kept hearing other people say how powerful and moving it is, so I decided to give it another look.

I'm glad I did. Turns out, they were right. It's really, really good!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hell: The movie

I recently spotted, at the video store, a Jean-Claude Van Damme film called "In Hell". I couldn't help but wonder if the story takes place at a Jean-Claude Van Damme film festival!

But seriously folks, I recently stumbled upon a pretty cool 4-part video entitled "What About Hell?", which was created by a Christian Universalist. You can watch all four parts here, or go the the film-maker's website here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Jail Diary

I went back to jail last night.

After nearly a three month hiatus -- during which we sold our house, moved to a new place, got the kid off to college, etc. -- Carla and I returned to our ministry at the county jail. We conduct a Bible study one night a week and lead a Chapel service every other Sunday.

During our time off, a strange thing happened. I began to feel -- I don't quite know how to describe it -- Dry. Brittle. Hollow. I began to detect a creeping cynicism in my outlook on life. Slowly, almost imperceptably, a change was occuring within me. I busied myself with theological studies (and debates) but they began to feel like nothing more than academic exercises. Worst of all, God felt distant. I questioned Him about this but there was no response. Only a dull, dry silence.

I knew something was amiss, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't until last night that I saw what had been going on.

Last night Carla and I sat on plastic chairs at a round table in a brightly lit "multi-purpose room" at the jail. We were joined by three inmates, whom I'll call Kenny, Myron and Ray. I won't bore you with too many details of what transpired, but I will say that for the first time in three months, I felt alive and invigorated. I felt the Holy Spirit. Around us. In us. Through us.

Kenny has been a Christian since January of this year. That seems to make him the expert on matters Biblical and Theological. He wanted me to discuss the structure and organization of the Bible and I obliged him, explaining how it's best to think of the Bible, not like a book, but like a library.

Myron is a handsome and intensely quiet Native American in his (I'm guessing) mid-twenties. He prayed the Lord's Prayer, led by Kenny, last week. So now he is a Christian (according to Kenny). As we read and discussed scripture, Myron began to open up bit by bit. When I explained that, prior to becoming a Christian, I knew nothing about Jesus except that He died on a cross and I was supposed to somehow feel guilty about, Myron grinned and nodded. "Exactly!", he said.

Myron told me how he grew up in New Mexico. How he nearly died several times as a child. He told me that for as long as he can remember he had been filled with anger and hatred. As we read scripture and talked about Jesus, Myron's eyes clouded over with tears. I could see a battle raging within him between hardness and softness. Dark and light. Love and hate. Anger and forgiveness. Carla read 1 Corinthians 13 and we talked about love. We talked about the God who is love. Myron's eyes clouded over again. "I've never loved anyone.", he whispered, "I don't think I can." "That's OK," I said, "God loves us first. He pours His love into us and it begins to overflow out of us. God loves other people through us. That's what you're beginning to feel." Myron smiled, nodded, and wiped at the tears forming in the corners of his eyes with his shirt sleeve.

After the meeting, Ray, who had been largely silent, pulled me aside. He told me he had had encounters with God. As he spoke, he became animated. He began telling me about two entities that look like orbs of energy which he is in contact with. The entities download information into the back of his head. One is good. One is bad. Sometimes they confer with each other about him, while he watches and tries to catch what they're saying. He wound up in jail because he listened to the bad one. Carla slowly moved away from Ray, but he was even more animated now and didn't notice. "Why not look beyond those two orbs", I suggested calmly, "and look directly to Jesus? He's greater than both of them." Ray looked thoughtful. "Hmmm. I think I see what you're getting at", he mused.

Will Ray escape his "entities" and look to Jesus? Will the walls of hatred and anger in Myron's heart continue to crumble as the living water of God's love bubbles up within him? Will Kenny continue to seek God and read the Bible? I'm praying that the answers to these questions are all, "yes". I can't wait to go back to see what God does.

Many years ago I had a waking vision. I saw a pond. The water was foul and brackish. Dark green algae covered the surface. "What does this mean?", I wondered. "It's your heart", said God matter-of-factly and without the slightest hint of accusation or condemnation. "You have to let the water flow through, otherwise, it turns stale."

I had forgotton that lesson until last night, when I went back to jail.