Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Memory of Charlie

I just heard that Charlie Parks passed away earlier this evening. Charlie was a member of the Quaker meeting that I am part of. In his honor, I'm reposting this story from a few years ago:

Charlie and the Boy

At our church gathering this morning, during the time when anyone can speak, a man named Charlie, who is very elderly and confined to a wheelchair, told the following story:

Charlie's father died when Charlie was 12. This was during the Great Depression and although Charlie's mother worked to provide for the children, they were very, very poor. After school, Charlie would go and stand in the bread line to get food for his family. If one of the kids from school spotted him in the line he would "die a thousand deaths" from shame.

Charlie grew up to become a Junior High School science teacher. All these years later, one student still sticks out in his mind. It was a boy who was also from a very poor family. He was quiet and withdrawn. Charlie could identify with how the boy felt and, as his teacher, decided to meet with the boy once a week to offer some comfort and encouragement.

During one such meeting it began to snow. Big puffy snowflakes drifted down outside the window in Charlie's office and began to cover the ground. It was almost hypnotic to watch. "I love snow.", said the boy. "Why is that?", Charlie asked. "Because", the boy answered "it makes my house as beautiful as everyone else's in the neighborhood."

Charlie and the boy sat and watched the snow fall in silence.

God help us...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hell, Part 7

I began this series of posts by delineating three views of Hell: Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilation and Universal Reconciliation. I made it clear that I don't subscribe to the Eternal Conscious Torment view. I also stated that throughout the course of Christian history there have been learned and devout believers who subscribed to each of these views. I think it is very important that Christians be aware of the historical divergence of views on this and many other matters of doctrine, and be willing to allow room for multiple views. That has been my primary goal in doing this series: to bring awareness to the fact that there are, and always have been, multiple views among devout Christians on the topic of Hell. The historian Howard Zinn once said, "If you don't know history, it is as if you were born yesterday." Many Christians do not know the history of their faith. They believe at face value that the doctrines and interpretations they were taught are the only correct ones--anything else is heresy. The truth is that Christianity is much, much bigger than that. God is much, much bigger than that.

I freely admit that my views about Hell are directly shaped by my views about God and Jesus. I became a Christian as a result of an encounter with God. I continued--and continue to this day--to have encounters with God. God, for me, is alive and accessible. I have experienced God to be immeasurably loving, kind and patient. I cannot help but allow that experience to color my theology. Perhaps this is why I have felt a freedom to ask questions, to explore boundaries and to dig deep into matters of doctrine: Nothing can threaten my foundation, which is the experiential surety that God is real, that God is good and that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God.

I once saw a a speech given by a man who was severely burned over most of his body in an industrial accident. He freely admitted that the accident was caused by his own negligence and he suffered the terrible consequences. It was a harrowing tale. The most gut-wrenching part of the speech was when the man talked about one of the treatments he had to endure in the hospital burn unit. He was placed into a vat of sterilized water while nurses scrubbed off the burnt skin as he screamed in agony. It had to be done to prevent infection and save his life.

Perhaps when we die and stand before God, for some, it will be like that. Perhaps some will be so twisted and hardened by sin that to stand in the presence of pure holy love will be agonizing. Perhaps, the process of removing all of that death--all of that which is contrary to God--from one's soul will be, well, hellish. Sin is a very serious thing indeed--not because of how it affects God, but because of how it affects us.

God is omnipresent. That means He is everywhere at once. It is impossible to be separated from God. The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that since God is omnipresent, Heaven and Hell are the same place--in the presence of God. What will make it Heaven for one and Hell for another will be one's orientation towards God.

What if God's view of judgement isn't punitive or juridical, but is instead restorative? What if true justice--God's justice--is all about putting things right; restoring things to the way they ought to be? What if God's ultimate goal is redemption and reconciliation, even if it requires a painful process?

I believe that we will all see God as God is and be confronted with God's Truth, God's Holiness and, most of all, God's Love. There will be no hiding from the pain that we have caused to God, to one another, and to ourselves. People will experience the full realization of the impact of their sins. To be utterly exposed and come face-to-face with oneself as one truly is and with God as God truly is will be, for some, a horrific experience. All that one became throughout one's lifetime which is antithetical to Love and Truth, will be "burned" away by God's holiness. It cannot remain in His presence. Our God is a consuming fire. For some, after this "judgement" is finished, there may not be much of themselves left. They will be saved, as Paul wrote, but as if through a fire. After God's purifying fire removes all that is not of Love and Truth, what will come next is restoration. Love is the motive behind God's judgement and Love seeks to restore. Then, at last--when this work is finished, God will be all in all; His victory will be complete. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These will not be anguished confessions extracted from condemned souls about to be annihilated or cast into Hell. What kind of God would glory in that? No, they will be the joyful exaltation of a redeemed and restored humanity.

A common teaching within Evangelical Christianity is that Satan's goal is to separate people eternally from God. If Satan is able to accomplish this, despite it being contrary to God's will, then it would appear that Satan has thwarted God's purposes in regards to those who he was able to separate from God. The implication is that Satan achieves a modicum of victory over God! Sure, Satan is destroyed and God is the ultimate winner, but with tragically high losses of souls. Such a view certainly does seem to put a damper on the victory of Christ, not to mention call into question the omnipotence of God! To use a crude analogy, if a suicide bomber gets on a bus full of schoolchildren and manages to kill himself and 80% of the children on board, has he succeeded in his awful mission? If his goal was to cause pain, misery and sorrow to the parents and the community then yes, he has. If God's desire is that all people be saved, and if Satan is able to thwart the realization of that desire, then Satan has achieved a victory over God.

I don't believe that Jesus's life, death and resurrection was a desperate last ditch attempt to save a few. This is how it is sometimes characterized. We have all have heard the saying, "Even if only one person would be saved, Jesus still would have died for them."; which sounds really nice (and I do believe He loves each of us that much) but it also seems to portray God as doing the best He could with a losing hand and having to settle for what He could get. The whole point of Christian Universalism is that the death of God's Son was a completely worthwhile and effective sacrifice. Jesus was completely victorious! It implies a very high view of God's sovereignty and of the efficaciousness of Christ's work.

The eminent Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote: "If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family forever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."

Or, as Abraham Lincoln once put it, "Have I not defeated my enemy when I have made him my friend?"

Paul wrote that Jesus is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). Paul also wrote that Jesus's one act of righteousness resulted in justification that brings life for all men (Rom 5:18). John wrote that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). The Bible does not teach that Jesus saves us from Hell. It says He saved us (all) from sin. Sin causes alienation and estrangement from God, from one-another and from ourselves. But Christ has reconciled all things. To enter into relationship with Christ is to begin to experience that reconciliation here and now.

In Philippians 2:10-11, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23, but expands it. In Isaiah 45:23, God says "Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear." But Paul writes "...that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Isaiah was speaking of the living, but Paul states that everyone who has ever lived will worship Jesus. Compare this with 1 Corinthians 12:3 where Paul says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit, and with Romans 10:9 where Paul says that "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." Paul clearly links the confession of Jesus' Lordship with salvation. Yet he believes that all will make this confession.

Paul's words align closely with John's vision in Revelation 5:11-13: "Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:

'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!'

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!'

There is a popular worship song, the chorus of which says:

"One day every tongue will confess You are God,
One day every knee will bow,
Still the greatest treasure remains for those,
Who gladly choose You now."

I don't know what the theology of the song's author is, but I do know that the words aptly describe my view of Universal Reconciliation. Ultimately, I believe, all will be saved and restored. All will rejoice. If we have the opportunity to enter into that joy here and now, why not grab hold of it?

In the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah witnessed the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah wrote, "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." (Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33). Jeremiah was speaking of temporal judgement, but why should we think God's eternal judgement is any less compassionate or that his "unfailing love" will ultimately fail?

So what are the implications of Universal Reconciliation? Frankly, the implications are astounding. It means that the Good News actually is good news--or, as the angel put it when announcing Christ's birth, "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." It means that Jesus truly is worthy of all praise and honor. It means that no one gets left behind. The shepherd loses no sheep. The lost sons and daughters are found. It means the Christian story is a story of hope--there is no place for hopelessness. It means the victory of Christ is complete: All mankind is saved because of what He has done. It is not a partial victory where many (or most) are lost. He is the Savior of all.

God is love. Love seeks reconciliation, restoration, healing, happiness and fulfillment of the beloved. Love creates value. Each and every person is valuable, because each and every person is loved by God. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

To Part 8
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear -- kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor -- with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil ... to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exhorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real."
-- General Douglas MacArthur, 1957 (near the end of his life)

Hell, Part 6

What is the purpose of punishment? Any parent knows the answer to that question. The purpose of punishment is to change behavior. At least, that is how a loving parent uses punishment. What would be the purpose of never-ending punishment? It serves no purpose, other than perhaps revenge. But even if we accepted revenge as a valid motivation for punishment, wouldn't eternal torture--even as the consequence for a lifetime of sin--be overkill on an infinite scale? Does that punishment fit the crime? Does it sound like a product of the God who told Moses "...eye for eye, tooth for tooth..."? Does it sound like a product of the Son of God who told us to love and forgive our enemies?

In the Old Testament, when we see the words "forever" or "everlasting", it is usually a translation of the Hebrew word olam. But olam does not actually mean "forever" or "everlasting". Olam literally means "a period of time whose length is hidden". Thus, when Jonah says he "...went down to the bottoms of the mountains, the earth with her bars was about me forever [olam]: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God." (2:6), we know that "forever" was three days in the belly of the fish. In 2 Kings 5:27 Elisha pronounced that the leprosy of Naaman would cleave to Gehazi "forever" [olam]. Does this mean Gehazi is still wandering around as a leper somewhere? Or did olam refer to the span of Gehazi's natural life? Isaiah 32:14 says (in reference to Jerusalem being threatened by the Assyrians and destined to eventually fall to the Babylonians) that Israel will be a desolate wilderness "forever" [olam], yet the next sentence says "Until the Spirit be poured upon you from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field..." How can "forever" only be "until"? There are many more examples like this in the Hebrew scriptures, which make it clear that olam meant "a period of time whose length is hidden."

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the word olam was not translated as the Greek word aidios--which means "of endless duration"--but instead as aion. Like olam, aion (and its derivatives, aionios and aionion) refers to a period of time of indeterminate length. Milligan & Moulton, in their Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, define aionios as "A state wherein the horizon is not in view." That is very different from "forever"--something which has no end. Strangely though, in the King James translation the word aion (and its derivatives) is translated seven different ways: age, world, course, eternal, ever, for evermore, forever and ever. What is interesting about this inconsistent usage is that an "age" refers to a finite segment of time with a beginning and end, whereas "forever" is the opposite--infinite! How can one word mean both? The very fact that we use two English words, finite and infinite, indicates the difference.

When Jesus told His disciples He would be with them "to the end of the aion" (Matthew 28:20), He did not mean the end of forever (since forever is without end) but to the end of the age--a finite period of time of indeterminate duration. In this case, Jesus said He would be with the disciples while they were doing the work He was commissioning them to do.

When Paul spoke in Romans (16:25) of "the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages [aionios] past..." It wouldn't have made sense to translate Paul's statement as "long forevers past". Here are some other examples of Paul using the words
aion/aionios/aionion to mean "age" (a finite period of time of indeterminate length): Romans 12:2, Romans 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 1:20, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 1 Corinthians 10:11, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, Ephesians 3:9, 2 Timothy 4:10. In each of these cases (and many others I didn't list for the sake of brevity), to translate aion/aionios/aionion as "eternal" or "forever" would be absurd.

At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus and his disciples are discussing the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says to them, “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (we know from history that what Jesus spoke came to pass in 70 AD). The disciples then ask, "When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age [aion]?” Notice that, in most Bibles, aion is here translated as "age", since "the end of forever" wouldn't make any sense. Notice also that the disciples are equating the destruction of the Temple with the "coming" (parousia in Greek, which is better translated as "presence") of Jesus with the "end of the age". Jesus then goes into a lengthy apocalyptic discourse which takes up all of chapters 24 and 25. He tells the disciples what will happen to them and what they will see. He speaks of false Messiahs, of "wars and rumors of wars", of earthquakes and famine, of persecution, of the temple being desecrated, of the necessity to flee from Jerusalem at the appropriate time and of a cataclysm so great it will be like the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling from the sky (in saying this, He is quoting from Isaiah 13 which was a prediction of the fall of Babylon which occurred in 539 BC). The "age" that Jesus speaks of as nearing its end is the age of the Jewish Temple system. This was a monumental event in Jewish history--at the time it occurred (70 AD) it was the worst thing that had ever happened to the Jewish people, with the possible exception of the previous destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC (the magnitude of the events of 70 AD and 135 AD would later be overshadowed by the Holocaust). Please see my post Hell, Part 4 for a quick overview of the events of 70 AD. We know from history that the things Jesus predicted (including false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes and famines) actually did occur leading up to 70 AD.

During His discourse in Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus used several analogies about people being divided into two groups: Wise vs. wicked servants; wise vs. foolish maidens; servants who invest wisely vs. servants who invest badly; and finally, at the end of Matthew 25, sheep vs. goats. By speaking of separating sheep and goats (and especially in the context of a discourse which started on the topic of the destruction of the Temple), Jesus's hearers (and the original Jewish readers of the Gospels) would have understood this as a reference to Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel 34 was written about the fall of Jerusalem (and destruction of the Temple) in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians. Here are a few excerpts:

"Woe to the shepherds of Israel [the leaders] who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally...This is what the Sovereign Lords says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves...I myself will search for my sheep and look after them...As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken."

In Ezekiel's prophecy, God is first speaking out against the religious leaders of Israel for oppressing and exploiting the people. Then he addresses the people (the "sheep") directly and says he will judge between them (the way a shepherd separates desirable sheep from undesirable). Some sheep have grown fat by pushing the weaker sheep away. The strong sheep have plundered the weak and, after drinking clear water for themselves, have soiled it for everyone else. The fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians was a judgement upon those wicked sheep and wicked shepherds.

In Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), He defines what the criteria is for separating the good from the wicked. It has to do with taking care of those in need:

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

Here and elsewhere, Jesus spoke out strongly against the religious leaders of His day--and against the Temple system--for oppressing and exploiting the poor and powerless(and in those days, 95% of the people were poor and powerless).

Jesus's reference to the sheep and goats is not a reference to "Final Judgement" and to Heaven and Hell. If it were, then it would be teaching that one gets into Heaven not by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior but by doing good deeds! But the parable occurs within the discourse that began way back at Matthew 24:3 with the question about when the Temple would be destroyed. What has caused confusion about the meaning of this parable is that Jesus concludes it by saying that the wicked "will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (25:46).

When Jesus speaks here of "eternal punishment", the word translated as "eternal" is the Greek word aionion. As we have seen, aionion means "a period of time of indeterminate length." The word translated as "punishment" is the Greek word kolasin (sometimes rendered kolasis). Kolasin comes from the classical Greek word kolazo which means, literally, "to prune". If you have ever pruned rose bushes or fruit trees, you know what the purpose of pruning is. Thus, kolasin carries the idea of correction or chastisement in order to bear fruit. It is punishment with the goal of bringing forth life. Aristotle, in his Book I on Rhetoric (1, 10, 17) clearly states that kolasis/kolasin is corrective and is intended to benefit the one to whom the punishment is applied. Thus, Jesus's words about "aionios kolasin" can be understood to refer to a time of correction for a positive and redemptive purpose. Perhaps Paul had this understanding of redemptive punishment in mind when he spoke of the work of our lives being revealed with fire: "...and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

What Jesus was very specifically speaking about was a span of time which would be understood to be a severe punishment from God. A separation would occur. While many would suffer rejection and chastisement, others would experience life. Each group would attribute their fortune, or misfortune, to God. The events which unfolded from the time of Jesus's resurrection through to 70 AD and even to 135 AD were certainly perceived in this way.

Years later, some early Christian theologians--who were Gentiles and distanced from the events of 70 AD--believed that Jesus was also speaking of a time of post-mortem judgment where some would experience an "age" of remedial punishment while others would immediately experience life. These early Church Fathers were Greek speakers and understood the meaning of aion/aionios/aionion. Their interpretation echoes back to the debates between Hillel and Shammai about how long the wicked would have to spend in Gehenna before being released and resurrected. Much later, Latin speaking theologians, such as Augustine, interpreted the parable of the sheep and goats as speaking of a final judgement and eternal conscious torment in Hell vs. eternal life in Heaven.

The Greek language is nuanced. There is one other interesting feature of the words aion/aionios/aionion: They take on different shades of meaning depending on what they refer to. The aion of a man's life is different from the aion of an empire. This is similar to the way we use the word "tall". A tall child is not the same as a tall building. God has revealed Himself as being outside of time. God identified Himself as "I am." He is ever present. Both the Psalms (90:4) and 2 Peter (3:8) state that, "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." This doesn't mean that time runs really slow for God, but that God transcends time. So, when John wrote, "Now this is eternal [aionios] life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.", he was saying that to know God is to enter into God's life here and now. Aionion life is God's life. And aionion punishment is God's punishment. Here and now.

Probably the most detailed and thorough examination of the words aion/aionions/aionion ever undertaken was the work of J.W. Hanson, a 19th Century minister. You can read it here:

Another Greek word we ought to take a closer look at is apollumi. In Matthew 7:13, Jesus is quoted as proclaiming "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction [apollumi], and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Perhaps the most well-known Bible verse of all, John 3:16, states "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [apollumi] but have eternal life."

The meaning of apollumi seems pretty clear: destruction and death. But take a look at these verses:

Luke 15:3-6 "Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses [apollumi] one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost [apollumi] sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] sheep.’

Luke 15:8-10 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses [apollumi] one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:22 "But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is
alive again; he was lost [apollumi] and is found.' So they began to celebrate."

Jesus gave three parables about lost [apollumi] things: a sheep, a coin and a man. In each case the lost thing was not irrevocably destroyed. The sheep, the coin and the man were lost but--due to the relentless searching of the shepherd, the woman and the father (all of whom represent God), they were restored.

What if John's intent in 3:16 was to say "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not remain lost [apollumi] but will experience eternal [aionios] life."? Doesn't that have a more immediate flavor? Later in his Gospel, John explains what he means by "eternal life": “This is eternal [aionios] life; that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (17:3). To know God is to expience the life of God--here and now. John presents eternal life (aionios zoe) as something that happens during this life. As we enter into Christ, we partake of the life that is in Christ here and now. His life becomes our life--in this aion and in the aion to come.

What if we re-read Matthew 7:13 in this light? "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that causes one to be lost [apollumi], and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Apollumi refers to the idea of something that "is not". This could mean "is not" intact or "is not" alive or "is not" locatable, etc. That brings to my mind Romans 4:17, where Paul refers to "...the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were." When we wander through life lost--not knowing who we are, why we're here or where we're going--we experience great existential pain. We damage ourselves and others. We suffer deeply. But we have the opportunity to enter into God's life during this life (as well as in the life to come)--thus minimizing the damage and pain. We receive clarity, purpose, vision, meaning, redemption, restoration, healing and comfort. In a sense, we have an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" of experiencing God's presence and God's life right now rather than coming into it later after we've suffered (and inflicted) so much pain and loss and have to deal with the consequences.

It is worth reiterating that the Greek language of the New Testament was a very rich and robust language. There were Greek words which specifically meant eternal, torture and destruction. These words were not chosen by the writers of New Testament.

The misery of wandering through life lost, without God, suffering the consequences of our sin, is very much a reality we experience here and now. The Good News is that Jesus came to rescue us from all that. He offers us life--abundant life--here and now!

I'll close this post with a series of questions:

In the book of Genesis, why did God pronounce Adam's punishment for eating the fruit to be only exile and (eventual) physical death rather than eternal punishment?

In Genesis, why did God pronounce Cain's punishment for murdering Abel to be exile (with a mark of protection) and not eternal punishment?

Why is the entire Old Testament utterly silent about eternal punishment?

Why didn't Peter bring up eternal punishment in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2?

Why isn't Paul recorded as warning of eternal punishment in the Book of Acts, for example when he spoke to the pagans at the Areopagus?

If sin is so horrible to God the he must separate Himself eternally from sinners, why did Jesus (God incarnate) spend so much time with sinners?

Why didn't Paul teach about Hell in any of his epistles?

If God is omniscient, wouldn't He have known prior to ever creating the universe that sin would be such a horrible problem as to require the endless torment of most of the souls He would create?

If a person who led a moral life (such as Gandhi) but never accepted Christ will suffer for eternity in Hell and the person who led an extremely wicked life (say, Hitler or Stalin) will also suffer for eternity in Hell, where is the justice? Based on this "all or nothing" logic, if I'm a sinner destined for Hell, I might as well go all the way and commit the most heinous crimes imaginable, since the end-result will be the same!

Where does it say in scripture that as soon as one dies the opportunity to accept Christ is rescinded? Nowhere.

If God is omnibenevolent (all good), would He want all people to freely accept Christ?

If God is omniscient (all knowing), would He know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ?

If God is omnipotent (all powerful), could He cause all people to freely accept Christ?

To Part 7
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Thursday, March 24, 2011

McLaren on Bell

Brian McLaren has an interesting post regarding the whole Rob Bell "Love Wins" bruhaha:

Hell, Part 5

The large portion of the New Testament is comprised of letters by Paul. Paul never referred to Hell or Gehenna. To quote Matthew Ritchie, "This is a very curious thing. Paul, the man specifically commissioned to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, who is universally credited as the most important figure ever to interpret and expound on the gospel, never says a thing about Gehenna or Hades." In Acts 20:27, Paul is quoted as saying "I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God." He is referencing a scripture from Ezekiel (33:6-8): "If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet...his blood I will require..." Paul claimed to have declared "the whole counsel of God" and understood his culpability if he failed to do so, yet we have no record that he ever spoke of Hell.

In fact, Paul said quite the opposite:

"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)

"This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach." (1 Timothy 4:9-11)

"For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." (Romans 11:32)

"Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to faith and obedience— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!" (Romans 16:25-27)

Paul did speak of judgment, of course (for both the believer and the non-believer), but that can mean many things. Ancient people typically thought of mishaps--from droughts to plagues to invading armies to childlessness to an early death--as forms of divine judgment. Paul also clearly taught that each one of us will stand before God after we die and be judged, but that doesn't necessarily equate to eternal conscious torment. In a later post, I'll attempt to explain what I believe it will be.

The Book of Acts provides several excellent examples of the type of evangelistic message preached by the earliest Christians. We read of Peter preaching to a crowd of Jews at Pentecost (including those he says are responsible for crucifying Jesus); of Philip sharing the Good News with an Ethiopian official; of Paul speaking to pagan Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill; etc. Yet in all the preaching of the early Christians recorded in Acts, we do not see any mention of Hell. That seems like an incredible omission, if Hell were true.

The New Testament book which seems to contain the most graphic descriptions of Hell is Revelation, with its Lake of Fire. But the Book of Revelation is an Apocalyptic book. Apocalyptic writing was a genre of Jewish and early Christian writing which flourished from about 250 BC to 150 AD. Examples include portions of Daniel and Ezekiel as well as the aforementioned Book of Enoch. Many of the ancient Jewish pseudepigraphical works are Apocalyptic in nature. The word Apocalypse means "revealing." The idea behind an Apocalyptic document is that of using fantastic images imbued with symbolic meaning to describe earthy (often political) events. Apocalyptic writings tended to be filled with dreams and visions, angels and demons, monsters and great cosmic conflicts. Later works of allegory, such an Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" work in a similar way. Perhaps a modern-day descendant of Apocalyptic literature is Science Fiction. Sci-Fi stories are often really commentaries about current issues here and now on earth. Gifted Sci-Fi authors will use compelling stories of strange worlds, aliens and space battles to get us to ponder issues much closer to home. Much of the Book of Revelation has to do with the persecution of Christians by Nero and the monumental events of 70 AD.

The only thing more foolish than reading an Apocalyptic book--such as Revelation--as a literal description of future events would be trying to then use that literal reading as a basis for doctrine.

In summary, the only way to derive the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment from the Bible is to ignore its glaring absence from most of the Old and New Testaments and instead to take a small number of references to Gehenna by Jesus out of their original context and link them to passages that deal in more general terms with warnings about judgment and punishment (which in many cases were understood to be temporal in nature, as in the case of 70 AD).

An ancient rabbi once compared the Halakah to "a mountain suspended by a hair." The Halakah was the entire massive corpus of Jewish oral & written law, including interpretation and commentary, which was built up over the course of centuries. As Jesus explained (and Hillel before Him), the entire Halakah was really as simple as "love God and love your neighbor." But tradition has turned it into "a mountain suspended by a hair." The same can be said for the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. It is a mountain suspended by a hair. It is built on centuries of tradition, but the scriptural support for it is very thin.

Ancient Jews, by and large, did not believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. Early Christians, it appears, did not believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. As Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots in the first few centuries and became more Roman, it became mixed with Greco-Roman theological concepts. In its first 500 years, Christianity shifted from a Jewish base, to a Greek base, to a Roman/Latin base. Later Latin-speaking Church Fathers (such as Augustine in the 5th Century) had been pagan philosophers prior to becoming Christians. They lacked first-hand knowledge of Jewish theology, history, language and culture. Instead, they imported their own very non-Jewish theological and philosophical views into Christianity. That is how Eternal Conscious Torment became an entrenched Christian doctrine. At the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553 AD--500 years after Jesus--the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment was made official church dogma.

To Part 6
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Military Spending

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hell, Part 4

My last post looked at the role that Jewish Apocryphal writings, such as the Book of Enoch, played in shaping Jewish, Christian and even non-Christian views of the afterlife (even up to the present!). 1 Enoch, in particular, went into detail about a place within Sheol/Hades set aside for punishment. That place was called Gehenna.

The word Gehenna means "the Valley of the Son of Hinnom" or "the valley of Ben Hinnom" (Ben being Hebrew for son). Gehenna is a real place. It is a valley that in ancient times was just outside the walls of Jerusalem. There is a lovely park there nowadays, but for much of history it was considered an accursed place. Under the wicked King Ahaz, who ruled from 735–715 BC, apostate Isaelites sacrificed children in the Hinnom valley by burning them alive to the god Moloch (Moloch was also known as Baal). When good King Josiah came to power (649–609 BC), he put a stop to the practice, but after Josiah died the Israelites became apostate again. During Josiah's reign the prophet Jeremiah gave the following chilling prophecy (which is assumed to have come true in 586 BC when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Jewish Temple and carried the survivors away into captivity):

"This is what the LORD says: “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.'

Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth [Topheth means "roasting place"--another name for the Valley of Hinnom] until there is no more room. This is what I will do to this place and to those who live here, declares the LORD. I will make this city like Topheth. The houses in Jerusalem and those of the kings of Judah will be defiled like this place, Topheth—all the houses where they burned incense on the roofs to all the starry hosts and poured out drink offerings to other gods.’

Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the LORD’s temple and said to all the people, “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’” (Jeremiah 19)

Notice in this scripture something which God says about throwing children into the fire: He says it is something He did not command or mention, nor did it even enter His mind. Yet many Christians believe that when God spoke those words it actually had already entered His mind to throw His own children, by the billions, into the unquenchable fires of Hell.

Gehenna's stigma as an accursed place endured. It eventually became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was a place where fires burned continuously and where the carcasses of animals, beggars and criminals were dumped, to be consumed by maggots, flames and wild dogs.

For all these reasons, Gehenna epitomized uncleanness, death and ignominy. It came to symbolize rejection and punishment from God.

Jesus came to the Jewish people as Savior and King, but it is sometimes forgotten that He also came as a Prophet. The people had been anxiously awaiting a Messiah to come and free them from Roman oppression. The popular assumption was that when the Messiah came, he would be a military leader, as the Maccabees had been a few hundred years before (or like King David and Gideon of old). This Messiah would unite the people and lead them to victory in driving out the Romans. Additionally, many Jews (most notably the Essenes) felt that the Jerusalem Temple system had become corrupt and was in desperate need of cleansing and restoration. Another common view was that there would actually be two Messiahs: one a Warrior-King and the other a High-Priest. Either way, these Messiahs (or Messiah) would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel and restore pure worship, resulting in the manifest presence of God occupying the Temple once more. A Messiah was not thought of as a divine being but rather as a person anointed and empowered by God to lead Israel out of her present troubles. The Jews believed that once their Messiah (or Messiahs) came, they would have an independent theocratic nation: It would be the Kingdom of God on earth. The Day of the Lord would come. Then--it was assumed--the righteous would be resurrected and live (again) on earth.

Jesus's continual message during His earthly ministry was, essentially, "The Kingdom of God isn't like that. Instead it's like this." Jesus spoke of a Kingdom based on peace, love, forgiveness, mercy, fairness and concern for the poor; rather than a kingdom based on temporal geopolitical power. Jesus spoke of a God who resides in people's hearts, rather than in a stone Temple. Jesus spoke of a Kingdom that would begin small, like a mustard seed. And the Kingdom Jesus spoke of included both Jews and Gentiles, Pharisees and prostitutes, Priests and Centurions.

What we know from history is that, by and large, the leaders among the Jewish people didn't like Jesus's ideas about the Kingdom and didn't listen to His warnings about what would happen if they tried to establish their own vision of the Kingdom of God.

In about 66 AD, roughly 40 years after Jesus, a Jewish faction known as the Zealots began a revolt against the Romans. The Romans responded with force, which caused the majority of Jews, who had not been Zealots, to reluctantly join in the rebellion. The hope was that God would--at last--empower them to drive out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God. While they were fighting the Romans, the various Jewish factions also continued to fight among themselves. Various individuals claimed to have Messianic anointing to lead Israel into victory and glory. As the Roman armies advanced through Judea, employing a "scorched earth" policy, Jews packed into Jerusalem--the holy city of God. The Temple--the dwelling place of God--was the spiritual center of Israel and if God were going to intervene, it would be here. The Romans besieged Jerusalem, causing horrendous suffering for the inhabitants. In 70 AD the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, tearing it apart block by block. It is estimated that over a million inhabitants died. The Jewish historian Josephus was an eye-witness to these events and documented them in "The War of the Jews", which you can read online here.

What Jesus had warned about many years before had come to pass: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies... Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written." (Luke 21:20-22). A minority of Jews, belonging to the sect which came to be known as "Christians", remembered and heeded His advice. History tells us that prior to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Christians left the city and fled East to the region of Pella, where they were safe.

During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Valley of Hinnom--Gehenna--became literally filled with dead bodies. As Josephus recorded:

"Now the seditious [Jews warring against Rome] at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwords, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. However, when Titus [the Roman general besieging Jerusalem], in going his rounds along those valleys, saw them full of dead bodies, and the thick putrefaction running about them, he gave a groan; and, spreading out his hands to heaven, called God to witness that this was not his doing; and such was the sad case of the city itself." (War of the Jews V 12.3-4)

"Manneus, the son of Lazarus, came running to Titus at this very time, and told him that there had been carried out through that one gate, which was entrusted to his care, no fewer than a hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and eighty dead bodies, in the interval between the fourteenth day of the month Xanthieus, when the Romans pitched their camp by the city, and the first day of the month Panemus. This was itself a prodigious multitude; and though this man was not himself set as a governor at that gate, yet was he appointed to pay the public stipend for carrying these bodies out, and so was obliged of necessity to number them, while the rest were buried by their relations; though all their burial was but this, to bring them away, and cast them out of the city. After this man there ran away to Titus many of the eminent citizens, and told him the entire number of the poor that were dead, and that no fewer than six hundred thousand were thrown out at the gates, though still the number of the rest could not be discovered; and they told him further, that when they were no longer able to carry out the dead bodies of the poor, they laid their corpses on heaps in very large houses." (War of the Jews, V 13,7)

Jerusalem literally had become an extension of the accursed valley. Jerusalem had become Gehenna--the burning place (Topheth); the garbage dump; unclean; the place of death, ruin, ignominy and divine abandonment.

In about 135 AD a Messiah arose named Simon bar Kokhba, who again led the Jews in revolt against the Romans. Bar Kokhba promised that "the era of the redemption of Israel" had come. The Romans responded by sacking Jerusalem again, and destroying dozens of towns and villages throughout Judea. This time around, it is estimated that 600,000 people died and Jews were thereafter forbidden from entering Jerusalem. The Romans built a temple to Zeus where the Jewish Temple had once stood, gave the city a new name--Aelia Capitolina--and changed the name of the region from Judea to Syria Palaestina. Thousands of survivors were carried off to Rome as slaves and Jewish priests and civic leaders were tortured to death.

In the English language New Testament, Gehenna is translated as "Hell". Most of the New Testament references to Gehenna occur in Matthew's Gospel (7 times). This is not surprising, since Matthew's Gospel was written for a Jewish audience who would have been very aware of the historical and symbolic significance of Gehenna. Mark's Gospel, which is the most concise and probably the oldest Gospel--and also written for a primarily Jewish audience--contains 3 references to Gehenna. Luke's Gospel--which was geared more towards a Gentile readership who had some familiarity with Jewish teachings--only has one reference to Gehenna. The Gospel of John--the last of the four written and the most Gentile-oriented, contains zero references to Gehenna.

The only other place where the word Gehenna is used in the New Testament is in James 3:6 (...the tongue is set on fire by Gehenna...). James is another of the early New Testament documents, written for a primarily Jewish audience: the Christian church in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD.

To the Jewish hearers of Jesus's preaching (and the Jewish hearers of Matthew & Mark's Gospels), the meaning of Gehenna was clear: It was a place of ruin; of uncleanness; of national shame; of God's rejection. It was the place that Jeremiah had prophesied about. It was the place that 1 Enoch equated with punishment for the wicked. It was the place that Israel's rabbis, such as Hillel and Shammai, equated with purging and corrective punishment. By invoking Gehenna, Jesus was saying to the people of Judea, and particularly to the Jewish leaders, "If you persist in the way you are going, you and your dreams of an earthly kingdom will end up rejected by God; ruined; thrown in the garbage dump." To a devout Jew, such as a Pharisee, the idea of not being buried properly, but instead having one's body dumped in the accursed valley, was almost too horrible to contemplate. Warnings about Gehenna were understood to speak of defilement, judgment and destruction for both the nation and the Temple system. For the unfortunate souls who witnessed the horrors of 70 AD (and 135 AD), Jeremiah's words would have seemed to have come true all over again: Gehenna had again become the "Valley of Slaughter" where the "plans of Judah and Jerusalem" had come to ruin.

The warnings of Jesus the Prophet had come to pass.

To Part 5
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hell, Part 3

In my last post I described the progression of ancient Jewish thought about Sheol. In particular I brought up the influence of Babylonian and Greek theology in the development of Jewish views of the afterlife. I also pointed out that there is very little written in the Hebrew Scriptures about an afterlife, other than a few somewhat vague references to resurrection in some of the later writings. There is certainly no mention of Hell in the Old Testament.

Although for many ancient Jews Sheol came to resemble the Greek Hades, not all adopted the idea. The sect known as Sadducees--which existed from about 200 BC until 70 AD--did not believe in any kind of afterlife or resurrection. This is because they were faithful followers of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testamant) and there is no mention of an afterlife or resurrection in the Pentateuch. For the Sadducee, there was only Sheol--the grave--and there was no consciousness in Sheol (someone once quipped, "This is why they were sad, you see?"). Death was viewed as the end of existence. Sadducees were not a fringe group. Many of the civic leaders and high ranking members of the Jewish Temple priesthood were Sadducees.

Another Jewish sect of Jesus' day--the Pharisees--did believe in a resurrection. Many Pharisees also believed in the idea that prior to the resurrection the dead waited in an intermediary state of either conscious reward or punishment. Sheol had developed subdivisions; areas for the good and the wicked. The good part of Sheol was a garden called Gan Eden (Paradise). The bad part was called Gehenna.

The "Intertestamental period" (400 BC-1 AD) is sometimes described by Christians as "400 years of silence", but actually there was a tremendous amount of activity going on during this period. Profound cultural, political, philosophical and religious events occurred during the "Intertestamental period."

As we examine writings from this period, we see descriptions of the afterlife gradually becoming more and more elaborate and lurid. These descriptions can be found in a variety of Jewish documents known collectively as Apocryphal writings. There are dozens of Apocryphal writings that have survived from the "Intertestamental period." They were not considered to be be inspired or authoritative or on the same level as scripture, yet they did have considerable influence (in the same way that a book like "The Late, Great Planet Earth" shaped the eschatalogical views of millions in the 1970's). Apocryphal writings include many Pseudepigrapha and Apocalypes (more about this later). They are often rich in symbolism and were in many cases written by one sect or another to promote their views. (You can read many of the Jewish Apocryphal books online here:

Some Apocryphal books (Judith, 4 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras and 4 Ezra) make reference to a place within Sheol which is characterized by fire; worms; continuous weeping; pain; anguish and torments which would be experienced by tyrants, the impious and "despisers of the Most High." This place is often depicted as the valley of Gehenna.

The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish oral laws, traditions and wisdom--much of it in the form of quotations from learned rabbis. One thing we see in the Mishnah is that many rabbis viewed the purpose of post-mortem punishment in a similar way to how Catholics view Purgatory: as lasting for a limited amount of time in order to bring repentance and cleansing from sin. Many rabbis taught that the that maximum time period a wicked person would have to spend there was 12 months! Then they could be released and resurrected. This is why the Jewish mourning period was 12 months long. Only the most vile and wicked would have to spend more than 12 months in Gehenna.

At the time of Christ, the two most influential rabbis were Shammai and Hillel. Each had their own academy. The two rabbis and their schools often had opposing viewpoints on theological matters, but had mutual respect for each other. Both Hillel and Shammai were leaders of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). Hillel is credited with inventing the Golden Rule ("That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary."). Both Hillel and Shammai taught about Gehenna as a metaphor for God's judgment and punishment.

According to Shammai: "There will be three groups on the Day of Judgment: one of thoroughly righteous people, one of thoroughly wicked people and one of people in between. The first group will be immediately inscribed for everlasting life; the second group will be doomed in Gehenna, as it says, "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" [Daniel 12:2], the third will go down to Gehenna and squeal and rise again, as it says, "And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name and I will answer them" [Zechariah 13:9]... [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a]"

Hillel suggested that the middle group (which comprised most people--neither terribly righteous nor terribly wicked) would go directly to Gan Eden (Paradise) instead of having to visit Gehenna. One is reminded of Jesus's words to the thief at the crucifixion: "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Hillel's grandson was the respected rabbi Gamaliel and Gamaliel's most famous student was the Apostle Paul.

It seems then that many of the leading Jewish teachers viewed Gehenna as a place for temporary remedial punishment after death.

It is probably the Book of Enoch (also known as 1 Enoch) that has done the most to define a vision of Hell--not just for Jews, but for modern Christians and non-Christians as well. Many Christians are--surprisingly--unaware of the Book of Enoch. This Jewish document was probably originally written around 300 BC with additional parts appended over time. The last portions were probably written sometime in the 1st century AD. The Book of Enoch purports to have been written by Noah's great-grandfather. This is a case of Pseudepigrapha--a common literary device of ancient times whereby the authorship of a document was falsely ascribed to a venerated ancient historical figure, in order to give the document an air of legitimacy. The word pseudepigraph literally means "false quotation". Pseudepigraghical documents were often political or religious in nature. After all, what better way to get people to listen to one's political or religious views than to claim they come from some venerated historical figure! Many pseudepigraphical documents survive from the ancient Jewish and early Christian eras, with titles such as The Book of Adam, The Book of Melchizedek, The Apocalypse of Abraham, The "Lost" Gospel of Peter, The "Secret" Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, etc.

Back to the Book of Enoch... Since the Book of Genesis does not say that Enoch died, but that he "...walked with God..." and then "...vanished, because God took him..." (5:18-23), it came to be believed by later generations that Enoch had avoided Sheol and instead traveled around the universe seeing all of the mysteries of God. The Book of Enoch claims to reveal these mysteries. 1 Enoch was massively popular before and during the time of Jesus. It was widely read by Jews and early Christians. It, along with other Apocryphal documents, was very influential in the shaping of certain Jewish (and, therefore, Christian) ideas about angels, demons and the afterlife. 1 Enoch is quoted from in the New Testament Epistle of Jude (verses 14-15) and looms large behind much of the dialog in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees. Church fathers ranging from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Origin to Clement of Alexandria quoted from (or referenced) the Book of Enoch in their writings. Tertullian referred to the Book of Enoch as "Holy Scripture". 1 Enoch described, in great detail, the origins, hierarchies and functions of angels and demons. It spelled out an afterlife of reward for the righteous and punishment for the unrighteous.

Much of what people in modern times believe about angels, demons and Hell comes from the Book of Enoch and other Apocryphal documents (as well as Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost--from the 14th and 17th centuries respectively). Many Hollywood movies that incorporate themes of angels or demons or Hell (such as Hellboy or the Keanu Reeves film Constantine or the Denzel Washington film Fallen or even the romantic film City of Angels) pull material (directly or indirectly) from the Book of Enoch. Likewise, many contemporary Christian ideas about demons and Hell come not from scripture but from Apocrypha such as 1 Enoch (as well as Dante and Milton). It is amazing to think that many of our popular cultural beliefs about Hell come from a 2,000 year old Jewish Apocryphal document that most people have never heard of!

My point in this post has been to show that Jewish views about Gehenna developed over time and, in particular, became more defined during the "Intertestamental period." These views, in turn, influenced early Christians and even modern-day Christians and popular culture. In general terms, the progression in Jewish thought about the afterlife looks like this:

1. Sheol as the end of existence.
2. Sheol as a barely conscious shadow existence for both good and wicked.
3. Sheol as a barely conscious shadow existence, but with possible resurrection for the righteous.
4. Sheol as a conscious waiting place for the righteous followed by their resurrection.
5. Sheol With multiple compartments of conscious afterlife where the righteous awaited resurrection while the wicked endured a time of torment in a burning valley called Gehenna.

To Part 4
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Friday, March 18, 2011

" longer wanted or needed..."

Just after midnight on December 9th, 2007, Matthew Murray went to the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) center in Arvada, Colorado and began shooting. He killed two people and wounded two others before running off into the Winter night. Twelve hours later, Murray entered New Life Church in Colorado Springs (the church Ted Haggard had been pastor of before resigning in the wake of a scandal). Armed with an assault rifle, two handguns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, Murray killed two more people and wounded another three. Murray's rampage was stopped by Jeanne Assam, a church member, former police officer and volunteer security guard. Assam confronted Murray and, when he failed to surrender, shot and wounded him. Murray then shot himself and died.

New Life's Senior Pastor Brady Boyd credited Jeanne Assam with saving the lives of 50 to 100 people. He also revealed that it had been Assam's idea to increase security at the church that morning in light of the YWAM shootings. "I give credit to God." she said. Jeanne Assam was hailed as a Christian hero.

Now is has come out that Assam was asked by church leadership to leave New Life Center in 2009. According to Assam, " was made very clear to me, and believe me it was, that I was no longer wanted or needed at New Life after they found out I am gay."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hell, Part 2

In my introductory post I outlined three distinct views which have been taught and believed by Christians over the last 2,000 years regarding the fate of non-believers: Annihilation, Universal Reconciliation and Eternal Conscious Torment. I also stated that I do not believe in the Eternal Conscious Torment view of Hell.

The word "Hell" was, of course, never used by any of the authors of either the Old or New Testament scriptures. Jesus never spoke the word. Our English use of the word Hell comes from the Norse word "Helheim", which means "house of Hel." In Norse theology, Hel was the goddess of the dead and the daughter of Loki (the trickster god). In Old English, the word Hel came to signify the abode of the dead.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians tend to call the Old Testament) there is no concept of Eternal Conscious Torment. There is no Hell. In fact, there is barely any mention of any type of afterlife whatsoever! The closest thing to it in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word "Sheol". But Sheol simply meant "the grave." The ancient Jews believed that man was made of dust and, at death, would return to dust. Gradually, as a result of Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek influence, Sheol gained slightly more definition as the abode of the dead; a dark underground place where all souls went for eternity--righteous and wicked alike. It was believed that souls in Sheol experienced a faint shadowy existence--barely conscious. The recurring phrase in the Old Testament for when someone died is that they "went to sleep with their fathers." There is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures no concept of reward or punishment in Sheol. Everyone--good and wicked alike--ended up in Sheol. When the Hebrew Scriptures were eventually translated into Greek, the word "Hades" was used in place of Sheol. Most modern English Bibles translate Sheol as Hades or, more accurately, as "the grave". Some older translations, such as the King James Version, translate Sheol as Hell.

So, prior to about 600 BC, the Jews did not have much of a concept of an afterlife. During the Jewish exile in Babylon (586-520 BC), the Jews were exposed to the Zoroastrian religion, which did have a Hell-like component. About 200 years after the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylon, Alexander the Great conquered the region. Alexander brought widespread Hellenistic (Greek) influences that would have repercussions for centuries. As a result of Babylonian influence followed by Hellenistic influence, two new ideas emerged about Sheol: First was the idea of a possible resurrection from death. Second was the idea of different experiences in the afterlife for the good and the wicked. Resurrection is hinted at in a handful of later Old Testament scriptures which were written around the time of the Babylonian exile (such as Ezekiel's vision of a "valley of dry bones"), but the idea really came into its own after 200 BC--around the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean revolt. Reward and punishment in the afterlife only appears in Jewish writings that post-date the Hebrew scriptures.

After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up between his generals. Israel initially fell under the authority of the Egyptian Ptolemies (named after Ptolemy Lagi, one of Alexander's generals), but later was taken over by the Seleucid Dynasty, which had assumed control of the Babylonian and Syrian portions of Alexander's Empire. The Seleucids were ardent Hellenizers--imposing Greek culture and religion on their subjects by law.

In 175 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the Seleucid ruler (by murdering his predecessor). Antiochus Ephiphanes was a cruel and brutal despot who was intent on forcing the Jews to adopt Greek culture and religion. He desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by sacrificing pigs and encouraging his soldiers to have sex with prostitutes inside the holy place. Epiphanes ordered the slaughter of multitudes of Jews. An account exists of an elderly and respected rabbi named Eleazar who was flogged to death for refusing to eat the flesh of a pig. A Jewish woman and her seven children were systematically killed--one by one--for refusing to worship an idol. The Jews stubbornly resisted the Seleucid attempts to eradicate their culture and, as a result, endured brutal persecution. Defiant Jews went to their deaths vowing to their executioners that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God. They shared a common belief about a future event known as "The Day of the Lord" when the resurrection of the faithful would occur, coinciding with the removal of the oppressors and the restoration of Israel as a nation.

Anglican Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright has extensively researched and written about the development of the resurrection belief among ancient Jews ( Another excellent and thoroughly researched resource on this topic is the book "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" by Simcha Paull Raphael.

At this point it is worth stopping to ponder something significant: If a Hell of Eternal Conscious Torment exists, why is there no mention of it in the entire Old Testament? The Old Testament accounts for 2/3 of the Christian Bible! If Hell is real, then the implication is that our Heavenly Father created an afterlife of eternal suffering and allowed billions upon billions of unsuspecting souls to tumble into it forever without the slightest bit of warning. Ask yourself this: If you had no familiarity with Judaism or Christianity and had never heard of Hell; would you be able to read the Old Testament and come away with an awareness of it?

To Part 3
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

“Before I say I disagree I should be able to say I understand.”
- Roger E Olson, Theologian

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

'Red Letter Christian' responds to Rob Bell

Here's a great response to the recent Rob Bell "Love Wins" bruhaha from Tony Campolo's "Red Letter Christians" blog:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hell, Part 1

I do not believe in Hell. That is to say, I do not believe in the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. My opinion about Hell is not the product of wishful thinking. Rather, I arrived at my present beliefs after many years of in-depth study of scripture, history and theology. I have long held the conviction that ideas, including (especially!) theological ideas, ultimately manifest in attitudes and actions. I believe that the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment has done more damage and caused more misery in the course of human history than almost any other idea known to man.

Many people think that Christianity has always taught Eternal Conscious Torment, but that isn't the case. Over the course of Christianity's history, there have emerged three distinct views about the "fate of the wicked" (i.e., those rejected by God or who have rejected God):

1. Annihilation - This is the view that only the "righteous" will be resurrected; the wicked will remain dead. This was the common belief of Jews at the time of Jesus (though not the only view: Sadducees, for example, didn't believe in any form of resurrection or afterlife. More on this later). A variation of the Annihilation view is that everyone gets resurrected and stands before God at the Great judgment, but those who do not make the cut get snuffed out and cease to exist. The Annihilation view is sometimes referred to as Conditional Immortality.

2. Universal Reconciliation - This is the view that God will ultimately reconcile everyone who ever lived to Himself. In other words, everyone gets saved, even if they don't choose to follow Christ during their lifetime. This view, when expressed within Christian theology, is sometimes called Christian Universalism. Universal Reconciliation was, at one time, a very common (perhaps even majority) view among Christians.

3. Eternal Conscious Torment - This is the view that God will judge all souls and those who don't make the cut will spend hopeless eternity in agony, separated from God. It has typically been taught in Evangelical Christianity that anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (including those who never hear the Gospel) will be subjected to this fate. Some theologians, such as C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce) have painted Hell less as a fiery torture chamber and more as a dreary endless existence filled with regret and dissatisfaction--sort of Eternal Depression.

In the first few hundred years of Christianity, there does not appear to have been a consensus about the fate of unbelievers. Support for all three views can be found in writings by Early Church Fathers. There were learned Christian leaders and devout followers of Jesus who belonged to each of these three theological camps. (See Part 8 for details, including a list of Early Church Fathers who's writings indicate support for Universal Reconciliation).

The earliest Christian creeds did not address the subject. For example, the oldest extant Christian creed--called the "Apostle's Creed"--did not (in its original form) contain any reference to Hell: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Ghost, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, buried, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father; whence he will come, to judge the living and the dead: and in the Holy Spirit; the holy church; the remission of sins; and the resurrection of the body." (The astute reader who is familiar with the Apostle's Creed will notice that there is something missing here: "He descended into Hell". This statement does not appear in the oldest versions of the Apostle's Creed. It was added sometime between 359 and 400 AD). The Nicene Creed, which dates back to the 4th Century, likewise makes no mention of Hell.

The greatest weakness with any view on the afterlife (Heaven or Hell) is that the Bible actually provides very little information on the subject. It seems to be much more concerned with how we live here and now. This lack of detail about the afterlife creates room for divergence among Christians. A lot of what we believe about Hell comes from extra-Biblical sources, coupled with extrapolation from what scripture tells us about the character and intent of God. A person's view on the fate of non-believers tends to be directly related to their view of what God is like (along with a lot of baggage inherited from 2,000 years of tradition, history and literature).

Regarding the three views:

Although Annihilationism is often associated with Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, it is not an uncommon view within the Anglican church. Annihilationism has been championed by the likes of venerated Evangelical Anglican theologian John Stott. Annihilationism can be found in the writings of some early church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. A form of Annihilationism (the belief that only the righteous would be resurrected) was a common view of Jews at the time of Jesus.

A belief in Universal Reconciliation (Christian Universalism) can also be found in writings of early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Respected church historian Philip Schaff has noted that "In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked." (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Page 96).

Many historians credit the ancient Greeks with inventing the idea of eternal conscious torment in the afterlife. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Hades--the abode of the dead--was neither a place of punishment or reward. Everyone went to Hades and experienced the same shadowy existence. But below Hades was a deep pit called Tartarus. Tartarus was the place where the "worst of the worst" were sent to be tormented. For example, Sisyphus, who murdered house-guests, committed incest, usurped his brother's throne and betrayed Zeus, was condemned to an eternity of frustration in Tartarus--rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it slip from his grasp and tumble back down each time he neared the top. The primary inhabitants of Tartarus were the Titans--ancient dieties who had been overthrown by Zeus and the Olympian gods. This motif appears again in Jewish and early Christian literature in the form of rebellious angels chained in a gloomy abyss.

Babylonian Zoroastrianism--a religion which the exiled Jews would have been exposed to--also had a concept of Hell: a dark and foul-smelling place in the earth where evil people went after they died. The Zoroastrian name for it translates approximately to "the place of bad existence." Zoroastrians believed that this place served a penitentiary role and that eventually--when good conquered evil once and for all--its inhabitants would be freed and restored.

Ancient Jews--prior to the Babylonian exile in 586 BC--did not have a clearly defined view of an afterlife and no apparent concept of post-mortem reward or punishment. The idea of reward and punishment in the afterlife gradually found its way into post-Babylonian-exile, Greek-influenced Judaism, though it was initially understood to be punishment of a limited duration and for redemptive purposes. This view was adopted into early Christianity. It was hundreds of years later (after Augustine, 354-430 CE)--at the dawn of the Medieval period--that Eternal Conscious Torment became the establishment view. As church power became married to government power and gradually became centralized in Constantinople (and then Rome), Annihilationism and Universal Reconciliation were condemned as heresy and the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment became codified. It has remained the dominant view ever since.

In subsequent posts, I will explore the history behind the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. I'll also examine what scripture has to say (and doesn't have to say) about it. And I'll explain what I believe about the afterlife, and why.

To Part 2
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quakers and Nazis

I received an email with a link to a cute video with a serious message made by some school kids. The video reenacts the following story (which comes from the book Quakers & Nazis: Inner Light In Outer Darkness by Prof. Hans A. Schmitt):

"In 1938, Rufus Jones, George Walton, and Robert Yarnall followed a shared leading to Germany to meet with the German SS about releasing Jews. Because Friends [Quakers] had initiated a massive feeding program in Germany after World War I, they had reason to hope the Germans would believe in their good will.

The three men said they had come "to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life ... and to relieve suffering ..." After hearing their requests, the SS officers left the room to confer. The three Americans bowed their heads "and entered upon a time of deep, quiet meditation and prayer" while they waited for the officers to return. Later they learned that their room had been bugged and their "silence" had confirmed the earnestness of their mission.

They were then told that they could proceed with their work of Jewish evacuation and that other Quaker representatives would be permitted to travel unhindered throughout Germany and Austria to implement their purpose. In the U.S., the entire mission was seen as a breakthrough. ... The Quakers received a grant to finance the work of a new team of Quakers to be sent to Germany, and plans were drafted for a camp to house refugees receiving visas to the U.S. But the plans were never realized because American politicians decided not to accept the refugees."

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Quaker Meeting

There is something so powerful about sitting in a room full of people, in silence, listening and waiting on God. It never ceases to amaze me.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Love wins!!!