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Hell. Not the one in Michigan.

18 Apr

So far this week I’ve posted about Earth and Heaven, today I’ll try to deal with Hell. (Although Jesus already did! Christian joke – BOOM!)

Most of my recent thinking on this topic has been shaped by Erasing Hell by Francis Chan. It’s a brief and generous response to Love Wins by Rob Bell. Bell represents the most popular summation of the inclusivist position: God will save everyone. If God is love, and wants no one to perish – then love will win. Simple, and sounds good right? On the surface, sure – but as we dig deeper it begins to fall apart.

There are two issues to consider: the “in-house” theological issues and the conversational approach. These things differ not because we want to lie or sugarcoat our beliefs to folks who don’t share them, but because it’s such an offensive and massive concept that we have to couch it in terms of respect and love in conversation, something that can obscure our meaning if we’re trying to get to the essence of the doctrine.

Theological issues

Although CS Lewis wished hell didn’t exist and that it wasn’t part of the package deal (see Mere Christianity) it turns out that Jesus didn’t shy away from the topic at all; in fact he lead with it! We can retain Lewis’ desire that no one go there and utter hatred of such an existence while still embracing the reality that God does punish those who rebel against him.

We don’t know tons about hell, just like we don’t know tons about heaven. It is a separation from God, we won’t like being there, it is intended as a punishment and it was not made for people at all but for Satan.

Speaking about hell

“So you think I’m going to hell?”

I never really know what to say. Most of the times I communicate that every single person will have to face God’s judgment. I ask if 99 out of 100 won’t be an A+ but a failing grade – do they think they pass with a perfect 100? I am certain that I would fail that test.

“I don’t want to believe in a God who would send people to hell then!”

Here is the rub. Everyone is ok with the God who sends people to heaven, but no one (sane) wants God to send people to hell. There are a few points worth mentioning, and I cover some or all of them in conversation.

  • Actions have consequences. God didn’t send the suicide jumper to the pavement even though God is responsible for gravity. Similarly, our decision to rebel against God has a consequence: his judgment. The reason hell is the destination is that we would not be capable of inhabiting heaven in our rebellious state.
  • Hell is simply getting what we’ve wished for. As rebels we want to be in control of our own destiny and subject to no authority other than ourselves. Heaven is also called the Kingdom of God, because he is the sovereign authority. If our chief aim is independence and autonomy then we would be miserable in a place where we were subject to rule.
  • See previous post on heaven re: God’s rule is good, enjoyable, exciting, fulfilling.

We are eternal beings, not mere mortals. That means we all have an eternal destiny. The Bible gives us no reason to suspect that we can alter outcomes after our Earthly life is over so the stakes are high. Hell should frighten, but no one (in my opinion) can make a lasting and genuine commitment to God out of fear. That may motivate our search but in the end it is God’s immense and unyielding love which draws us to Him and enables us to lay down our weapons of war against Him.

The things I feel I must communicate are that everyone will face judgment because actions have consequences. There are only two options: being found righteous and being found guilty. God loves each individual and makes a real offer of salvation to every person, contingent on repenting of sin and placing trust in Jesus. Hell isn’t where all the rockstars are partying for eternity, and we won’t enjoy it.

“if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”

– Death row inmate Charles Peace, to the prison chaplain before being executed in 1879


My Faith is my own thing…

7 Mar

Heard in conversation the other week: “Yeah I have faith, but it’s my own thing.”

About half the time people tell me this, they don’t actually have any meaningful faith (i.e. they can’t point to any difference in their lives as a result of their faith nor can they point to what it means to them). The other half of the time the God people are worshipping is some creation of their own mind usually resembling a kind cosmic grandpa. As always, I respect people’s right to disagree with me – but I do think that both these approaches are wrong and that these folks are missing out on the experience of worshipping the true God, having a relationship with him, and doing this in the context of a community.

What’s so bad about having my own thing?

I have two issues: first, since you invented the thing – it’s unlikely to be true. Unless you invented God, in which case – you ARE God. I am all for creativity and I don’t think people who know me would accuse me of falling lockstep into any ideology or crowd. That being said, when it comes to worldview – specifically the faith based aspects of worldview – it’s ok to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Again, bucking an established religious trend doesn’t make you wrong; bucking all established religious trends and still saying you have faith in something probably does.hiding

Second, if it’s only your thing then no one else can join you. This seems like a lonely experience. I believe we were designed to be in community with other people in every aspect of our lives: work, family, friends, and faith. Just because my faith is personal, it certainly isn’t private.

How to engage these notions in conversation

There is no set program or response, I’ve had success with things I thought would fail and vice versa. Similarly, things that have been meaningful for some have been inconsequential for others. People are individuals and treating them as such is of paramount importance. Some questions I like to ask include the following:

  • You say your faith doesn’t really impact your day to day life, would you like it to? I think God is ready and willing to interact with you if you’re interested.
  • If you like God, but reject all the traditions about his nature then where does your understanding of God come from?
  • Is it possible that if God exists he could reveal some of his personality to us? (yes) What do you think that would look like?
  • I agree that faith is a deeply personal thing, but I don’t think it’s meant to be private. How would you invite your future spouse or children to participate in something that is exclusively your own thing?

Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive, but if you’re looking for some starting ground for this common objection then these questions could help.

Two missing ingredients in your witness…

20 Feb

In my last post I gave a brief introduction to the book I Once was Lost and mentioned the thresholds concept as a helpful way to think about where your friends are on their spiritual journey.
The two thresholds I’d like to highlight for the purpose of this blog (conversational evangelism) are trust and curiosity.

It’s no secret that Christians can come off as pushy, weird, mean, and/or just plain dumb. We don’t have to own all the terrible things ever said or done by other believers but we do have a responsibility to try to represent Christ well. For the folks the authors talked to, deciding to trust a Christian was almost universally the first significant step they took towards God. There are lots of implications here but one is to remember that building a relationship with someone is always a worthwhile task. I don’t mean this in the sense of taking on a project and then never calling again if your friend shows no interest in Jesus. I mean that an investment in someone else’s life, no matter what that looks like – is always a good investment.

If your friends look like this when you bring up faith - maybe you should establish some more trust before moving on

If your friends look like this when you bring up faith – maybe you should establish some more trust before moving on

Without this trust element, we get nowhere. I can remember having back and forth conversations with folks where I was answering their objections and questions thoughtfully and felt like I was making real headway, only to have them dig deeper and lobby more objections. Reflecting on these experiences through the lens of the thresholds I can see that one of the issues was not having first established trust! Alas, I can’t go re-do those conversations, but I know moving forwards that I want to know about people first and foremost before I start trying to answer their questions – even if the questions are what they lead with.

This topic has vexed me for years, and it’s only getting worse. I have a core belief that people DO desire God, yet so many of the conversations I have feature the sentiment that “oh – I’m spiritual but it’s not a very big deal” or “oh, yeah I never really think about God…” What!?

The authors explained that people became curious when they encountered scenarios or information that their own personal experience was insufficient to explain. For example a young man was astounded that Doug wanted to move his wife and young child into one of Denver’s worst neighborhoods because he thought poor people have something special spiritually and that Jesus would be there. This led to hours of conversation that wouldn’t have been interesting to the student without this confusing and provocative action.

We then, must present Jesus as he was: provocative, intriguing, and dangerous. We don’t have to make any of this up – it’s all in the Gospels! We also must live in ways that exhibit these characteristics; confusing and surprising our friends until their curiosity boils over into actual dialogue. If someone investigates our lives, they should be confused by the actions we take for Jesus and demand to know why.

There is more, but again I think the book is worth the read and encourage you to buy a copy. If you’ve been spiritually stuck in relationships with some of your friends, maybe you could think about where they are on the threshold scale and consider what is the best way to meet them there.

What role does convincing really play?

3 Aug

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what people find convincing. In this post about the Chick-fil-a craziness Mike Patz says “I’ve never seen people change via argument, which is why I prefer to help people taste and see that the Lord is good.” (The post is a great take on the issue, by the way).

As I’ve been speaking with folks and asking them what they think of Jesus I hear a wide range of responses and I try to think through what might make sense to them, how to help them “taste and see” that the Lord is good. I don’t think I’m just putting forth arguments, but I can’t really know for sure. Often I’ll be met with something to the effect of “Yeah, that’s interesting…I’m not sure.” Which is probably grounds for future conversations, although sometimes I’m talking to a stranger in a mall and that’s not something they’re interested in.

I think that helping people taste and see is all about the Gospel: the notion that we are drowning already and no amount of swimming will get us to shore but God in his love and mercy has provided us a way in Christ to stop trying to earn/deserve our redemption but to merely receive it. Additionally I think this is most often expressed in long term relationships, though I hope and pray that it is not impossible to communicate this truth in brevity as well.

The larger question that looms for me is where does traditional Christian apologetics stand in this process of tasting and seeing? I feel it has a place, somewhere in the beginning most likely. To extend the food analogy, perhaps apologetics can help our friends who are unwilling to try a strange new dish (because it seems unlikely to be any good or has been labeled dangerous) to step out on a limb. We help them see that the idea of the Gospel is both rational and fantastic (a true fairy tale, as C.S. Lewis has said). Then, later we take them out to the actual meal, once they have whet their appetite.

This might be church, but it just as easily might not be. If your friend has a major aversion to church for whatever reason it could serve them better to invite them to a home group or just to look at the Bible over coffee or something. This is the tasting and seeing part, where the Spirit is likeliest to move.

So don’t put too much faith in “argument” (not the yelling angrily sense, but the logical and sequential presentation of ideas sense) but don’t abandon the idea that people can and do change their minds when confronted with convincing reasons. How we present these reasons tends to make all the difference in the world though – as always, I suggest an unusual approach.

Who you’re speaking with matters…

27 Jun

I’ve alluded to this before – but it’s worth explaining myself so I’ll cover a few reasons why it is important to know your audience in conversation with someone who doesn’t believe. Several exist but two leap out to me.

What do they care about?

Every person you speak with actually does care about something. A large number will not care about faith, God, spirituality etc. but they have something that matters to them. Listening as they speak and trying to discern what matters will help you as you frame the importance of the Gospel.

Additionally, knowing that your friend is very concerned with truth and ultimate things will lead you down a very different path than if he is more or less just getting by and doesn’t consider much outside of his own sphere of influence and experience. For example, a friend of mine who loves the poor and cares for the marginalized would be interested in what Jesus had to say about people in those segments of society while my friend who is mostly interested in sports and drinking wouldn’t really care.

What do they find convincing?

I began thinking about this because I realized how much I enjoyed being able to discuss different scriptures when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. Those folks believe in the Bible (although they carry with them an erroneous translation) so it’s easy to make headway. However, my Muslim friend or my friend who is an atheist will not respect the Bible as authoritative. I can point out what it says, but to them it is a historical document with questionable reliability. It is not my job to ask them to treat it otherwise, that comes on the other side of trusting Jesus. Instead I need to listen to them and ask questions about what types of things are convincing.

Personally I find the historical case for the Resurrection (made by Mike Licona, N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas among others) a practical and strong way to reason with folks who don’t agree about who Jesus really is. I also enjoy having conversations about the nature of moral truth (if such a thing even exists, and if so where it came from) with folks who claim no belief in any transcendent power. Your friend will let you know what types of things stick and what seems trivial, your job is to listen and present those things clearly and with compassion.

For the purposes of consolidation (and by way of oversimplification) you can think of people in three broad categories based on their worldview commitments.

1)      Non-Christian Religious worldview – this includes anyone who considers themselves a believer/follower of any faith that isn’t historical Christianity. These folks care about God/Spirituality and have made some sort of decision about what is true. It will be important to remember that your conversations will be probing at the deepest levels of identity and belief so it is vital to be sensitive and respectful. They are convinced by the power of a worldview to explain the human condition and make real sense of the world we live in.

2)      Secular/Naturalistic/Materialistic worldview – these folks have considered the “God hypothesis” and found that it lacks convincing evidence. Generally folks in this category can be subdivided into two groups: those who have chosen this after freshman psychology/sociology/biology and those who have thought deeply about ultimate things. In general they care about humanity, justice and truth. They are convinced by tangible evidence and logical rationalization. (Note, this doesn’t mean “proofs” per se and could be simply a functional healthy Christian community that invites this person in).

3)      The apathetic – this isn’t to say they don’t have a worldview commitment, we all do. These folks simply haven’t spent much time considering what their ultimate beliefs are. Often when pressed they will cop to some sort of belief in God, but it is so far removed from their conscious decision making that it might as well not exist. Generally it is hard to have a fruitful conversation unless it is initiated by the other person.

Please note that the above categories are broad generalizations meant to help you begin thinking about what type of worldview commitments your friends may have so that your spiritual conversations can be more fruitful. They are not meant to be definitive or all encompassing in any way, so try not to shove your friends value and belief systems into a box.

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