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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

That place where Johnny Cash and Lassie are…

17 Apr

In my last post I detailed how I might explain our current reality to someone: the world is broken and we’re all part of the problem. We have to own our own tendencies to do wrong before we can receive any correction. (It’s worth noting that the gospel isn’t there to correct our behavior: sinful actions are a symptom of a sinful nature. We must fix the source – our hearts – and only Christ can do that). Today I’ll detail a future reality that believers expect to participate in: heaven.

The pendulum continues to swing back and forth in church culture between focusing on heaven to the detriment of our effectiveness here and ignoring heaven to the detriment of our effectiveness here.

I tend to fall into the second camp because I’m afraid of the accusation that I’m just subscribing to some ‘pie in the sky’ fairy tale. The thing is, if it’s a true fairy tale then why shouldn’t I share it with my friends? Heaven is spoken of as a reward, a home, a Kingdom, and a city (among other things). Though plenty of books have been written and the best theologians of history have addressed it – we still don’t know all that much that isn’t speculative.

There will be no pain and no death. There will be no sickness and no sadness. There will be no hatred and no envy. We will be alive and aware. We will have physical bodies. God will be there and that will fill us with joy beyond anything imaginable here. We were designed to be with Him. Our hearts yearn for his presence (even if we deny or suppress that truth). This is why the knowledge of God is the most precious commodity on Earth – and it will be ubiquitous in heaven.

Um, seriously? I was told there would be cake...

Um, seriously? I was told there would be cake…

A common fear is that heaven will be boring or monotonous. I can’t explain why it won’t be. Imagine being free from all worry, all fear and instead being with the person you love the most at the height of that love. Amplify that by a magnitude of infinity and you have heaven.

Heaven really matters – Jesus spoke of being with him in the Kingdom. We shouldn’t become ‘so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good’ – but I suspect that if we have the real heaven and the real God in mind, this is impossible. We are told to pray that God would make Earth like heaven, and that we should participate in that process to the degree that we are able. This means we will be doing good as often as possible in creative and unexpected ways. Jesus sought the very margins of society and then brought hope and healing, this is the Kingdom I want to be a citizen of.

I don’t share about heaven frequently when I’m sharing the Gospel – I’m not sure how to present it in a way that doesn’t feel like bait. (And I’m not sure someone who doesn’t yearn for Christ would even see it as bait). I’d like to though. I’d like to paint a picture that calls the heart back home. Pascal’s wager makes the point that a bet on infinite joy while risking nothing is more logical than a bet on nothingness while risking infinite sorrow. This doesn’t sway people to believe, nor should it, but it ought to illustrate how high the stakes are.

After re-reading this post, I realize that it’s less conversational instruction and a little more of me just spilling my guts on heaven. The takeaways are that (a) God will be there and that matters a lot because this relationship supersedes all others, (b) it won’t be boring in any way, (c) everything negative that you can imagine will be eliminated while everything positive will be amplified, (d) it won’t end.

The wrong crowd…

4 Apr

filterbubble1If you find yourself living a day to day existence that doesn’t ever include sharing the Gospel, chances are that one of two relationship circumstances is present in your life. As many before me have established (and as I maintain): being a message bearer is a non-negotiable aspect of following Jesus. We cannot shun this responsibility by crying that our lives are different and we share the Gospel through our actions for this will not do. Unless our actions carry some accompanying signifier we just have a pile of good actions (soiled by some not-so-good ones because we’re not perfect) that mean nothing to the outside world. Assuming you’re convinced sharing the faith is necessary and good – why aren’t you? Plenty of reasons abound, but living at one pole of the relational spectrum is a prime suspect.

The Bubble

During my years in ministry this has been the most consistent trap for me, and the most likely trap for my students as well. We find Christian community, we live our lives, rinse and repeat. The problem arises when our network of meaningful relationships includes Christians exclusively – at this point we don’t have any significant relational capitol with folks who don’t believe and therefore we shy away from giving away our faith and become greedy with it.

The best way to test for this is simply asking yourself how many people you could call/text/email right now to hang out without it being weird. A lot of us think “Oh there are so many non-Christians at my work/school/etc.” without realizing that they’re almost all acquaintances and we know very little about who they actually are.

If this is you consider being more intentional with folks in your regular spheres of life. If your regular spheres are composed of Christians exclusively (i.e. you are a minister, missionary, attend a Christian school, etc.) then try joining a group or club without religious affiliation. Salt is not effective if it remains in the shaker surrounded by more salt and a candle provides no illumination in the sunlight.

The Desert

At the other end of the spectrum we find Christians who are totally alone (or think they are) in their relationships. These folks find themselves either devoid of Christian friendships or with very distinct Christian and non-Christian communities. I have not ever personally found myself in this situation but have seen many students fall into the trap. Their closest friends and communities are all secular and they begin to fear rocking the boat. As time passes and routines are established the idea of being vocal about matters of faith becomes less and less of a possible reality. The people advising them and investing in them all have no connection to Jesus and therefore don’t integrate him into their counsel. Over time the believer falls into the trap of thinking “they’re such nice people – surely God will be pleased with them.” (If this seems a stretch read the first chapter of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus). Eventually they must compromise some of their Christian identity to maintain their connection to the individual or group because they’ve never established a pattern of respectful disagreement or asserted that their faith is indeed valuable to them.

We often refer to Paul’s instruction not to be unequally yoked as advice about marriage but I think it extends to all relationships (romantic, business, friendship, etc.) This doesn’t mean that the Christin shouldn’t start a business with a non-Christian friend or that we should shun relationships with those who disagree (see “The Bubble” above) – but rather that we should prioritize at least a few close friendships with believers and find a meaningful Christian community where we can be known. This allows us to be ‘in but not of’ the world as we live and work and relate as aliens in a foreign land. Without a deep and life giving connection to the body of Christ the individual will ultimately succumb to the pressure of falling in line with the culture. In the west this means “you can believe in Jesus – just don’t suggest that I ought to as well.”

If this is you, I am glad that you are able to connect and value those who don’t share your most deeply held beliefs, but know that finding a significant connection to the body of Christ is vital for the survival of your faith.

Conclusion

Again, these are not the only two reasons people who otherwise think it is right and good fail to share their faith. Nor am I suggesting that you must fit into one of these two categories. I think we have a tendency towards one or the other and both are damaging both to us as individuals and to the work of the Kingdom. Assess your relationships – who you actually spend free and unscheduled time with – and ask if there is balance or if your relationships are weighted too heavily towards one end of the spectrum.

So a dead guy walks out of his own grave…

14 Mar

Ah, Easter. Chocolate bunnies and a risen Lord…maybe not in that order. Like a Christmas sale in late October, I’m trying to beat the rush by posting about the significance of Easter now instead of two weeks from now. The resurrection of Jesus is the historical truth claim upon which the entire Gospel hangs. Don’t believe me? Just ask the apostle Paul:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 cor 15:14, 16-19)

It’s easy to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a story from the Bible, but it’s important to know it as a fact of history. Believing in the historical reality of Jesus emerging from his tomb is not only critical for your faith, but critical for your evangelism. The resurrection reorders reality by proving that God has intervened in history and affirming that Jesus’ claims were true. Believing in the truth of the resurrection has innumerable consequences of which I’ll highlight two that have impacted me personally.

I have no idea what eggs have to do with the beginnings of the Christian faith...

I have no idea what eggs have to do with the beginnings of the Christian faith…

The resurrection power…in me!?

The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead resides in the believer (Rom 8:11, Eph 1:18-19). This is an outstanding truth which should revolutionize our faith. For me, the truth of the power of the Spirit in me was never more evident than when I was at my lowest.

Several years ago I was dealing with the consequences of personal sin: I felt repentant, but my desire for things to magically return to normal outweighed my desire for God. As I studied the resurrection academically, the truth of Jesus’ triumph over death began to spill out of my brain and into my heart. I knew that not only did I need God more than I needed things to be “ok” I also had access to the Holy Spirit who resurrected Jesus and this power would enable me to humbly submit to the Lord and overcome my obstacles. This process wasn’t immediate but it was sparked and sustained by the realization that there is an immense power indwelling me; all I had to do was access it.

Yes, I DO believe that Jesus is the only way…

Christian exclusivism (the claim that Jesus is the only way to God) rubs people the wrong way. How can we possibly be so arrogant!? My answer is that Jesus is the only figure in history to come back from the dead, and this is verifiable (see below).

Our Gospel presentations focus on salvation, the forgiveness of sins, as they rightly should. The earliest sermons recorded in Acts did the same thing, but to prove their claim they pointed to the resurrection of Jesus. We mention the resurrection as well, but not usually not as evidence – it’s more a “this crazy thing happened too, and that’s part of it.”

Believing not only that the resurrection happened, but that it’s the best explanation of how the church formed gave me the confidence I needed to approach people who I formerly thought off limits. Instead of hoping that I could answer the questions of the skeptics, I began routing all of my conversations back to the resurrection of Jesus. I found that most people had not even considered the possibility that the story of Easter had roots in history. When I began to make the case that Jesus resurrection actually makes more sense than the leading theories in academia, it surprised people enough to listen a little longer. Some of them were so intrigued that we met regularly to discuss the historical evidence, and the likelihood of a miracle like this. I don’t believe anyone has ever been argued into the Kingdom, but I do believe reasoned dialogue can help people overcome hurdles of doubt.

But I don’t have a Master’s degree in Apologetics…

That’s ok – all you need to do is familiarize yourself with a few facts, and I’ll give you a head start. If you want to learn more check out the suggested links at the bottom of this post. The most critical aspect of the following assertions is that the majority of scholars – skeptics included – will agree that they can be considered historical facts.

1)      Jesus died by Roman crucifixion

2)      The message of the resurrection was central to the preaching of the church from it’s very beginning

3)      The disciples were transformed from shocked grievers into bold proclaimers based on experiences of the resurrected Jesus

4)      Skeptics James and Paul (Saul) converted to Christianity based on experiences of the resurrected Jesus.

 

There are more, which make the case more compelling – but these will do. The swoon theory, the twin theory, the conspiracy theory, the legend theory, and the hallucination theory are all undone by these simple historical details. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with them and understand why historians consider them “facts” even though the information comes from the Bible.

Go ahead and crack open a plastic egg this Easter, I’m hoping for starburst jellybeans and Reese’s pieces. While you do – remember that you’re celebrating a real thing, a fact of history: the resurrection of Jesus. Let this truth wash over you and transform your own spiritual journey; then go into your world and boldly proclaim the truth and pray that it transforms others as well.

Additional Resources

Short video featuring Dr. Gary Habermas

Top 10 resurrection myths

Succinct article expounding on the ‘minimal facts’ approach

Are we so sure tomorrow exists?

11 Mar

Last week a friend shared this link to a recent twist on a classic moral conundrum after I posted a few times about Christians’ need to commit to and defend moral realism. I’ve talked it over with a few people and ultimately I think two of the strongest Christian ethics are mutually exclusive in this artificial scenario. Motivated by love and the value of all humans we should protect human life actively and also do no harm. Any scenario that means abandoning one of those values to pursue the other is ultimately going to leave the protagonist haunted in real life – and I think that’s the answer: there is not answer. Choose and may God have mercy on all of us. (I may be missing something here, but for now I’m satisfied with my conclusion).

Related to this, I couldn’t help tweaking the scenario in my own mind. My imagination supplied me with a vivid cliff scene where I was holding someone up who had fallen over and then I saw my 1 year old daughter walking to the edge. I teared up imagining her small body falling over, even imagining myself diving over just to comfort her while we fell…I’m tearing up now just writing this! I don’t know why my mind went there, and again there is no good solution, but reflecting on this has reminded me of two things that often become cliché over time but which are of vital importance for the believer:

1)      We are not in control of our time and it IS limited.

While we are allowed (even called) to enjoy our lives here on Earth, Jesus reminds us to build with sturdy materials and to cultivate treasure in heaven. For me I survey my life and wonder if I’m doing that, I wonder if there’s room for more. Obviously since none of us are our risen Lord we’ll fail at this and there will always be areas of improvement. I still think this concept is repeated so often for a reason: we ought to be mindful. If we got a receipt each day for our time like we get for purchases, would we be able to show it to other people – much less God?

2)      This is also true of our friends who don’t recognize Jesus

We are not Platonists: the spiritual isn’t the ultimate good while the material is the source of evil. However, we also acknowledge that we are not mere mortals and that our fates are eternal. This blog exists to help you learn how to more effectively engage people in conversations about Jesus. Part of my strategy is not overwhelming them and not pushing them to the point of exhaustion. I still believe these things are important, but I also know that it is vital to communicate the truth wholly and frequently. Part of our time receipt from the point above should show us loving our friends and family who don’t know Jesus by trying to introduce them to Him.

These two points have become almost like air for me – so commonplace that I don’t know they’re there. The Lord used the idea of the moral dilemma to reawaken me to the fleeting nature of our time here and the critical importance of knowing Him during that time. In some situations the correct choice is difficult to discern (and may not even exist!) but in this situation, the choice is clear: Love God fully and love people well, in part by sharing the Good News of Jesus with them.

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