Wednesday, February 12, 2014

To Believe in Something "Better"

This post has been on my heart for some time, and I think the time has come to share it.

Some time back I was asked in an exchange on Facebook, if I believed in hell, and who do I think goes there? I gave it some thought and posted a reply.  This blog post is edited from that reply, with hopefully a little more nuance, to explain my current thinking on matters of hell and salvation.  

I dare say, I know my thinking is not in the evangelical mainstream, but I also know its not outside the realm of orthodox Christian thought.  My views are just not in step with the views held by many conservative American Christian thinkers.  

So, do I believe in hell, and who goes there? That’s a somewhat loaded question I think, and it is ultimately unanswerable.

The Bible talks about hell without being crystal clear about what it is, or what its true purpose is. It goes by various names (Gehenna, Sheol, Hades) none of which, when discussed in scripture,  are definitively clear on the nature of what is being described. Christians the world over disagree on exactly what the Bible says about hell and the eternal destiny of people.  When asked “do I believe in hell, and who do I think goes there?”, the bottom line stance I have to take is, “I don’t know”.  

Its not possible to have a definitive answer on something that is by nature undefined.  I don’t  really know the answer, and neither does anyone else.  Anyone who claims to know, definitively, is a liar and a deceiver, and are themselves being deceived.  Even Jesus, the only one who could possibly know, was curiously and purposely vague about it all, because I think, as a friend noted during this Facebook conversation, our purpose is to live productively for today, not worry tomorrow or the afterlife, because God in His great love and grace has already taken care of that.

The Bible is full of both inclusive and exclusive verses, those that seem to say God will both reconcile the entirety of creation, and somehow exclude some people from that reconciliation.  If I must err (as we all do, since no one has the full and complete revelation of God (1 Cor 13:12;)),   I tend to err on the side of God’s great love and grace being sufficient to do what He says He wants to do:

2nd Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Not some, everyone.

John 12:31-32, “The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” Jesus says if He is lifted up He will draw “everyone” or “all” men to himself.  He doesn’t say “some”, He says “everyone” or “all”.

Romans 5:15-19,”But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.  And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.

In this passage Paul talks about how Adam’s one trespass lead to death for “all”, so Jesus’ one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for “all”.  He doesn’t say “some”, he says “all”. “Everyone”.

Romans 11:32-33, “For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.  Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!”

God imprisoned “all” or “everyone” in disobedience so He could have mercy on "all".  Not some, all.

1 Corinthians 15:22, “ For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive

As in Adam all die (and all Christians agree that we mean everyone who ever lived dies)  so also in Christ all will be made alive.  Not some, all. The way Paul writes, I think he means the same all that was affected by Adam’s sin - everyone, ever.

Colossians 1:17-20, “ He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood,shed on the cross.”

Christ is Lord over “all” things, Paul says several times in this passage.  We understand that Paul meant “all” when he wrote “all” in this context  He culminates by saying that through Christ , God reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to himself.  I have a hard time seeing how “all” might not mean “all”, when it is used in so many parallel verses in this passage to actually mean “all”.

1 Timothy 4:10-11,”That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things.”

God is the Savior of all people, but as Paul says, especially believers. Paul claims that all people are saved, but he lends a special blessing to those who believe right now, but includes “all” people in God’s active saving grace.  None are excluded in this passage.

There are many, many more passages in both the New and Old Testament that lend to an inclusive reading.  I know that there are many verses that don’t.  Which is perfectly correct? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But I am in very good company in thinking more inclusively, including among them early church fathers such as Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa.

Since I must choose to believe something (we all choose to believe something,  even if we don’t make a conscious choice)  I  would rather believe that the Good News is truly good news! .
I see the Good News that Paul so passionately preaches as something akin to:
“God has done a wonderful work and included you, yes you who hate God and want nothing to do with him (which is pretty much “all” people, as Paul says in Romans and elsewhere)  in His loving work of grace.  God has made peace with you through Jesus’ death and resurrection,  whether you realize it or not. Come sit at the Master’s table, and partake in His life.  You are already His child and welcome in His presence by virtue of His own desire to make peace with you while you were still far from Him, an enemy of God in your heart and in your mind.  He is waiting, watching for you to come home, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, with open arms. God loves you with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength”.

I think that is much “better” news than what I've traditionally been taught:

“Because you are a sinner, God’s wrath burns against you.  If you choose to reject the message of the cross, and don’t accept his gift of grace and accept Jesus as your Lord, God is going to destroy you forever, supernaturally sustaining your existence for all eternity, sending you into eternal torment in a horrible place of suffering, Unless you accept, believe, and repent, you are doomed. By the way, this God that is going to destroy you if you don't accept Him (or possibly destroy your beloved children or mother or spouse),  you have to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”  

A good friend preached a message a few weeks ago  that I think had a lot of truth in it.  When life gives you choices, choose “better”.  

I choose to believe in a better, more loving, more graceful gospel than I’ve believed in the past.  
I choose to believe God’s grace is so grand, so beautiful, and so sweeping that God can save all, if He so chooses.  

Jesus said he is the only way to the Father, and I staunchly affirm this.  I just think the atonement Jesus provides is far more sweeping and inclusive than we want to allow it to be. We like being “in”, and we can’t be “in” unless someone else is “out”.   

Just look at the parable of the landowner who hired workers for his field in Matthew 20.  Those hired early in the day were upset that those hired later in the day were paid the same wage promised by the landowner.  When they grumbled about it, they were told the landowner was not unfair, but had paid them what he promised, even though they worked longer.  The landowner was merciful to all, and some were upset at the mercy extended to others because the workers didn’t think the latecomers deserved it.

I dance with joy at the idea of God’s grace extending to every corner of the earth, as the Bible says in so many places, and leaving no one behind.  I think there is scriptural support for this view.  I acknowledge there is powerful support for the other views, too.

So, to mainly answer the “hell” question, I like to say: If hell exists in our traditional sense, I think  God would like it if Hell was empty.  I think He can do that.  I think He wants to do that.  

I guess my final question would be one I leave with those I teach all the time: What motivates you to serve and love Christ?

Can you better love a God that will send us off to hell if we don’t believe in something that is basically unknowable, or can you better love a God that has done all the work  of salvation and reconciliation for us (since we are incapable of such a work, as much of scripture states), and stands as a loving father with his arms wide open to receive us when we return home?

Ultimately, God will do what God will do.  I am but a man.  However, I have to choose something to believe in as I live this life.

For now, I choose to believe the latter.  I thinks its “better”.

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