Turn or burn!

Rob covers a lot of ground in his chapters on hell and he starts with this nifty summary of the gospel, the kind you see on a poster or placard or t-shirt: Turn or burn!

Is this the good news, he wonders?

We may not have phrased it so succinctly, but maybe this is what we’ve been taught and maybe it’s what we believe. But is it true? Is it what Jesus taught? Did He, for example, say “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father and if you don’t shape up we’re going to throw you into hell to burn forever!”

Well He did say the first part, but the second is harder to attribute to Him.

Interestingly, when Jesus does talk about Hell, he’s talking to believers; it’s not a threat to the gentile world, but to believing Jews who are not living up to their calling as the people of God. So we might do well to warn ourselves of the consequences of such a lifestyle rather than wave threats of hell at unbelievers.

Contrary to what you might have heard or expected, Rob does not dispute the existence of hell:

There is hell now,

and there is hell later,

and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously

He is more interested in the questions of who will ultimately find themselves there, and why, and for how long.

These questions beg some others:

  • Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to consign most of them to never-ending suffering in hell?
  • Is hell never-ending or only temporary?
  • Is the suffering corrective rather than punitive?
  • Do the fires of hell actually destroy those who go there, or is there eternal conscious torment?
  • What does God want and does He get it?
  • Do we get what we want?

I think what Rob tries to do is to answer these questions in the light of his understanding of the nature of God, whom Jesus epitomised on earth, and then to see if these answers can be supported by the Bible.

Unfortunately, for every verse that supports his ideas, which seem to make a lot of sense, there seems to be another that opposes. Rob does write that we do not have to resolve these tensions, but I feel that he desperately wants to do so.

In his filmed talk, Everything is Spiritual, he gives a very clear demonstration of how a two-dimensional being might argue as to whether a white-board marker was a circle or a rectangle. Of course it depends on whether they are looking at it from the side or the end. A three-dimensional being, like you or me, would answer the question, “Yep!” It’s both circular and rectangular, even though in two dimensions it is not possible to observe this. In the same way, we cannot possibly understand some aspects of life from our merely three-dimensional perspective because the reality exists in more dimensions (scientists explain the universe in terms of 11 or more dimensions). So (to take just one knotty example) is it free will or predestination? “Yep!”

Isn’t it the same here?

  • What does God want? He wants everyone to be saved from the consequences of their sin/estrangement/rebellion, call it what you will.
  • Is He all-powerful? Yes!
  • Does He love the world so much that he sent His Son to save it? Yes!
  • Will all be saved? It seems not.
  • Is this all consistent? “Yep!”
  • Can we understand it? “No!”

If this is the case, does it matter how we respond to God? Rob maintains that it does, for if we persist in rejecting Him in the end He will respect that decision and we will not be part of His Kingdom in the age to come. And if we decide not to be part of His Kingdom then hell is what we call the alternative.

We can argue about whether or not that means intense regret or torment or simply destruction, but it’s clearly a serious matter: to quote the fallen angel, Mephistopheles, in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr Faustus, when asked why he is not in hell:

Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joy of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?

So perhaps it’s not a question of Turn or burn! but Come in (please!) or stay outside – the choice is yours! It’s an offer that will be repeated often, but one day – we don’t know when – that offer will no longer be on the table.

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Of sheep and goats

This morning I decided to take a look at Matthew 25 to see if I could find support for Rob Bell’s idea that the goats in the story are sent off for a time of pruning rather than eternal punishment.

I’m kind of getting ahead of myself in the blog as I haven’t blogged a review of the chapter where he talks about this yet though I did mention the story in my last post. Anyway, this is what I have chosen to blog today and I’ll get back to the book later.

So I looked in Strong’s (concordance) on my Palm TX (very handy for quickly finding the original Greek or Hebrew of a word and its possible meanings) to see if it gave his meaning for kolazo; it didn’t. It was quite unambiguous about punishment.

What I did discover in the same passage, however, was another verse (41) where Jesus states, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed [the goats], into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’

There doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room there. Maybe it’s only for a time (though see below) but its definitely very unpleasant! I have to wonder why Rob didn’t mention this verse when analysing the story. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit too well with his theory?

Now back to kolazo. My NIV concordance tells me it occurs twice and is translated once as punish and once as punishment. There is also kolasis which occurs twice and is always punishment. For good measure I looked up the Greek word used for prunes in John 14; it is kathairo.

Finally I looked up eternal. In the NT (in the NIV translation at least) this is always aionios. This word occurs 71 times and is translated 63 times as eternal. Seven times it is translated as beginning of times (twice), everlasting, ages, forever and never, and once it is not translated at all.

OK, I’m not a Greek scholar, but after this research I really don’t see where Rob is getting the idea of “a period of pruning” rather than eternal punishment – conscious or not.

Next stop: Hell itself!

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Heaven here and there

I’m about half way through Love Wins now and there’s a bit of catching up to do in the blog! So I’m going to cheat on a chapter by chapter approach by combining the first two in this one post. Inevitably I won’t do them justice so you’ll just have to buy the book for yourself, but at least I’ll remind myself of what seemed to me to be the salient points.

Not that there’s anything really new to me; what Rob has to say underlines a lot of what I’ve been hearing from various sources over the past few years. But it’s good to be reminded because we (I) so easily forget and fall into old ways of thinking. Thoughts like, “The point of the Christian life is where you go when you die.” Or if that isn’t the only point at least it’s the main one.

It isn’t!

I guess we might say that the point is not to get us into heaven so much as to get heaven into us.

Why is this important?

It’s important because not only is this life not all there is, but the current age is not all there is. There is an age to come, which involves a new heaven and a new earth. And in that age, all the injustice and imperfection of the current age will be no more. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about these things now. Rather the reverse, as following Jesus means building now for the age to come. The New Testament is full of “now and not yet”: the war is won, but the battle continues. The Kingdom of Heaven is among us, but we must pray “Your Kingdom come”. And not just pray, but live for the Kingdom to come. Live “eternal life” now.

For, as Rob points out, there is some kind of division and selection but the selection criteria are sometimes surprising and those being selected or rejected – and there are those – are sometimes surprised too. Think of the parable of judgement with sheep and goats, for example (Matthew 25). You might have expected the outcome to be no surprise to anyone, but it was. There were sheep who did not know it and goats who thought they had fulfilled the requirements of the law for getting into heaven – but hadn’t.

Then there’s the thief on the cross who did none of the conventional things that we often maintain are necessary: no sinner’s prayer, no confession, no repentance, no baptism. All he did was recognise that Jesus has a Kingdom and ask to be remembered. In response Jesus promises him paradise that very day.

Rob lists several other examples of people whose sins Jesus forgave or whose faith he commended despite their unconventional approach to Him. Even Paul the apostle did not fulfill most of today’s standard requirements for his conversion experience!

It reminds me of John Wimber who once said that God was always saving people in ways he (John) did not like!

So heaven – or perhaps better, the Kingdom of Heaven – is full of surprises. If you are worried that this might mean you are a goat and not a sheep as you thought, then I believe this worry is a sure sign that your heart is in the right place and that heaven – now and later – is your home. The goats who were surprised were sure of themselves and their righteousness; we can be sure of Jesus and His, which he gives to all who accept it. But I digress!

Let me use Rob Bell’s own words to conclude and summarise:

There’s heaven now somewhere else.

There’s heaven here sometime else.

And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place.

Heaven here and there.

Heaven now … but not yet!

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The eagle has landed!

Rob Bell - Love WinsI got home last night after an evening with friends to find Rob Bell on my coffee table in the lounge!

Of course, it was not Rob himself, but his new book, “Love Wins”. It was nearly 11pm, but I could not resist dipping in to see what the fuss was about. I read the introduction and then skipped to the chapter on Hell to see what he says. I was skimming, but Rob’s conclusion is this:

We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us…

And for that,

the word “hell” works quite well.

Let’s keep it.

So hell exists, though perhaps not defined the way we are used to. There’s a lot more which I’ll review in more detail in the coming days as I am now reading the book sequentially, from beginning to end (unlike magazines which I tend to read from back to front!).

Before bed I also skipped to the chapter about God getting what He wants. Rob does not answer this, but he does answer another question: “Do we get what we want?” The answer is “Yes!”

If we want isolation, despair and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option… If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.

Not everyone is forced into heaven – or indeed into the Kingdom of Heaven, which I think is more what the book is going to be about. It’s going to be very interesting reading.

By the way, I found that in my absence my wife had read the whole book! Her conclusion: “What he says makes a lot of sense.”

Just what you’d expect from Rob Bell in fact!

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Asking questions

As I started this blog I mentioned that it came out of a Facebook discussion with my daughter and brother which became too long. My daughter had started out by drawing our attention to the hostile reaction to Rob Bell’s new book even before it was available for review. This was my brother’s first comment.

Since it seems asking questions are in vogue rather than providing answers I’ll add one of mine. When is it OK to say “I believe you are wrong and that the Bible actually says something quite different” ? Sometimes, never? Is it ever OK to appeal to the Bible as God’s inerrant word or should we all just make up our own minds? If the latter, on what basis can we make up our own minds? Or can truth never be known, and is the important thing just to be nice to one another?

This got me thinking. Is the Bible actually “God’s inerrant word” and what does that mean?

I certainly grew up believing this, even if I didn’t dig into the meaning. Later I came to the conclusion that “inerrancy”‘ must mean no errors that would significantly affect theology. Since theologies differ, that wold mean different things for different people but it was OK for me. And being His “word” means it is one way he communicates with us.

Of course, many people are more hard-line about this and believe there is nothing debatable in the Bible at all – at least in the original languages – and that it is his only word to us. They sometimes cite the end of the book of Revelation where John forbids anyone to add to the words written in the book on pain of experiencing the plagues described therein. They seem to suggest that because we have placed Revelation at the end of the Bible this curse applies to the whole Bible, which seems to me to be a little far-fetched.

Then there is the fact that this same apostle John affirms in his gospel that Jesus is the Word of God. He is the logos, the “full account” of what God has to say. And in Hebrews we are told that God spoke through various prophets in the past but has now spoken through his son (Jesus) and that He expresses the very character of God.

So if Jesus is the Word, what is the Bible. If Paul is right, then the scriptures are inspired by God and useful for teaching and correction (his second letter to Timothy), though it’s not clear which “‘scriptures” he was referring to as the New Testament, much of which he wrote, had not yet been assembled.

I believe in this inspiration and usefulness. This means they – the scriptures – are reliable (at the very least) but is everything in them “true”?

I will come back to this in later posts; not only to address poetry versus history and fact versus metaphor but also verses such as “He heals all my diseases” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.

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The empire strikes back … well not really!

Thanks to my daughter on Facebook again I have been directed to this article on CNN’s belief blog:

“I never set out to be controversial,” Bell told CNN before the event. “I don’t think it’s a goal that God honors. I don’t think it’s a noble goal.

“What’s interesting to me is what’s true. And what’s interesting to me is what’s inspiring. And what’s interesting to me is where’s the life? Where’s the inspiration? That’s what I’m interested in. If that happens to stir things up, that was never my intent, but I’ll accept that.”

Bell said he was surprised by the controversy around his book. Critics said he was preaching universalism, a theology that suggests everyone goes to heaven and hell is empty.

“I’m not a universalist. So that’s just not true.” He reiterated that again in the event that evening where he expounded on that idea and said that he didn’t believe God reaches down and sweeps everyone to heaven.

So that’s interesting!

My brother has already read the book and started blogging at http://wordandmusic.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/love-wins-2-millions-of-us/

I haven’t got my copy but Amazon assures me it’s on its way so it’s only a matter of a day or so. In any case it seems I’ll get mine before it is in the bookshops in the US. Odd that!

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Rob Bell – giving us all a wonderful opportunity … to discuss

It all started with some reactions to the pre-publication information about Rob Bell’s new book (now out, but only just – my copy’s currently winging its way to me from Amazon). These reactions were mainly extremely critical (the exception being one from Brian Mclaren from whom I borrowed most of the title to this post) and this promoted my daughter’s first post on Facebook.

Pastor Rob Bell Catches Hell From Conservatives
www.religiondispatches.org
Bell, the enormously popular pastor of the enormous Mars Hill Bible Church, has a new book coming out this month called Love Wins in which Bell “puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

As someone who has appreciated what Rob Bell has to say in the past, I thought this interesting and was the whole discussion progressed into one on the inerrancy of the Bible, its exact nature, whether you could excommunicate someone by tweet o the basis of a video and some advance chapters and much more. I’ll add some of this in future posts and invite others to comment.

I’ll also be reading Rob’s book with interest to see whether it’s as bad as is claimed! And posting my thoughts and reactions here.

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