Monday, February 20, 2012

Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) by Brian Jones

Let get this straight up front: it's not easy for me to review books which defend the doctrine of eternal punishment. Any doctrine that suggests an unjust God is disturbing to to me in th extreme.

Not because I consider this concept of God any longer, but the the fact that's there's a lot of people out there who not only do, but who defend it.

Some have suggested that pastor Jones' book, among others may have appeared partly in response to Rob Bell's psuedo-universalist book Love Wins. Whatever the case, this is one disturbing book. I have to admit, that the author is unafraid to mince words when it comes to his beliefs.

Jones makes a number of flawed arguments here, and I'll address the most obvious ones that I came across:

1)Jones seems to accept uncritically that the Bible in fact teaches what is tradition; namely eternal punishment. There is more than enough controversy regarding this, however. I have a very fundementalist friend in fact, who does not beleive that the "Lake of Fire" is eternal, but "eternal destruction" means just that--the destruction is eternal.

2) Jones states at one point that if one is not eager to convert their non-Christian freinds to Christ, then the only possbility is they beleive hell is not exists. He seems to forget here that some of us do not beleive that good people are going to hell. One of his main points, is of course, that they are. He also invites the reader to imagine a seemingly good, moral friend or aquiantance who is not a beleiver, to sit a table with you and Christ. How would Christ regard him? Well, I did picture a college professor I knew back when I was a freshman whom I indeed regard as a very kind and decent human being if there ever was one; and sorry, I can't realistically envision ay wrath or malice on the part of my Lord. Astonishment on my friend's face, certainly, but not what I imagine Jones was shooting for.

3)Jones relates the story of a pastor freind who did not beleive in hell. Jones asked him what, then, was the purpose of Christ's sacrifice? The pastor was not able to provide an answer. There are two ways I can counter this. Firstly, one might ask why Christ's sacrifice did not remove any need for hell-or of any afterlife punishment whatsoever. Why are some souls still going to end up there? Perhaps, however, there is still punishment for those who are without Christ, but it is not eternal, as annhilationists beleive. Christ's sacrifice itself was not eternal; but Jones beleives that those outside of Christ will suffer infinitely greater punishment than He ever did. This leads to what is, in fact, a far deeper question: that of just what it means to be "in Christ." Does it merely mean beleiving the right things? Can someone find the supernatural incidents of the Bible unbeleivable simply due to lack of credulity, and still be accepted by Christ? I beleive Jones would answer no. But this question hits closer to the differences I have with Jones, because I (and even Rob Bell) would tend to disagree not so much on hell's existence, but on who goes there. Another way to answer the question of Christ's sacrifice, however, is this: imagine if His sacrifice had never been made? What would the world look like today? They would be no Christian martyrs, no Christian charity, no spiritual rebirth of billions. None would recieve Christ's message and His teaching. Europe would remain steeped within the darkness of paganism--and I'm just getting started.

4)Jones states at one point that Christ's teaching was secondary to His sacrifice becuase we already had the whole of His teaching in the OT. Not quite; Christ radically transformed the law. His teacing and His sacrifice are inexorably linked.

5) Jones includes a very distrubing section in which he elaborates on the wrath of God, and here he focusses not so much on eternal punishment here as on OT atrocities. He starts by quoting atheist Richard Dawkins' infamous slander on the God of the OT. Clearly Dawkins is attempting to slander a God he does not beleive in, but Jones takes the slander further, claimng that he is appalled at the slaugher of the OT, and that Dawkins doesn't know the half o it. He claims that he is angered by Dawkins' "downplaying" ofthe Lord's wrath, then recounts a long list of horrific Ot incident carried out or commanded by God, even going so far as to call God "lothsome and inhumane." He then asks the reader rehtorically 'why am I painting such an unflattering picture..of God?" The answer, the tells us, is so that we will be urged to save our non-Christan friend from God.

It might be instructive at this point to ask the question: Does Jones love God, or does he loathe Him?

How similar all this is to Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which put off beleivers even in his own time. Edwards was so determined to emphasize God's wrath that he even took one quote--in which God is said to "laugh and mock"-entirely out of Biblial context. But at least Edwards was addressing sinner. Jones is not so much talking about sinful behavior, but beleiving the "right things."

Why does Jones present his readers wit such an appalling picture of God? the answer is really simple: fear.

How do we save souls from God? Scare them.

What Jones does not seem to realize is that every time someone attempts to win converts in this way, more often than not, the reaction among the unconverted is not fear for one's own eternal soul, but revulsion--not just at the picture of a God who behaves in blatantly unjust fashion, but at the religion itself. People long to love and to trust God--how can they if they accept Jone's concept of Him? People long for justce. SO why present a God who is unjust in the extreme. If the concept of such a God is accepted as real, then perhaps they will, in a sense convert. But is conversion out of fear alone, absent a true love of God, a conversion at all? Jones my beleive it is good enough, if converts attend church, obey the proper rituals, have every outward appearance of being Christian. This might be fine, so far as Christian culture is concerned. But what about what really counts, the transformation of someone's heart.

One interesting point the book raises occurs when Jones relates the story of how he successfully converted a non-Christian friend of his on his (the friend's) deathbed. When no other method of persuasion worked, Jones (apparently very heartfelt and sincere that something dreadful would befall his friend) literally pleaded for the man to accept Jesus into his heart. And you know what? It actually worked!

My point here is that Jone's pleading allowed the Holy Spirit to enter the man, whereas scare tactics did not. That's a point well taken.

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses by Phillip Jenkins

Note: I intended some times ago to start a blog about the horror genre and its relation to Christianity. I was going to call it "Spirituality and Horror," and maybe have a black background instead of a white one, and (if possible, a red splatter suggesting blood over the title). When my freind Randy Streu changed the format of "A Flame In The Dark" to a blog, he asked me to contribute--so that is what I did. The blog is found here:
and I sure wish I could make it work without having to cut and paste. I post under the same name.

Before last Christmas, we had a Bible class at my church. The subject was authors who do not have a correct understanding of scripture, and therefore might not truly beleive. The one author examplified was Phillip Jenkins. The passage under discussion was taken from his recent book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses. The discussion focussed the troubling NT story of Jesus approached by a Gentile woman who pleads with Him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus refuses, but then relents. It is troubling becuase Jesus (at first) seems to respond very tribalistically, telling her his mission is first to the house of Isreal, and that must not food from its children and throw it to dogs. Was Jesus perhaps "testing" ho the woman would respond? Jenkins explains that a possible interpretation here (in contrast to more common one that this was an early stage in the Jesus movement) that Jesus, in providing the desired miracle, was reaching out to a descendent of the Canaanites, who the first Joshua had slaughtered (pgs 240-241).

Whether of not such an interpretation is valid, there are reasons why an orthodox (and very "culture war Christianity" oriented) church such as mine would be dismissive of Jenkins. The book, which I went out and read cove-to-cover, focuses, as its title indicates, on one of the most controversial Christian topics: namely Old Testement atrocities. As Jenkins shows, the topic is not merely a modern one: ever since the Bible's inception, the bloody crusades allegedly carried out by the ancient Isrealites have appalled readers.

One major point Jenkins drives home from the start is that Christians and Jews should refrain from criticizing Islam overtly as being a religion of terror based on its violent passges, when the Bible contains very many passages that are even more monstrous. I'm not sure I'm entirely in agreement with him here. It is very likely true that the atrocities commintted by God's chosen people indeed overshadowed any commanded by the Koranic texts; however, modern accounts of Muslim inspried violence speak for thenselves. Jenkins explains (correctly) that this is partially due to the extreme poverty in Muslim nations, and that the fact that they have been occupied by US Millitary forces. However, as Sam Harris has observed at length in The End of Faith, Muslim passages sanctioning violence against infidels are far more numerous given a much briefer text; nor are they strictly historical records, as are the OT accounts of violence. More to the point, however, is what is lacking in the Koran; specifically, the entire ministry of Jesus Christ. Harris also makes the point that:

Yes, the Bible contains its own sadistic lunacy -- but the above quotations can be fairly said to convey the central message of the Qur'an -- and of Islam at nearly every moment in its history. The Qur'an does not contain anything like a Sermon on the Mount. Nor is it a vast and self-contradictory book like the Old Testament, in which whole sections (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) can be easily ignored and forgotten. The result is a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred that has become a problem for the entire world.

Beyond the comparison to Muslim extremists, however, Jenkins explains that the concept of Herem warfare carried out in the OT, in which women, children, and even animals were not spared, was atrocious even by the standards of the ancient world. And though they are often looked on as mere historical records, in the past, and even in moden times, there have been Christians and Jews who drew inspiration from OT atroicities to justify violence against current peoples. And since we are often told that the peoples slaughtered in the OT accounts somehow "deserved" what happened to them, why should't we expect such ugly justifications to arise when applicable?

There are certain approaches to the OT atrocities which are common used, and which, Jenkins tells readers, should be avoided. One is to simply ignore or gloss over them; the fact that the ugly texts still exist, and are used, on occasion, to justify violence, as ample argument against this. Another common tactic is to merely say something like "Oh, that's just Old Testement; it doesn't pertain to us today." It is true that we now have a new covenent in Jesus Christ. But to simply brush the passages off thusly begs the question: why were such ugly atrocities ever moral or necessay? Indeed, when it comes to herem warfare I've to encounter a defense which is morally acceptable. Another common (and quite bad) approach is the defense that God has infinite wisdom which we do not possess, so we ought not to question it, or, worse, the power-argument which holds that God is God is God, and whatever he declares correct, therefore is. Neither of these is sufficient, as Jenkins observes. Another insufficient defense is to charge that the conquered peoples were guilty of terrible atrocities themselves. Jenkins explodes this by showing that no evidence exists that the practices of the ancient Canaanites and Amalkemites were any more depraved than those of other peoples who were spared Biblical wrath. Perhaps the best defense offered is by Rev. Jonathon Anderson, who owns this webiste:

According to Rev. Jonathon Anderson, the atrocities carried out by the Isrealites against the canaaaites and other peoples were not really approved by God, but God allowed his people the freedom to follow their own barbarous instincts. That is, until the coming of Christ. This seems to hold true, in a way, since the dynamics of herem warfare certainly seem,and I would say are, human-centered. Waging war is, after all, observed frequently among chimps (who share 90 percent identical DNA with our own species), who have been documented to slaughter rival tribes, not excepting to young, and even to cannibalize them. Perhaps given the barbarous times in which they lived,the ancient isrealites were not yet ready for the covenent established by Jesus. But Jenkins warns, too, of merely dismissing Biblical bloodshed as beleonging to earlier period of primitive barbarism. Not only are the accounts more vicious than most others even before that time, they often do not even seem practical: why the command to leave the treasure vaults of Jericho unplundered by the conquerors? As far as Rev. Anderson's explanation goes, I'm not sure I'm convinced the atrocities weren't allegedly commanded by God; as the Bible indicates that some, at least, were, and even if they were not, that still leaves the account of the Flood, in which God Himself wipes out the whole of human race, save for one family.

Jenkins does finally offer a solution, however. The accounts of bloodletting must be understood within the context in which they appeared, he tells us, for the original texts were written at a time when there existed among the Isrealites pressure to fall away from the faith and worship other gods. The writers essentially exaggerated the harshness of the accounts in order to impress upon readers the possible consequences of abandoning the faith. This interpretation shows why even the wealth of the conquered went to waste. The scribes wanted to warn readers that what had befallen the Canaanites Amalkenites might also befall them.

In other words, the purpose of OT atrocities was to instill fear of the Lord.

Why might not modern conervatives be confortable with jenkins' approach? The answer, by now, should be obvious. Jenkins' interpretation depends on a non-literal reading of the texts. And that is something conservative evangelicals won't have. Why? Because, largely, they're doing the some thing themselves, both with the doctrine of hell, and also, as my next post will show, with OT atrocities.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Popular Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor Rob Bell's bestseller Love Wins has reportedly stirred up loads of controversy among conservative evangelicals, even before its release last year. And it's not hard to see why, given the book's premise.

And his opening chapter (and in the video released on Youtube beofore the release of said book),

Bell presents to his audience the following scenario. During a church art show, one of the participants had including a quote for Mahatma Gandhi. And someone else had tacked on a note reading: Reality check: he's in hell.

"Gandhi's in hell?" Bell asks his audience, "Are we sure? Do we know this?" (page 1) He follows this up with a number of other thought-provoking and difficult questions, such as that of the self-professed atheist who dies as a teenager. To the response that "There's no hope then," Bell responds pointedly "No hope? Is that the Christian message?" (Page 3). And then there's that matter of the missionary getting a flat tire on the way to the local village. If someone dies there, is he/she forever lost?

Too many Christians would answer "yes," to that last question, I'm afraid. Why? As I've argued elsewhere the core reason for this is not really scriptural, but rather concerned with the survival of Christanity as a faith. But the reason Bell uses this example is becuase he knows that, according to our core morality (which most beleivers, evangelicals included, I'd guess, would agree is given to us by God), it would be nonsensical for God to judge someone according to standards of which s/he is simply ignorant, of no fault of his or her own. We understand this. It flies in the sense of our understanding of morality that God would not.

The example of Gandhi in hell raises an even more provocotive question. Why would a person believe that this is so? Didn't Gandhi live an exemplary life compared to most of us, including the majority of professing beleivers? The almost inevitable answer to that will run something like this: good works are not what counts. You could live the best possible life, and still not make it into heaven if you lacked the required faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, whoever wrote that is necessarily divorcing faith from works. But the book of James teaches that faith without works is dead (not a saving faith), and many places in the New Testement teaches that we will judged according to our works. The question that follows from this should be, therefore: If one is NOT a professing Christian, and one nonetheless leads a morally exemplary life, is one, therefore, one of His followers after all? I am assuming here, of course, that one is genuine, and not self-serving, in his dedication to works, as Gandhi certainly appeared to have been. One might ask if something is even possible without a conscious decison to follow Christ; I would respond that such is certainly possible if one happens at least to be seeking truth.

If one accepts the general postion regarding salvation held by evangelicals, however, did, in fact, Gandhi have enough faith to avoid the inferno? He certainly was aware of Christ and Christianity, so one must not count him among the ignorant pagans, whatever one's opinion regarding their eternal destiny might be. Gandhi is quoted as saying,"...I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew." So was this enough?

Indeed, merely inquiring if it was "enough" suggests, as does the "tire" scenario, that God allows people into heaven on the basis of technicalities, which, of course, have nothing to do with the condition of one's heart, which should be the only real criteria. But most evangelicals would disagree about Gandhi, becuase the above statement by him suggests Pluralism. And for ther Christian faith to be the Truth, none other can be on par with it. This is the real evangelical gripe against Gandhi.

And it's the same with Rob Bell. I actually found his book to be confusing in places. At times he sounds like a universalist, yet never stakes a firm position. His argument that salvation is NOT primarily about getting "how to get to heaven" (in spite of what we're commonly taught) is, I think, a point well taken. Most of us have heard that the salvation promised by Jesus Christ is all about how to get to heaven when we die. But Bell makes it clear, from his discussion of Jesus and the young rich man, that Jesus meant much more than this. In other words, our admission into the Kingdom of Heaven does NOT begin after we take our final breath in this world, but right here, right now, in accepting Him into our hearts, and through our obdedience to His teachings.

Is Bell a universalist, as his critics charge? The answer might be both "yes" and "no." He does appear to accept hell as a reality, but his general beleif seems to be that hell is remedial and corrective rather than eternal. He might, therefore, be best described as a beleiver in univeral reconciliation. Hell in the world beyond this is a reality, but we are not forever lost. If God truly wants everyone to come to Him, and he is truely all powerful, then eventually he will save everyone in the end.

Much to the chagrin of evangelicals, I might add.

There have been a number of books written, mostly by Bell's evangelical critics, in attempt to counter him. One of such book, which I've read, is God Wins by Mark Galli. Gallie argues that that hell is eternal, but the fate of certain individuals, such as ignorant pagans, is simply a mystery, but we should jut trust God that everything He does will be just. One thing I've noticed ironic about the title of this particular book is that if God des win, doesn't love win also? For is not God also love?

The following quotes form Bell's book show the God often falsely represented by evangelicals:

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better,” Bell writes.

“It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.

“This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

Bell is right on target with these astute abservations. It is telling that many of Bell's critics (not Galli) have responded with anger. Most infamous was a tweet by John Piper, Baptist Pastor, and author of the recent book Jesus: the Only Way to God, who wrote "Rob Bell is history."

I strongly suspect, however, that Rob Bell represents the future of Christianity.

Darin Hufford's The Misunderstood God

Darin Hufford's The Misunderstood God is the book I credit for bringing me to Christ. While I've since delved into other important Christian books, and I don't have time to review every one, I felt I should at least take the time to discuss the importance of this one on this blog.

It is by the same publishers as those of The Shack, Paul Young's runaway Christian bestseller. According to one of the book's glowing enorsement quotes, it "scratches where The Shack causes one to itch."

At the time I first picked up this book in late 2009, I was still a skeptic (and a former "Christian"), who had grown disillusioned by secularism, in particular the atheist crowd on Sam Harris's forum. This book managed to dispel some long held and over-preached "truths" about God and Jesus that I've heard time and again since I was a college student. And to tell the truth, many of them helped drive me away from Jesus. Even when I considered myself a Christian and faithfully attended church and Bible study for years, it was lies like these that kept me form truely embracing the Lord. Among them:

God is angry and condemning to all those who do not beleive the "right" things about Him.

God is very proud and boastful, all thw while condemning pride as a sin.

God is vain and jealous, and demands our constant attention for his own ego.

God is emotionally insecure, and that is why he fordbids idoletry and forms of pleasure that aren't related to his worship.

And so forth. I had, unfortunately, developed a picture of God as an unfeeling, selfish jerk (perhaps the ultimate selfish jerk, if he condemned to hell for eternity those who did not worship Him, or did so in the wrong way), mostly thanks to the efforts of sincere, well-meaning Christians. This sorry portrait of god was probably not what they intended, but it is the definite impression of Him that I recieved from their counseling.

It is just this picture of God, I've since come to beleive, that Satan sells to us. The name "Satan" actually means "slanderer." And it is Satan's full intent to slander God. What better way to turn His children against Him than this?

Hufford helps to explode many of the slanderous myths Satan has used to tarnish the image of God.

Another very important issue Hufford brings up is one of sex. Why is it so taboo according to religion? As a secularist, I had developed a very liberal attitude toward sexuality. Like most on the Left, I saw sexuality as essentially liberating, and I think it shows in the mammoth Burroughs pastiche I wrote Jahlanna of Pellucidar. However, Hufford's recounting of the day his own father left his family, without a single word to him, I found heartbreaking. His father had fallen in "love" with a secretary at work. The reason for this gross act of immorality? The supposedly liberating sex drive. Because it, the author had his family torn apart and was forced to cope with years of emotional anguish. Sex is a primal instinct to reproduce. It is part of our genes; as such, it is not inherently evil; but it IS concerned with self-progation, and thus, almost by definition, unconcerned with the well-being of others.

And THIS is why Jesus preached about adultry in such overtly harsh terms. The libido is a drive, that, like fire, needs to be tamed and condition, lest it rage out of control and do terrible damage to ourselves and to others.

We tend to forget that sometimes, though. It is often implied that God forbids sex out of marraige because of His supposedly fragile ego, and/or that he is terribly jealous of any form of pleasure we humans may enjoy. In other words, it' all about Himself.

But we've got it backwards.

It's really all about us. God does not prohibit pleasure to feed his own ego to to spoil our fun. We really ARE his children, and as such God's sole purpose is keep us from harm, and from bringing harm upon one another. It's been an unfortunate but common argument among the New Atheists that Christians are concerned with morality apart from human well-being. And the most tragic thing is that a lot of Chistians do tend to define morality in exactly such a way. But Darin Hufford has helped to demonstrate why this is not so, and should not be so.

One interesting passage in this book has it that when the author asked some pastors what if, in heaven, they found Jesus conversing with members of other faiths, and with homosexuals, that would be angered.

Angered? Really? Such a response, especially from pastors, demonstrates wit utmost clarity that there is indeed a common train of thought among beleivers that regards Christianity is an exclusive club where outsides are not permitted. And such a picture of Christ contrasts strikingly with a hideously unforgiving passage I read long ago, penned by the late Christian author Roger Elwood, in regard to the fate of homosexuals.

But perhaps Hufford's strongest point in regard to our relationship to God is that He is a being of pure Love, and as such, the emotion of fear is totally antithetical to His nature. "God does not delight in fear tactics," Hufford writes. "Love simply never thinks this way. When we use fear either to convert people or to get them to follow rules, we are partnering with evil. All fear is evil. God does not delight in the use of evil to manipulate His children into salvation or repentance p. 132). And even more to the point, "Threats of hell were never meant to be the argument that drew people to God. The Holy Spirit draws people to God.(p.133).

Bravo, Hufford.

It was Holy Spirit that drew me to God. The same applies to any and all genuine conversions of which I am aware. The insistence upon hell to frighten converts has the almost inevitable (however unintended by evangelicals) side effect of slandering God. While my friend from an Arminian blog insists that a totally forgiving God "guts Missionary work," that argument is vald only is one is attempting to use fear to gain converts.

Hufford's book has, perhaps unsurprisingly, stirred up contoversy, as expected, mainly among the more orthodox crowd, the main criticism being that the book focuses entirely on God's love while ignoring His wrath.

While I disagree with these initial criticisms, I do beleive that Hufford emphasis on God as Love is indeed flawed in places. He writes, "God protects you because He loves you. Not because you are being good and following the rules" (page156). I think that statement is good, as far as it goes. However, it is not too difficult to discern how this statement can be taken too far. And this I beleive Hufford does when when he tells his readers "Know for sure that God will never, ever, lift His hand of protection from you! Your security is sacred to Him" (page 157).

This sounds virutally the same as the most common argument used by proponants of Eternal Security. And in fact I have since discovered that Hufford indeed subscribes to a soft form (at least I think it is a soft form) of OSAS. While Hufford's point that fear of a wrathful, vengeful God disrupts genuine trust in Him is a good one, it must be said that a caring father (as Hufford's argument assumes God must be) will also not take an all-permissive attitude of anything goes toward His children. There WILL be limits set, and there were be punishments, althought these will be corrective, not eternal, in nature. Another flaw in Hufford's beleif in the security of salvation is the same as other OSAS propoants: merely because God would never remove his hand of protection from his children does NOT mean his children are therefore held in his grasp against their will; on the contrary, any sheep is perfectly free to stray from the fold by his own design.

This particular breach of reason paralells OSAS preacher Charles Stanley's use of the parable of the Prodical Son to show God's unconditional love for all his children, seemingly ignoring that blatant fact that the son was perfectly free to squander his inherentice in the first place.

Nevertheless, Hufford's book desserves needed credit for exploding some dangerous and pervasive falsehoods about the nature of God.

"If you look to the flame of love you have in your heart for your child and consult it," Hufford tells us, "you will know how to act and react. Try it" (page 206).

I have and it works for me.