Saturday, 13 January 2018

Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible



For any person with an interest in reading Scripture, it won't take long before they will need to wrestle with the problem of violence in the Bible. Enter Seven Stories, where Anthony Bartlett presents a case for a progressive reading of the Bible culminating in the nonviolent revelation of God fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is an impressive work in every aspect, the design, layout, images and colour are all very easy on the eye. The various chapters/lessons all include questions designed to stimulate further thought and discussion, personal reflection, glossaries, cultural references, resources and space for making your own notes. Before I had even started reading, I found myself paging through the book and just admiring the layout and pictures, something that one hardly ever even notices in most works.

In terms of the actual content, Seven Stories starts by sharing a bit about hermeneutics before presenting a case for a nonviolent theology of God. As the title suggests, the author has split the book into seven stories each comprising of three lessons. He masterfully shows how Scripture moves us from oppression to justice, violence to forgiveness, wrath to compassion, victim to vindication and then with the other three looking at the (promised) land and its loss (exile), the temple and its deconstruction and finally history to its end. Each story moves us toward a nonviolent reading of Scripture, departing from views of vengeance through bloodshed toward one of victims bringing life through forgiveness,

Tony Bartlett has a reputation for being a leading Girardian scholar which is evident throughout the book; but what really impressed me was the amount of overall historical and theological knowledge presented and how everything is continually brought back to Jesus. To give one example, a link is shared between the reunion of Jacob and Esau and Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son story has always being a favorite of mine in that it reveals Gods true nature to us as Jesus wanted us to see it. Among other similarities, both stories have sons who receive their inheritances fraudulently, in both the younger brothers leave for distant lands and in both the brothers are received back not with revenge but with kissing and weeping. Jesus borrows the exact same phrase in Luke 15 of hanging on someones neck which is used in the Genesis narrative. It is in Esau's compassion and acceptance that Jacob sees Gods face (Genesis 33:10). This is just one of many examples that I found beautiful to read.

Honestly, I cannot think of many books that have challenged and enlightened me as much as this one. When turning the final page I immediately wanted to start reading from the beginning again as there is still so much that I am chewing on. Although the book can be read alone, it is perhaps more suited to a small group study which I hope I can try at some point as well. Trust me, this one is well worth your time.

You can purchase a copy of Seven stories by clicking over here.


*I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Jesus in Genesis 15


image copied from redeeminggod.com

As I started started sharing in my previous post, Jesus can be found all throughout the pages of Genesis. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of all of those places and but every now and then I will post something on a specific chapter or story that stands out for me. And today I want to reveal how I believe Christ plays a primary role in Genesis 15. This is the chapter where God makes an everlasting covenant with Abram, promising him descendants as numerous as the stars. Verse 6 famously says, “And he (Abram) believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness”.

There are two specific areas that I want to highlight in this chapter; the first is that in the very first verse it tells us that the exchange happens between Abram and ‘the Word of the LORD’ who appeared to Abram in a vision. Now we 21st Century Christians like referring to the Bible as the Word but as I have argued elsewhere, nowhere does scripture itself make such a claim, on the contrary, scripture states explicitly and repeatedly that Jesus is the true Word of God. You can click here to read an article I wrote on the subject elsewhere but for this particular piece let me just highlight two examples:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1
He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called the Word of God. – Revelation 19:13.

So when the Word of the Lord comes to Abram in verse 1, this is not the Bible or even just a message but a Person. This Person starts speaking to him and says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” That sounds awful Jesus-like to me already, but then notice how Abram responds to Him in verse 2, “But Abram said, Lord God…”; so Abram calls this messenger ‘Adonia Yahweh’, a name which he repeats in verse 8 as well. Notice that throughout this chapter it is the Word of the Lord that is speaking with Abram. In verse 7 He says of Himself, “I am the LORD (Yahweh), who brought you out of Ur…”. Yahweh is the name above all names but when it is used it can be referring to any member of the Trinity (see here for more on that).

So I am convinced that this is Jesus speaking to Abram in chapter 15, otherwise the chapter would most likely have started by simply saying something like, "Now after these things the LORD..." instead of, "Now after these things the Word of the LORD..."; but the significance of this is even more remarkable when we consider the symbolism of the covenant itself. Though it would seem barbaric to us today, the Word of God instructs Abram to take a three-year old heifer, a three-year old ram and a three-year old goat (plus a dove and a pigeon) and to cut them in half, placing the severed pieces opposite one another with a pathway between them to walk through. This was pretty standard covenant ritual stuff back then, but normally, the two parties would both walk between the animal parts (see Jeremiah 34:18-19) with the implication being that the person who broke the covenant would suffer or accept a similar fate. The ceremonial ritual would then be binding on the two parties. What is interesting here though is that in this particular instance the (Word of the) LORD passed through the animal pieces (verse 17) but Abram did not (verse 12).

Unlike the Mosaic covenant which was conditional upon Israel’s faithfulness to God, the Abrahamic covenant is an everlasting covenant not dependent on our ability at all. As it is the blood of Jesus that makes us heirs according to the promise and Abraham’s seed, this story suddenly has so much more meaning to me. Jesus makes a covenant with Abraham and his seed which promises land, descendants and blessings and Jesus actually does die for us.

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to Him as righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham... And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:6-7, 29

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Jesus in Genesis




The Bible is, from beginning to end, a book about Jesus. The Old Testament prepared a people for His coming and the New Testament recorded His life as He walked the earth and then the continuance of His life manifested through the body that we like to call the early church.  I have just started going through the book of Genesis with two friends and thought that I would share some of the parts that stand out for me as we go along. Last week we went through the fist two chapters and we were astounded to see how much of the Christ was in there. The reason we did the first two chapters together is simply because the first two chapters form a chiasm which I’ll share at the bottom of this post. When one sees the pattern you can’t help but feel awe and see the creation narrative afresh. But before I get side-tracked, here are some of the interesting connections that we made.

Jesus is the beginning

The book of Genesis starts with the words, “In the beginning”, we can simply interpret that as, “At the start” but I believe that there is more to it than that.  In several passages in the Bible we are told that Jesus is the beginning (see Col 1:18, Rev 3:14, 22:13). So if one reads Genesis and says, “In Jesus, God created the heavens and the earth…” it is quite theologically correct to do so. You might object and say that I am putting words into the author’s mouth but didn’t John do the same thing? At the start of Johns gospel we read,

“In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made”. 

John is basically making the same point that I just made. But it goes even further, verses 4 and 5 of John’s gospel continue with the theme of light and darkness as do verses 4 and 5 of Genesis which seems to be deliberate and hardly a coincidence. In verses 7 and 8 John goes even further and reveals that Jesus is the true light. Whether the author of Genesis comprehended the full extent of his own words is unknown, but after reading John it is hard to unsee Jesus all over the place in those very first words of Scripture. 

Jesus is our Sabbath

This is kind of important as the chiasm below suggests; the Sabbath builds up to the main point that the author was trying to bring out in Genesis 1 and 2 which is that it is God who both blesses and sanctifies us; He has done this of course in and through Christ (Eph 1:3 & Heb 10:10). Why does the Bible say that God worked and then rested? Was the all powerful God tired? Of course not. Was it to set a pattern for mankind to follow (7 day weeks, 6 days work and 1 day of rest)? Maybe to some degree. Mostly though, I believe that it was to point us to Christ. You won’t notice this in most Bible translations because they say that God rested on the seventh day which makes more sense grammatically I suppose but the Hebrew actually says that God rested in the Sabbath day which is how the more ‘word for word’ versions like Young’s Literal Translation put it.

There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. – Hebrews 4:9-11.

Jesus the firstborn, new Adam and bridegroom

The story of how Adam was in a deep sleep and had a bride taken from his side is also very similar to the story of Christ and His church. Jesus too ‘slept’ and His side was pierced and opened on the cross. In resurrection we will “be like Him” (1 John 3:2). Interestingly, Eve was not made from the dust as Adam was but was ‘built’ (literal translation of the Hebrew again) out of His side. This reminds me of when Christ said that He would build His church (Matt 16:18). Paul got in on this as well, in Ephesians 5:30-31 He quotes Genesis 2:23-24 and says:

For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Paul adds at the end though in the following verse,

 “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”

I found this all very exciting and I hope that you did too. He is the beginning, He is Light, He is our rest and our Life is in Him. It's all about Jesus, hopefully there will be more bits like this to share as we continue to go through Genesis. If you have anymore to share that I missed, please add them in the comments below. Here is the chiasm as promised as well, notice the 'mirror images' building up to the main point.
 
A Literary Structure of Genesis 1:1—2:25 by Klaus Potsch

a 1:1-3 bareness of matter
  b 1:4-5 separation of light and darkness
    c 1:6-8 separation of the waters above and the waters below
      d 1:9-10 separation of dry land and the sea
        e 1:11-13 fulfilling of the earth
          f 1:14-19 filling of the sky with lights to govern and to measure time
           g 1:20-23 filling of the waters below and the waters above with animals
             h 1:24-25 filling the land with animals (living beings)
               i 1:26 God's concept of mankind
                 j 1:27 creation of mankind, transfer of image
                   k 1:28 mankind's habitat - the earth
                     l 1:29-30 the basis of food for the living creatures
                       m 1:31 the heavens and earth made, day 6
                         n 2:1 God creation completed in content
                           o 2:2a God's creation completed in time
                             p 2:2b God rests on the 7th day
                               x 2:3a THE HOLY GOD BOTH BLESSES AND SANCTIFIES
                             p' 2:3b God rests on the 7th day
                           o' 2:3c God's works created and made
                         n' 2:4a the heavens and earth created (finished, completed)
                       m' 2:4b the heavens and earth made in a timespan
                      l' 2:5-6 basis for life in the garden plants, moisture
                    k' 2:7a man's origin = dust
                  j' 2:7b man's creation, transfer of life
                i' 2:8 man's place = the garden
              h' 2:9 filling the garden with plants (tree of life)
            g' 2:10-14 filling the garden with water
          f' 2:15-17 filling the garden with a caretaker + measure for good and evil
        e' 2:18 fulfilling Adam's life
      d' 2:19-20 separation (discerning, naming) of the animals
    c' 2:21-23 separation of man and woman
  b' 2:24 separation of parents and children
a' 2:25 bareness of man

Chiasm taken from www.inthebeginning.org

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Why Substitutionary Atonement is Not Necessary for Evangelical Faith



Life has been a bit crazy and for various reasons writing is something that I just don’t seem to get around to much anymore. So this post is about 2 months later than was intended which too bad as it was somewhat as a response to an article posted by Owen Strachan which you can read over here entitled ‘Why Substitutionary Atonement is Necessary for Evangelical Faith’.  Malcolm Yarnell and Owen Strachan’s ‘resolution’ was presented to The Resolutions Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in an effort to persuade the committee that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the ‘burning core of the Gospel message’ and should be defended and presented as such.

So if you have read a few of my posts before you would know that I strongly disagree with that viewpoint and therefore I would like to list some of the points that Owen and Malcolm brought up and add some commentary of my own to them. There are 20 points in total so this post will be split up into two. Perhaps you will agree with my comments and maybe you won’t, either way, I hope that my arguments can add perspective and cause others to not be so quick to excommunicate anyone and everyone who sees things a little differently than they do. We all agree that Jesus saves, THAT is the gospel message and what makes us Christians, as to the nuts and bolts of HOW the cross and resurrection save us there should be room for discussion. We have not passed from death into life or darkness into light because we have all the right answers. Rather, we are saved because we are in Christ. It’s not that our answers are not important either, they are. If the truth sets us free then error will put us in bondage. For all I know the authors of the article are beautiful, godly brothers whom I could learn a lot from and I am not going to write them off as easily as I think they might be persuaded to do from their side. Anyway, let’s test what they have to say about penal substitution and why I think they’re wrong.

  1 - Without penal substitutionary atonement, there is no satisfaction of the Father’s just wrath against sinners. 

This may be my biggest gripe with PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) right off the bat. PSA firmly declares that the death of Christ was to fix a problem not with man but with God. Father is angry and incapable of freely forgiving others or showing mercy. Only blood can satisfy His righteous anger. Reflect on that for a moment. The problems of sin, separation, death, the earth under a curse and the sway of Satan all become secondary issues with the primary focus being shifted to Gods need to balance opposing attributes (at least in the way that they are presented) of love and wrath.

2 - Without the satisfaction of divine wrath, there is no forgiveness for sin. Without forgiveness for sin, there is no gospel. 

There are countless examples of both God and Jesus freely forgiving people and nations in the Bible. Where was the wrath that reigned down on Ninevah or the woman who was caught in the act of adultery? Ideas like this come from taking verses like Hebrews 9:22 out of its context. It’s true that without forgiveness for sin there would be no gospel but fortunately God is not like us and He does not harbor unforgiveness in His heart. The impression I get is that Owen and Malcolm are mistakenly connecting forgiveness to eternal life. When Jesus was hanging on the cross He prayed to His Father saying, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Did all the Pharisees, spectators and Roman soldiers present receive eternal life because Jesus forgave them?

3- The “anti-violence” model of the cross of Christ weakens the Bible’s teaching by recasting the atonement as a basis for pacifism (in contradiction of Romans 13:4).

Isaiah 53:9, just one verse removed from the favorite PSA proof text, tells us that in Christ (who is the exact image of the Father) is no violence. It’s not that the cross was not violent and ugly, the question is, whose violence? Isaiah 53:3 says that He was despised and rejected by men and we hid our faces from Him. PSA has switched the roles and projected our actions onto God which is inconsistent with the pattern revealed in the gospel messages given throughout the book of Acts which consistently says that wicked men killed Him but God raised Him up (Acts 2:36, 3:14-15, 4:10, 5:28).

4 - God is perfect in His holiness (Isaiah 6:3) and perfect in His justice (Deuteronomy 32:4), as He is also perfect in His love (1 John 4:8).

Amen! But this is not a conflicting character triangle, God reveals His holiness, how His ways are not our ways, in Isaiah 55 in that He seeks the restoration of those who do not deserve it rather than their destruction. Holiness in this chapter is directly tied up with Gods mercy. Likewise justice is also mentioned many times in conjunction with Gods mercy. For PSA, mercy is the total opposite of Justice as it is giving someone what they DO NOT deserve. Yet scripturally speaking, justice has a very different meaning. Zechariah in chapter 7:9 gives us a proper definition for justice:

This says the Lord of hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.

‘True justice’ is not contrary to love and mercy, neither is true holiness.

5 - On the cross of Christ Jesus the perfect love of God perfectly applies the perfect justice of God to satisfy the perfect holiness of God in order to redeem sinners (Romans 3:26).

Like the previous statement, this one is true but misleading because the authors have a wrong understanding of justice and holiness, thereby arriving at different conclusions as to what it means. The PSA interpretation of justice here is actually quite confusing though because how can killing the innocent and letting the guilty off freely be considered a just payment? Imagine a man is wrongfully sentenced to death for a murder and years after his execution the true culprit is identified. Is it right to say, “Oh well, we killed someone else so the guilty party is free and exempt from prosecution’. No, justice means making things right again. In the original languages it actually means the same as righteousness. The cross reveals Gods love (John 3:16) by making things right (restoration and undoing the work of sin, Satan and death) to satisfy Gods holiness.

6 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement in effect denies the holy and loving God the exercise of His justice, the overflow of which in a sinful world is the outpouring of His just retributive wrath.

I’m not sure where the idea of Gods wrath being poured out on the Son is taught in scripture? And I am not sure how not affirming PSA prohibits justice or wrath in any way and reveals Gods loving nature either. Scripture has a lot to say about Gods wrath but where is it linked to the cross (Isaiah 53:10, Hebrews 9:22 and Matthew 27:46 are not good arguments).

8 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement thus displays in effect the denial of the perfect character of the one true God.

I wish this point was elaborated on more so one could know exactly what is meant by the perfect character of God and how PSA reveals it. How does slaying ones only Son exhibit perfect love? How does punishing the innocent in place of the guilty display perfect justice and how does retributive violence demonstrate perfect holiness?

9 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement constitutes false teaching that leads the flock astray (Acts 20:28) and leaves the world without a message of a sin-cleansing Savior (Romans 5:6–11).

Because the doctrine of penal substitution is only 500 years old one must logically conclude from the above statement that from the time of Pentecost until the time of John Calvin the church was always under false teaching. There are other atonement theories which more directly and scripturally deal with the sin-cleansing Savior such as the Christus Victor model. All atonement theories struggle with the question of evil and present a message of a sin-cleansing Savior, PSA is not unique in this at all except insofar as its particular explanation.

10 - The denial of penal substitutionary atonement necessarily compromises the biblical and historical doctrines of propitiation, expiation, ransom, satisfaction, Christus Victor, Christus Exemplar, and more.

This is another confusing statement as most people who do not hold to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement would hold to something else, like ransom, Christus Victor or moral influence views. While I believe that there are elements of truth in most theories I think it should be obvious that PSA is not the pillar of truth that all other theories are built on. I simply cannot see how belief in any of the doctrines mentioned above is weakened or denied if PSA is rejected.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my response.
In the meantime, why not check out my article on a better way of understanding the atonement by clicking here or by clicking on the image of my book on the right for a free PDF copy.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Empire Baptized - Wes Howard-Brook (book review)



About a decade ago I came to the frightful realization that the church has potentially being more influenced by Augustine and Constantine than it has by the teachings of Jesus. Then after spending the last four years studying what the Bible teaches about the fate of those who reject Christ I came to the conclusion that Plato deserves a place a place alongside the other two aforementioned names as well.

Recently, I decided that I would one day like to publish a book on heaven and hell which means that I have being in the process of acquiring as many books as I can on the subject of heaven and the new earth as I can get my hands on. This is primarily why I jumped at the opportunity to review Wes Howard-Brook’s new book Empire Baptized – How the Church Embraced what Jesus Rejected (Second – Fifth Centuries). The book, while not at all being about what I was looking for did prove to confirm a lot of my suspicions regarding the enormous influence that Platonic thought has had on the church.

Let me start by giving a basic run down of what the book is about. The author submits that there are ultimately two religions. The religion of creation and the religion of empire; Empire Baptized documents the churches transition from the former to the latter between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD. It would certainly be beneficial to read Howard-Brook’s previous work ‘Come Out, My People’ which lays the foundations that this book is built upon, nevertheless he does share a neat little table contrasting the two 'religions' in Empire Baptized as well. Some of the contrasts would for example be that the religion of creation emphasizes the one God who is creator of the heavens and the earth, He is intimately involved with His creation and reigns supreme, the earth is the Lords and we are tenants in the land. Religious ‘obligations’ can be summarized in loving God and neighbor expressed in right relationship with them. The religion of empire however focuses on religious duties performed in sacred temples performed by the priestly elite. Serving God or the gods is done primarily through loyalty to the ‘empire’. Hierarchy plays a vital role and the land belongs to the kings and those who can afford to buy it or take it by force.

This is a well researched book and it opened my eyes to the fact that there were several key figures who all contributed to the gradual shift in the church that moved it from being a cross-bearing, enemy-loving and non-violent grass-roots movement to a sword wielding, materialized version of its former self.  Ultimately, hierarchies lead to classes, which lead to abuses and oppression thus embracing an approach to God that had been rejected by Jesus. Focusing his attention on Carthage, Alexandria and the surrounding regions, the author has documented the impact that several historical figures have had on the church. From Marcion, to Clement of Alexandria, to Tertullian, Origen, Constantine, Ambrose and many others, we see a progression of thought as the church distanced itself from its Jewish heritage and identified more and more with Greek philosophy, Gnostic thought which separated the physical from the spiritual and imperialism first on an ecclesial and later at the political level.

This book paints a far different picture of the early church fathers than what one might be familiar with. I was surprised to learn of Marcions role in getting Paul’s epistles canonized and dumbfounded by the more Gnostic than Christian contents of Clement’s writings. I was surprised to learn that even those who were persecuted by the state generally held high positions in society and were financially backed by wealthy ladies and how supercessionism contributed to the new way of reading the Bible to the point that even in those early years the Scriptures would have been read and interpreted through a very different lens to the one the New Testament writers themselves would have used.

On the negative side, the book sometimes assumes a prior knowledge on certain topics which means that it’s probably not meant for beginner students. Some huge claims are sometimes made such as that the pastoral epistles to Titus and Timothy were fraudulently written in the name of Paul, these are big things to say and I wish that he spent a little time unpacking such statements, the end notes that I did find on such matters were hardly satisfactory.

As a whole though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I love church history and I love theology and there are not enough books out there which document how the former has shaped the latter. I would recommend it to anyone who has similar interests.




You can visit the authors website by clicking here or purchase a copy of Empire Baptized by clicking over here.


I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Why my theology has changed so much





“The message of Jesus changed the world, until the world changed the message.”  - Bruxy Cavey

Over the last decade my beliefs have changed quite a bit on a number of topics. This might be alarming to some people but I contend that there is a very good reason for the change in so much of my thinking. Let me go back to what I see as the crossroad where all of this started and explain.

My story 

I had a Charismatic upbringing complete with all of the bells and whistles but in my mid-twenties I became restless with the general lackadaisical attitude around me and started searching for something else. I soon found myself in a church that could best be described as Armenian/Reformed (if that is even a thing?), we did not hold to TULIP but Calvinistic undertones to our thinking were everywhere. We viewed ourselves as the church that was destined to save the world from false doctrine. We constantly studied doctrine, taught doctrine and were self described as a church centered around sound doctrine. I took pride in being the go-to guy who had a Bible verse for anyone who needed one in any situation. Despite the many areas where both of these churches were lacking, God was still working in them both and I took a lot of positives out of both experiences.

It was around 2008/2009 when the contrast I saw in the book of Acts to the church today became too much to ignore. I wanted more, the emotional entertainment driven-church had left be frustrated, the intellectually superior/performance driven approach had left me disillusioned and I was not confident that the more traditional models centered on rituals would be any better. And so after much prayer my wife and I started meeting simply with other believers in our home. There was no program or clergy, we just got together around the dinner table to talk about life and God. If someone had a song, question, teaching or word to share we encouraged them to do so. This was and still is awkward and difficult at times but has been deeply rewarding over the years.

While a change in my intellectual understanding of what the church is as well as the practical application of living it was intently done, I was very much naive as to how far the ripple effect would reach. We never set out to recreate the ‘Acts church model’, what we did set out to do though was let Christ build His church, let Him be the head and let the Spirit lead us, what we discovered very slowly is that the church starts to exhibit ‘book of Acts like qualities’ organically rather than artificially. People start getting together more, praying, ministering and looking out for one another naturally. Now this is not a post about ecclesiology but I did want to lead up to this point. In the past my faith was centered around various church traditions, church meetings were central to my faith and the head-pastor was central to the meeting. The Bible was central to the sermon and the seminary-trained orator was the authority to interpret it for us.

Christ alone

      I never realized it at the time but Jesus, despite the songs we sang and the prayers that we made, was sharing His throne with a host of things that I had put up there with Him. My faith has changed and is changing. By taking a step back I was able to start seeing things more clearly. This Jesus is not just a good role model to be imitated; He is not just your ticket into heaven or just the right name to use at the end of your prayers. He is the One in and through which all things were created and continue to exist. He is the Light, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Word, the Firstborn, the Head of the Body, the All in All, the Alpha and Omega, the Lion and the Lamb and the Great I AM.

GOD, who at various times and in various Ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world (Hebrews 1:1-2). 

I used to employ a flat reading of the Bible; I believed that the best biblical hermeneutic was to let scripture interpret scripture, actually I unknowingly mostly let Plato and Augustine interpret scripture but that is a story for another day. Nevertheless, I would like to boldly suggest that letting scripture interpret scripture is good practice but is actually only the second most important rule of biblical interpretation. The first rule of hermeneutics I would say is to let ‘Jesus interpret scripture’, the one whom the author of Hebrews says that God has spoken to us through in these last days. Moses and the prophets gave us a glimpse of God’s glory (Exodus 33:23) but Jesus IS the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person (Hebrews 1:3). How does this work practically? Let me borrow a quote as an example from a friend who recently made a comment about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as it relates to Deuteronomy 25:1-3 and the message of fairness or as he called it, 'the principle of reciprocity'.

“An eye for an eye does not make the whole world blind, as Gandhi suggested, but enforces relational and social justice. Put differently, it forces us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us by putting us at the receiving end of our own actions. Thus, the law and prophets are never abolished in Jesus’ famous statement in Matt 7:12, but fulfilled. If we can do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then we will no longer need the restraint of a written code that exists to protect our neighbors from our selfish unjust actions (and vice versa), neither the penalty of an “equal measure” to restore the scale and also serve as a deterrent for further unjust actions”.

Jesus is the truth and in Him we are confronted with the rule of faithful thinking about God. Using Jesus as the lens to which we approach all of scripture will cause us to rethink much of what we have previously assumed to be true in much of our theology. Acknowledging Christ above all as the center, the Word and our final authority permits us to see that. Why do I now think differently and write about such things as the church, the atonement, heaven and hell and so on? To answer that let borrow a piece from one of Baxter Kruger’s recent articles which resonated with me.

“The Christian church is summoned to be the sphere within creation where this Son is known, embraced and taken with profound seriousness. The church is called to be the community in which the light of Jesus Christ is allowed to shine, where the truth of all truths is allowed to question every assumption... The Christian church is called to proceed in earnest faith and joy, obediently bringing every thought captive to Christ. It is the church’s great privilege and calling to think through the implications of the stunning reality established in Jesus Christ for every sphere and discipline of human thought, from theology proper to ecology and international politics, from sin and human brokenness to economics, education and healing. No leaf is to be left unturned until the staggering implications of Jesus Christ’s identity and existence are understood and received in all joy. In this calling the Christian church is the witness to the human race and to the cosmos of Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, the Anointed One, the rhyme and reason and the Lord and life of all creation, until the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Answering the criticism toward my previous post on hell



I have posted many times about hell over the last few years but for some reason, my last post (which you can read by clicking here) which questioned the doctrine of eternal conscious torment was picked up on and spread like a wild-fire across the internet, racking up 11 000 views in the few days since I posted it already. I have had a hard time just trying to keep up and respond to all of the comments on the blog and in various Facebook threads. So I thought that I would attempt to answer all of the questions, clarify all of the misunderstandings and share a few reflections of my own on everything over here. Below are six areas which I would like to address.

Scriptural objections to my article

The three main scriptural objections that came up were Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11 and Revelation 20:10 which are the same three that I addressed in point 1 of my post which makes me wonder if people actually read the article or just experienced a knee jerk reaction to it. I am not going to repeat myself here so I will deal with 4 other verses that were mentioned instead, 3 below and 1 in a later point.

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12:2

The above verse makes a contrast between those who receive the gift of eternal life and those who do not. The shame and contempt referred to however are directed toward those who do not receive immortality. Think of Hitler, the world remembers him with contempt and shame but he is very much dead. A similar understanding can be made for those who will experience the second death in the Lake of Fire.

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. – Matthew 25:41.

Matthew 25:41 speaks of an eternal (Greek aionios) fire rather than of immortal souls residing in an eternal fire. The idea presented consistently throughout scripture is that the fire is unquenchable and will not be put out until it has consumed everything within it. Furthermore, the word aionios also literally means ‘age-during’ as it appears in the Youngs Literal Translation of the Bible. Aionios can indeed and usually does mean eternal but can also refer to a specific period of time defined by an age as well (depending on its context). For example, Romans 16:25-26 says “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages (aionios) past but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” The obvious interpretation here is one of a specific age rather than eternity otherwise Paul’s statement in verse 26  could not be true. Similarly, Hebrews 9:26 says “Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages (aionios) to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Obviously, eternity has no end, the aionios here refers to the central point in history which is Christ’s time on earth and more specifically, His crucifixion and resurrection. So to recap, Matthew 25:41 does not mention eternal conscious suffering, only an age-during fire which consumes everything in it (Hebrews 10:27).

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. – Mark 9:43-44 (context up until verse 48).

There are two points to consider regarding this passage. The first is that nowhere does it refer to the duration of the persons existence in hell, that is something that gets read into the text based on our preconceived ideas. The second point is that Jesus was quoting directly from Isaiah 66:24 which says, regarding those living in the new heaven and earth, that they will “…look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me (God). For their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched”. In case you missed it, the worms were feeding on corpses. Is it not more plausible that the message in the warning is that the worms do not die and the fire cannot be quenched until they have done their job? Or are we to believe that the worms are immortal and the corpses as well?

General misunderstandings 

Some of the feedback I received was based on a misunderstanding that I was trying to remove hell from the Bible. This was not my intention at all. Personally, I do believe that Gehenna should rather be translated as ‘Valley of Hinnom’ which is the actual English name for the place Jesus made reference to on multiple occasions. The word hell itself originated in the 8th century AD and probably should not be in our English Bibles at all, literal translations like Young’s prefer to leave the term untranslated as Gehenna which is probably for the better. Yet that in no way takes away from the amount of evidence in the Bible that a grim ending awaits those who reject Christ. A study on the word hell yields a handful of verses in our English Bibles but a study on the fate of the lost yields hundreds of verses that should not be taken lightly. So when I speak of conditional immortality, I do not endorse the idea that there is no torment or repercussions awaiting people in the afterlife, I am simply saying that eternal life is the reward and inheritance awaiting those in Christ alone.

After-death experiences and Luke 16

Someone sent my wife a testimony of a person who had claimed to have been to hell. A few other people also brought to my attention the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 as proof of eternal conscious torment. There is a lot that could be said on both of these points but I just want to make one observation about both stories. In chapter 20 of the book of Revelation it speaks of something known as the Great White Throne Judgment where the dead are raised from their graves and judged according to their works. Death and Hades are cast into the Lake of Fire along with anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life. Herein lies my point, Luke 16 is a parable that mentions conscious torment of a man 2000 years ago, all the videos and books we see about people visiting hell are written in the present age. Even if they are real, they precede the Great White Throne Judgment and Lake of Fire which is the second death (20:14). So even if people were actually suffering in Hades right now, these stories have no bearing on what occurs in the Lake of Fire to which no one has as yet been cast into. This reasoning sounds to me as if when someone dies they go to get burnt but are kept alive in flames (Augustine used the example of a Salamander that can survive inside of a fire as his proof that the fire does not consume, I would not recommend testing his theory out), at a later stage, they go for judgment and then they go back to get burnt again in the same setting and in a similar, ongoing manner. I find this exegesis to be rather confusing.

Jesus

I should have anticipated this but a few people took exception to me saying that I couldn’t see Jesus torturing people for eternity, stating that Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else. Now it is true that Jesus did warn about the consequences of rejecting Him many times but that is not necessarily an endorsement of eternal conscious torment, consider Matthew 10:28 which says:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

That sounds more like a warning of total destruction to me than it does eternal conscious torment. On a bit of a side note, you have probably heard people say before that Jesus spoke more about hell than He did about heaven. It is an often repeated assumption but its simply not true, about 3 percent (roughly 60 verses) of what Jesus said can be categorized as possible references to hell. In contrast, nearly 10 percent (192 verses) of what Jesus said was in reference to heaven, eternal life and the Kingdom of God.

This will lead to more sin

One of the comments I received a lot of is that if judgment consists of a measurable amount of punishment according to ones deeds and they are not granted eternal life but will ultimately perish then there is no consequences for sin and we might as well not follow Jesus and just live recklessly. I don’t even know how to respond to that honestly. Sin still has consequences and death is still punishment. Still others seemed concerned that the gospel would not be attractive enough without the threat of eternal conscious torment to influence a persons decision. But in Romans chapter 2 Paul says that it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance, perhaps that is why nowhere in the New Testament do we see the apostles using hell as a motivational tool in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I see a larger problem behind these questions though in that they reveal that we do not believe that Christ alone is sufficient to sanctify us and cleanse us from sin. We do not trust that the goodness of God can bring people into the Kingdom and so we adapt an insurance salesman strategy, relying on fear to 'seal the deal'.

Accusations against me

In the last week I have been called all sorts of things, here is a small sample of what has been written to me:

“As much as you claim to have researched the subjects in question, it's pretty clear that your research already has predetermined outcomes in mind, and selectively ignores the powerful truth that counters them.”
“fanciful twisting of scripture”
“You have been listening to doctrines of demons for too long. “
 “You have a deep rebellion against authority. Shut down this blog and seek council.”
“Do you know how dangerous it is to spread these lies in a Christian forum as a "Christian" author?”
“You are denying Christ.”
“Please check the truth before posting opinions.”
“I offered you salvation through Jesus Christ, and how to get it. Please let me or one of us lead you to Christ if you don't understand.”
“The conclusions of a delusional millennial mind.”
“Burn this blog or.. woe to you from God on High!”

I have shared this because I want to make a few comments about these responses. I get that what I am saying is radically different than what most people have heard before. As one friend said to me, “hearing about annihilation for the first time…it’s initially quite fearful…almost as if a huge ‘pillar’ under-girding your faith is about to collapse…what is the gospel without hell? It is still the gospel”. So I get that the reactions can be quite harsh but let me say a few things in my defense. Firstly, no one likes been vilified and ostracized, I have not written these posts or reached these conclusions lightly. Day after day I hear of people who lose friends, are denied church membership or even employment opportunities because their studies led them to conclude that conditional immortality carried more biblical support than eternal conscious torment did. So no, my view is not the ‘easy choice’ some insinuate that it is. Secondly, I have provided a list of well over a hundred scriptures without commentary to show how the Bible consistently deals with the subject of the fate of those who do not know Christ. If it appears that I have twisted scripture then read that list by clicking over here free from the biases that I might be imposing on them. Thirdly, I do not believe that ones intellectual, eschatological persuasions are a salvation issue. Yes, they are certainly important as they depict a certain image of God in the world and we are called to 'not bear false witness' so let’s flesh this stuff out together and move toward a right understanding. But is Christ your Lord? Great! Let’s proclaim the love of God and the way to eternal life through Jesus side by side. Hopefully, we will figure out and agree on the finer details together along the way.