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.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Ten reasons to stop believing that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment





Like many Christians, I grew up in churches that believed and taught that most people would spend the rest of eternity burning in flames. A place of eternal consciousness where every moment was occupied with unimaginable tortures; some said that there were demons in hell who were skinning humans alive or forcing sulfur down peoples throats and prodding them with hot irons. Still others said that the people were engulfed in flames and trapped inside deep dark pits; in all the various scenarios the wounds would heal and the suffering would never cease. Some churches believed that Satan and the demons had no authority in hell and that they would be burning along with the rest of fallen humanity with God and His angels substituted in to fulfill the role of tormentors. Ultimately though the story was the same, heaven was the promise and hell was the sales pitch strategy for those wishing to avoid such a fate. Church was the contractual obligation to be fulfilled and the sinners’ prayer was the signature on the dotted line.

While there can be no doubt that there are very bad and eternal consequences for rejecting the life that Christ offers us. As a Bible believing Christian I no longer find anything in the opening paragraph that holds true when I look for it in scripture. So if you are tormented by the idea of loved ones suffering an eternal scenario like the one mentioned above, if you have come to reject or loathe a god capable of such atrocities or if you are simply willing to let the idea of eternal torment in hell be examined and put to the test then read on as below I offer ten reasons as to why I no longer hold to this view.

1 - The underwhelming support for it found in scripture.

While the imagery that I opened with is common in other writings such as the Quran, there is little support for it to be found within the pages of the Bible. Most of the verses we think of when we think about hell actually contain no mention of duration of punishment at all. Whether it is the rich young ruler, the weeping and gnashing of teeth verses or the place where worms feast on the corpses of God’s enemies, any ideas of eternal consciousness that we hold to we have imputed on to the texts ourselves.

When it comes down to it, there are only three verses in the entire Bible that could imply eternal conscious torment (hereafter referred to as ECT) which are Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:11 and Revelation 20:10. It’s important to note here that these three verses when taken in isolation appear to contradict the vast majority of other verses in the Bible (see point 4) and so it is wise to consider the language more carefully. The two verses in Revelation for example are likely drawing from the imagery found in other places of the Bible such as Ezekiel 38-39 and Isaiah 34. In Isaiah 34:9-10 for instance, we see that the destruction of the Edomites is described with the imagery of sulfur and fires that would not be quenched and where the smoke ascends forever. Obviously the language here is meant to convey the severity and finality of the destruction rather than to be taken literally. We see something similar in Jude 7 as well which says that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the vengeance of eternal fire. Sodom, Gomorrah and Edom are clearly not still literally ablaze so we should concede at the very least that the language of Revelation might just have been intended to be taken likewise. As for Matthew 25:46, the eternal punishment mentioned in that verse is contrasted with eternal life. Surely then it makes more sense to understand eternal punishment as something contrary to eternal life? Something perhaps along the lines of the irrevocable loss of life, being dead forever or as eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

If I am wrong though and those three scriptures do support eternal conscious punishment, one has to wonder why God would have remained silent about it throughout the Old Testament and the rest of earth’s history? Why is something so prevalent in the modern church reduced to so few mentions in the last portion of the Bible? It does not make sense.

2 –  Hijacked terminology 

If ECT in hell is true, then the language used to describe the fate of those who reject God in scripture becomes confusing. The Bible speaks of those who will perish (John 3:16) but ECT says that they will never perish. The Bible speaks of those who will be destroyed (Matthew 10:28) or suffer everlasting destruction (Matthew 7:13-14, 2 Thessalonians 1:9), ECT says that they will never be destroyed for they are indestructible. The Bible says that those who did not follow Christ will be burned up or consumed (Matthew 3:12, Hebrews 10:27), that they will be ash (Malachi 4:1 – 3), they will waste away (Psalm 112:10), they will be no more (Ezekiel 26:19 – 21), they will melt like wax before a fire (Psalm 68:2), they will fade away (Psalm 37:1-2), they will disappear (Isaiah 1:31), they will wither (John 12:25) and that they will not live forever (Genesis 3:3). To play with the literal meanings of any of these phrases is to deny them completely, either you will disappear or you won’t, you will perish or you won’t, you will live forever or you won’t etc. I find there to be a deep irony in the fact that in order to defend ECT, one needs to take Revelation (a book full of wild imagery) literally and the rest of the Bible to be speaking figuratively.

3 - Death

Scripture speaks of a second death (Jude 8, Revelation 21:8), the standard answer to this is similar to the previous point. For those who teach the mainline view of hell death no longer means a loss of life but rather a separation from the omnipresent God. But if death refers not to dying but to simply being separated from God, then what does it mean when the Bible also says that one day there will be no more death (Revelation 21:4)? Or what happens when the last enemy (death) to be destroyed is conquered (1 Corinthians 15:26)? Will those spending eternity consciously being tormented in hell no longer be separated from God? What happens when separation is destroyed? By that definition death sounds more like Universalism to me than it does our modern, traditional view.

4 - Scriptures overwhelming evidence towards conditional immortality

Contrary to the doctrine of ECT, I find an abundance of support for the idea that people are not inherently immortal and that only those who are in Christ will receive the gift of eternal life. There are literally hundreds of verses supporting this, rather than add them here I have made a list of supporting scriptures which I am always adding to that you can look at and study by clicking over here. Simply put, though, I find the verses in the link to overwhelmingly, convincingly and consistently support the idea that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life (John 3:36).

5 – Excessive Punishment

Even in the Old Testament where God sometimes seems to be more angry and willing to dish out punishment, we see a limit on what is to be meted out. Consider Deuteronomy 25:1-3 where it speaks of a guilty man found deserving of a beating, a condemned man was permitted to be beaten with the number of stripes in proportion to his offense and never beyond the number forty. If the punishment is to fit the crime then how does a life of 20, 40, 60 or even 80 years yield an infinite number of stripes?  Some have said that to sin against an eternal God is deserving of infinite punishment but does that not assume that the two words mean exactly the same thing? And if justice is to be carried out in the form of unending punishment does that not mean that God’s justice is never actually satisfied or realized?

6 – What would be the purpose?

Throughout scripture we see God’s restorative justice in action. That is to say that there is a purpose to His judgments. In extreme cases the wicked are wiped out by natural disasters or enemy groups usually with a remnant remaining behind. In less extreme cases people are rebuked or something bad will happen in order to provoke them toward repentance. The point though is that ECT seems to have no restorative purpose at all. The lost are forever fixed in their state and mercilessly kept alive to endure excruciating pain forever. They would simply continue to curse and be cursed.

7 – Biblical justice

Many people have argued that God must punish sinners eternally because His justice demands it but if we are to define justice as the Bible does, I believe it would look something like Zechariah 7:9 which says:

Thus says the LORD of Hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.”

So the LORD of Hosts says that true justice is to show mercy and compassion. The retributive (and then some) form of justice that ECT entails could not be more contrary to this way of thinking.

8 – Historical reasons  

No one can deny that for the last 1500 years the idea of eternal conscious torment has been the dominant view of both the Catholic and the Protestant churches. Importantly though, conditional immortality and even universalism were both well represented before the time of Augustine along with the idea of ECT. Now if I heard a doctrine preached and there was no evidence that early church held to it, I would be especially concerned and suspicious of it. But the ideas that I shared in point 4 are consistent with what was taught and can be found in the writings of men such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Arnobius. On the contrary, ECT’s history seems to extend beyond the Bible and early churches teachings; seemingly having infiltrated the church through a Hellenistic influence and the philosophy of Plato in particular.

9 – All in all? – Except for the 90 %...

The Bible proclaims a glorious future, it speaks of a new heaven and earth where there is no more death or sorrow and of a time where God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). I like to think of it as a restored version of the Garden of Eden where everything is “very good indeed” and God can be found walking in the cool of the day enjoying His creation and visa versa. But if wickedness remains and has not ‘passed away’ but continues to exist in those suffering unimaginable torments in hell then God is not all in all, He is only all in some and that is not success. For death, sin and rebellion have not passed away but have merely been confined to an underworld prison.

10 – Jesus 

Lastly, I do not see Jesus whom scripture reveals to be the exact image of the Father, that is to say, the truest and clearest revelation we have of who God is and what He is like, as someone who would stone an enemy, much less burn them alive. Jeremiah 32:35 speaks of the Israelites who burned their own children as sacrifices to Molech in the Valley of Hinnom (which is called Gehenna in the New Testament and then translated as hell in English). The verse continues on and says that this was an abomination to God that had “never even entered into His mind”. We know that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and that He even went so far as to allow Himself to be killed by His own, so the idea that He has had a change of heart and has gone from “forgive them for they know not what they do” to “let’s burn them and keep them alive forever” seems odd.

In conclusion, the more I have studied this over the years the more I have become convinced that hell, whatever it might actually be, is not a place of eternal conscious torment but more of a symbol of the utter hopelessness that awaits those who reject Christ. Yes, there will be a resurrection of the dead and consequences for rejecting the Gospel but it will most likely look very different to what we have previously imagined. The purpose for resurrecting those outside of Christ only to have them suffer a second death is still a mystery to me but there must be a purpose behind it that I am yet to understand. What I do know though is that if He is our life then rejecting Him is to reject eternal life itself.




If you want to explore the idea of conditional immortality further here are some helpful resources containing blogs, podcasts and more.

http://rethinkinghell.com/ 
http://www.afterlife.co.nz/
http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/index.php#.WRGZ01V97IU

I have also written a follow up article to this one in response to the questions and criticism that it received on this link

http://wrostoll.blogspot.co.za/2017/05/answering-criticism-toward-my-previous.html