We're still in Washington, but I'll write some more when we get back home and I can find some free blog-time.
The exchange between all of you yesterday was interesting...cool...enlightening...
mentally and spiritually stimulating...and it really exemplified what a blog is supposed to be.
I may weigh in on a couple of things that were brought up when I have the time, but I think that you've pretty much got it covered. Each one of you expressed yourself in a very compelling way, and, at the risk of sounding evasive or patronizing, I actually agree with all of you.
So I speak a blessing on you faithful bloggers for getting in the game (and even on you bench-warming blurkers!), and I want you to know that I appreciate and respect the fact that you take the time to examine these kinds of things, and to write so well in making your points.
Come, let us reason together.
Check back later today...
We're back (currently 23 comments). In an effort to see the glass half-full, I’m going to reiterate that the dialogue here over the last couple of days has been enlightening, and that I agree, on some level, with everyone’s point of view. But there’s a part of me that wants to avoid this conversation, altogether, because I’ve had these same discussions on so many occasions (and have covered all of these ideas in so much of my teaching), and I don’t know how much good they do, really.
Let me try to explain. I’m certainly familiar with “Let not your good be evil spoken of”, “Come out from among them and touch not the unclean thing” (I was raised on that one), “Be holy for I am holy”, “You have been called to liberty, only do not use liberty as an occasion to the flesh”…I could go on and on with citing the holiness/morality Scriptures. I know them all.
But I also know that Jesus said that if you hate your brother (and hatred is rampant among many religious people, by the way) that you’re a murderer. My point is, that this is an interesting discussion, but I don’t know what it resolves in the big picture. Your paradigm is either that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (focusing on the actions of people), or The Tree of Life (focusing on the finished work of Christ).
Again I say, I agree with everyone’s point expressed here. Really I do! But for me, personally, after a lifetime of studying the Scriptures, and preaching for nearly 37 years of that lifetime, I have to agree with Abraham Lincoln concerning who will be in heaven…it’s either everyone or no one! (I almost instantly regret writing that because I know the kind of debate that it incites, and right now my head is in a completely different place).
But since I’ve written that, let me reluctantly repost this article from a few months ago (Oh, Lord, here we go again…)
Here’s the first part, but the part that I think is pertinent begins with the second Qand A:
Q. Do you believe in a literal hell?
A. I believe in the Lamb of God Who took away the sin of the world!
SCARLETT: “Oh, Rhett. I am so afraid.”
RHETT: “I don't believe it. You've never been afraid in your life.”
SCARLETT: “I'm afraid now. I'm afraid of dying, of going to Hell.”
RHETT: “You look pretty healthy. And maybe there isn't any Hell.”
SCARLETT: “Oh, there is. I know there is. I was raised on it.”
In the 36 years that I have been in the ministry, no one has ever one time asked me if I preach the Cross of Jesus Christ. No one has asked if I pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit. No one has ever asked if I feed the poor or visit people in prison. No one has inquired about my role in racial reconciliation, or showed any curiosity, whatsoever, about whether or not I do anything to help the homeless…or drug addicts…or alcoholics. It has never even come up once in conversation, and no one has even thought to ask if I preach on love and forgiveness. In fact, I don’t even remember if anyone has ever asked if I believe in a literal heaven with streets of gold and gates of pearl.
But people have always asked me lots and lots and lots of questions about hell…“Do you believe in hell? Do believe in the fire and the brimstone? Who do you think is going to hell? When are they going to go? Will they start burning as soon as they die? How long will they burn? Are there degrees of hell? Who is in hell now? Do people feel the fire scorching and burning their flesh for ever and ever and ever there? Do the demons torture you in hell? Are all the Jews and Muslims and atheists and homosexuals going to hell?...and so it goes. I can even say something about heaven possibly being just another dimension and no one will bat an eye…but when you mess with hell, you stir up a lot of stuff, and you find out how obsessed with it and even defensive for it a lot of people are.
In all four Schools of the Bible (available on CD and DVD) we have examined, in-depth, the four words that were translated into “hell” in the King James Version and in other translations. We showed that Sheol was simply the Hebrew word for “the grave” or “the unseen”; that Gehenna (or the Valley of Hinnom) that Jesus referred to was a literal, burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem; that Tartarus was a place of confinement for rebellious angels until the reconciliation of all things; and that Hades (the name of the pagan god of the underworld in Greek mythology) was used as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol. We discussed that “hell” was never once mentioned in the original language of the Old Testament or in Paul’s Epistles, and that John’s prophetic vision of a “Lake of Fire” in The Revelation was from the Greek word pur, and was symbolic of God’s purifying fire (same root as “baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire” or “our God is a consuming fire”). We even showed that “The Second Death” or when Hades (“hell” in the KJV) is thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14), it literally refers simply to “the death of death”, proving that “hell” and the “Lake of Fire” are two completely different things.
That being said, and in spite of all that we have expressed, the point of our theology should never be about disproving the existence of a literal “hell” or a place of eternal punishment and damnation for the wicked or unsaved. The main theme and constant of everything that we study and believe should always be the complete triumph of the Lamb of God! In other words, if there were a thousand literal, eternally burning hells, the redeeming power of the Lamb’s ultimate and bloody sacrifice on the cross, His miraculous resurrection and His subsequent intercession for humanity (Hebrews 7:25) would still be a stronger force than all the combined hells that anyone could imagine! That’s why we behold the Lamb; it’s not about what we don’t believe in, it’s about in what—or rather in Whom—we believe! And because we believe in Him, we behold Him (not the absence of hell, or the presumed liberty or imagined sins of others), and because we behold Him, we worship Him in Spirit and in truth!
Q. - Shouldn’t the really, really, really bad people go to hell?
A. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds!
First of all, let me clearly state that I believe that sin is a bad idea, the wages of sin is death, the way of the transgressor is hard, and that they who sow to the flesh will of the flesh reap corruption. I believe that criminals should be punished/rehabilitated for their crimes and/or pay their debt to society, and in some cases I’m even in favor of capital punishment. I believe that all people, including ministers and authority figures, are responsible for their actions, that they should live by a high moral standard because things like morality and integrity are still valid and important in today’s world, and that when they are uncovered in a scandal or moral problem they should admit to it and get some help. And even though I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), I was fine with Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) being executed, and I especially agree with Jesus that those who abuse “little ones” should have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea (and if it was one of my little ones I’d be happy to tie the rope myself!).
You may think that my directness on this point sounds somewhat out of character with the overall tone of this blog, but I must be emphatic here. To me this is stating the obvious, but there those who think that when you preach the triumph of the cross over sin, or the restitution of all things, or when you proclaim that the Lamb of God took away the sin of the world, that you are somehow giving license to people to live reckless, immoral, undisciplined, ungodly lives with no repercussions, because you have told them that they will be reconciled to God in the end, and therefore shouldn’t bother with trying to live a holy or moral existence.
The question that I used to get asked all the time was “Can you just do anything (bad) that you want and still be saved?” I don’t seem to get that one much any more for some reason, but I recently got an e-mail from someone in our cyber-congregation who was asked about the seeming appropriateness of satan worshippers and the Prophets of Baal going to hell, and she didn’t know how to answer the person who confronted her, even though she embraces all that I have taught in School of the Bible I, II, III, and IV. And then once in a while I still get the classic “Universalist” challenge: “Do you think that Hitler is in heaven?”
Of course all these questions come from the paradigm created by having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as opposed to the mindset that comes from the more optimal Tree of Life, and I especially hate the Hitler question because it takes the emphasis off of the finished work of Christ, and puts it on the horrible actions of a deranged maniac. And, certainly, the idea of seeing Hitler (or others of his ilk) happily walking down streets of gold in heaven with Moses and Elijah or David is completely unthinkable to anyone with a sense of morality.
But it’s always interesting to me to observe how even people who believe in the triumph of the cross generally believe that the “really, really, really” bad people should be at least held more accountable, if not somewhat punished for their deeds. It’s a normal response to trying to get your head around some of the horrible acts that are committed every day by people in this world. Regardless of the fact that James said that if you are guilty in one point, you are guilty in them all, the sins of some people just naturally seem worse to us than the sins of others. In eastern religions there is the concept of karma (basically what goes around comes around), to help people deal with the ramifications of evil, and reincarnation which is based on the idea that if you do really bad stuff, you’ll come back in another life as something really disgusting. But western Christians have the concept of hell to help them psychologically deal with justice being served in cases of unspeakable wickedness. Most of our western concepts of hell, especially the notion that there are degrees of punishment there, come from The Divine Comedy, better known as Dante’s Inferno written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. Seen as one of the greatest works of world literature, the poem's imaginative vision of the Christian afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church over the centuries, and is much more responsible for shaping our ideas of eternal punishment than is the Bible.
I have read the transcripts from the murder trial of a diabolical man who intentionally ran over three little kids in a Covington (my home town) McDonald’s parking lot on a Saturday morning, and in the document were the recorded words of the mother whose three year old daughter was killed in the incident. She spoke directly to the man who had brutally snuffed out the life of her baby girl just days before her third birthday (laughing while he did it, by the way), and said to him that the Bible says that there is a “hottest place in hell” reserved for him, and that she was going to laugh while she watched God throw him into into it. Now, I know that the Bible doesn’t say anything like that, and you know what I believe about ultimate reconciliation, but, as a parent, or just as a person who can’t make sense of that kind of evil, I completely understood why she said that, and in some secret place in my heart or brain I hoped that she was right! In other words, what I know by the spirit doesn’t always jibe with what I feel emotionally, and if that were my little girl who was killed I probably would have said the same thing, or worse! I also really don’t think that I could ever forgive the man, nor would I even attempt to…only the “hottest place in hell” idea would give me some sense of psycological relief in the matter.
But, having said that, let’s look at some literal interpretations of the Scriptures which define our conventional ideas concerning who should really go to hell, which are generally taken out of context (and I’m using the King James Version to make my point because it sounds more profound and scarier).
First of all, the dividing of the sheep from the goats mentioned in Matthew 25 is about about compassion, philanthropy, and sensitity to the needs of others…not about “sin” as we think of it.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. (Matthew 25:41-43)
The “goats” in the parable are sent into the “fire”, not because they were mass murderers or serial killers or sexual deviants, but because they didn’t feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit the prisoners. And yet we all know Christians who have never once entered a jail or prison to visit the incarcerated, and have never once helped a homeless person in any way; and yet if you asked them if Hitler is in hell (or if the man I mentioned earleir is going there) they would more than likely say a definite “yes”, oblivious to the fact that Jesus said they were going to hell!
Then in Luke 17, the rich man went to “hell” because he was rich, not because he committed any heinous acts (other than refusing to feed a homeless man). And Lazarus went to “heaven” (or Abraham’s bosom), not because he prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” or confessed Romans 10:9, 10, but because he was poor:
But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Luke 16:25)
Have you ever heard a preacher preach that all the indifferent rich were going to hell, and all the suffering poor were going to heaven? Well isn’t that what Jesus said here?
So let me get this straight…Hitler is in hell because he committed genocide, Jeffry Dahmer is in hell because he was a murderous cannibal, John Lennon is in hell because he wrote “Imagine”, and the man who ran over those children is going to the “hottest place” there because of what he did…and yet Jesus said that calling someone an idiot or a fool is grounds for eternal punishment, didn’t he?:
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)
And do you know anyone who is afraid of anything? Well, apparently they’re going to hell with the serial killers and perverts:
But the fearful…and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
The Lake of Fire is the purging of a merciful God…compare John’s revelation of it with Paul’s:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is [already] laid, which is Jesus Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One). But if anyone builds upon the Foundation, whether it be with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, The work of each [one] will become [plainly, openly] known (shown for what it is); for the day [of Christ] will disclose and declare it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test and critically appraise the character and worth of the work each person has done. If the work which any person has built on this Foundation [any product of his efforts whatever] survives [this test], he will get his reward. But if any person's work is burned up [under the test], he will suffer the loss [of it all, losing his reward], though he himself will be saved, but only as [one who has passed] through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15 – Amplified Bible)
It’s hard to understand with the natural mind things like “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” or “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. God’s ways really are higher than ours. But think about this…what if you had never heard of Adam, or the Fall of Man, and someone told you that the behavior of just one man brought death and condemnation upon all of humanity. You might ask, “What in the world did he do to bring about such a horrible condition? Did he kill millions of people? Was he a pedophile? Did he own slaves and lynch innocent people? Was he a serial rapist? An abortionist? Did he torture people and ruin people’s lives? And the answer would be, “No, he just ate a piece of fruit.”
God have mercy on us all. Oh, yeah…He did!