Monday, December 15, 2008

A Place to Avoid at all Costs

Hell is a doctrine many so-called evangelicals are abandoning today. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to abandon the doctrine of hell without also abandoning the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Instead of denying hell, we need to avoid it through repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ! Since I am in the process of reading the excellent defense of hell in Hell Under Fire edited by Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan, I was pleased to find this well written short piece by Michael Jensen, who teaches theology at Moore College in Sydney Australia. Michael blogs at HIM and The Blogging Parson . The one caveat I would add is that the Bible does not turn hell into a place of lost consciousness or the cessation of existence. Dr. Jensen seems to leave that door slightly open. After all, lost consciousness is what many people long for each night --- it is called sleep. Keep in mind that as horrible as the images of hell are, the reality, including the offence of sin, to which they point, is worse. --Bill

Monday, 15 December 2008

A hell of a problem

The trouble with talking about what we know as hell, is that there is a lot of static on the line. Hell has become a very well-recognised picture in our culture, We tell jokes about it, we make ads about it, we make movies with it in. It is portrayed as sexy, more fun than the other place and too ridiculous to be true. After all, while 80% of people say they believe in heaven, only 15% say they believe in hell. On the other hand, people wish for a hell when confronted with the evil of an Amrozi or an Imam Samudra. This is the hypocrisy of our culture: on the one hand pleading for divine justice; on the other not wanting to believe in it.

Taking a closer look at the Bible, however, we find there are a couple of things to say about what we know as hell.
  • real --- The Bible – and Jesus more than anyone – affirms the reality of hell. God's punishment is coming and won't be denied. He won't get caught up in red-tape. God promises it, and he keeps his promises. He has dealt with evil before – how could we imagine that he won't do it again, and finally? This isn't something from the realm of myth.

  • eternal --- We learn surprisingly little about hell and what it is like in the Bible. Is it a place, or a state of being? Are the people who experience it dead, or consciously alive? The one common thread in all the passages that talk of it is the word "eternal". There is no hint of second chance, or an idea that after a few thousands years you will have paid off your dues. We may hope that there is some backdoor, some catch, but there is no hint of it given in the Bible.

  • just --- Part of our problem with hell is believing that it is really just for God to exact such a punishment on otherwise decent people who merely chose the wrong religion, or who didn't listen in religion class at school. But not listening to your own creator is offensive. It is criminal, ignorant, rebellious and stupid. Not desiring to know God is ultimately a wish that God himself honours.

  • horrible --- there is no doubt that the Bible portrays hell as a place you don't want to go to. It uses the imagery of unending fire, darkness, weeping and anguish, physical pain and deep remorse. It is the sort of place you would cut off your right hand to avoid.

  • Jesus has experienced it --- One of the most radical things the Bible says is that Jesus experienced the full weight of the judgement of God on the cross. He was cut off from his Father; subject to all the agony of spiritual death, enough to absorb its tremendous impact and triumph over it. There is no need for us to fear it, if we look to Christ.

  • something to look forward to? --- For those who pray "your kingdom come", we will long for hell to come because it means justice has come and everything has been finally arranged under Jesus. It means the total victory of God. It means the evildoer has no blissful oblivion to cover over his or her evils. It means that everything in its right place, the uplifting of the oppressed and downtrodden, the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God.

So what about predestining people to hell? The idea that God would make some human person merely as fodder to stoke the fires of hell – if we believed it – would surely make us doubt that goodness of God. It is appalling. But it is not how the Bible portrays God and his choices. First of all, we need to note that when God saves, it is always out of his mercy that any are saved. The default position for human beings is to stand under the judgement of God. Second, as we saw before - although we don't know how exactly – God's choices and human choices are both in play and real. Hell is what people choose: life without God, and without others.

Hell actually dignifies human choice.

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