Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rob Bell: A Lesson in Responsibility and Ethics in Hermeneutics

As I worked through Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins," a few of things stood out. First, it was clear to me that Rob Bell writes from the standpoint of extreme arrogance. Perhaps that is just his style or perhaps he has a hatred for orthodoxy that simply cannot be subdued no matter how hard he tries. The style of Bell's writing displays an attitude of disdain. His refusal to deal honestly with all the texts on the subject of hell or eternal punishment in the Old and New Testament display a certain amount of disrespect for the subject and especially for the many theologians who have and would disagree with him, both in the past and in the present. The method Bell employs when dealing with semantic ranges and meanings of words in the bible also demonstrates a deranged bias. Bell's audience, for the most part, probably do not know any better when it comes to what he says about the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words. And Bell should know this. It is his ethical responsibility to present his case as fairly and objectively as he can. Bell does not appear to take this responsibility seriously. In fact, based on the style of his writing, Bell does not seem to take 2000 years of orthodoxy seriously either. The manner in which Bell throws out names like Luther and Augustine as if they would have either agreed with him or even been sympathetic toward his view is nothing short of disingenuous. The purpose of this post is to point out a few areas in Bell's book where he is clearly being unethical and deceptive as he attempts to sway his audience that hell is not to be taken as a literal abode for those who reject God to the end.

To begin with, on page 106 of "Love Wins," Bell contends that Luther agreed with him, quoting a letter Luther addressed to Hans von Rechenburg in 1522. Bell says,
In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenburg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: "Who would doubt God's ability to do that?"
By invoking the name Martin Luther in such a manner, Bell leaves the impression to a less informed audience at least, that the great reformer may have actually agreed with him on the subject of post-death repentance. Wham! Instant credibility! For others perhaps, who are a little informed, instant doubt. And Bell accomplishes exactly what he wishes or so it seems this is what he wishes. But is this really an accurate and honest handling of what Martin Luther said in this letter? Did Martin Luther, the great reformer actually believe in post-death repentance? Actually it is not, and Bell, being an educated man, if he does not, should know better. If we grant Bell the benefit of the doubt, we end up concluding that he is at least irresponsible, and exceptionally sloppy with his research on the subject. If we do not extend such grace, we must conclude that Bell is downright unethical in his work. That is to say that if he knew better and still presented Luther in this light without full disclosure, at a minimum, Bell is being terribly dishonest. Either way, both conclusions are regrettable. And it should be pointed out clearly that Bell's handling of the material must fall into one of these two categories. So for those who are defending Bell, they are placed in a position of defending an irresponsible author or an unethical one. There is no room for any other conclusion.

Second, as if the use of Martin Luther in a most underhanded way wasn't enough, Bell apparently needs to really build his credibility by invoking names like Clement, Jerome, and even Augustine in his attempt to solidify his position. I find it interesting and humorous and extremely ironic that Bell would attack orthodoxy by using the names of some of the greatest orthodox theologians of all time. These are the guys who are, to a large degree, responsible for hi-jacking the Jesus story to begin with according to Bell. Now, all of a sudden, Bell wants to use them where he thinks he will benefit from it. How convenient!

In response to Luther's letter, Bell couldn't be more culpable in demonstrating his disinterest in being fair about Luther's view. Here is the quote that most people pin on Luther:
God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.
And here is the quote as it is properly translated:
It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?

And not only this, Martin Luther followed that comment up with this comment, proving that he did not actually believe this to be the case:
No one, however, can prove that He does do this.

Yet Bell quotes Luther as if he would have approved of his views on the subject. Bell conveniently ignores the fact that his own definition of hell has nothing in common with Luther's. Bell, as far as one can tell after reading his book redefines hell as a life that is missing God's intent. Trying live a life apart from God, according to Bell is really what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell. There is nothing in Bell's chapter on hell that would lead one to believe otherwise. Martin Luther's views on a literal hell are what contributed to his joining the monastery. One must conclude that Bell is either being irresponsible or unethical by handling Luther's views on the subject in such a fashion. By doing so, he slights one of the greatest theologians of all time.

Bell contends that Clement and Origen affirmed God's reconciliation with all people. But he fails to provide specific quotes of either man's view on the subject. It is no secret that Origen held to many pernicious heresies and caused a wide variety of disturbances within the Christian community during his day. As for Clement of Alexandria, the evidence remains obscure. Bell seems to think otherwise. But one quote from Clement will serve to demonstrate that Bell is standing on very shaky ground indeed:

For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire. [Clement of Alexandria: Who is The Rich Man that Shall be Saved?]

From this quote and many more like it, it would be quite impossible to arrive at a clear understanding of Clement of Alexandria on this subject. It should also be noted that Clement lived from c.150 to c.215 and this should be given serious consideration as Christian certain doctrines were still being worked through. Bell likes to pretend that Christianity had reached a more mature place than it had, and use this lack of coherence in the very beginning of the church to cast doubt on what the church actually believes. This is an unfortunate strategy that serves more to discredit Mr. Bell than it does to build his case against the view of eternal punishment or even a literal hell.

It seems to me that one final example of this sort of strategy will suffice in demonstrating that Bell's tactics should be questioned just as much as his views on hell. Bell says, "...and Augustine Acknowledged that "very many" believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God." What Bell does next is considerably unfortunate. The very next thing he writes is, "Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn't bring God glory." By making these two statements side be side without clarification or qualification, Bell insinuates that Augustine was on board with such a view. Such a tactic is quite disingenuous. If challenged on it, Bell could answer that he did intend such a connection. Nevertheless, his style seems to clearly betray that he does intend to make such connections. J.D.N. Kelly comments on this, saying, "The motive behind these ideas, Augustine claims, is a misplaced conception of God's compassion, and Holy Scripture contradicts them: the everlasting death of the damned, i.e. their alienation from the life of God, will abide without term." [Kelly, J.D.N. Early Christian Doctrines. 484] It is clear that while Augustine may have commented on what "others" were saying, he himself categorically rejected this idea. If Bell wanted to be honest, just as he should have done with Luther, so too he should do here. He should provide clear disclosure and paint a more accurate picture of what these men believed. Instead, we are left wondering if Luther and Augustine were universalists. This is both regrettable and unfortunate and Bell should be called out, not only for his teaching, but specifically for how he goes about making his case.

One of the most important responsibilities of the church is to hear the gospel. Hearing the gospel requires rightly interpreting the service of the gospel. And the service of that gospel is Holy Scripture. John Webster writes, "The definitive act of the church is faithful hearing of the gospel of salvation announced by the risen Christ in the Spirit's power through the service of Holy Scripture. As the creatura verbi devini, the creature of the divine Word, the church is the hearing church."

There is an ethical component and along with it a great responsibility any time we pick up a text and set out to interpret the meaning of the author. This is especially true of sacred Scripture. And it is no less true of another authors who have invested the energy to pass along their work to others. As Christians we are to respect others who have taken the time and invested the energy to provide us with their views on particular subjects. We show this respect by doing our best to get at their intended meaning so as to be fair to them and to avoid misrepresenting their view. As far as I can see, Rob Bell takes a very disdainful and even snobbish approach, not only to authors like Luther and Augustine, but even to Scripture. The manner is which he muddies the water by how he approaches certain words in the Hebrew and Greek text, along with how he lifts statements out of context from various authors without giving full disclosure leaves little room for one to extend the possibility of sincerity to Bell. I pray that Bell will turn from his egregious error and at a minimum, that he will write with respect, responsibility, and fairness in the future. After all, Christian love does everything in its power to always be fair in all things, including properly representing other's views on subjects as important as this one.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rob Bell's Exegesis on Hell

What is exegesis? Does exegesis really matter in arriving at a proper understanding of Scripture? What are the possible consequences of poor exegetical methodology? It is not my objective to slight Rob Bell merely because I passionately disagree with his understanding of Christianity. Mr. Bell is free to hold whatever views of God, Christ, man, salvation, heaven, hell, and the bible that he wants. Far be it from me to say otherwise. On the other hand, just because he is free to take up such a view, that does not mean he has the "right" to do so. You see, the words right and wrong are much different from the word free. Right and wrong have ethical connotations that free does not. One could say that you have the freedom to misrepresent my article but not the right. In your interpretive undertaking you have a moral obligation to do your best to interpret my article according to the intended meaning I wish to communicate. If I intentionally twist your communication, regardless of the form you chose to express it, you feel a sense of violation. You feel I have wronged you under such circumstances. And you would be correct. Exegesis then is concerned with the ethical treatment of God's word. It seeks to understand the message God has communicated to human beings through the medium of a written text. Stanley Porter writes,

As briefly mentioned, exegesis has been traditionally defined as the process by which a reader seeks to discover the meaning of a text via an understanding of the original author’s intentions in that text. The classic goal of exegesis has been to articulate the meaning of a passage as the original writer intended it to be understood by his or her contemporary audience. Thus R.T. France (Marshall 1979: 252) understands exegesis as ‘the discovery of what the text means in itself, that is, the original intention of the writer, and the meaning the passage would have held for the readers for whom it was first intended’. [Porter, Stanley. Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament, 6]
Proper exegetical method involves things like understanding the occasion for the writing of the book, establishing the coherence and boundaries of a passage, preparing your own translation of the text in question, explaining the semantic structure of the passage, discussing the rhetorical features present, etc. You get the picture. It is a lengthy, drawn out process that produces rich, eternal fruit as it's reward. In what follows, I want to look at the extent of exegetical work Rob Bell has utilized in his book, "Love Wins." In particular, I am going to examine Rob Bell's method for determine the meaning of a word or phrase that appears in several biblical passages.

Bell's Exegesis
To begin with, on page 91 of his book, Rob Bell provides, in part at least, his exegesis of Matt. 25. The Greek phrase in question is "aion of kolazo." Bell begins by saying that we know the phrase has several meanings. Well, for anyone remotely familiar with the biblical languages, or any language as far as that goes, most words have more than one meaning. When I first began to study the Greek language, I cannot tell you how heart-broken I was when I discovered that the best way to understand the meaning of a Greek word was by looking at it's immediate context, not by looking it up in the lexicon or looking at it's morphology. Keep this principle close by as you read this article.

Bell's exegesis of Matt. 25:46 is extremely curious. Concerning the phrase eternal punishment, or as the Greek constructs it, kolasin aionion. For starters, Bell says that aion means "age," or "period of time." Another meaning, he says, refers to intensity of experience. Secondly, the word kolazo refers to pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish. So Bell concludes that the phrase, when put together means, "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming" or "an intense period of correction." Bell then chides translations for translating this phrase as eternal punishment or punishment that will last forever. Why? According to Bell, "But 'forever' is not really a category the biblical writers used." And that sums up Bell's exegetical work on this text in Matt. 25.

Space prohibits even a small exegesis of this passage, but I can and will provide the results of what sound exegetical methodology produces when it is employed on this very same text. One common category of exegetical fallacy committed by those attempting to understand Scripture is in the area of word studies. By introducing the broad range of meaning for the phrase aion of kolazo, Bell commits what D.A. Carson calls, "Unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field." This happens when you bring the entire range of meaning of a word into the more narrow context of a particular text. This is precisely what Bell does and by doing so, he manages to muddy the waters. Whether or not muddying the waters is really what Bell is attempting to do is another question. All I can say is that his method is at least consistent with such an objective. The two phrases that are in question are
κόλασιν αἰώνιον (kolasin aionion) translated eternal punishment, and ζωὴν αἰώνιον (zoen aionion), translated eternal life. The first phrase says "And these will go away into eternal punishment." The Greek word KOLASIN, translated punishment occurs only twice in the NT. The other place is in 1 John 4:18. There the word appears as a noun, accusative mood, singular number, feminine gender the same as it does in Matt. 25:46. According to BDAG, the range of meanings for this word are: infliction of suffering or pain in chastisement; transcendent retribution. This word is a derivative of the Greek word KOLADZO. As it so happens, this word also appears only twice in the NT: Acts 4:21 where is simply says "finding no basis on which to punish them," and 2 Pe. 2:9 where it is used in the phrase, "and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment." BDAG defines it to mean penalize or punish. Louw-Nida defines it to mean punish, with the implication of resulting in severe suffering." The Greek word aionios appears some 70 times in the NT. In 43 of those occurrences, it modifies zoe, the Greek word for life. Clearly the word is used most often to refer to a life that does not end. The picture is one of eternal, unending bliss when it does so. Here is the real issue that Bell fails to satisfy when he suggests that eternal punishment is somehow temporal: Bell seems to fail to understand that if it is true that punishment is temporal then so too is eternal life. The Greek constructions are identical. Yet Bell never bothers to address this glaring inconsistency in his exegesis. In other words, if Bell is correct in his view that hell or punishment is temporal with an end in mind, then so too is eternal life. He cannot have it both ways. If we are to understand hell as temporal, then heaven must also be temporal.

In addition to this, Bell purports to deal with all the NT passages on the subject of hell. However, just as he did in his section on the OT passages that deal with hell, Bell omits considerable material from the NT discussion as well. For instance, if one were to look at one of the words translated "punish" in the New American Standard they would discover a couple of significant passages that point to a state of eternal punishment.
Jude 7 says" just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire."
The same Greek word for eternal, aioniou modifies the word Greek word, diken. Here, Jude points to Sodom & Gomorrah as an example of God's fiery punishment and then says this punishment will be eternal. In 2 Thess. 1:9-10, Paul states,

"These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. "
Paul says these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction and death. It is clear that Paul is referring to the very end when men will be judged and accounts settled once and for all. The Greek word diken is used but it is not the word being modified by aionion. Instead, the word olethron is modified and this word actually means death or destruction. In every case where it is used in the NT, it means a state of destruction or ruin.

Rob Bell claims to address every mention of even the concept of hell in the Old Testament. However, not only does Bell fail to do so, he clearly fails to deal with two of the most prominent passages that deal with hell in the Hebrew text: Dan. 12:1-2 & Isa. 66:24.

Bell also claims to deal with every mention of hell in the NT, but clearly he does not. He refuses to deal with numerous passages that deal with the punishment that God will deal out to unbelievers at the final judgment. One has to wonder if Bell is dealing honestly with the text. At best, Bell's handling of Scripture on the subject of eternal punishment is sloppy and terribly incomplete. At worse, it is unethical and disingenuous..

Robert Lewis Dabney wrote,
Infinite benevolence, intelligence, justice, and truth are co-ordinated and consistent attributes, acting harmoniously. That God is not benevolent in such a sense as to exclude punitive justice, is proved thus: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." Heb. 10:31 Again, God is not too benevolent to punish devils, once His holy children, eternally."
We have an ethical obligation to treat the word of God with only the highest respect. Based on Rob Bell's own claims to give the doctrine of hell a fair shake from Scripture's perspective, it is clear that he does not do so. He only includes those passages he finds conventient. And where he can, he muddys the waters by introducing semantic ranges of word meanings with warrant in an attempt to confuse the intended meaning of the author. Bell is an intelligent man. I can draw no other conclusion than this. The only other possibility is gross incompetence and I do not think that is the issue here. I will continue this line of though regarding Bell's ethic as we move into the next chapter of his book. There we will find an excellent example of the unethical treatment of the reformer Dr. Martin Luther. It is here that Bell's methods begin to really show their true color. So stay tuned.

Dr. D. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bell's Hell or is it Hell's Bells?

On page 64 of his book, "Love Wins," Rob Bell makes this startling comment,
"There isn't an exact word or concept in the Hebrew scriptures for hell other than a few words that refer to death and the grave."
First of all, taken as it is stated, this simply isn't true. One of the most profound texts dealing with the concept of hell is found in Daniel. Daniel 12:2 says, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."

As one examines the context of Dan. 12:2, it becomes clear that Daniel is referring to an eschatological event the like of which has never been envisioned before. At this time, Michael, the great prince, also known as the archangel, will arise. This is a time such as the world has never seen before. And there is a great rescue taking place. And then there is a resurrection. And some of the people who will be resurrected at this great event will be sent into eternal contempt, while others will go into eternal life. The Hebrew phrase for everlasting life here is לְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם. It can mean physical life, life as welfare and happiness, and sustenance, or maintenance. Here is it modified by the word עוֹלָם which is significant. The Hebrew conjunction waw taken in this context is contrasting. The contrast is drawn between those who will be resurrected to everlasting life and those who will be resurrected to everlasting shame and contempt. Note that both conditions are everlasting. If one is temporal, then both must be temporal based on the Hebrew construction. The same Hebrew word translated everlasting modifies both states. עוֹלָם appears some 440 times in the Hebrew scriptures and is therefore well attested. In the over-whelming majority of the cases it means eternal, everlasting, permanent, or perpetual. Using the grammatic-historical method of interpretation, there is no reason not to take Daniel's end-time prophecy of this resurrection at face value. In the end, mankind will experience a resurrection to life everlasting or everlasting shame and contempt.
Rob Bell conveniently omits this text from his chapter on hell. One must wonder why. After all, this is one of the most popular texts in all the Old Testament dealing with the subject of the future state of believers and non-believers. It would seem to me that an honest dealing with OT texts on the subject of hell would certainly include a thorough treatment of this verse. But that is not the only text Rob Bell omits from his discussion on hell. He also leaves out Isaiah 66:24 which is another basic text dealing with eternal torment. In the last pericope of his prophecy, Isaiah describes the culmination of redemption. And in the paragraph of that pericope, he provides a vivid description of the transgressors. He says, "Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorence to all mankind." Daniel and Isaiah appear to talking about the same group of people. E. J. Young comments on this section,
"Thus the wicked ones of Israel are cast out and perish eternally, and the tragic and terrible consequences of transgression are brought before our must be remembered that this sad fate will be shared by all who have transgressed against God." [Young, E.J. Isaiah, Vol. 3, 537]
There is nothing in the text to suggest that Isaiah is doing something other than prophesying of a literal future state of believers and unbelievers. Yet Rob Bell, in his bold statement about such a concept being not mentioned in the Old Testament has negelected two of the most prominant prophecies of that terrible place of judgment. One can only ponder how such a prominant communicator like Bell could actually miss what is arguably the two most signifcant texts about the very subject that he is investigating. Yet Bell has done just that. He has failed to treat the two most important Old Testament texts on the subject of hell. It leaves one to wonder just what else Bell failed to mention in his chapter on the subject of hell and more than that, why he did so.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Debating Stephen Hawkings Views - The Irrationality of Unbelief Strikes Again

I recently had an unexpected exchange with an friend on Facebook who is an unbeliever. That conversation is about as clear an example as can be provided to demonstrate just how incoherent people's arguments are and how strongly bias their thinking. I am going to throw up my remarks which are a response to Stephen Hawking's view that heaven is a fairy tale and then the ensuing exchange between my friend and I.

My Remark to Hawking
So Stephen Hawking says there is no heaven! Interesting. Hawking is a theoretical physicist. Theoretically speaking, isn't heaven beyond his expertise?

Friend's Initial Response
I'm with Hawking. Peoples' beliefs in their version of "god" has done nothing but create wars and slaughter of innocent people who don't share the same beliefs. You don't see athiests running around killing in the name of god or judging people unfairly because their beliefs differ from yours.

My Response
Wow...Ever heard of Stalin? Or how about Marx? Lets not confuse the church so called with God or even with Christianity.

Friend's Response
Cowards and racists hide behind their faith to condemn those who do not live like they do. Hate crimes are almost entirely based on faith.

My Response
If you have no God, you have no hate and no crime K******. There is only nature, what is. There is no ought! There is only what is. Who gets to decide what love, hate, and crime are? You? Atheists? Some man or woman? Some culture? Why them? Why that culture? In your system wrong is arbitrary and so is any reason you can give to justify it. You are NOT the measure of all things. God is. He has the right to determine the good and He has the authority to deal with those who dare to try and take that right from Him. But God is also gracious, and patient, and loving, and forgiving. If he were not, we would all be in hell this second.
Friend's Response
I always think It's f*@#ing hilarious to see people view their beliefs as an absolute truth. People with self doubt are the ones who get bent out of shape when someone else challenges their views. Food for thought...there is no right or wrong.
My Response
Wow K****! You seem absolutely certain that your view on this matter is absolutely true. I have NO DOUBT whatsoever that God is! It wasn't the person of faith who started throwing out adjectives like racists and cowards in the discussion. This is a tactic used by people who can't provide an intelligent response so instead they start throwing out insults. YOU certainly don't live like there is no such thing as wrong! You may want to reconsider your thinking here. They may not do so perfectly, but for the most part, people live what they believe, EVERYTHING else is just noise. And you live like right and wrong absolutely exists. I suppose 911 was just another event, not morally right or wrong, just something that happened. BONK! And if right and wrong don't exist, you have no basis to condemn the faith position even IF you were right about wars, racists, cowards, etc. Since nothing is wrong, then neither is the most unjust war on the planet, nor oppression of any kind regardless of the form it takes. Come on!
Friend's Response
Once again anyone with an opinion that is different from yours is wrong. I think Hawking has every right to his opinion as do I. It doesn't make us immoral. Another point, I was simply stating truths that people commit wars and crimes in the name of god. It's closed minded people like you that do not accept others views without hostility that leads to persecution. If you think there hasn't been wars and persecution in the name of Christianity I would like for you to take that up with the Vatican. They made up my religious curriculum in school. It was called History of Religion. News flash it taught us the good and bad. But let me guess the pope doesn't know as much as you. Morality and god are two separate entities. Sometimes they go together and sometimes they don't. Jihad means holy war and Allah means god. I believe that means war for god.
My Response
I am going to leave this conversation before it deteriorates further. If you have something you want to talk to me about K****, you have my number. I am always willing to listen to a friend.
Points to Ponder
First of all, this is not a formal debate. It is a real world discussion with a real unbeliever that I have a friendship relationship with. This is often what happens in the real world when you talk about God to real, everyday people who reject the God of Scripture. I will embed observations in red beneath my friend's comments which are in blue.
Notice that K initiated the debate. I simply made a point that others have made about Stephen Hawking, namely, that he is not really trained to talk about heaven. His field is natural phenomenon.
My specific criticism of Hawking is his view that heaven is a fairly tale. My friend immediately agreed with Hawking (I'm with Hawking) which means she also thinks heaven is a fairly tale.
I have not choice but to interpret my friend's view as thinking that heaven does not exist along with God since she says she is with Hawking here. However, as you will notice, she contradicts herself regarding this view before the discussion is over.
My friend then said that people's beliefs in their version of god has DONE NOTHING but create wars and slaughter of innocent people.
Historically speaking, most wars are not fought in defense of or even promotion of a version of some deity or god. Rather, they are found out of lust for power, money, and land mostly. WWII was not a war of religion, nor was WWI nor the Civil War, nor the revolutionary war. Do some people in the world use their religion to kill others? Of course that has happened. But that is a far cry from the claim that religion is responsible for all or even most wars. And it is certainly a far cry from the statement that religion has DONE NOTHING but create wars and slaughter of innocent people. Note that my friend speaks of these things as if they are wrong. That implication is certainly in her criticism of religion. But watch for another profound contradiction in her thinking.
My friend then said you don't see atheists running around killing in the name of god or judging people unfairly because their beliefs differ from yours.
This statement reflects complete ignorance of history on the facts of the case. The total body count in this last 100 years alone from Stalin and Mao is around 148,000,000 dead. And the next time a person says that atheists don't judge people unfairly, tell them to move to China and try to have open bible studies or interview some people from the former Soviet Union. There are people in prison today because they have different opinions than these atheist regimes. I can't help it, but this is one of the most uninformed statements I have ever read. Oh, and notice the use of the word "unfairly" which impies morality.
My friend then said cowards and racists hide behind their faith to condemn those who do not live like they do.
Again, another foolish statement designed to polarize Christians. When you read you are tempted to think that Christianity leads to racism and cowardice. And again, these are words that only mean something in a moral system. Not only is the statement polarizing, it simply isn't true in any way shape or form. Ever read the story of the nurse who murdered her patients? I suppose then that murders just hide behind their medical credentials just to kill people. Wow!
My friend then said Hate crimes are almost entirely based on faith.
I am simply at a loss for this one. Hate implies morality. And this statement clearly indicates my friend has no clue what "faith" is.
My friend then said she thinks its hilarious to see people who view their beliefs as absolute truth.
Isn't that what my friend has done with every single post? Hasn't she assumed that her view is absolutely true? And if she doesn't think her views are actually true, one must ask why she holds to them.
My friend then said people with self doubt are the ones who get bent out of shape when someone else challenges their views.
So the only people who defends their deepest convictions with passion, intelligently, articulately, are those who have self-doubt? It seems clear that one person in this discussion was certainly getting bent out of shape. But that person was not the one with faith. Who was throwing out terms like racists, cowards, etc, etc.?
My friend then said, food for thought, there is no right or wrong.
And this is where we land? There is no right and wrong? Really? After all that moral judging regarding the evils of religion and people of faith, now we find out there is no right and wrong? This is what I mean when I say that people who refuse to believe cannot carry out a debate with extreme incoherence in their views. There is no right and wrong but her entire argument against religion depends on the existence of right and wrong in order to condemn it and judge it to be evil.
My friend then said, Once again anyone with an opinion that is different from yours is wrong. Of course I think that opposing views are wrong. I would be the most irrational person on the planet if I thought otherwise. And you have demonstrated that you think I am just as wrong because I disagree with you. Wow!
I think Hawking has every right to his opinion as do I. It doesn't make us immoral. Of course Hawking has the right to his opinion as does my friend if by right she means freedom. I never said anything about Hawking or my friend being immoral in the entire conversation.
Another point, I was simply stating truths that people commit wars and crimes in the name of god. That was never what this debate was about. This began with a denial of the existenvce of God and heaven. And it was never presented in this fashion. No one ever denied that some have went to war under the geuise of God. That was not the point. Most wars have not involved religion at all. And those that say they did, really didn't either. It's closed minded people like you that do not accept others views without hostility that leads to persecution. Closed minded people like me? I have never persecuted anyone so far as I know. I simply posted an opinion of Stephen Hawking's public comment and ended being associated with unjust war, racists, cowards, oppressors and persecutors. Who is doing the persecuting here and who is being persecuted? If you think there hasn't been wars and persecution in the name of Christianity I would like for you to take that up with the Vatican. They made up my religious curriculum in school. It was called History of Religion. News flash it taught us the good and bad. I never made a statement to that effect at all. Not even once did I say that such events have not taken place. I am a doctor of advanced theological studies. Of course I am away of the history of the church. But let me guess the pope doesn't know as much as you. I have no idea what the pope knows. I never belittled his knowledge at all in this discussion. This is what we call ad homenin arguing. It concentrates on attacking the man, not the propositions. It is used when others are losing a debate or simply don't have a led to stand on. They get frustrated and begin calling you names and insulting you. Morality and god are two seperate entities. Really? I would love to here how my friend arrived at this conclusion. The whol reason for my friend's post was that God does not exist and heaven is a fairly tale. Now she is saying God does exist? And I also thought she said there is no right and wrong and now she is admitting there is? Sometimes they go together and sometimes they don't. And guess who gets to determine when God and moral law go together and when they don't: that's right, my friend. And I am the arrogant one here? Without God, there is no rational basis for morality. Jihad means holy war and Allah means god. I believe that means war for god. I have never denied the existence of some religions, and even radical factions within some religions that do go to war in the name of their deity. What I denied was that religion was the cause of all or even most wars. If I read my friend's post, I am inclined to think that she blames all wars, innocent slaughter, racisms, cowardice, and persecution in the world on religion. So if we got rid of religion, we would be much better off.
Perhaps you should read the last line one more time. There is a movement afoot to do this very thing. The elimination of religion in the eyes of many would translate into the elimination of almost all the worlds problems. If you have a voice, you should consider standing up and using it to spread the gospel. I had no idea my friend felt this hostile toward religion. I knew she didn't want to discuss it much, but I did not know she hated it as much as she does. Now I know. Please pray for this person that God would open her eyes, grant her the gift of faith and repentance so that she would see the truth of the gospel and be saved.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Folly of the World's Most Popular Scientist

Writing from a distinctly Christian point of view I immediately feel the tension in the title of this article. The temptation is to extend credibility “where it is due” from a certain perspective. And if anyone is due just credibility in the scientific community from a certain perspective, it is certainly Stephen Hawking. After all, Hawking’s contributions to the study of science are arguably unrivaled in modern times. His resume is as impressive as any resume could be as far as resumes go. So why would I refer to Hawking’s work as folly? To be clear, I do not refer to Hawking’s work in general, as folly. His education, accomplishments, contributions, and brilliance demand a certain level of respect and appreciation. However, I am not referencing any of these when I use the adjective ‘folly’ to describe Hawking’s theories. What I am referencing is Hawking’s theories about God. Many people think Steven Hawking arrived at his view of God after years of scientific study and research. They unwittingly extend credibility where it is not warranted in Hawking’s case. There are two things I wish to convey in this article. First and foremost, every position is a faith position, admitted or not. And second, all scientific arguments against God are tragically irrational at their most basic level. In fact, one could say that any argument against God is irrational since it is only from God that reason comes. Hawking’s life is an excellent example of what can happen to someone who enters an investigation with a dogmatic predisposition regarding what the evidence must demonstrate. But Hawking is not alone. I have recently engaged in discussions that found opponents of Christianity outright rejecting historical facts about wars as well as irrefutable medical data regarding certain lifestyles all in an attempt to hold tightly to their prejudiced views of God, life, and morality. We want to avoid the two extremes of having our minds rusted tightly shut or having them so open that our brains have fallen out. Christianity is the world’s greatest “thinking” religion if you want to call it a religion. I for one have no problem calling it a religion. According to Scripture, Christianity is the only true and pure religion that exists. (James 1:27) All others are black market fakes created by men who would rather craft a god of their own liking than worship the true God that exists and is revealed to us in Scripture.

If you made the assumption that Steven Hawking arrived at his theories about God as a result of intense scientific investigation, you are mistaken. History reveals that Steven Hawking’s beliefs about God have remained relatively unchanged since he was a young teenager. The most influential person in Hawking’s life was his mother Isabel. Isabel Hawking was a member of the communist party in England in the 1930s. By the time he was an early teen, Hawking’s hero was Bertrand Russell. Russell, aside from being a mathematician was also a renowned atheist philosopher. Hawking’s views of God were already formed at that time and have remained relatively steady over time. Therefore, if you were looking to Hawking as a source of authority that had evaluated the evidence with some sort of objectivity with untainted bias, and arrived at the view that God is not, I hate to disappoint you, but that is not the case. In fact, thus far, everyone who has looked to science to rescue them from the ‘idea’ of God has been let down at this point. Admittedly, most will not confess to this, but the fact that prisons are filled with self-proclaimed innocent people does not make them innocent any more than refusal to admit that science has failed to prove there is no God does not mean that it has not done so.

Faith as the Universal Starting Point

Hawking’s atheism is the same as every other atheist: it is arrived at via a predisposed bias more so than some sort of objective inductive undertaking. That is to say that it is a position based on faith just like every other worldview. However, I should note that biblical faith and this sort of faith are not exactly the same thing. There is an emotional incentive for man NOT to accept the God of Scripture. In other words, man has skin in this game and this is just as true for Hawking as it is for everyone else. Being a brilliant scientist does not exempt one from the impacts that sin has on human nature. And this brings us to my first assertion, namely, that every position, at bottom, is propped up by faith. In other words, every position is a faith position. There is no such thing as a faithless worldview. Once this is demonstrated, the question is, “what is the ground of one’s faith?” Hawking begins his research with the conclusion that God is "not," as opposed to permitting the evidence to speak for itself and drawing the most likely conclusion based on what is in front of him. Hawking has an enormous amount of faith in science, not to mention a misplaced confidence in man’s ability to reason accurately apart from any reliance on God who is Himself the source of all proper reasoning. Rationalists have an amazing amount of faith in man's ability to find truth through autonomous human reasoning. Scientists have an amazing amount of faith in the scientific method even though the method itself cannot pass it's own test. Mysticism places tremendous faith in man's ability to connect with the world around him through the inner search. Yet the mystical experience itself remains unverifiable to any test of reason or science and is highly subjective. The existentialist has an unjustified faith in human experience. We all have faith in something before we ever begin our search for truth. Sadly, for most people, that faith is misplaced because it is usually placed in oneself. The rationalist places his faith in his reasoning skills, the scientists in empiricism, the mystic in his subconscious, the existentialist in his experience, and so on and so forth. My aim in this section is merely to demonstrate that we are all creatures of faith regardless of our disposition toward Christianity or even our view on religion in general. The only appropriate place to anchor our faith is to place it in that one being that both transcends creation and is at the same time immanent in the daily affairs of mankind. And that being is the God of Scripture. I would be negligent if I did not confess at this point that this faith comes only as a gracious gift of a loving God.
The Irrationality of Atheistic Arguments Against God

G.C Berkouwer wrote,
For the riddle of sin is the same as the essence of sin, with its antinormative character and illegality. It is the same as the senselessness of sin. Therefore, since every "unriddling" of sin implies a discovery of "sense" where no sense can possibly be found, the very notion of an "unriddling" is impossible. One cannot find sense in the senseless and meaning in the meaningless." [Berkouer, G.C. Sin, Studies in Dogmatics, 134.]
If it is true that faith drives human behavior, then the converse must be true as well. Since God is the source of all lawful predication, it must follow that thinking properly also equals thinking rationally, that is if we assume that God is infinitely rational in nature. And Scripture certainly presents God in this fashion.

Scott Oliphint writes,
Given that unbelief is at the root of quintessential sin, it is therefore, necessarily, quintessentially irrational. [Oliphint, K. Scott. The Irrationality of Unbelief. Revelation and Reason, 60]
Since God is the source of proper reasoning, proper thinking, logic, if you will, then it is impossible to think reasonably, logically, soundly, rationally if you will, apart from God. Paul describes the irrational lifestyles of unbelievers in Romans 1. K. Scott Oliphint does a brilliant job of exegeting Romans 1:18-32 in the book, Revelation and Reason on pages 59-73. We say that someone who touches a hot stove knowlingly, thinking they can do so without getting burned, is behaving irrationally. Hence we may generalize that knowingly going against truth is irrational. Someone once said to me that you think your right about this subject and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Well, I sure try to think that way. Could you imagine what people would say if I confessed that I knew I was wrong about something but still believed I was right about it too? We classify such thinking as irrational. Of course we think others are wrong about a matter if we have a contrary view of it. That is only reasonable! That is rational thinking. What is irrational is that we know the truth about something, but we refuse to accept it and choose rather to believe the contrary. That is irrational. And this is precisely Paul's point in Romans 1:18-32. Paul says in verse 18, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." The Greek word suppress means to prevent the doing of something, to hold down, to hinder, prevent and restrain. And then Paul goes on to say that that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. There is no such thing as a person who does not know about God. Men know that God exists. There are no real atheists. Scripture explicitly teaches this fact.

The finite nature of man makes faith necessary regardless of the method man uses in his search for truth and his claim to knowledge. As finite creatures our primary relationship to truth, to knowledge, to understanding, may best be described as interpretive. We do not establish truth. We do not determine what 'is' or even how things 'are.' We study, we observe, we research in order to know, to understand, what is true. That is the very best we can do. Now, before those of you who are specifically educated in theology and/or philosophy conclude I have run off the proverbial agnostic cliff, allow me to clarify. While it is true that we are creatures confined to the realm of interpretation, that does not ipso facto eliminate the possibility of true knowledge. Our interpertation of life, literature, nature, human behavior are often spot on. And God is the reason for that. God has endowed human beings with the ability to adequately interpret their world so that they may arrive at truth. While this endeavor is wrought with challenges and many perils, it can be engaged in successfully. Suffice it to say that for the believer, the one thing you should take solice in is the fact that the unbeliever is in the same interpretive position you are in. Well, sort of. Actually, you are much better off. But space constraints prevent a more robust discussion of this fact at this time.

The Scientific Method (Empiricism) Requires Faith
According to Merriam Webster, the scientific method can be defined as follows: principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.
First one must understand the any principles man uses to guide his procedures are unavoidably subjective. This does not make them wrong. It merely suggests that a degree of interpretation went into formulating the rules. Anywhere there is interpretation, there is faith in something. Whether that faith is justified or not is another question altogether. I am not concerned with justification at this point. My only concern is to demonstrate that we are all in a similar boat.
Second, recognition of a problem is not as easy as the definition might suggest. This is because there are no brute facts. They simply don't exist. This was established above when we demonstrated that man is a creature confined to an interpretive nature. There are only interpretations. They may be correct or incorrect.
Finally, even the idea of testing hypotheses involves faith in the idea that we have our standards right. We are testing our discoveries against a standard that is subject to our own finite understanding. And that understanding is confined to interpretation as well. In some cases the interpretation is right, but in others it is wrong. But since we are the finite creatures we do not get to establish right and wrong. We can only discover it. Created, finite beings can never establish morality without that morality being arbitrary. Morality predates human beings and because of this we can only discover it. This truth also applies to the natural world. The truth of the operation of the natural order predates human beings. The best we can do is interpret accurately and arrive and an understanding of how things operate. But this too requires faith.

Exististentialism (Human Experience) Requires Faith
At the heart of existentialism is the idea or belief that existence takes precedence over essence. In other words, meaning and value are found in being, living, willing, and acting. [Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics] The individual is valued over society. Morality is not discovered, but rather established. And it is established to serve the individual, not the individual the ethical. This is why we see people argue irrationally when it come to moral law. The influence of existentialism on western culture and even the church has been profound. Taken to extremes, existential lends itself quite easily to mysticism. Like the scientific method, existentialism requires a radical faith in human experience. This is a highly subjective worldview, and due to it's emphasis on individual experience, it requires extreme faith in both human experience and the individual. Such a faith is untenable. That is, it cannot be defended because of it's extremely subjective nature. How can I defend truth that I allegedly arrive at through my experience? It is impossible for you to experience my experience. You may experience burning, but you cannot experience my burning. For a pure existentialist, one cannot even know if my burning is similar to other's burning. They have to take it by faith. So for the existentialist, faith in experience and the individual is absolutely necessary. But that faith is a radical faith anchored in the individual. This, of course, is a vicious circle. Circularity is unavoidable, but vicious circles should be shunned.

Mysticism Requires Faith
Mysticism involves the idea that one can attain an intuitive knowledge of truths through meditation. Truth is discoverable through the use of human consciousness.  As one might imagine, incredible faith is placed in human consciousness, not to mention the notion that such things exist and are discoverable to begin with. One may say that mysticism requires a "leap in the dark" in some respects. Mystical experiences are not self-authenticating, they are highly subjective, and are unverifiable. Add to this the fact that even these experiences are interpretations and one can easily see that a great deal of faith is required for mystics.

The Profound Difference in Biblical Faith
Now one may be tempted to think that I consider the faith of empiricists, existentialists, and mystics to be on par with Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before closing this article, I want to make it clear that Biblical Faith is not the same as faith that is spoken of in common vernacular today. The truth is that there is a remarkable difference between the two. Merriam Webster defines faith as "unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence." This can be seen in all systems of faith that are of the worldly brand. When you take every other system into consideration, they all end with this definition of faith. There is an unquestioning faith in the existence of brute facts for the empiricist. There is an unquestioning faith in human experience for the existentialist. And there is an unquestioning faith in human consciousness for the mystic. At bottom, such thinking is unavoidable to maintain these positions. It goes without saying that I am not dealing with agnosticism.
The Greek word for faith used in Scripture is PISTIS or PISTEUO. It means "to believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance—‘to believe in, to have confidence in, to have faith in, to trust, faith, trust." Biblical faith is grounded in the metaphysical reality of God. It does not come as a result of human reasoning, research, investigation or any other means of human ingenuity. It is a gift of God. (Eph. 2:8-10) Men do not believe in Christ, not because they simply choose not to believe. They refuse to believe because they are evil. They are not evil because they do not believe. They do not believe because they are evil. (John 8:42-47; 10:26) Faith is a gift from God. Faith is more than mere mental assenting to the fact of God's existence. It goes far beyond human predication. It works itself out in the deepest corners of our heart and soul and can be seen in our behavior. Biblical faith is an unwavering, unshackable commitment to craft our lifestyles after Christ. Biblical faith produces a burning desire to please God in EVERYTHING we do! Biblical faith, the kind of faith imparted by God through Christ results in a complete surrender of self do the things God has said in Scripture He finds pleasing. Biblical faith is the strongest of all human convictions because it is anchored in the love of God. There is nothing stronger than biblical faith.

Stephen Hawking exercises a great deal of faith when he says there is no God and that heaven is a "fairy tale." He came to this conclusion before he did an ounce of scientific investigation. His presupposition was "no God" and every interpretation he makes regarding what he finds in natural phenomenon is interpreted through that grid. In short, Hawking has incredible faith. It is just misplaced.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rob Bell's Heaven

My doctoral project was in the area of biblical hermeneutics. The chicken or the egg dilemma is more readily apparent nowhere in theology than in the area of hermeneutics. The debate about what comes first, theology or hermeneutic method continues to this day. And nowhere is the consequence of getting the cart before the horse more compelling in contemporary times than it is in the emergent church movement. As I continue to work through chapters in Rob Bell's book, one thing is clear: his hermeneutic is vastly opposed to the grammatico-historical method. Rob Bell's worldview emerges more clearly in his questions about heaven more than anywhere else in his writing. It is here that we can see what Bell is really all about. We see clearly the influence of Moltmann's Theology of Hope. Bell uses polarizing language to attack the idea that heaven is somewhere else. The idea that heaven is somewhere else is antithetical to a theology of hope. You see, a theology of hope view is that we create a culture where the widow is cared for, the poor are extinguished, the orhan is protected, the oppressed are freed and the oppressor vanquished. And all of this is of course LIFE! This frees God to accomplish his work. You see, a theology of hope is not about spreading the Christian religion. It is about the great exodus. It is about the great liberation of all people who are down-trodden. These are God's people and they are not necessary subscribers of the Christian gospel. This is the jumping off point for men like Bell. Unless we understand this, we will never understand where the EC is coming from.

To repeat, Bell begins his attack on the evangelical view of heaven by making fun of the idea that heaven is someplace else as if it isn't. And then he asks some silly questions about heaven in his typical polarizing style. For instance, "Will there be dogs there?" "What will we do all day?" Bell makes the statement, "It's all about eternity, right? Because that's what the bumper sticker says." Such language is condescending, polarizing, and even inflamatory. It does not take 2000 years of teaching on the subject seriously. Bell then attempts to play with words, as he is apt to do, and he assigns "eternal life" as a mere description of a different age to come. This is a future age according to Bell, where the world will be restored, renewed, and redeemed. Bell confuses the coming reign of Christ for heaven. He rightly says that the Jewish people of Jesus' day anticipated a coming age when all things would be restored and Israel would be delivered. However, Bell fails to recognized that this misunderstanding of the coming Messianic period blinded them to the truth of Christ. It is one thing to put ourselves in the shoes of ancient audiences to understand what a text of Scripture is conveying and quite another to assume that the attitudes and views of that audience is to be emulated. That is a dangerous practice indeed. The Jews missed the Messiah for a reason. Heaven forbid that we should adopt the same views of a people who rejected their King.

Bell comments, "In the Genesis poem that begins the Bible, life is a pulsing, progressing, evolving, dynamic reality in which tomorrow will not be a repeat of today, because things are, at the most fundamental level of existence, going somewhere." [Love Wins, p. 44] Here we see strong implication that Bell does not believe in a literal creation account contained in Genesis. The genre in Genesis is mis-labeled as poetry when it is actually historical narrative. This position reveals more about Bell's agenda than he would probably care to admit. There is no good reason, exegetically or otherwise, to classify the creation account as poetry and those who are informed of that controversy fully understand why such actions take place. Bell again uses polarizing language when he says that those who talk most about heaven being someplace else talk the least about bringing heaven to earth. Bell goes on to to contend that to "reign" in Rev. 20 actually means "to actively participate in the ordering of creation." What is interesting is that Bell does not provide a source for where he came up with definition even though he places it in quotes. I must admit that my professors would not have accepted a paper written in the style of Rob Bell because he repeatedly fails to reference any sources of authority for much of what he says. He seems to think that all that is necessary is that he said it. Contrary Bell's definition of "reign," the word actually means "to exercise authority at a royal level" according to BDAG. Strong's says it means "to rule, be king, to have dominion over, etc." Louw Nida says, "to rule as king, with the imlication of complete authority and the possibility of being able to pass on the right to rule..."

There is much left to say, but there simply isn't enough space to say it all. One final assertion by Bell will suffice, in my opinion, as an excellent example of his view of how this heaven on earth will be accomplished. He interprets 1 Cor. 3 in a most unusual manner. He holds that the fire that tests every man's work in Paul's language in that chapter as the flames of heaven. And here, according to Bell is how it works: "Imagine being a racist in heaven-on-earth, sitting down at the great feast and realizing that you're sitting next to them. Those people. The one's you've despised for years. Your racist attitude would simply not survive. The flames in heaven would be hot." In other words it seems that peer pressure would force you to abandon your sinful attitudes. Something is very amiss with Bell's understanding of how sin is removed from our lives. But this is at least consistent with the theology of hope influence of Moltmann that Bell seems to have clearly adopted. Bell goes so far as to assert that people who are involved in social causes belong to Christ, even if they have never expressed faith in Christ and that these people will be surprised when Christ welcomes them in. He uses Matt. 25 where Jesus said when I was hungry you fed me, thirsty, you gave me drink, and when I was naked you clothed me. According to Bell, the shocker is not that when we do it to a believer we do it to Christ, but that when we do it to anybody, even outside of faith, we still do it to Christ and that gets us in. This is clearly the implication of Bell's use of this text contextually speaking.

Bell asks lots of questions in his chapter on heaven. He answers very few. But he asks the questions rhetorically and therefore one can easily deduce the meaning he intends to convey in the end. Bell's method is condescending and polarizing to say the least. Half the time he seems to write in a way that demonstrates he wishes to discredit the traditional view of heaven. The rest of the time he appears unprepared to make clear statements himself about what he really believes, perhaps thinking he is leaving himself enough wiggle room to escape when called on his implications. His views on the subject of heaven on earth are in accord with Moltmann's theology of hope. Clearly they are not biblically and as such are nowhere close to being evangelical in the slightest. The more one reads about the EC, the more one recognizes that this is nothing more than the twin brother of liberal theology taking his turn at the podium. The problem for the twin is that he isn't saying anything different from what his brother has already said. And in fact, he isn't even making as good an argument for why we should pay him any mind. This is not to say that we should not answer Bell. We certainly should. In fact, we must answer him. But we should not do so in a manner than lends crediblity to his position. Bell has discredited himself long before this book and the church should not be afraid to say so. In fact, if we love the Church of Jesus Christ, we must publicly recognize false teachers so that the body can be warned, protected, and not tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine that comes along claiming to be the true version of the Jesus story. The gospel has had competition since it's inception. I am glad to know that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ.