Wednesday, July 2, 2014
A Christian Understanding of Hell: Part One
This series of posts on hell is a response to some of the things that are being posted over at patheos, a blog site that claims to be Christian but in reality is anything but Christian, in my opinion. And I will be happy to explain why as I go along. Ben Corey and Rebecca Trotter have written several things about why orthodox Christian doctrine is wrong on the subject of hell. This post will address Rebecca Trotter’s posts beginning here.
Now, Christian Doctrine is formed and shaped by Scripture, not by the claims of people professing to be Christians. When we talk about God, Christ, man, sin, and things like hell, we must first ask, “how do we know?” How we do know things about God? How does one come into knowledge and truth about important doctrines like our doctrine of God, of Christ, of sin, and more specifically, of hell? The first thing we must do is to try and remove any preconceived ideas about these subjects that are based on anything other than our source for understanding them. Now, that source of understanding is God’s divine self-disclosure in Scripture. If you find my appeal to Scripture dissatisfying at this point, let me warn you: you will only become more and more dissatisfied with this post. But I encourage you to keep reading.
Whatever we believe about hell then, must be the result of what the Bible says about the subject within that cultural, historical, social, and grammatical context. Christians are not interested in human opinions about the doctrine of hell. What we are interested in is the truth about hell. And the truth about hell can only be located within the text of God’s divine self-disclosure. Moreover, that truth is not dependent upon the interpretation of fallible human men from any era. In other words, appeals to the early church, while they may shed light on the subject, are not authoritative in any sense. It is not difficult to find men so early in the life of the Christian church believing all sorts of things because, well, the Church was immature and learning its way around during this period. We must extend grace on the one hand, but avoid naivety on the other.
Now, I wish to turn your attention to Rebecca Trotter’s blog entitled, “Hell Week – Back to the Beginning.” In the very first paragraph, Rebecca unwittingly tells us something about her philosophy, and subsequently, what forms and shapes her theology. She writes,
“As I read the bible again, I was a bit overwhelmed by a lot of the mucky stuff in it. The guy who sacrificed his daughter to fulfill a pledge. Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob. Samson killing everyone and cutting off their foreskins. The cannibalism. The commands to kill men, women, children, babes-in-arms.”
What I want to drawn your attention to is the sentence, “I was a bit overwhelmed by a lot of the mucky stuff in it.” The word mucky is a nice way of informing us that Rebecca found the records of Scripture messy, dirty, filthy even. In other words, Rebecca was offended by much of what the Bible had to say about these things.
The first thing I want to address is the philosophical presupposition upon which Rebecca entered Scripture. Rebecca already had a view of God and the Bible in mind before she ever started reading it in order to truly absorb it. Her preconceived ideas of God were based on a variety of things, not the least of which was her own vision of who God had to be and what God had to be like. Her characterization of the Bible in this sentence reveals that what was being revealed about God in Scripture, specifically the OT was not quite in harmony with her preconceived idea of God.
Scripture challenges conceptions of God that consist entirely of human origin. We already know that Paul informs us in Romans one that the sinful human heart naturally seeks to change the reality of God’s nature into one that we find acceptable to our own senses. In other words, we seek to reinvent God to be something that is consistent with our sinful view of Him and our elevated and ignorant view of ourselves. It is this very issue that Rebecca fails to recognize as she embarks, from the very beginning, to study the issue of the doctrine of hell. From the very start she has uncritically accepted her own ideas about God rather than allowing her ideas to be shaped and informed by God’s disclosure of Himself. The bloggers at Patheos repeat this error to a person from what I read over there.
Rebecca even resorts to the filthy “W**” question when she reads about Jael putting a spike through Sisera’s head. I think I am safe in saying that such an ungodly expression has no place in a Christian blog. Rebecca does not seem to understand or grasp the concept of divine wrath and God’s right to punish the wicked when she makes this observation and raises her forbidden question. How dare we ask God what He thinks He is doing!
The next comment Rebecca makes about herself is very interesting and revealing:
Part of the problem was that at the time I was a pretty standard Evangelical. Which means that I was inordinately concerned with who is saved and who is going to hell.
As a Christian I have to wonder what she means by being “inordinately concerned” about the number of people rejecting the gospel of Christ and as a result coming under divine judgment. It seems to me that I will eventually have to direct some comments toward the subject of universalism. For now, I think the focus needs to be on Rebecca’s basic approach. If our approach to Scripture is flawed, it only follows that our understanding will be flawed as well.
Rebecca then shows her hand with this remark,
At any rate, the idea that God could say, “I work it all out” about these crazy stories and thousands of lives that had been cut short didn’t make much sense to me.
There is a very common lack of trust in God to work His plan according to His divine purpose. In addition, the lack of understanding around God’s holy character and man’s sinful nature creates tension that many people simply refuse to live with. You see, this kind of error begins at foundational levels and wrecks havoc on Christian Doctrine.
Rebecca then introduces the concept of universalism and she calls upon three verses in her attempt to create a version of Christianity she can live with. Rebecca calls upon the typical verses which she thinks supports a universal perspective. The first one is 1 Tim. 4:9-10, in which Paul refers to God as the “Savior of all men.” Nothing in this phrase actually suggests that all men have actually been saved or will be saved. As Knight rightly points out, the word soter may be employed in the broadest sense as Preserver and Giver of life for all people. After all, one has to look no further than 2 Thess. 1:7-10 where this same author, Paul, informs us that Christ will return bearing the wrath of God for those who do not know God.
However, Knight brings an even more interesting argument for what Paul is actually getting at in this text. He argues that the word malista in some cases should be understood to further define what follows it rather than being rendered “especially. It is used this way in 2 Tim. 4:13 and Tit. 1:10,11. In other words the phrase should be understood to say that God is the Savior of all men, that is, believers. There is significant evidence for this use in papyrus letters from this time. It seems likely that this is the meaning here since universalism would place the Bible in clear contradiction of itself.
I wish to avoid the distraction of universalism at this time even though I am sure it will be something I have to come back to later. In summary then, Rebecca begins her supposed research on hell from a very specific perspective. She has already made certain decisions about the kind of God that exists. She already has some sort of version of Christianity in mind as she begins to supposedly search for the truth about what the Bible teaches about hell. Most of these folks make these false claims to objectivity in their challenge of orthodox doctrine. The truth is they already know where they want to go. So, they search for any verse they can find that could possibly, in any way whatever, cast even the slightest doubt on the offensive teaching in question or one that could, if even in the most wild hermeneutic imaginable, support their claim. In addition, they desperately search for anyone in church history that may have even a little agreement with them on the matter. Using the flimsiest of arguments, they proceed to think they have made a reasonable case against orthodoxy. What must be kept in mind is that the reason these people are so successful in spreading their false teachings is because false converts are so eager to embrace anything that gives them a weak, watered-down version of Christianity that they find tolerable and worth embracing. In my next post I will begin to investigate what the bible actually teaches about hell. In so doing, I will examine hell in its historical, cultural, social context as we exegete the grammar of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture.