“That’s Just A Feel Good Church”

On the way to a foreign embassy yesterday, I enjoyed six hours in the car with my 77 year old dad. Amidst all the family history and updates, we talked about a second cousin of mine.

It’s a sad story, a young man raised in tragic circumstances, removed from his family for years by Children’s Services, finally to be returned traumatized, a recluse, prone to uncontrollable rage, and possessing zero social skills. Nearby is a big non-denominational church who has reached out to this young man’s extended family.

His young uncle, who attends a traditional Pentecostal church that is big on shouting about sin, fire and brimstone, said disparagingly about the big church, “Oh, that’s just a feel-good church.”

And I said to my dad: that’s exactly what my young second-cousin needs. He needs a place where people will come around him, love him, make him feel worth and valued, draw him into community, a place where he will begin to feel the powerful virtue of goodness  – and a church where there are competent counseling professionals who can help this poor kid sort through all the things that have happened to him in life and experience some healing. I said to dad, he needs that A WHOLE LOT MORE than he needs to hear about his sins, God’s wrath, and hell.

I hope this finds you well.

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The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

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–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.