Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Theology of Hope over a Theology of Horror (part 1)

The following series of posts are likely to challenge the assumptions of some of my readers and provoke a range of responses.  I appreciate your feedback, but please do so with the same grace in which these posts are offered. 

I am writing in challenge to and refutation of the concept of the eternal torment of the lost.  

Here is why I feel compelled to write.  

First, what one believes about what will happen to those apart from Christ on Judgment Day is itself not a 'salvation' issue and should not be used as any type of litmus test.  Our primary concern should be for those without Christ now and our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus with them now.  How long will the second level issues prevent unity in the Body of Christ?  (One might question the wisdom of such dogmatic statements on these types of issues being part of an 'official statement of faith' in the first place.)  

Second, for me, the issue of the nature of final punishment is a matter of integrity in Biblical interpretation.  Can the notion of eternal torment be defended with sound interpretive principles?  If it can, then so be it.  If not, then why do we insist on holding to it in opposition to the sacred text?

The position of eternal burning hell rests on the assumption of the natural immortality of man's 'soul' which must therefore live forever in some condition either of blessedness or torment.  But what happens to an eternal hell if man's 'soul' is not immortal?  Then the concept of eternal hell shudders and collapses as a house of cards deprived of its underpinnings.

Here is the truth of God's Word.  Man is not naturally immortal.  Whoa!  What of that old saying, "may God have mercy on your immortal soul"?  It's false.  It's blatantly un-Biblical.  

Scripture tells us plainly that God "alone has immortality" -1 Timothy 6:16. The word 'alone' is the Greek monos (from where we get the prefix 'mono' meaning one, or only).  Immortality is an inherent quality of Divine Being; to say that any other possesses what belongs to God alone is, and I use the word with precision, heresy.  There really is no way around this verse.  It is direct and simple.  It is not ripped from its context to stand as a proof text.  Only God possesses immortality.

Man therefore can only exist eternally by the will of Him Who alone possesses the power to confer that blessing, the Triune God (God the Father through the agency of God the Son in the power of God the Spirit- so see John 5:21, 6:63)

And what of those on whom God does not choose to confer the blessing of eternal life?  The opposite of life is death- a complete end to existence.  The opposite of eternal life is not eternal torment or even eternal dying, but eternal death, an end of existence that cannot be undone.   

The position I hold, a position which goes back into the earliest centuries of the Christian Church*, is that of 'Conditional Immortality', namely that the promise of any enduring, eternal existence is completely contingent upon the gift of God through Jesus Christ.  Thus, those without Christ will not and cannot indefinitely exist in any form, even in the torturous horrors of 'hell'.

The concept of man's immortal soul appeared in the late 200's AD with the synthesizing of Christian theology and pagan Greek philosophy, notable with theologians such as Origen and Tertullian.  Biblical theology was submerged and drowned in a pagan philosophy which posited the duality of matter and spirit, body and soul.  It was that philosophy which taught an immortal nature which was to be set free from the bonds of its material prison (here is the roots of the idea of 'going to heaven when we die').  Rather than refute philosophy, the theologians embraced it and mutilated the Scripture to say what it was never meant to say.

To uphold the natural immortality of man's 'soul', a part of man which cannot die, is not only poor theology, but treads into some very dangerous territory: "But the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not surely die.'"- Genesis 3:4.  God told Adam that disobedience would lead to death; satan refuted God's words. 

Friends, with humility I ask, if God tells us in His Word that the "wages of sin is death (Greek  thanatos)" -Romans 6:23, and the plain meaning of death is a cessation of all life, by what right do we have to declare that what God said is not right and that the wages of sin is not death, but a continuation of 'life' in unending torment?  Do you see where this road leads?  I will not, and I pray you see also that you cannot, hold to the 'traditional' view of hell which drips with the poison of a serpents fangs.

In my next post I will explore some of the texts that are often used to defend the notion of eternal torment and, with grace, show why they cannot be made to say such things.

*Notable post-Biblical theologians and teachers who held to Conditionalism: Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Watts, Pannenberg  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Principles vs. Patterns

In this post I would like to share some things I am thinking regarding how we often lock ourselves into ways of doing things which either hinder growth or prevent it entirely.

Consider that portion of the 'Sermon on the Mount' in which Jesus addresses giving, praying and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18).  In each of these sections, the Greek grammar leads us to conclude that Jesus expects His disciples to engage in these disciplines.

A necessary question arises: why did Jesus choose to highlight these three particular practices.  The answer is given by the Lord in the text itself.  In each case Jesus urges His disciples that when they engage in the particular practice being discussed, that they refrain from acting in certain ways which are the marks of the 'hypocrite'.  Each of the practices, giving, praying and fasting, were used by the self-righteous as a means to show off their piety.  They announced their giving with trumpets; they prayed loudly and repetitively on the street corners; they moped around publicly when they fasted.  They took something God designed for the healthy growth of His followers and twisted it; yet because they were doing the action, they considered themselves 'mature'.

Jesus draws His disciples back to the principles of these activities, reclaiming their power to strengthen a person's spiritual life. We find many things in the life of the Church which seem good on the surface, but because we are only concerned with keeping the pattern or structure of the action, we miss its purpose and its power.

An example from my own experience comes from a time when I changed the format of the Lord's Table.  I wanted people to see that it is the participation of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as symbolized in the bread and cup which is the important matter.  On this particular Sunday, I put out a simple card table, poured the juice into Dixie cups and used plain crackers.  Before the service had even begun, one person walked out in 'protest'.  I wonder how many who remained felt the same urge.  I am glad he left to be honest, because it showed that he was more concerned with the external pattern rather than understanding the principle behind it.

Another area where I have heard complaint from one believer towards another is in their all important Sunday morning attendance.  I have ministered to people who faithfully attended a mid-week prayer or study groups but had spotty attendance on Sunday.  The 'pious' mutter and wonder where these people are.  It doesn't matter how many other days the 'offender' was engaged in the life of the church, it only matters that the pattern of Sunday worship be slavishly upheld.  

The principle of the Word of God is given in Hebrews 10:24-25: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (ESV).  The principle is a commitment to regular, ongoing fellowship with the family of God.  Specifically when this takes place is largely irrelevant.  The majority of Christendom has elected to meet on Sunday morning, but let them not despise or criticize those who choose to gather at other days and times.

When we lock ourselves into patterns and structures, we risk stagnation in our spiritual life and the life of our churches.  Jesus warned those who had such a restricted view that the 'new wine' would rupture the 'old wine skins' and neither would be of any profit.  If you are reading this and you are content with a specific way of doing things, then I urge us, so long as you recognize the heart behind the habit, keep at it.  But if you are 'set in your ways' thinking they are the only right ways, please hear a gentle warning- your old wine skin is about to rupture.

We must recognize that the Holy Spirit leads us to live out the Faith in a variety of ways.  So long as we are not violating the principles which God has established, let us celebrate the diversity of life in the Body of Christ.