Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Theology of Hope over A Theology of Horror (part 3)

Let me begin by thanking you for continuing to read and reflect on these matters with me. This will be the final post on this particular topic.

If it can be demonstrated from the Scripture that man is not a naturally immortal being, but depends wholly upon the life giving power of God, not only for life now, but for life to come, which I affirmed in part 1, and if it can be demonstrated that nowhere does the Bible sanction the idea of an eternity of pain and suffering in an eternal 'hell' for those without Christ, which I took on in part 2, then the question is to be asked straightforwardly: Why do so many of pastors, preachers and teachers throughout Christendom continue to hold, to promote and insist on a position which is completely contrary to the revealed Word of God?    

One reason may be simple ignorance.  This is what they were taught and they never thought to question those who taught them.  We may overlook such ignorance with gentleness and enter into constructive dialogue which leads us to God’s Truth.

Another reason may be fear.  The notion of ‘hell’ is such a pervasive dogma within our religious structures, that to be seen as going against it is to invite the condemnation of going to it!  There may be those (and I was once among this group) whose consciences are seared by the fallacy of eternal conscious torment, yet are perhaps too young in their ministry or too dependent on the good graces of church or denominational boards for their livelihood to challenge ‘hell’, even with the power of the Word behind them.  We encourage boldness to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. 

Yet another reason, more sinister by far, is the exercise of power and control.  To stand before a congregation, the majority of whom are unlearned in these matters, and wield the power of eternal hell, or more specifically, the power to decide who may avoid hell’s horrors and how, is power indeed!  Isn’t that part of what the Protestant Reformation erupted against?  The Catholic machine believed itself the possessor of the ‘keys of the Kingdom’ and dictated the terms of salvation.  We decry it this as an outrage against Christ.  I am not saying that the preachers of hell do this intentionally; it is a by-product of a false theology.  

The repercussions for holding to the notion of eternal punishment are many.  It cheapens salvation; devaluing Christ.  This position we oppose has an unmistakable conclusion: you don’t need Jesus to have eternal life, you need Jesus to have eternal life free from torment.  ‘Life’ in ‘hell’ may be horrific beyond measure…but it is still life.  It sets people up to seek goodness in their own merit to improve their own personal experience, after all, how bad can ‘hell’ be for the best of men left to their own goodness.    

The position gravely misrepresents the character of God.  When God passed before Moses He declared of Himself, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6-7)  Do we now declare, and here I quote H.L. Hastings, “The Lord, unmerciful, implacable, and Who will preserve countless myriads of His creatures eternally, for the sole and only purpose of torturing them without mercy, without intermission, without end, without aim and without object.” (Hastings, H.L. After the Verdict.  Himes Publications: Lennox MA., 1982. p54)  How do we draw people to the love of God if we call them to an unloving God? 

What is the remedy?  It is found in the title of these posts.  We need to proclaim a theology of hope rather than a theology of horror.  How often is Christ preached as the escape from ‘hell’?  We proclaim Jesus not as escape from an eternity of torment and torture, but Jesus as the means to enter into an eternity of blessedness and peace.  As Conditionalists, we do not desire to dwell on the terror of God’s judgment, though we will not dismiss it; rather we prefer to proclaim Jesus Christ “the Author of life” (Acts 3:15).  When we do preach the consuming fire of God’s wrath it is not to scare people into the Kingdom of Heaven, but to set in stark and infinite contrast the consuming passion of God’s love through Jesus.  We call people to seek life, to flee the inevitable and irreversible death which is the only end for mortal creatures.  We offer the hope of the Gospel; hope that through Jesus is eternal life found; in spite of our sin and shame He reached out to us and lifted us from the stench of decay and set us in green pastures.  We say with the Psalmist, “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; You hold my lot.  The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:5-6)

A theology of horror keeps people in line; keeps them under control; keeps them dependent on human institutions rather than on Christ.  

A theology of hope sets people free; free to seek Christ with joy and gladness through His Word; free to live not under a shadow of judgment but in the sunshine of His pleasure both now and forever.

Well.  Much has been said and much has been necessarily left unsaid.  My voice is but a whisper compared to the mighty shouts of others who have stood to defend the Truth of Life only in Christ against the tide of dogma.  I do not ask you now to agree with me, but to yield to the Word of God on these matters?  I ask you to boldly look satan in the eye and say with all boldness, “Yes, God hath truly said!”  I ask you to devote yourself to the theology of hope: “this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” (1 John 5:11)

We say with Luther, “I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience; nor can I possibly, nor will I even make any recantation, since it is neither safe nor honest to act contrary to conscience!  Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.” 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Theology of Hope over A Theology of Horror (part 2)

In the first part I began to explain the grounds by which I reject the notion of an eternal hell where the wicked suffer without end for all time.  In this post I would like to share some of those passages which are commonly brought forward to defend eternal torment and offer my perspective on where such interpretation fails the test.  It is not my intent to unveil every passage on the subject.  For those interested in a more comprehensive treatment, I would highly suggest The Fire That Consumes or Hell, A Final Word by Edward Fudge, The Unspeakable Gift by J.H. Pettingell or After the Verdict by H.L. Hastings

We must agree at the outset that for language to have any value, words must mean what they mean in their plain sense.  For example, if we are discussing a lovely day and I say, ‘look how bright the sun is shining’, we would understand that I am referring to the bright, hot sphere around which our planet orbits.  There is no ambiguity of what is being said and to change the meaning of my words without cause is unwarranted and indefensible.  If you can agree with me on this, then I invite you to continue reading.   

Some of the most common words/terms used in the Scripture to speak of the destiny of the lost are 'destroy(ed)', 'perish', 'come to an end', 'come to nothing', 'cease'.  These words, in the plain nature of their meaning, convey one and the same sense- the utter and complete end of those apart from God.  Nowhere do they mean, nor can they be made to mean, ‘linger forever in conscious torment’.

In speaking of the enemies of God who come against Jerusalem, the prophet says, “For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off…”(Isaiah 29:20esv)  Three different descriptions in one verse which leave no doubt that the wicked will not remain.

In the New Testament, from the mouth of the Lord Jesus, is pledged not an eternity of conscious torment, but complete destruction.  He says, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [literally ‘Gehenna’].” (Matthew 10:28esv)  I was raised on the notion of the everlasting torment of the lost and it was this verse that set me on my path to discovering Conditionalism.  The image Jesus used for this final punishment was ‘Gehenna’ (the valley of Hinnom), a garbage dump outside of the city of Jerusalem where the refuse was thrown to be eaten by worms and burned with fire.  The word ‘destroy’ is apollumi and, contrary to those who would try to change the meaning of the word, it means utter, irreversible destruction.  Things which went into the dump, didn't linger forever and they never came back. 

Okay, you ask, what of the passages which seem to teach this never-ending torment? Let me share just a few.

In several places the phrase ‘eternal fire’ is used.  For example: “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8esv) or “…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 7esv).  Surely this settles the matter- the wicked face an eternity in fire.  Except that’s not what the passages say or mean.  It should be obvious that it is the fire which is ‘eternal’ not the punishment of those cast into the fire.  Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning are they?

But doesn't an eternal fire necessitate that there should be something in the fire eternally?  And isn't this therefore what the images of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire signify?  First we must discover the meaning of the word ‘eternal’.  We assume it to mean ‘forever and ever’, however the Greek word for ‘eternal’ (ainos) does not always mean eternality in quantity, but eternality in quality.  It is not the fire itself which is eternal, but the effect which the fire produces, total destruction, which is eternal.  When Jesus refers to the worm and fire (Mark 9:48), He does so in allusion to Isaiah 66:24 which speaks of the final destruction of God’s enemies: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me.  For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”esv  See how that verse begins- “…they shall go out and look on the dead bodies…”  Not living, tormented souls, but dead things upon which worms feed and fire consumes.  The choice becomes permanent; the penalty is irreversible; the effects are everlasting.         

Okay, what about Revelation 14:10: “…he [anyone receiving the mark of the beast] also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”  Well that seems pretty straightforward- “tormented with fire and sulfur.”  Just a moment; a couple questions.  First, who is to be tormented?  Those who receive the mark of the beast.  Regardless of how you interpret Revelation, it should certainly be agreed that there is a very large segment of the unbelieving human population who has lived and died prior to the events depicted in this verse, so to make this a blanket statement about all the wicked cannot be justified.  If it could, it still wouldn't make the case, for it says nothing about an everlasting torment.  Conditionalism does not dispute the notion that those placed under God’s wrath will suffer; but rather that they will not suffer without end.

Wait!  You need to go to Revelation 14:11- “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”  Let’s be sure we understand what is being described here.  First, judgment is an inevitable result of the persistent and deliberate rejection of the Lamb in favor of the beast and this particular judgment is upon those who have sided with the beast.  Additionally, please see that it is the results of the judgment and not the torment itself which is eternal: “…the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever…”  The image of ‘no rest’ is not to communicate eternal torment but is to draw the contrast between the saved and the lost out to its fullest.  For those redeemed by Jesus, there is a future ‘rest’, a welcome into the peaceful Kingdom of God.  For the wicked, there is ‘no rest’, not meaning that they remain in an active state, but rather the pledge that there is no eternal Kingdom waiting for them. 

What of Revelation 20:10: “…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  We concede no ground here, as the context is abundantly clear that this judgment is for the sinister agents of evil, satan, the beast and the false prophet.  And while unredeemed humanity is also thrown into the Lake of Fire, nowhere is it said, nor can it be postulated that their torment is forever.   

Consider, as I wrap this section up, how Revelation 21 can make any possible sense in the light of the never ending torment of the wicked. 

The Apostle writes in Revelation 21:4 that God will “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore…”  This blessing applies to the redeemed.  If the text ended there it could be postulated that the wicked remain to endure in mourning, crying and pain, but the text does not leave it there; it continues, “…for the former things have passed away.”  What are the former things if not everything belonging to the age prior to the coming of Christ and the establishing of God’s perfect Kingdom?  That word ‘eternal’ can also mean ‘age’ or ‘ages’.  The place of punishment, the Lake of Fire, belongs to this first age of ‘former things’ and will exist only as long as the age to which it belongs and no longer.  The worm and fire will do their work until the last scrap is consumed and then comes the promise of God, Who is “making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).  What does ‘all things’ refer to?  No one would say that God makes sin new, would they?  The notion of eternal torment must of necessity believe that there will be a place where ‘old things’ survive; unless we are to actually believe that God plans on making a ‘new hell’ and also makes new those who inhabit that place.  This is a plainly ridiculous notion is it not? 

When the wicked are cast into the Lake of Fire, it may be that most will be snuffed out instantly, while others may remain for a short while- I will leave that for God to determine.  What I do know is that finally, when all vestiges of evil and sin have been purged, satan will also be consumed and the lake of fire will burn itself out.  The last sun will set on the old age a new and eternal morning of God’s eternal age will begin.

If you have made to this point, I appreciate you sticking with me and hope you come back for part 3.