Speaking of Spitball Fights and Dirty Laundry…

There was something of a spitball fight in the Christian blogosphere last week on the topic of heaven and hell.  J. D. Greear of The Gospel Coalition, published a defense of a literal hell of eternal conscious torment entitled “7 Truths About Hell“.  Greear is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC, and has written several books which represent the Neo-Reformed perspective.  It is recommended that you read the article, but I will list Greear’s key points below.  These are points which Greear claims must frame our discussion of hell:

  1. Hell is what hell is because God is who God is.
  2. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in Scripture.
  3. Hell shows us the extent of God’s love in saving us.
  4. People are eternal.
  5. In one sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell; we send ourselves.
  6. In another sense, God does send people to hell, and all his ways are true and righteous altogether.
  7. It’s not enough for God to take us out of hell; he must take hell out of us.

Andrew Perriman, a scholar and writer who blogs at P.OST, has written a point-by-point response entitled “7 Fallacies About Hell“.  I will spare you the point-by-point response to Greear, as Perriman has that covered, though, in calling the doctrine of hell “unbiblical”, he goes further than most evangelicals would be comfortable with.  Instead, I will offer a couple of truths which I believe ought to frame the discussion, along with some critiques of the Neo-Reformed way of looking at the issue of hell.

–When the Bible talks about the afterlife, it leaves a lot to the imagination.  From reading what Scripture has to say on the subject, one can gather that there is a place called heaven, there is a place called hell, and the place called hell is probably not a place you would want to take a girl on a first date.  (Unless she’s a really weird girl.  But that’s beside the point here…)  That’s about it.  Much of what we know, or rather, think we know, about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture.

–Heaven and hell don’t mean what you think they mean.  Jesus spoke frequently of the judgment of Gehenna, which we conflate with the idea of a literal hell of eternal suffering after death.  In reality, Jesus was speaking of the judgment which would come upon Jerusalem and all Israel when the Romans invaded in AD 70.  When first-century (and prior) Jews thought of the afterlife they did not envision the categories of heaven and hell as we envision them today.  Instead they thought of a coming kingdom when God would return to earth and put right all that is wrong in our world and reign forever in righteousness.  Heaven–if you could call it that–was getting to be in on this coming kingdom, while hell–if you could call it that–was being left out.

Does God’s character really demand the existence of a literal hell of eternal suffering?  This is usually where the discussion begins and ends in the Neo-Reformed world.  God’s perfection cannot tolerate even the slightest sin in his presence.  Hell will make us stand agape and agawk at the sheer power and glory and majesty of God.

But will it?  Is it really necessary to go along with the script of a literal hell of eternal suffering after death?  In the Neo-Reformed world, so many of these issues and questions are framed as an either-or.  Either a literal hell of eternal conscious torment, “not one degree hotter than our sins deserve”, or universalism.  But are these really the only two options on the table here?  Not getting to participate in the coming kingdom of God, whatever that entails, is a huge deal.

There is a viewpoint called annihilationism which seems to be gaining traction lately.  This is the idea that, instead of going to a literal hell of eternal suffering after death, those who rebel against God will simply cease to exist.  Think about it, people.  Not existing any more after you die, that’s a pretty big deal.  To think that everything you are, everything you have ever done or experienced in life, will simply vanish into nothing–that’s a huge deal.

In the final analysis, I think the real issue here with respect to heaven and hell is an issue of the heart.  It seems that way too many Christians feel what can best be described as glee over the prospect of a hell where people who reject God will spend all of eternity.  Even those who, as Greear does at the beginning of his piece, claim to struggle with the idea of hell, usually just wind up going along with the party line.  But this isn’t just an evangelical thing, or even a Christian thing.  Every religion that teaches the existence of some version of heaven and hell has adherents who believe or want to believe that they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell.  Even atheists who do not believe in anything remotely resembling God, heaven, or hell still share the impulse to believe or want to believe that they are right and all the rest of us poor fools who have to believe in some sort of religion are simply deluded and messing everything up for the rest of us.

When the Bible mentions the afterlife, it leaves a lot of blanks to fill in.  When it talks of heaven and hell, it does not necessarily mean what you think it means.  Much of what we think we know about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture.  Can we at least be honest enough to accept that?

The “Evangelicals Airing Dirty Laundry” Edition of Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion

dirtylaundryHello everyone, and welcome to the “Evangelicals Airing Dirty Laundry” edition of Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, when it comes to airing political/theological dirty laundry for all to see, evangelicals lead the world by a most impressive margin.  Today’s example comes to us courtesy of the good people over at Christianity Today.  The town of Fountain Hills, Arizona, about a half-hour outside Phoenix, has become embroiled in a theological spitball fight in which half the town’s Protestant churches–Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and some non-denominational congregations, have joined together against the teachings of pastor David Felten of The Fountains, the local Methodist church.progressive  This campaign consists of sermon series, op-ed pieces and half-page advertisements in the local paper, and of course banners in all of the participating churches, which you can see pictured here.

From CT:

A feud over theology has led an unusual ecumenical project in a small Arizona town.

Eight churches—including Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and non-denominational congregations—in Fountain Hills have teamed up for a campaign of public banners and sermons aimed at the theology of a nearby Methodist church.

The sermon series—“Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?”—was launched with an op-ed and half-page advertisement in the local newspaper, and promoted with banners at the eight churches involved.

One described it as a “landmark series” and an “unprecedented step” that “demonstrate[s] in a very real way the unity of the ‘body of Christ’ in Fountain Hills.” Another stated, “Imagine Baptists united with Lutherans working side-by-side with Presbyterians, all while holding the raised hands of charismatics.”

Like I said, when it comes to airing dirty laundry for all the world to see, no one does it like us evangelicals.

Denny Burk on the “Least of These”: Are They the Photographer, the Florist, or the Baker?

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Denny Burk.  Burk is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He writes about the well-known phrase “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 46) which is commonly understood to mean the poor.  He then argues that this phrase does not refer to the poor, but instead to Jesus’ disciples.

Now don’t get your panties all up in a wad over the wrong thing here.  Note that Burk is not going off the deep end advocating something completely novel that flies in the face of Christian belief.  Others have held and taught this view of “the least of these”, including Scot McKnight, Justin Taylor, and many other commentators both contemporary and ancient.  Also note that caring for the poor is taught and commanded in many other places in Scripture, so regardless of how this phrase is interpreted, it changes nothing with respect to our obligation to show care and concern for the poor.

The following quote offers a representative summary of Burk’s argument:

This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.

And herein lies the point:  that the baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, the florist who refuses to bring flowers to the gay man next door, the multi-million dollar corporation that refuses to provide birth control to its employees, are to be seen as Gospel-bearers who by these actions are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  Reject them, and you are rejecting Jesus Christ, and it will not go well for you on judgment day.

Okay.  Christian persecution is real in many parts of the world, and has been for most of church history.  But to place the baker/florist/photographer in the same class as Christians who have their heads cut off by Islamic radicals is wrong.  Failing to support “religious freedom” laws which would permit so-called Christian businesses to refuse to do business with gays does not rise to the same level as the actions of Islamic militants, and it takes some very creative thinking to make the case that it does.

This is a big deal, people.  It strikes at the very heart of what sort of people we are and are becoming as evangelicals, what sort of communities our churches are and are becoming.

Dianna Anderson, a feminist blogger, offers her reaction to Burk’s argument.  Much of what she says comes from within the framework of liberal political and theological commitments which would make many evangelicals uncomfortable, yet the larger point remains:  The baker who won’t bake cupcakes for a same-sex wedding, the florist who won’t deliver flowers to the gay man next door, the corporation that won’t provide birth control benefits to its employees, all represent a massive failure to be like Christ.  To count these as our persecuted brothers, the broken ones who need lifting up…well, there is something dangerously close to a disconnect here.

What sort of people are we as evangelicals becoming?  What sort of communities are our churches becoming?  Are we becoming a people that protects its own while heaping judgment and condemnation upon those who differ from us on the issues of the day that matter to us?  Or are we becoming a people defined by faith expressing itself through love–a love for the poor, the despised, and the outcast that shocks and scandalizes the watching world?

This is a big deal, people.  We cannot allow the Mohlers and the Owen Strachans and the Denny Burks of the world to win this argument.

Earlier this year our church did a sermon series entitled “Brand New“.  One of the overarching ideas of the series is that all of our decisions in life should pass through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  So when you come to this issue, ask yourself that question.  Are you doing what love requires of you when you refuse to provide cupcakes, flowers, or photography for a gay wedding?  Are you doing what love requires of you when you advocate for “religious freedom” measures that make it legal to do these things?  Are you doing what love requires of you when you hold the baker, florist, and photographer who do such things up as examples of faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Are our churches going to be churches that do what love requires of us?  Are we as evangelicals going to be a movement that does what love requires of us?  Or are we going to close ranks and protect our own, modeling for the watching world a God who extends a closed fist of judgment and condemnation to all who differ from us on the issues that matter to us today?

That is what hangs in the balance here.

Roger E. Olson: The Problem of Irrational, Unteachable Christians

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Roger E. Olson entitled “The Problem of Irrational, Unteachable Christians”.

Anti-intellectualism is a persistent problem among Christians.  Olson’s jumping-off point is a sermon from years ago where the pastor said that a Christian’s attitude toward the secular world should be “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up”, as well as a gospel song entitled “If I Am Dreaming, Let Me Dream On”; the title is a response to skeptics who say Christians are “just dreaming”.

While an irrational, unteachable spirit can be seen in many Christian circles in discussions pertaining to a wide variety of issues, Olson narrows his focus to the ways in which certain Calvinists respond to non-Calvinists who note the inconsistencies inherent in the Calvinist way of looking at things.  Some Calvinists will push back by saying “Of course our position is irrational.  Believe it anyway because it’s what the Bible teaches” or words to that effect.  Those who respond in this way are unteachable, and they give Christianity a bad name because they project the message that one must abandon one’s intellect in order to embrace Christianity.

A person who admits his life and worldview, his philosophy or theology, contains logical contradictions cannot expect others to take his life and worldview, his philosophy or theology, seriously. Some may, but that just demonstrates they are not thinking people. They, too, are unteachable. Being teachable requires being open to correction. Being open to correction requires commitment to logic. Refusing to bow to logic is retreat from all understanding into sheer obscurantism. I would go further and agree with Karl Barth who said “Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.” Whatever Barth may have meant by “scholasticism” in that quote, it surely included logical thinking about revelation and faith.

Read Roger E. Olson:  The Problem of Irrational, Unteachable Christians

Alastair on Human Sexuality and Western Liberalism

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Alastair Roberts at Theopolis Institute.  This post is entitled “Sexual Difference, Liberal and Christian“.  Alastair’s jumping-off point is an interview with French Catholic philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj on his recent work on human sexuality.  The big idea here is that human sexuality presents us with a basic differentiation into two classes of human beings.  This difference is woven into our very bodies and even our personalities at a very basic level.  Women have a completely and totally different experience of being human than men, which men will never apprehend by direct experience, and vice versa.

But in our present day Western society, it is not enough to just have male and female.  Why stop there when you can have upwards of fifty different gender identities, as are recognized in some quarters?  And why stop with gender?  Bring race, class, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc. into the mix and you now have a whole constellation of variables by which people are able to identify themselves and differentiate themselves.  Which has the effect of reducing the very concept of difference to nothing.  All these modes of differentiation pale before the ultimate reality in our society–the sovereign, self-determining individual.

Also consider that none of these modes of differentiation have any force except that which society gives them.  If, for example, black people have a different experience of being human than white people, or rich people have a different experience of being human than poor people, it is only because society is set up in such a way that black and white, rich and poor, etc. can and do have different experiences of being human.  If not for that, these differences would not matter.

Which leads to the notion that deep down, we’re all basically the same.  Thus all these sovereign, self-determining individuals are basically the same.  And therefore, basically interchangeable.  This notion has driven much of the discussion concerning race and other such things in recent decades.  It also drives an awful lot of how we are marketed to in a capitalist economy.

Yet when we come to human sexuality, we come to a fundamental difference which, as noted earlier, is woven into our very bodies, even our very personalities–the very fiber of our being.  Men experience being human in ways that are completely and totally different from women, and vice versa.  Neither can have any understanding of how the opposite sex experiences being human–certainly not by direct experience, at least.  You know this is true, people.  Fellas, do you even have a clue why ladies love to shop, why they have so many shoes, why they always think they’re fat even when they’re not, or why they always go to the bathroom in groups?  Ladies, can you even fathom the idea that when you ask a guy what’s on his mind and he says “Nothing, honey”, he ACTUALLY MEANS IT?

When you enter into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, you are entering into a relationship with someone who is human just like yourself, yet at the same time completely and totally different from you in how he/she experiences being human.  You are opening yourself up to something which is, on a fundamental level, completely and totally other than you.  (Sorry homosexuals, this does not apply to you.  As such relationships are same-sex, there can be no experience of otherness with respect to sexuality–and thus, Hadjadj would argue, no sexuality, just alternate uses of the human sexual organs.)

This speaks a powerful word in critique of Western liberalism’s view of human difference.  Alastair lists five key ways:  Sexuality threatens Western liberalism’s notion of the autonomous, all-powerful, self-determining individual and the transactional ways in which he/she engages in relationship with others.  Sexuality’s differences exert an unseen yet inescapable impact upon the subjective world of the self.  Sexuality exposes a difference which is largely internal to the human body itself and thus is deeper and more profound than any other bodily difference (i. e. skin color) that only has power over us because of our social constructs.  Sexuality exposes us to a force that lies beyond the human body.  Sexuality opens the self up to the claims of the other–especially when children enter the mix.

While our society talks a good game with respect to celebrating otherness, it does so in such a way as to reduce it to a white noise of disconnected entities in indeterminate and indiscriminate relationship–in short, all differences are interchangeable and therefore do not matter.  But sexuality presents us with a specific mode of otherness which is of great significance.

What if we were to start thinking of difference as positive in its meaning, understanding it as naming the particular manner in which two entities are distinguished from each other within their relation?

If we were to do this I believe that a more ‘musical’ account of otherness would emerge. Sexuality exposes us to a world of musical difference, where, as we open ourselves up to otherness, we are caught up within the beauty and delight of a larger cosmic symphony (difference in relation is also characteristic of symbolism). As with musical notes the power and meaning of difference is located within relations, relations through which we belong to something greater than ourselves and which puncture our autonomy and detachment.

In our cultural flight from the otherness of sexuality we seek to dull ourselves to the reality that we exist in and belong to a world that belongs to an Other above all others. A rediscovery and celebration of the created otherness of sexuality holds great promise. As both the Apostle Paul and Fabrice Hadjadj realize, it may be a means by which human beings are freed from the idolatry of self-sufficiency and are comported towards transcendence.

Read Alastair Roberts “Sexual Difference, Liberal and Christian”

Christian Leaders Go Doomsday on the Supreme Court and Gay Marriage

Last week I noted that much of evangelical political/theological discourse is based on the assumption that the Bible reveals a full-fledged system of belief which is readily apparent.  Tamper with just one piece of it and the whole thing comes crashing down, with moral decay, chaos, and destruction to follow inevitably.  We are seeing that played out right before our very eyes with respect to the issue of gay marriage.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few weeks, you are aware that the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments on same-sex marriage.  As you might expect, conservative evangelical leaders are falling all over themselves to see who can paint the issue in the most apocalyptic terms possible.  To wit:  If the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage which is readily apparent from the Bible falls, then all of America and Western civilization will come crashing down.  Here is a sampling:

James Dobson:  “Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.”  “I really believe if what the Supreme Court is about to do is carried through with, and it looks like it will be, then we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two. I just am convinced of that. So we need to do everything we can to try to hold it back and to preserve the institution of marriage.”

Tony Perkins:  “This really will determine the future of Western civilization….It really will, this is very serious.”

Glenn Beck:  “What kind of America are you building, you frickin’ Nazis! What kind of Nazi regime are you building? Wake up!…You are following a Nazi group. I don’t know who is even leading this, but you’re becoming Nazis.”

Rick Joyner:  This could lead to the mark of the beast.  But, “Even if this is not the actual mark of the beast, it is at least a precursor, a ‘dress rehearsal’ that sets up the world for this ultimate test.”

Mike Huckabee:  The Christian faith is “on the brink of being criminalized”.

Don Wildman of American Family Association:  “Justice Kennedy holds civilization in his hands.  He will decide which way we are going to go, and if we step away from the Judeo-Christian perspective we will never return. Our society will be radically changed within the next 30, 40 years, your grandchildren will be influenced, and the society that we have will never, can never be repeated.

Alan Keyes:  “If the United States Supreme Court presumes to impose any redefinition of marriage on the states, respectively, or the people, without addressing the issue of unalienable right it involves, with reasoning that respects God-endowed right (which is the logic by which the American people asserted, and still claim to possess and exercise, sovereign authority over themselves), the Court’s decision will be an attack on the very foundation of constitutional government, of by and for the people of the United States. It will be a high crime and misdemeanor that effectively dissolves the just bonds of government between and among the states, and among the individuals who compose the people of the United States. It will therefore be just cause for war.”

Okay, people.  Let’s take a deep breath.  Now go back and reread the above quotes.  Click the links to read them in their entirety or watch the videos.  As you do this, ask yourself:  Is it possible to believe that gay people are people for whom Christ died, while also believing this?

There is something dangerously close to a disconnect here.

As Christians, our calling in every age is to live faithfully while serving others in humility, in a world where many hold views divergent from what we believe and engage in practices antithetical to what we believe.  Is it possible to do this while believing the sentiments expressed above?

Didn’t think so.