Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why I support same-sex marriage politically, but not theologically (and why this is justified)

For Christians, this is an era of historical significance—and not just because of the marriage issue. While defending the institution of marriage is an important and worthy goal, the divorce debate has uncovered a question that is similar to Justice Scalia's: When did it become acceptable for Christians to embrace and endorse divorce and remarriage afterward?

Like Mr. Olson, I would say there is no specific date in time. It was the result of an evolutionary cycle in which the church became more accepting of rampant idolatry.

At its root, the issue has more to do with idolatry than marriage, since divorce culture could not have advanced in America if believers had not exchanged the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for the God of faux-love, cultural acceptance, and open theism.

The idolatry of Christian divorce/remarriage advocates takes two general forms. The first group still recognizes the authority of God's Word, or at least still believes in the general concept of "sin." They will freely admit that, like other types of fornication, sex between remarried people is forbidden in the Bible with only narrow exceptions, and even excluded by Jesus' clear and concise definition of marriage. Yet despite this understanding they still choose to embrace it because they have made an idol of American libertarian freedom. They have replaced Jesus' commandment—"You shall love your neighbor as yourself"—with the guiding motto of the neopagan religion of Wicca, "Do what you will, so long as it harms none."

In endorsing laws based solely on the secular liberal-libertarian conception of freedom (at least those that produce no obvious self-harm), they are doing the very opposite of what Jesus called them to do: They are hating their neighbors, including their divorced and remarried neighbors. You do not love your neighbor by encouraging them to engage in actions that invoke God's wrath (Psalm 5:4-5; Romans 1:18). As Christians we may be required to tolerate ungodly behavior, but the moment we begin to endorse the same then we too have become suppressers of the truth. You cannot love your neighbor and want to see them excluded from the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 5:5).

The second group has completely rejected the authority of Scripture and embraced the idol of open theism, a god who changes his mind over time. Not surprisingly, this god seems to change his mind in ways that comport exactly with the secular morality of twenty-first century America. A prime example of this embrace of a progressive, open deity is found in a comment by former evangelical pastor Rob Bell. Bell recently said:
What we're seeing now, in this day, is god pulling us ahead into greater and greater affirmation and acceptance of our gay brothers and sisters . . . and we're realizing that god made some of us one way and some of us another and it can be a beautiful thing.
Bell goes on to clarify that what he advocates is not an affirmation and acceptance of repentant sinners, but affirmation and acceptance of their sin. Bell has rejected the God of the Bible, a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and embraced a false idol that tells him that what is considered sin changes based on the fickle attitudes of Americans.

Bell, like other remarriage advocates, has moved beyond the temptation and struggle we all have with idolatry ad have boldly set up their idols for all to see. Yesterday, on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, many Christians displayed the red equals sign—a symbol of divorcee rights and "marriage equality"—so that their friends, family, and followers would see that they stood with the forces opposed to God's Word.

For too long those of us in the church have grumbled to ourselves or remained silent about this open idolatry. We fear that if we point out too clearly or forcefully that you can't both serve God and endorse sin that they may leave our congregations. We seem more concerned with losing the volunteer for the Sunday morning nursery or the regular check in the offering plate than we do with the souls of those in open and unrepentant rebellion against God. We seem more worried about the judgment of the kids in the youth ministry than we do with the judgment of a wrathful and holy God. We are so troubled by the thought that remarriage advocates will fall away from the faith that we fail to see that they've already rejected the faith of historic, orthodox Christianity and replaced it with an idolatrous heresy—one that is as destructive and hateful as any that has come before.

What is needed is courage in speaking the truth: We cannot love our neighbor and tolerate idolatry and unrepentant rebellion against God. We cannot continue with the "go along to get along" mentality that is leading those we love to destruction. We must speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31) and accept the fact that those who have fallen away may not ever return. We must choose this day whom we will serve. Will we stand with the only wise God or with the foolish idol-makers of divorce and remarriage?

I realize that the shock value of this trick only works once and that those who read my last post on marriage were likely not taken in by it again. This is a post by Gospel Coalition editor and author Joe Carter, again edited to be about divorce rather than same-sex marriage. I don't mean to keep belaboring the same-sex marriage issue--believe me, I have plenty of other less current things to write about--but it is all over the news with the Supreme Court case and in lots of my friends' discussions, so here I am.

I also realize I have never clearly stated my own position on gay marriage, only on issues I see with how other Christians are approaching it. This is because I think a big part of the problem is Christians clinging to their "Biblical" positions to prioritize correct theology over loving people. But this refusal could also be interpreted as some kind of sneaky attempt to get my ultra-controversial views under the radar, so I'll briefly state them.

Biblical Argument for "Traditional" Marriage

The usual go-to verse in debates about the definition of marriage is Genesis 2:24: "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." I don't think this verse is a deliberate attempt to state a once-and-for-all definition of marriage, but is stating the basis for the Jewish definition of marriage. (It's not actually asserting that this is what marriage is, but explaining why marriage is what it is, based on the creation order) Nonetheless, this verse is then cited by Jesus (Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7-8) and Paul (Ephesians 5:31). Granted, Jesus is talking about divorce and Paul is talking about the church-as-bride-of-Christ metaphor, so neither is intentionally making the kind of crystal-clear definition of marriage that conservative Christians so desperately want today--they are simply assuming that this is how marriage is. (Jesus appeals to this definition to argue against easy divorce, which may have had the kind of "popular" status gay marriage is enjoying today) But I think that is still meaningful.

Paul's argument in Ephesians for marriage as a metaphor indicates that there is more going on here than simply a special living arrangement for a man and a woman who love each other very much. Marriage is a God-given preview of the relationship that Christ will have with the church. Never having been married, I feel fairly unqualified to speak to this, but I think God desires that every marriage be a reflection, however imperfect, of the love between Christ and His bride. And (going way out on a limb here) I think the only kind of marriage capable of reflecting this is the kind God has instituted--between one man and one woman.

Critics of this view are quick to point out that the Bible depicts all kinds of marriages, as this chart says; why are none of them supposed to be normative, only "traditional" marriage (why, then, is it called "traditional" marriage anyway)? Or, similarly, why are Christians focusing so much on homosexuality (condemned in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) and not any of the other hundreds of Old Testament laws, like not wearing clothing made of composite materials (Leviticus 19:19)? Isn't this just cherry-picking?

To the first objection I would point out that, quite obviously, we are not living in ancient Palestine. The Bible is breathed by an eternal God, but its words are steeped in a particular, distinctly temporal and human context. It may be valuable for us today, but it was not written to us. I consider judging Biblical morality by modern standards to be not only bad exegesis, but just a bit arrogant--have we officially Figured Out ethics to the point where we can freely judge what is and is not affirmed (or not condemned) in the cultures of the Bible?

When we clearly spell out the kind of moral expectations for the Bible this kind of trans-cultural comparing implies, the absurdity becomes more evident--how dare God command Abram to go to Canaan without first having him free all his slaves, rehire them as paid laborers with benefits, anti-discrimination policies, and minimum wage, dictate total gender equality with his wife and the other women in his household, renounce the barbaric culture of clan rivalry and warfare he was steeped in, see all the gods of the surrounding pagan tribes as primitive superstition, etc... Additionally, these alternative marriage setups weren't so much endorsed as they were provisioned for in the law ("If a man...") or "just happened". God is perplexingly silent either way on His approval of, say, Abraham fathering a child through Hagar.

To the second I would point to the above argument and say that I am definitely not just basing my theological opposition to same-sex marriage on Levitical law. Rather, I am basing it on the pattern for marriage I see set up in Genesis, affirmed throughout the rest of the Bible, and based on the love between Christ and the church. This is not cherry-picking or proof-texting, it is (I hope) solid Biblical theology.

So far, I don't think I've departed from the conservative Christian platform at all. Friends who oppose same-sex marriage for reasons like the ones I just explained: I was like you once. I understood the Biblical evidence, I got that God created marriage as a total union of one man and one woman reflecting Christ and the church, and so I thought that marriage should naturally be defined as such. Until, one day, the thought came to me: "So the Bible clearly condemns homosexual behavior and marriage. Why on earth does that mean same-sex marriage has to be illegal in America?"

(Re)Defining Marriage and Other Reasons

This is what I am getting at by editing these writings to be about divorce instead of gay marriage. Divorce is much more clearly condemned in the Bible than gay marriage, both by Jesus (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:11), with the only exceptions being a nonbelieving spouse wanting to leave and possibly unfaithfulness (given as a reason in Matthew, but not Mark). Yet I have never heard of anyone, Christian or otherwise, lobbying to make American marriages legally indissoluble. Christians who ardently oppose gay marriage on Biblical grounds really are cherry-picking; why try to enshrine this one issue in law and not countless others? Why not try to legalize Matthew 5:42 by abolishing property rights? I am not saying we need to base our legal system on the teachings of Jesus; I am saying that on the issue of gay marriage we seem to forget the reasons why not everything the Bible teaches, however clearly, has to be a law. I have already said a few years ago more about why naively trying to legislate Biblical morality is disastrous here.

In a follow-up comment, Carter elaborates on why he is not being naive or cherry-picking, why same-sex marriage is an issue that Christians must take a stand on and not, say, property rights.
The State has the right to recognize any relationships it wants and to provide and regulate any benefits it chooses. What it does not have the right to do is to redefine an institution that existed prior to the State. And the "theocracy" canard is a red herring. Applying biblical principles to how we govern our society is not theocratic.
This is what Christians appealing to the "Biblical definition of marriage", as I described it above, are getting at--I think this is how they can feel threatened by another couple's right to marry that doesn't seem to affect them in any way. What is at stake here is not just the happiness and legal benefits of same-sex couples--it is the very definition of marriage. But again, there is evident inconsistency. God's definition of marriage also includes its permanence as a God-ordained union (Matthew 19:6), yet we seem to have accepted the legality of divorce in America. Isn't the ability of married couples to mutually decide to part ways at least as much of a threat to the "definition of marriage" or the practical institution of marriage, given the divorce rate of about 50%? And why, indeed, do we place such great importance on our secular government getting God's definition of marriage right? Why must the Christian church and the state fight over one definition of marriage?

And this "definition" language doesn't just apply to marriage. Jesus' definition of a Christian consists of holding to His teachings (John 8:31, 15:14) or love for one another (John 13:35), the state's definition is self-identification as a Christian. The Biblical definition of a church is a group of Christian believers coming together in love and worship, part of the body of Christ (Colossians 1:24), the state's is a tax-exempt organization of believers of any faith (or the lack thereof). Clearly it is possible for Christians and the state to have two different, incompatible definitions of things. Why is this not possible with the definition of marriage?

Again, another approach I see taken by Christian opponents of same-sex marriage is that heterosexual marriages are better for society, particularly for any children they may have, as this protester is expressing. For one thing, the underlying issue here is same-sex adoption, not same-sex marriage. But, again, even while this may be true (interestingly, even some gays agree) it's safe to say going through a divorce is at least as hard for kids as is having two moms or two dads who love each other and stay together, to say nothing of other myriad issues that affect kids today. If the welfare of children is the underlying motivation for protestors' stand against same-sex marriage and not merely a justification for it, there is some serious denial or tunnel vision going on in how they apply this value.

Conflating theological and political opposition to same-sex marriage is one underlying mistake I see in the above (unedited version of the) article. Authentic Christian faith and tolerance of same-sex marriage are tacitly assumed to be mutually exclusive. Any deviation from an unyielding stance of condemnation is "embracing, endorsing, and encouraging" homosexual behavior, becoming more concerned about not offending anyone than remaining faithful to God. But I would say that my arguments against the evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage come from the same motivation as Carter's post: not trying to tone down the gospel to "fit in" to modern society or not offend anyone, but to follow Christ and take scripture seriously.

The Example of Christ

How can this be so? Consider the life of Jesus. The Jews' expectation of the Messiah was a military-political revolutionary in the vein of Judas Maccabeus (who was believed by many Jews to be the Messiah until his death). But Jesus stubbornly defied everyone's expectations by saying virtually nothing about politics or social upheaval; this simply was not His mission. Indeed, in John 18:36 He says to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place." Jesus' concern was not political in nature, changing the conditions of the kingdoms of this world, it was incarnating a completely different kingdom that is not of this world at all, with any ensuing political change merely a side effect of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is why I strongly question the automatic linkage Christians make between same-sex marriage being unbiblical and trying to make it illegal.

Again, who did Jesus associate with, besides His disciples? Tax collectors (like His disciple Matthew, Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14), "sinners", (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 15:1-2), Samaritans (John 4:4-42), and Gentiles (Matthew 15:22-28, Luke 7:1-10)--in general, the castoffs and outcasts of His society. It was the Pharisees, the "holy" men who claimed the moral high ground, for whom He reserved most of His scorn (see Matthew 23). Obviously there is much that Jesus could have condemned about the lives the people around Him were leading, yet in most cases He says nothing; He stays and eats with them and attracts them to His teaching. With Jesus, there is no hint of "you are a nasty tax collector who has perverted God's definition of charity and you had better repent before I'll accept you, and I'm going to keep reminding you of how bad you are until then".

Yet Jesus does not endlessly tolerate peoples' sin or treat it like it's no big deal. The difference is in the order in which He does things. With the Pharisees (and, I fear, with much of evangelicalism today), the order is "repent, clean up your abominable sin to some degree, and then God will love and accept you". Of course evangelicals will deny that this is how they are treating homosexuals, but I fear the consistent condemnations of their lifestyle as offensive to God, their unions as illegitimate, and the virtual anathematization of any Christians adopting a more tolerant stance sends them the message: "repent, adopt a life of celibacy, conform to the Biblical definition of love and marriage, and then you can be loved and accepted...maybe". Theological conservatives say your stance on gay marriage is a matter of accepting the truth of the gospel, but I am more concerned with whether we as Christians are seen more as representatives of an otherworldly kingdom or as homophobic bigots. (These two things don't have to, I would say shouldn't, coincide)

But the example of Christ tells a different story. Jesus loved and welcomed all sinners, repentant and nonrepentant. For Him, love--unconditional love--came before their repentance, not after. He was still concerned about their sin, but not in the narrow, behavior-based sense that leads Christians today to have "favorite sins" that they rail against, but their sin as a whole, their separation, alienation, and rebellion from Him. His solution to the problem of lost, wayward sinners was then to go to them and show His love to them, wherever they were. Only once they repented, once they turned to Him and decided for themselves to follow Him, could the process of cleaning up their lives begin. So, for example, with tax collectors, Jesus does not even mention their much-despised habit of collecting more than they were supposed to and pocketing the excess until they respond to Him with belief and ask, "Teacher, what should we do?" (Luke 3:12-13)

Brothers and sisters, gays are the "tax collectors" of our day. So whose example will we follow: that of the Pharisees, judging and condemning them from Biblical high ground, shutting the door to heaven in their faces (Matthew 23:13) by holding their sin between them and Christ, railing against the dust in their eyes while blind to the planks in our own? Or will we follow the example of Christ, striving after humility and harmony, modeling the love of God for the lost, and inviting them closer to Him?

Lastly, this doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of my post, but a few days ago I became aware of the existence of queer resistance to "marriage equality". Granted, this should be no comfort to evangelicals because many in this category oppose marriage altogether on the grounds that it is inherently unequal. Still, even though I disagree with this view even more strongly than I do with theological acceptance of same-sex marriage, I was too fascinated to be offended; it's interesting to see voices of dissent from within the "other side".

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 2: A tour of afterlives

This is part two of a four-post series on Hell. One Three Four

This is going to be a pretty fun post. I'm going to investigate some of the cultural and mythological lines of thinking, besides the Bible itself, that have helped to shape our modern understanding of Hell. Three mythological underworlds have done so: Sheol, the Hebrew underworld; Hades, the Greek underworld; and Hel, the Norse underworld. Also, the valley of Gehenna is an important part of the cultural background for Jesus' teaching on Hell and the writings of the poets Dante and Milton have been critical in the evolution of how the church has viewed Hell.


Sheol is the underworld of the Old Testament, variously translated as "the grave", "the dead", or in the KJV, "Hell". It's used 66 times in 64 verses in the OT. In keeping with the view of the cosmos in my post on evolution, it was thought to be underground, so people spoke of going "down to Sheol". (Genesis 37:35, Job 17:16) It was a dark, still place, cut off from God and the light. Souls in Sheol were thought to have no personality, thought, strength, or ability to praise God in Sheol (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Isaiah 38:18) Still, these "shades" could be summoned to commune with the living (1 Samuel 28).

Sheol was generally seen as a universal, morally netural destination for the righteous and the wicked; the Jewish eschatological hope was temporal, not for any eternal paradise after death. The wrath of God was manifested not in any punishment in Sheol itself but in His violently sending people there, as in Numbers 16:33 where God shows His displeasure with the rebelling Korahites by sending them "down alive into Sheol", i.e. causing the earth to shallow them.

Nonetheless, we do see some glimmers of hope for life after death in the Old Testament in the form of redemption of the soul or spirit, if not the body, from Sheol (Psalm 16:10, 49:15, Hosea 13:14) In the intertestamental period, a shift in thinking led to Sheol having separate compartments or being seen as the destination only for the wicked, with the righteous going to "Abraham's side" (Luke 16:22) or even the belief that Abraham stood at the gates of Sheol preventing any circumcised man from entering.


Hades is, of course, the Greek underworld, and would have been well-known in the Hellenized Judea that Jesus lived in. If you're a nerd like me who grew up with an illustrated book of Greek mythology, you probably already know all about Hades. Like in Sheol, souls in Hades were senseless and weak, drifting around like leaves on the wind and living an afterlife similar to on earth but drained of its joys and the ability to change. Obviously Jesus' use of the term doesn't mean that all the Greek myths are true; He was simply teaching His audience using concepts they were already familiar with.

"Hades" is used to translate the Hebrew "Sheol" in the Septuagint and in the New Testament, where it is mentioned 10 times. As such, it is used semi-analogously to Sheol as a synonym for death (see Revelation, where "death and Hades" are paired four times). Still, it is definitely not a universal destination and is seen as being a place for the wicked (Luke 16:23, Matthew 11:23). In Acts 2 Peter explains how Psalm 16:8-11 prefigures God raising Christ from the dead, not only in spirit but bodily. 2 Peter 2:4 also mentions Tartarus, the abyss below Hades that served as a prison for the titans and other enemies of the gods, as the place God sent the rebellious angels.


Gehenna is not a myth; it is a historical place, a valley just to the south of Jerusalem. Gehenna, the English version of γεεννα, is just the New Testament version of the Old Testament "valley of the [son/children] of Hinnom". This valley is mentioned 13 times in 11 verses in the Old Testament, never positively.

The Hebrews viewed the valley of Hinnom (or Topheth, a place in it) as a place of paganistic idolatry and abomination, where other nations would sacrifice their children in fire to the gods. The people of Judah are later seen to do the same thing, to their condemnation. Besides these usages, the interesting ones are Jeremiah 7:32 and 19:6, where God promises that the Valley of Hinnom will become the Valley of Slaughter, a place of horrifying judgment and wrath on the godless. 7:30-34 reads:
“For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste.
And 19:1-7:
Thus says the LORD, “Go, buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’
In the New Testament, Gehenna is mentioned 12 times, 11 by Jesus and once by James, frequently associated with fire, and is always translated to "Hell" in English. We should not, as (apparently my favorite figure in modern Christianity) Rob Bell did, assume that Jesus is using the word literally, as if it is better to cut off your hand than to take a trip to the Valley of Hinnom. Nor does it seem likely that He specifically meant a return to the child-burning that took place there. It is overwhelmingly likely to me that when Jesus said "Gehenna", He was using it in the eschatological sense of the above passages, as a place of terrible divine wrath and judgment.

I think the significance of the fact that Jesus' word for Hell had such significant historical connotations for His listeners (Jewish listeners) is commonly understated. And there are more questions: was Jesus using "Hades" and "Gehenna" interchangeably, or did He have separate conceptions of the two that we have since lost? (The KJV translates "Sheol", "Hades", and "Gehenna" all to "Hell", and I think that Christians with more modern translations still think of them as all being equivalent to Hell) Or could it have been context-dependant, with "Hades" substituted when speaking to more Hellenistic gentile audiences?

I don't think the difference between Hades and Gehenna was simply Jesus' audience. In Matthew 16:18, after Peter's confession that He is the Christ, Jesus says, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of [Hades] shall not prevail against it." If Hades was just Jesus' Greek version of Gehenna, why did He use the word when speaking in private with His disciples, all of whom were Jewish? And He also uses "Hades" in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, told to the Pharisees. So, it seems that our modern view of "Hell" may include Biblical teachings on both Hades and Gehenna. More on this distinction in the next post.


The Norse mythological underworld of Hel, ruled by the giantess of the same name, was not developed until well after the Bible was written and of course no one in the New Testament period had any knowledge of it. I only include it because, obviously, it is the origin of our English word "Hell", which indicates a connection worth looking into. Hel is just one part of the larger body of Norse belief about the afterlife. Norse paganism doesn't distinguish between the righteous and the wicked so much as between causes of death. Those who died "honorably" in battle were thought to go to the hall of Valhalla or the field Fólkvangr; Hel was reserved for those who died ignobly or old age or disease. Elsewhere, though, evil men are also said to go to Hel; the myths don't make much of an attempt to establish a consistent "doctrine of Hel".

One of the major myths in which Hel appears is in the death of the god Baldr. After he is killed by Loki's treachery, his brother, Hermod, is sent on the eight-legged horse Sleipnir to retrieve him from Hel. The Swedish "viking metal" band Amon Amarth, which draws much of its lyrical inspiration from Norse mythology (and the rest from Viking history), has done an excellent song about this story, in which Hermod gives this description of his journey to Hel:
Wailing voices on the wind
Urging me to turn
Distant tortured screams
Cold blue fires burn
I hear the sound of river Gjöll
Running cold and deep
Its golden bridge shines in the dark
The bridge that Móðguð keeps
These verses reflect Hel's overlap with Niflheim, the primordial world of ice containing nine frozen rivers. It's hard to see how Hel relates to the Christian Hell, being frozen instead of burning and reachable by horse, but it at least reflects the Germanic mindset towards the afterlife from which our modern, western culture partially arose, similar to the polytheistic background we set Old Testament Yawhism against.

Milton and Dante

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1261-1325) and the English writer John Milton (1608-1624) have been hugely influential in shaping and defining the common western view of Hell with their epics The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, respectively.

The Divine Comedy describes an allegorical from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, with Virgil acting as Dante's guide. In the first part, Inferno, Dante describes a Hell with an intricate geography divided into nine circles, each for a different kind of sinner and representing varying levels of punishment. In the outermost circle, Limbo, reside the unbaptized and "virtuous pagans" like Virgil himself and is really more of a deficient version of Heaven for those who avoided lives of sin but were not baptized into Christ. (Obviously this clashes pretty strongly with Protestant theology where you're either for or against Jesus)

Beyond that the circles correspond to various sins like lust, anger, and fraud, and the sinners therein are punished poetically in ways that fit their sins; the wrathful continue to fight each other or lie sullen underwater in a black marsh; fortune-tellers are forced to walk with their heads on backwards so they can't see ahead; thieves have their identities stolen as they are pursued by snakes and transformed into various forms. The lowest circle is not burning but frozen, where traitors are encased in ice. In the very center is Satan himself, not the ruler of Hell but just another prisoner, encased in ice to the waist and chewing on Brutus, Cassius (two of the conspirators against Caesar), and Judas Iscariot.
Paradise Lost opens in Hell, where Satan has just been cast down after his unsuccessful rebellion against God. Milton describes Hell through Satan's eyes:
At once, as far as angels' ken, he views
The dismal situation, waste and wild:
A horrible dungeon, on all sides round,
As one great furnace, flam'd; yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible,
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades,
Where peace and rest can never dwell; hope never comes
That comes to all: but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed',
Such place eternal justice has prepar'd
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness; and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole.
O how unlike the place from which they fell!
The description of a fiery Hell obviously contrasts with Dante's description of Satan as encased in ice, and in this depiction Satan, though nominally a prisoner in Hell, does set himself up as its ruler to plan his revenge against God, saying it's "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven".
As Paradise Lost only covers the events up until the fall of man, no people are depicted in Hell, but the classic elements are there: a terrible, hopeless dungeon, pitch-dark yet eternally burning whence God casts the rebellious. This description (minus the pitch dark; no one seems to know how to draw dark flames), along with The Divine Comedy's theme of differing degrees of punishment and regions of Hell according to the sin, accounts for much of the popular conception of Hell today.

In the next post we'll start to actually put all of these pieces together into a coherent view of Hell. Note: I have no agenda here and still have no idea where I'm going to end up with this.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Taking a stand for marriage

The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Genesis 2:23-24

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:6-12

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11

In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. Marriage then, is the first institution of human society—indeed it is the institution on which all other human institutions have their foundation. In the Christian tradition we refer to marriage as “holy matrimony” to signal the fact that it is an institution ordained by God, and blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem.

Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves.

Unfortunately, we have witnessed over the course of the past several decades a serious erosion of the marriage culture in our own country. Perhaps the most telling—and alarming—indicator is the out-of-wedlock birth rate. Less than fifty years ago, it was under 5 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. Our society—and particularly its poorest and most vulnerable sectors, where the out of-wedlock birth rate is much higher even than the national average—is paying a huge price in delinquency, drug abuse, crime, incarceration, hopelessness, and despair. Other indicators are widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation and a devastatingly high rate of divorce.

We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same.

To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love. We must reform ill-advised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce. We must work in the legal, cultural, and religious domains to instill in young people a sound understanding of what marriage is, what it requires, and why it is worth the commitment and sacrifices that faithful spouses make.

The impulse to redefine marriage in order to recognize the validity of divorce and remarriage is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the erosion of the marriage culture. It reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage as embodied in our civil and religious law and in the philosophical tradition that contributed to shaping the law. Yet it is critical that the impulse be resisted, for yielding to it would mean abandoning the possibility of restoring a sound understanding of marriage and, with it, the hope of rebuilding a healthy marriage culture. It would lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life. In spousal communion and the rearing of children (who, as gifts of God, are the fruit of their parents’ marital love), we discover the profound reasons for and benefits of the marriage covenant.

We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards divorce, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners. For every sinner, regardless of the sin, is loved by God, who seeks not our destruction but rather the conversion of our hearts. Jesus calls all who wander from the path of virtue to “a more excellent way.” As his disciples we will reach out in love to assist all who hear the call and wish to answer it.

We further acknowledge that there are sincere people who disagree with us, and with the teaching of the Bible and Christian tradition, on questions of sexual morality and the nature of marriage. Some who go through divorce no doubt regard their following unions as truly marital. They fail to understand, however, that marriage is not merely a human contract to be drawn up and dissolved at will, but a radical, comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life instituted by God as a reflection of His love for His church and sustained according to His will. The physical union of marriage is only the visible part of a deep, unique connection that spans every level of the human being. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies. The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being—the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual—on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation.

That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation. We understand that many of our fellow citizens, including some Christians, believe that the historic definition of marriage as a lifelong commitment, for better or for worse, is a denial of civil rights. They wonder what to say in reply to the argument that asserts that no harm would be done to them or to anyone if the law of the community were to confer upon remarried men and women who are living together in a sexual partnership the status of being “married.” It would not, after all, affect their own marriages, would it? On inspection, however, the argument that laws governing one kind of marriage will not affect another cannot stand. Were it to prove anything, it would prove far too much: the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for marriage after divorce; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships? No. The truth is that marriage is not something abstract or neutral that the law may legitimately define and re-define to please those who are powerful and influential.

No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. Marriage is an objective reality—a covenantal union of husband and wife—that it is the duty of the law to recognize and support for the sake of justice and the common good. If it fails to do so, genuine social harms follow. First, the religious liberty of those for whom this is a matter of conscience is jeopardized. Second, the rights of parents are abused as family life and sex education programs in schools are used to teach children that an enlightened understanding recognizes as “marriages” sexual partnerships that many parents believe are intrinsically nonmarital and immoral. Third, the common good of civil society is damaged when the law itself, in its critical pedagogical function, becomes a tool for eroding a sound understanding of marriage on which the flourishing of the marriage culture in any society vitally depends. Sadly, we are today far from having a thriving marriage culture. But if we are to begin the critically important process of reforming our laws and mores to rebuild such a culture, the last thing we can afford to do is to re-define marriage in such a way as to embody in our laws a false proclamation about what marriage is.

And so it is out of love (not “animus”) and prudent concern for the common good (not “prejudice”), that we pledge to labor ceaselessly to preserve the definition of marriage as God-instituted and indissoluble and to rebuild the marriage culture. How could we, as Christians, do otherwise? The Bible teaches us that marriage is a central part of God’s creation covenant. Indeed, the union of husband and wife mirrors the bond between Christ and his church. And so just as Christ was willing, out of love, to give Himself up for the church in a complete sacrifice, we are willing, lovingly, to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage.

The preceding was the section from the Manhattan Declaration on marriage, with the arguments against same-sex marriage edited to be about divorce. I had to change surprisingly little; over half the paragraphs needed no editing and only the fourth-from-last had to be extensively modified. (Note: The mention of divorce in paragraphs three and five is in the original declaration, not from my editing)

My objective in editing this declaration was not to show casual disregard for it by changing to to suit my whims, or to rail against the "abomination" of divorce. It was to show what the evangelical logic about gay marriage looks like when applied to another marital issue that, despite being much more clearly condemned by Jesus and the Biblical authors, receives comparatively little attention and debate today. Why are we more willing to accept and forgive Christians who divorce and remarry and honor their remarriages as valid and binding than to admit that the Biblical teaching about divorce is less than clear and has space for disagreement, instead of maintaining the tone of gentle condemnation towards homosexuals and Christians calling for tolerance?

Let me be clear on two things I am not saying. I am not arguing here that we should start treating divorcees the way we currently treat gays. In fact, I think the opposite is a much better idea. I am also not saying that the only alternative to crusading for traditional marriage is discarding what we believe about marriage as a "one flesh" union between a man and a woman and giving gay marriage our full theological affirmation. What I am getting at with this parallel is that for many Christians, myself included, our compassionate and accepting treatment of friends and family who have been through divorce shows that we really do understand how to "hate the sin but love the sinner", a phrase that is often thrown around in debates on gay marriage but is so often nothing but words.

Similarly with Christians who take different stances on marital issues than ourselves. As I discussed in my previous post, when Rob Bell "came out" in favor of gay marriage, there wasn't much surprise but there was much sadness (or muted vindication) that Bell had forsaken the true gospel and statements to the effect of excluding him from the realm of evangelical thought and discussion. When a pastor "comes out" in favor of a more tolerant position on divorce...oh, wait, there is no such thing because we don't make nearly a big enough deal about it to call a change in one's views "coming out" or a switch to another "camp" or "team". I propose that, by and large, the climate in American Christianity regarding divorce is, while not perfect, far healthier than the one regarding gay marriage.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rob Bell Response

In the wake of the ever-controversial Rob Bell's "coming out" in favor of gay marriage, I've seen enough responses reminding orthodox Christians of God's plan for marriage, mourning his now-complete fall from sound doctrine, or even--dare I say it--gloating over his heresies becoming plain for all to see. When I clicked on this article on by Michael Kimpan, I was expecting more of the same. Happily, I was wrong.

RIP, Rob Bell

After a quick summary of some recent developments in the perennial "gay marriage" debate, Kimpan reminds us of Christians' role as bridge-builders, ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), which is easily forgotten as cultural battle lines are drawn and Christians take up arms to defend the truth and "take every thought captive" (2 Corinthians 10:5) for Christ.

Tangent: I found it interesting how I just cited two different verses in the same book to support two different "Christian" stances toward gay marriage. Do we participate in Christ's ministry of reconciliation or take every thought captive? Yes. Trying to justify choosing one (presumably the one we like) over the other simply by proof-texting means that, to some extent, we are twisting God's word to suit our own desires and agenda. Of course, I was seemingly just doing this kind of proof-texting by implying that Christians should apply 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 but not 10:5 to the gay marriage debate. How does a Christian follow both of these verses at once in this situation? Should they? I don't think so. Sensitive issues between the church and the world like this are simply not the time to apply Paul's militaristic metaphor for the truth. (The section in 2 Corinthians 10 this passage is situated in is addressing discipline and doctrine within the church, not outside it, an important distinction)

Anyway, in two of his last paragraphs Kimpan hits the nail right on the head (emphasis the author's):
The litmus test of our faith in Christ is not whether or not we’re able to agree on political, cultural or religious secondary issues, nor (dare I say) even what it is our position is on such issues; rather, it is in our ability to love, even those with whom we may not agree. 
As the cultural shift happens (and it is happening) regarding LGBT issues right in front of us, I wonder how well we’ll do in elevating the conversation above the yes/no || right/wrong || win/lose || in/out || us/them || polarizing rhetoric that has so often shaped this conversation, and respond in a more thoughtful, Christ-like way?
I don't think most Christian who argue against gay marriage are being intentionally unloving; they are intentionally trying to love God and love their neighbors by defending "God's plan" for marriage and holding it high in a corrupt world. But defending the truth does not have to (should not) equate to the kind of "us-versus-them" dichotomy Kimpan describes above, let alone metaphorically beating people over the head with the truth and expecting them to embrace it. Christlike humility means walking the narrow path of holding on to what you believe while loving and building bridges with those you disagree with. It's not easy, but in our modern, pluralistic society it's more important than ever.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 1: Two main views of Hell

This is part one of a four-post series on Hell. Two Three Four

In the Christian conversation on Hell, I've noticed most people tend to fall more on one of two sides (these sides aren't binary opposites but form two ends of a spectrum). Specifically, people tend to think about Hell as more of a physical place, or as more of a spiritual state. Let me elaborate on both of these views:

Hell as a Place

The short version of this view is that it focuses on Hell as a physical place to which sinners (those who inevitably sinned and aren't covered by Christ's forgiveness) will physically go (or be cast into by a just, vengeful God) when they die to be punished for their sins. This view is the one held and caricatured by street preachers who wave around signs bearing lists of sins with the message that if you have done any of these, you're going to Hell and need to repent. This view is the one that I often seen doubted, critiqued, and attacked; how is it just, people ask? How is it loving? Isn't it cruel and capricious?

Some examples are in order. Many more theologically conservative churches preach a version of this view, one of the foremost being Mars Hill Church in Seattle. In his preaching on Hell, Mark Driscoll tries to emphasize that Hell is not arbitrary or capricious, it's God's just punishment for real choices that you have made (but can't not make). In a sermon on predestination he says, "Everyone chooses Satan, sin, death, and hell. And apart from a new heart, that’s all anyone would ever choose." Or elsewhere:
Friends, here’s the bottom line. There are only three options. Number one, Satan chooses who has sin forgiven and eternal life granted. That means that no one receives grace. Number two, sinners choose who is to be saved. The result is that we all have already chosen. We have chosen sin. We have chosen Satan. We have chosen rebellion. We have chosen death. We have chosen rejection of God. We have chosen to be objects of wrath. We have chosen hell.
Every single human being has chosen. By virtue of sinning, you have chosen. You have chosen Satan. You have chosen death. You have chosen wrath. You have chosen hell. And the third option is that God, too, would choose. And that God would choose to save some. That God would choose in undeserving, ill-deserving mercy and grace to save some.
The message is pretty clear: we have sinned, we have rebelled, we have chosen idols over God, we can't change this decision, so we need Christ to save us from the wrath and justice of God by which we are headed for hell. He doesn't elaborate on the specific nature of hell too much other than the standard (of this view) description of it as "eternal conscious torment"--with the implication that this torment has something to do with fire.

John Piper falls largely into the same neo-Reformed theological "camp" so I won't address his view in too much detail separately, but a recent post caught my eye: "Every sin against God is a capital offense." The implication is the same: God, being morally perfect, is justly displeased and angry with our sins, so if we don't believe in His son He throws us in Hell. This view is closely correlated with the penal substitution view of atonement: God's wrath against our sin burns unquenchably, and unless Christ's sacrificial death is applied to us it will fall on us. John Calvin's former profession as a lawyer led him to draw parallels between God's condemnation and a "guilty" verdict in a courtroom, an analogy which has been held by Reformed Christians ever since.
Hopefully this description makes the "Hell as a place" view make more sense even if you don't come from it. Back to the challenges to this view, that it portrays God as cruel, capricious, unloving, or even unjust. Holders of this view would counter that God is not unjust to punish people eternally, even for a finite number and scope of sins, because of the infinite greatness of the One they have sinned against. As an illustration, if you punch someone in a bar you might (might) get kicked out, if you punch a police officer you'll spend the night in jail; if you punch the President, you'll be wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service, be demonized on national media for days, and possibly go to Guantanamo or something. So, by analogy, by sinning against the One who is infinitely greater than the President, you deserve an infinite punishment.

As for the charge that this view depicts God as unloving, proponents (especially of the more Calvinistic variety) would probably answer that, because our condemnation is justly deserved, God is not unloving or cruel to sentence us; He is just being just in accordance with His perfect nature. What is incredible is that out of the mass of sinful humanity, God would--in love--choose to save some. Again, by analogy, if a judge pardons a prisoner on death row and leaves others to their fate, none of them have any right to call the judge unjust for not pardoning them as well! As Driscoll says above, we have chosen and deserve Hell, and anything we receive from God beyond that is simply mercy. Besides, God has given everyone this life in which to seek Him and find salvation, so He is loving in that.

The problem is, these counters still aren't convincing to me. I have trouble making myself believe that we really can deserve infinite punishment for one (just one, the street preachers will emphasize) finite sin. The courtroom analogies not only impose a Renaissance/modern-era conception of justice on God, but they seem to excuse Him from needing to be loving as He is being just. I have already pointed out that we expect God to be totally just to everyone; we should expect the same of His love. Does giving people a chance to respond to the gospel and blessing them temporally really come anywhere close to matching the "justice" of punishing them eternally?

Again, if we use this picture of Hell to motivate Christians to evangelize or non-Christians to convert, it seems more like we are trying to save people from God Himself than from themselves or their sin. The primary problem of nonbelievers, by implication, is not their sin itself, which seems not so bad by comparison (swearing, cheating on your taxes, ditching church) but what God is going to do to them for it. We are convicted to minister to people and tell them the gospel not so much because of the innate plight of their sin and separation from God as because of His terrifying wrath hanging ominously over their heads. And this is dangerous to believe for us and for them.

One other thing: the horror and punishment of Hell are popularly depicted as being physical; your indestructible resurrection body experiencing "eternal conscious torment" in the fires of Hell--presumably wondering, "Why, God? What did I do to you to deserve this?". People think back to their most painful burn experience and extrapolate the implied horror from there. There are at least three problems with this conception of the horror of Hell as being primarily physical, with any more spiritual kind of torment thrown in more as an afterthought (besides the apparent cruelty):
  • It's based on an understanding of justice as being primarily retributive, whereas in western culture (particularly in Europe) we tend to see rehabilitation as the point of punishment. This view on justice is, I think, what prompts Christian universalists to believe that the imagery of Hell depicts a temporary destination after which everyone will, ultimately, be "rehabilitated" to believe in God and reach Heaven. This take on salvation is, of course, rejected by orthodox Christians, but it raises the question: is our view of justice as being rehabilitative, loving and advanced though it seems (look at the example we make of Norway), unbiblical or wrong? Or should our changed perspective on the nature and point of punishment lead us to a different take on Hell than the one held by first-century Christians? Does our perspective on justice need to go back before it can go forward?
  • The explanation for how finite sins can have an eternal punishment rests on the spiritual dimension of the sins, not their physical realities--you have offended an infinitely great God. Yet the perceived punishment itself--eternal conscious torment in fire--has little in the way of a spiritual dimension. It doesn't seem to fit the nature of the crime.
  • Hell is depicted pretty consistently in the New Testament as the counterpart to Heaven (such as in the point-counterpoint in Matthew 25:46), but Heaven is not thought of primarily (if at all) as a place of full-body massages, four meals of candy a day, and beautiful music for all eternity; in fact, we rightly consider this view of Heaven as a place where you simply get all the earthly pleasures you could ever want as wrong as it is childish. If the main "point" of Heaven is not the physical reality of it, why should we expect Hell to be different?

Hell as a State

Perhaps in response to the difficulties modern audiences have with this conception of Hell as "eternal conscious torture", but desiring to take the Bible's teaching on God's justice seriously, other Christian thinkers tend toward a view of Hell that emphasizes its spiritual, not physical reality. In this view, Hell is a place of sinfully-desired, self-imposed separation from God. God doesn't cruelly throw people into eternal punishment against their will but simply allows them to forever walk away from Him, to their own damnation.

The best-known proponent of this view is, of course, C.S. Lewis, who describes it with the most detail in his classic, The Great Divorce, which I summarize in one of my first few posts. In it he depicts Hell as an endlessly sprawling, decaying city absent any of the light of God we see in the real world, full of bitter people degenerating into mere oblivion. The inhabitants of this Hell are able to take a bus trip to Heaven, but even when seeing it they almost all despise and reject it, preferring their own autonomy sinful habits to the surrender and humility required to live in Heaven. In this view, God does not shut people out of His presence, but they shut Him out of theirs. He casts his former mentor George MacDonald as the plot-exposing guide to the narrator, who says this peoples' inability to turn to accept God:
Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.
And elsewhere:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No one who seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
The Tim Keller video posted in the comments to my prelude to this series gives another, more modern exposition of this view. Weaving together diverse sources from Kierkegaard to The Iron Giant and taking both C.S. Lewis' writing and Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) as jumping-off points, he describes Hell as the eternal continuation of the self-chosen trajectory of sin and addiction to things other than God that we begin in life. His definition of Hell is "just a freely chosen identity based on something else besides God, going on forever."

The modern Catholic stance on Hell, written in the catechism by John Paul II is surprisingly similar:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (John 3:14-15) Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.  (Matthew 25:31-46) To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
The Eastern Orthodox church has a very interesting take on this view: Hell is not eternal separation from God, but both sinners and the righteous spend eternity with Him, which is Heaven for some and Hell for others. Is the Hell-as-a-place view a uniquely Protestant phenomenon?

Obviously this position is much more intuitively appealing and seems much more sensible than the Hell-as-a-place view, and currently the one I hold is very much like it. By emphasizing the nature of Hell as something sinners choose rather than have forced on them by a vengeful God, it becomes clear that Jesus came to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) rather than God's wrath for their sins. The biggest problem of this position, at least to me, is that it seems to lack the kind of direct scriptural support enjoyed by Hell as a place. But is this because it is actually unsupported, or just because we're reading the scriptures incorrectly? That is the big question that prompted this series. Next time: a hopefully fascinating detour through some underworlds of mythology.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

God will Praise You: Examining Soli Deo Gloria

While journaling recently I was reminded of how I tend to look for my sense of adequacy, sufficiency, comfort, "right-ness" (pick whatever name works best for you) from people instead of from God. I did
a quick study of what scripture says about this:
  • John 12:43: ...for they loved human praise more than praise from God.
  • Romans 2:29: No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God.
  • Galatians 1:10: For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 4:5: Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
The Bible is pretty clear that Christians are supposed to value praise from God more than praise from people. And when it's stated like this no one will have much of a problem with it. But have you stopped to think about what this means? One day (1 Corinthians 4 says the last judgment), God will praise us. Or, as Rob Bell would say,





I just realized how crazy this sounds, coming from a relatively reformed background. An analogy my church sometimes uses is that we are like straws through which God blows the Holy Spirit. The implication here is that we ourselves are just weak, passive, interchangeable conduits through which God acts. Who praises a straw for channeling air effectively? We pray that God may increase in us, that we are nothing without Him, that it's amazing that God would do anything through such a sinner as I. Soli Deo gloria!, the fifth sola goes.

I swear, I'm not actually trying to do a series on the five solas, they just keep coming up in posts that were originally about other things. Like with sola fide and sola scriptura, I'm not saying that the idea of soli Deo gloria is wrong: of course God, being the only God, is the only one worthy of glory and praise. But by turning this exclusivity into a total abnegation of our own role in the Kingdom of God, the "I am but a straw" mentality, verses like 1 Corinthians 4:5 become very hard to understand. And yet it's verses like this, exhortations to seek praise from God instead of from people, that are just what I need when I'm tempted to do the opposite and substitute people laughing at my jokes or being impressed at my blog posts (like this one) for the affirmation I'm supposed to be getting from my heavenly Father. I thought of three reasons (besides the blanket reason "sin") why it's hard for me to do this:
  • Human praise is much more tangible and immediately rewarding than praise from God, which 1 Corinthians 4 says we'll receive at the last judgment.
  • Theologically emphasizing total depravity, total human lack of pure motives, our righteous acts being like "filthy rags" before God, etc. makes it hard to see how anything I do is praiseworthy by God. In fact, putting any stock in this praise seems like legalism, trusting in your works of righteousness instead of in God's grace.
  • And related to this, emphasizing the total unconditionality of God's election, grace, blessings, etc. makes it sound like by believing we already have all the praise from God we're ever going to get, so trying for more is hopeless.
Reason 1 is just an effect of our broken relationship with God that we all have to work through, but I think the other two are effects of me taking soli Deo gloria too far. In this view, because our acts of righteousness are "filthy rags", all that matters is God working His righteousness through us like blowing into a straw, and His blessings to us are all unconditional, it's futile, self-aggrandizing, or even Pharisaical to expect any praise from God for what I do. This view is false and dangerous, just as much so as expecting your righteous acts to make you a spiritual bigwig. Does anyone else tend to think like this?

I think Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, minas in Luke 19:11-27) speaks to this. It prevents us from simply concluding that this praise will only consist of attributing Christ's vicarious righteousness to us and passing over our sin, i.e. that it is the same for everyone and unaffected by how we have lived. God gives us each gifts and abilities (or, shall we say, talents). On their own, these gifts are not powerless; the point of John 15:5 is that only in Christ can we "put them to work", in the parables' language, for the Kingdom. And if we do put them to work, we will be praised, as the master says: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

This helps us make sense of Jesus' final warning in the parable: "For whoever has will be given more and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." This isn't immediately clear; on a face-level reading it sounds like an apt description of the game of Monopoly. If someone does not "have", how can anything be taken from him? Didn't the third servant have one talent/mina? It seems like Jesus is using "has" in two different ways. The third servant is given one talent, but does nothing with it, unlike the others who receive praise. I'm not entirely sure how "has" can describe this difference, but it is what Jesus is getting at in this parable. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48)

What, then, does it mean for God to praise us? Certainly not that we become more important than God, any more than the president giving an award to an exemplary citizen makes that citizen more important than the president. The analogy of God as heavenly Father is helpful here. Just as children are motivated by looking to their fathers for praise and affirmation, so we should look to God and the praise we will receive from Him as the better substitute for depending on praise from people. And just as praising a child equally for everything, good or bad, makes that praise effectively useless, so praise from God that is completely independent of what we actually do becomes ineffective, even "cheap". Friends, know that God does care about how we live with all that He has given us and strive to please Him, and Him alone, in all that you do.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Four Myths About Catholicism

It's official: the Catholics have a new pope! And a pope who lives in a tiny apartment, cooks his own meals, and commutes via public transportation--sounds just like me, if I were a seventy-something cardinal. I, for one, am quite happy and excited for my Catholic brethren and hope that God will powerfully use Francis I for redemptive work in the Catholic church (particularly in dealing with the sex abuse scandals that have been looming) and in the world.

But not all Protestants share my enthusiasm. I've seen some dismissive or even derogatory responses to the new pope and jabs at Catholicism from Protestants, especially those of the more reformed variety. One of Christ's prayers for the church is that "they may be one as we are one" (John 17:20-23), which I take as a call to action every bit as much as the Great Commission. So despite our differences, I take this kind of combative rhetoric against Catholicism seriously.

Obviously I am not a Catholic; I do have real theological disagreements with the Catholic Church that make it overwhelmingly likely that I never will be one (particularly about accepting doctrine by church authority instead of exploring it for yourself) and so my following words are going to be less well-informed than they should be. I'm not necessarily arguing for the Catholic position on these issues, only for understanding of it and how it doesn't line up with some of the calumnies (Calvin word) thrown at it by Protestants. My goal is to address some the myths about Catholicism that seem to be prevalent in Protestantism, the best a Protestant thinker with little experience in Catholicism can.

I should mention that much of the following information is from the website CatholicBridge, which is run by an formerly evangelical couple who became Catholic and wanted to help inform other evangelicals about Catholicism. It's very well-written, humble, and does a good job of relating our beliefs to theirs.

Catholics believe the pope/priests have the power to forgive sins.

Jesus' ability to forgive sins was an implicit sign of His Godhood (Mark 2:1-12), the Protestant thinking goes. How dare those Catholics try to usurp His authority by claiming that their priests, bishops, and popes can also forgive sins!? They are turning the true gospel into a manmade religion of rituals and works! Christ instituted the priesthood of all believers, so of course no special person can have spiritual authority over anyone else to forgive sins!

CatholicBridge most directly addresses this objection here in the section on priests forgiving sins. In a nutshell, it seems that they don't believe Catholic priests have special spiritual "powers", but are priests by virtue of their role in serving the lay people (common priests). The difference between Catholic priests and Protestant pastors seems to be smaller than we tend to make it. I don't think they would say that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church is any different, in principle, than the leadership of Protestant churches and denominations.

Consider this: someone in a Protestant church (I'll imagine my church) has a serious drinking problem. He hates this addiction, wants to be freed from it, and has been convicted and "repented" of it to God in the past, but has relapsed into it. What would you counsel him to do? Confess this sin to his pastor and seek counseling! My church stations people in front during the service to whom you can come to confess sins and ask for prayer. Are these prayer helpers responsible for forgiving your sin? Of course not. But--and this is what I think Catholics would say--God is able to effectively carry out this forgiveness through people in His church. The Catholic catechism says this:
Only God forgives sins (Mk 2:7) Since he is the Son of God Jesus himself says "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power "Your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5, Lk 7:48) Further he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (Jn 20:21-23)
In fact, the Bible talks repeatedly about confessing our sins to each other (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). Protestants have a tendency to overspiritualize repentance to be just between God and the sinner, but as in the above example just confessing your sin to God can often be no confession at all--not because of any deficiency in His ability to forgive but in our sincerity. I think there really is something to confessing your sins to another person, as a part of confessing them to God, and Catholicism seems to have a better grasp of this fact than many Protestant churches. The Church is the body of Christ, and if He forgave peoples' sins while in His earthly body, why can He not do the same through this one? So Catholics don't believe priests have any innate power to forgive sins, but that God can and does work His forgiveness of sins powerfully through them.

Somewhat related to this objection is the issue of indulgences. (And yes, Catholics do universally condemn the sale of indulgences or any other spiritual thing, which is called simony) This was actually pretty interesting to read. Lots of things of Catholicism that Protestants have problems with seem to really be things that we do have some conception of, just more clearly and under a different name. So with indulgences: That article has a seven-point table giving the steps of repenting of a sin and being healed of it, and how analogous they are in Protestantism and Catholicism. They are sin, awakening (conviction), repentance, confession, amends, penance, and blessing/indulgences. The catechism says about penance:
Absolution [forgiveness] takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
...prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbour, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and patient acceptance of whatever crosses we must bear in life. These penances help configure us to Christ, who alone can expiate our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him" (Rom 8:17, Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:1-2)
Here Protestants might object that the last three or four steps are unnecessary works added on to the gospel, and you only need the steps through repentance or confession. But again, I see some overspiritualizing or "Christian pietism" going on--that is, the belief that all that matters is being made right with God in a legal-spiritual sense, getting that crucial "innocent" verdict, and then you're good to go. The Catholic view seems more holistic. It recognizes that even after your sin is forgiven, it can still have aftereffects. There is still damage done that needs to be undone. It recognizes that participation on our part is needed to undo this damage--sanctification is not merely passive, Philippians 2:12. Penance is this participation on our part in God's work of healing the disorders left behind by forgiven sin, and indulgences, then, are seen as God's richly rewarding this participation by blessing and healing us.

Catholics worship Mary and the saints.

I held a weaker version of this belief for a while. Why do Catholics pray to Mary or the saints, I wondered? Did they believe that God was really too distant for their prayers to reach, or didn't care for them as much as He did for His saints? Surely the practice of praying to mere people--dead people, even--was a reflection of idolatry.

CatholicBridge has articles about Mary and the saints. The gist of it is that they believe that all believers are "saints" in a sense, but some saints have been formally, indisputably recognized as such. It's like how we believe the Bible was canonized; the Church did not make certain books part of the canon and exclude others, but saw itself as recognizing which ones really were God's words. In the same way I think Catholics would say that the church doesn't make people into "saints" but only recognizes them as having been saints.

Anyway, Catholics, like many Protestants, believe that those who have died in Christ are not really dead but have eternal life! For God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. (Matthew 22:32) And then (here is where the scriptural support gets admittedly thin), if these radical, passionate Christ-followers are in heaven worshipping Him face-to-face, why not ask them to pray to Him for us? It's not so different from praying for one another, or asking our pastor to pray for us. Saints and Mary are "serious prayer warriors". Even if you don't agree with this practice, it definitely isn't anything like worshipping Mary and the saints, or elevating them to the same level as Christ.

Catholicism rejects the exclusive authority of the Bible (sola scriptura)

This one seems pretty self-explanatory. Catholics believe in the Bible as authoritative, but only equally so with church tradition and the proclamations of an infallible pope. Isn't that placing human authority on equal footing with God's authority as shown through His word?

This article has an excellent reply to this objection:
The Catholic Church loves the Bible. The Church protected the Bible across the ages until the Gutenberg press was invented. Century after century, monks in monasteries faithfully copied Scripture. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible and thousands of faithful Catholics dedicated their lives to this work. Catholics protected the Bible over the centuries of wars, famines, plaques, the fall of Rome, fires, and threats from all sides. This was long before any other denomination existed. And the Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). We love the Bible. Honest!
The Bible is the Truth and no Catholic Dogma or tradition will contradict it, but Catholics do not believe that it is the authority. Otherwise there would have been no authority for the first 400 years of the Church.
Dang. That's a pretty good point. Before the Bible as we know it today was put together, God spoke to and shepherded His church primarily through people--the apostles, and then other church leaders in ensuing centuries. (Whom Catholics would consider to be part of the Catholic church) So clearly the Bible isn't everything or those early Christians would have been lost. How could early churches possibly have survived without Paul's comprehensive treatise about justification by faith in Romans!? And such a strong dichotomy between God's authority and human authority becomes hard to hold when you consider that every book of the Bible was written by--get ready for it--a human.

Of course Protestants--those who don't minimize the human element of scripture and focus on it being "God's very words"--understand that the Bible having a human side in no way negates its ability to be God's authoritative word. The difference seems to be that while Protestants believe that the "apostolic" authority in scripture died with its human authors, Catholics believe that the church--the Catholic church--still possesses it, with God continuing to shepherd it through His people the same way He did by inspiring the Bible and starting the church. While I don't agree with this proposition, it definitely isn't the same as proclaiming a man-made religion any more than first-century Christianity was man-made by being grown and guided by the work of the apostles.

Catholicism is a works-based religion, rejecting justification by faith alone (sola fide). More extremely, Catholics are not really Christians/"saved" and believe in a false gospel.

Now we get to probably the biggest objection Protestants, especially more reformed ones, have with Catholicism. Such as this article describing a Southern Baptist leader denouncing the Catholic church and the new pope. Mohler gets into the confusion about priests being given "spiritual authority" to forgive sins, but before that, writes:
“First and foremost, evangelicals must affirm that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is an essential, because that is the very definition of the gospel itself, and there is nothing more core, central and essential than the gospel,” Mohler said.
“The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any [other] understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else -- is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “The only way of understanding salvation by grace alone through faith alone is defining justification as the Scripture defines it, and that is justification by faith alone.”
Mohler noted that Pope Benedict XVI famously affirmed the doctrine of justification by faith when writing about the apostle Paul, “but he would not add that crucial word ‘alone.’”
“Lacking the word ‘alone,’ that means justification by faith that works in synergistic mechanism with our own righteousness or attempts at righteousness and efforts to gain merit,” Mohler said.
Mohler lays out the case pretty clearly: Catholics reject the core of the gospel, justification by faith alone, and instead subscribe to a man-made religion of legalistic works, which is really a false gospel.

I have covered what may be the source of this confusion in my previous post on sola fide. Paul writes that man is justified by faith alone, while James says man is justified by faith and works. What is going on? Paul is contrasting "faith alone" with faith-free legalism that attempts to make oneself righteous by exact, laser-precise obedience to the Mosaic law. By way of example, in a book on New Testament studies by Bruce Metzger I read some interesting stories of some ways the second-temple Jews, trying to renew their obedience after coming back from the exile, analyzed into the laws to figure out exactly how to apply them. They concluded, among other things, that it was lawful to walk through a field of grain on the Sabbath if it is ankle-high but not knee-high, because their robes might brush against the grain and accidentally "thresh" it, doing work. It's easy to see how this way of approaching the law might have led from faithful obedience to legalism.

I think many Protestants' almost obsessive devotion to Paul and his theology over the rest of the NT writers has led them to forget that while the gospel is our salvation from trying to earn righteousness, it is much more than this; the "law vs. grace" dichotomy falls far short of encompassing all of the theology in the New Testament, even theology of salvation. Focusing on Paul's theology of salvation, particularly in Romans, Ephesians, and Galations, can lead to a kind of absolutism where the slightest hint of anything on our part, besides faith, having anything to do with salvation is viewed and denounced as salvation by works. See Mohler's quote above: “The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any [other] understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else -- is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” In practice, this means a theology of salvation that focuses on faith alone, pasting the issue of works on only in specific questions of ethics.

James, on the other hand. is contrasting "faith and works" with works-free faith that consists solely of propositional beliefs (sound familiar?). You need both of these elements to get a full understanding of the nature of saving faith. The balance of Paul and James' theologies of salvation is well expressed in the adage, "Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone." While Protestants tend to favor and focus on Paul's theology of salvation more, Catholics seem to either take a more balanced view or fall more toward James' view. Both are true and both are necessary. And you must read both in context; Paul's condemnation of pharisaical legalism in Romans can't be assumed to translate exactly to Catholic practices today any more than it was condemning James' focus on works in the first century.

Even this cursory study--and defense--of Catholic theology has been enlightening. It's striking how strongly incarnational it is; whereas the Protestant theology I'm surrounded by focuses on how we are able to commune with God despite our own failures and powerlessness, Catholicism seems to behold closely how God is able to work His power, His authority, and His love through us anyway, making manifest in billions of lives the spiritual blessings promised to us in His word.