Posts tagged ‘Christian’

The Post I Didn’t Want to Write

Here is the truth: I didn’t want to write this post. Yet when we truly strive to follow God and be guided by the Holy Spirit, sometimes we don’t really have a choice about certain things.

I know I am not the only person who is still struggling to make some sense of the events of December 14 in Newtown, CT. Until the last few days, I have been unable to look at the photos of 20 young boys and girls and 6 brave adults whose lives were taken from them by a sick, evil person. 20 children who might have done anything in life, stripped of dreams and possibilities. Six adults who will stand in my memory always as living examples of Jesus’ words in John 10: 11,  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

I didn’t want to write this post because I have struggled so mightily with my emotions over the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary. At times I have felt like my whole inside has been nothing but a fountain of tears about to well forth. There have been voices out there whose words have helped. My friend Michael Perkins perhaps put it best here, saying,

My heart was wrecked. And if I can be completely honest, I think it should wreck all of our hearts.”

I cannot say exactly why this shooting has affected me more powerfully than others in recent memory, such as the Aurora, Colorado massacre this past summer. I only know that I continue to be heartsick, and keep mentally coming back to words that come from the Mourner’s Kaddish, a traditional piece of liturgy from the Judaism of my childhood.

“Let He who makes peace in the heavens, grant peace to all of us and to all Israel. Let us say, Amen.”

For me — as I suspect for many other — that peace is difficult to grab hold of. As a nation, it seems we may have begun to have a much-needed conversation regarding not just guns, but the violent nature of our culture in general. It’s a violence set in numerous contexts, some of which Scot McKnight identifies thusly:

1. Movies and TV
2. Video games
3. Western movies, Comic books, Cartoon figures
4. Toys
5. Use of the hand as a gun
6. Sports, especially football (of the American kind) and ice hockey
7. Mixed martial arts
8. NASCAR
9. Paintball games
10. Hunting for Bambi

I have struggled for some time, as I’ve discussed previously, with the question of whether Jesus in fact calls Christians to lay down the sword and in the wake of Newtown, I’m forced to confess my own shame over participation in a culture which doesn’t just condone guns, but glorifies and deifies them. McKnight specifically addresses this topic of Christianity and Guns here and here, and a cursory reading of the comments attached to any of these posts will show how heated this discussion quickly becomes.

Here’s why I didn’t want to write this post: I grew up in a household full of guns, and I spent most of my childhood and early teen years hunting with my dad, who has been a freelance outdoor writer for most of my life. To his credit, my dad made certain that both of his sons understood that guns were not toys and that we understood the responsibility of using them carefully. The worst whipping I ever received came when he caught me playing with a neighbor child’s toy gun (something I was expressly forbidden from doing). When I went off to college and life on my own, when I got home on occasion, I still tried to spend time out hunting with my dad. I say all this so it will be understood that I grew up in an atmosphere that made me as ardent a defender of Second Amendment rights as you can imagine.

I’m not sure I can do that anymore. I’m still not sure of whether I can build the argument that Jesus calls us to lay down the sword completely, but I am fairly sure that when Christians show more zeal for defending their right to guns than they do to follow and disseminate the teachings of Jesus, there’s a word to describe it: idolatry. I can agree with Scot McKnight on this:

“The church should lead the way in exhibiting peaceful approaches to life and conflict, and Christians should lead the way in seeking — at the least — serious examination of gun laws and gun safety and access to guns. How many have to die before this is an issue? How many times to do we have to say America has a gun violence problem?”

I didn’t want to write this post because I know what I am opening myself up to by doing so. I’m opening myself to an onslaught from angry Christians and non-Christians alike ready to tear me to pieces. I accept that may be a consequence of following my conscience in this. I don’t pretend that I have any answers yet. But how can any of us come to any answers — or make a safer world for children in other Newtowns — if we can’t stop being so convinced we’re right and just start talking to each other?

From the Archives: To Lay Down The Sword

The following post was originally published on September 20, 2010. As I am currently working on a second post on the subject, I thought I would revisit this one.

Carson T. Clark’s latest blog post has helped to crystallize some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a while, particularly this portion:

“I specifically have in mind childhood conflict. (Isn’t this the reason Lord of the Flies  is so powerful?) A college friend of mine recently put up a facebook status about how  his kindergarten daughter defended herself by slugging a bully right in the eye on the playground. As a loving father, his gut response was to be delighted that she stood up for himself. “That’s my girl!” But he later got to thinking about whether or not it’s right to encourage that. He didn’t say it publicly, but I suspect he got to thinking about the incongruity of his response with his professed theological beliefs.”

These thoughts that I’ve had rolling around center on the idea that a devoted follower of Christ has received a call to lay down the sword. This can particularly be seen in Christ’s statement in Matthew 26:52,

“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As I work through some thoughts on pacifism, let me start by addressing several things.

1) I have nothing but the utmost of respect for those who serve our nation through military service. My father and uncle both served in the Navy, as did my brother-in-law.  My wife’s grandfather was a decorated Naval officer who dove into the water during the attack on Pearl Harbor to swim out to his ship, and didn’t see his family again for close to two years. One of my best friends currently serves in the Army. Whatever conclusions I may personally come to regarding war and Christians will in no way diminish the respect I have for the courage and convictions displayed by the men and women who serve in our armed forces. I am very mindful that they are risking their lives for my right to even write this blog post and that Jesus also said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

2) The Church, since the time of Augustine, has struggled with the concept of “just war.” The Church’s struggle has been to find a balance between the simple truth that Christians should not take part in a war that is obviously plainly wicked versus the fact that some wars are considered justified even by Christians in order to prevent greater evils.

3) In the United States, church denominations such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and (at least up until World War II) the Churches of Christ have historically maintained pacifist positions. The cost of their convictions for some members of these denominations should be troubling to all Christians. During World War I, around 2000 conscientious objectors from these denominations were imprisoned in Federal prisons, where they received solitary confinement, short rations, and in a couple of cases physical abuse severe enough to result in death. Conscientious objectors fared slightly better in World War II, when the Civilian Public Service was established as an alternative to military service (although the cost of the program was placed on the conscientious objectors and their congregations).

One of the difficulties I have personally had in sorting out my thoughts at what I see as Jesus’ command to lay down the sword is that defining pacifism can be a bit like nailing Jello to a tree. There are those who approve a nation going to war, but not participation by Christians. There are others who would approve participation in a war that resists invasion. Then there are those who call themselves pacifists who might agree to a non-combat support role in a war, but would refuse to kill an enemy soldier. Going even further than this are those who object to any violence, whether by police or military personnel. Still others might say they would agree to participate in a just war but not an unjust war. Traditional Christian thought holds that no Christian should participate in an unjust war, but it seems to me that this is something more honored in thought than practice.

As I share my thoughts, I’d love to get a dialogue going. What are your opinions and thoughts on this? Do you agree that Jesus calls us to lay down the sword?

Blogging Hiatus

Lamentation at the Tomb, 15th century.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lent season, which begins a 46-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is also celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, Methodists, and Lutherans. Lent is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, I find these traditions familiar. They remind me of the practices which Jews engage in during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we daven (pray) and fast; they also bring to mind the Jewish practice of tzedakah, obligatory acts of charity.

Lent is more than simply traditions. Lent is a time which spiritually prepares us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Spiritual preparation can often come through exercising spiritual disciplines, practices which aim at bringing Christians into a state of holiness and purity. I think it is safe to say that throughout the history of the Church that such practices have not been necessarily easy to engage in, nor have they always enjoyed popularity. My friend David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, has for years engaged in the spiritual discipline of reading one chapter from Psalms each morning and meditating upon it. I have tried this discipline myself on and off over the years since he first shared it with me, and cannot say that I have had the discipline to maintain it.

Growing to maturity as a Christian requires more than simply proclaiming oneself a Christian. One must engage in spiritual disciplines designed to focus one on Christ, rather than on the things of this world. John Wesley devoted his life to the practice of such disciplines in his personal life, and to teaching others to engage in such practices themselves. Among the spiritual disciplines Wesley practiced and taught were: public worship of God, regularly searching the Scriptures, regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper (communion), private and family prayer, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and sheltering the homeless.

I think it’s interesting to note that some of these disciplines directly benefit us in our walk with Christ, while others of the disciplines seem to directly benefit others (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). Perhaps the message in that is that it isn’t about us, rather that it is about Jesus and doing the things He did, and treating others the way that He did. As Lent begins, I am beginning a fast from social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as placing this blog on hiatus. God has laid some exciting ministry opportunities (or may they are challenges) before me recently, and I choose to take Lent as a time to remove distractions in order that I might focus fully on Him, and on preparing myself to celebrate the Resurrection of His Son.

Whether you fast during Lent or not, I pray you too will engage in some sort of spiritual preparation. See you after Easter!!

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Six

In this brief, penultimate chapter, Francis Chan addresses Romans 9, a passage he claims has caused him more confusion than any other. In this passage, he says, “Paul asks a necessary question: What if?”

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:22-23)

Chan identifies Paul’s “What if?” as a probing question —

“forcing us to face our inflated view of our own logic. It’s another way of asking: Just how high is my view of God?”

What Chan wants his readers to consider here is how deep their loyalty to God actually runs. If this is correct, if God has indeed created “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” for the purposes of showing his wrath and making His power known … then it means He is showing those He saves just how magnificent his glory and mercy are. This forces each of us to answer the question of “what if?” with another question: what shall I do? Do we refuse to believe in Him, or refuse to be a vessel of mercy, asks Chan. And would it be wise to refuse to follow Him?

THE POTTER AND THE CLAY

Chan uses the Romans 9 passage to return to the question regarding Hell that he initially raised in Chapter One: could you believe these things, if in fact God says they are true? He points out that Paul doesn’t categorically state that God destroys sinners in order to show how mighty He is, but that the apostle does raise it as a valid possibility. The importance of acknowledging this possibility, in Chan’s view, is that it allows us to allow God to be who He is.

“We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people. Because He’s the Potter and we’re the clay. This, in fact, is the analogy that Paul gives earlier in Romans 9.”

That these are difficult statements Chan acknowledges, especially in light of Paul’s earlier statements in Romans 9 that God will have mercy on whom He wills, and harden whomever He chooses. Chan submits that all of this leads one to ask that if all of need mercy and God grants that to some but not to others, then who is truly responsible — you and I, or God?

It’s an excellent question, and one that Chan answers using the same passage. Paul’s declaration is that the Potter has the right to do whatever He wills with the clay.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Romans 9:20-21 )

Chan appeals as well to Isaiah 55:8-9, where God Himself declares his own Otherness, His essential differentness from you and I.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 )

When it comes to the subject of Hell, Chan implores that people recall that we think differently than God thinks, and that God hasn’t asked any man or woman to figure out why He does what He does. More pointedly, Chan opines that we can’t — because our very way of thinking is inferior to God’s!  Rather, Chan argues, the gap between our thoughts and His is so immeasurable that our energy is better spent in submitting to Him than in overanalysis of His ways.

I WOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT

Chan points out that sending people to Hell isn’t the only thing God does that is impossible to figure out. He notes that there are many acts of God that don’t make sense by Man’s logic.

  • God regrets that he created men and women, due to their evil, and with the exception of 8 people, He drowns them all with a flood. (Genesis 6-8)
  • Moses comes down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, and God commands the Levites to sharpen their swords and slaughter everyone worshipping the idol — some three thousand people. Once the massacre is finished, God blesses the Levites for their obedience. (Exodus 32:27)
  • God commands the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, and child inhabitating the land of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
  • When the Israelites are conquering Jericho, Achan disobeys the command of God and retains some loot. When challenged, he lies, then discloses his sin and returns the treasure. Despite his confession, Achan and all his family are stoned to death. (Joshua 7)

To all of these, Chan declares, “If I were God, I wouldn’t have allowed that, let alone commanded it.” I have to agree with him.  That is precisely the point he is trying to make here; there are divine actions and commands throughout Scripture that don’t mesh with our standards of morality or even logic. Chan reminds the reader that we are the clay, while God is the Potter. Yet Chan also points out that the God whose logic in sending sinners to Hell confounds is also the God who thought to send his Son to take on human flesh. He is the same God who entered creation through the womb of a young Jewish woman, and was born in a feeding trough. He is the same God who thought to allow His created beings to torture His Son, lacerate His flesh with whips, and the drive nails through His hands and feet.

“I’m almost sure I would not have done that if I were God. Aren’t you glad I’m not God? It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for clay to do.”

Christmas Eve Reflections

It’s Christmas Eve, and so many of my fellow Christians are engaged in traditions that have been part of their families for years: decorating the tree, wrapping presents (or, heaven forbid at this late hour, buying presents), baking cookies, maybe mixing up some holiday punch. There are smells of cinnamon and citrus, ole Bing is crooning out “White Christmas,” and family members who might only see each other once a year are wrapping each other in warm embraces.

I am a man of two worlds. Being a nice Jewish boy who is Christian but continues to celebrate his Jewish heritage, tonight is not only Christmas Eve, but for me it is the fifth night of Hanukkah. Growing up in a Jewish household, I was pretty proud of the fact that we celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas. I loved the foods. Who could resist the greasy deliciousness – with just a hint of onion – of latkes, the traditional potato pancakes? My dilemma as a child was whether to drown my latkes in sour cream or applesauce! Then there was the dreidel game, in which parent-approved gambling could lead to a wealth of gelt, or foil-covered chocolate coins. I recently discovered that there are now dark chocolate gelt, to which I can only say, “where have you been all my life?!”  Aside from the food, and the games, and gifts, there was also the STORY of Hanukkah, which was a far sight better than any of the comic books I read as a kid. For those unfamiliar with the tale, I present a summary.

In the 2nd century BC, the Jewish people were oppressed by the forces of a Syrio-Greek king, one Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus forbid the Jewish people to practice their religion, and began forcing Greek culture and religion upon the resistant Jews. The final blow came when Antiochus desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by slaughtering a pig upon the altar. As Antiochus proclaimed that the Temple was now dedicated to the Greek god Zeus rebellion broke out, led by the sons of a priest named Mattathias. The eldest son, Judah, led the rebellion after the death of Mattathias and was given the name Yudah haMakabi, or Judah the Hammer. His followers were known as the Maccabees.

Although vastly outnumbered by the Syrian armies, the Maccabees successfully drove their enemies away and reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple. Judah ordered that the Temple be cleansed and rededicated (hence the name Hanukkah, which means “dedication”). As they built a new altar and new holy vessels for the Temple, a terrible discovery was made. There was only a single container of consecrated ritual olive oil, which was required in order to keep the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra) in the Temple burning through the night. According to tractate Shabbat 21b in the Talmud, this one container of oil miraculously burned for eight days, precisely the amount of time needed to press and consecrate more oil. Jewish sages hence instituted an eight-day holiday commemorating this miracle, customarily celebrated by lighting candles for eight days.

In my child’s mind, all of this made Hanukkah a vastly superior holiday to Christmas. Where else was I going to find a holiday which celebrated the Jews kicking some serious heiney??? I even wrote a play to be performed for my synagogue. Unfortunately, “The Bloody Maccabees” was far from a success; the special effects involved copious amounts of stage blood, scandalizing the members of my synagogue. Nevertheless, my love for the holiday was not weakened. The custom that developed much later – probably in response to Christian celebration of Christmas – of Jewish parents giving their children presents on each night was just another point of which I could boast. “Sure,” I would say to my Gentile friends, “you guys get a big day of presents… but I get EIGHT DAYS of presents!”

As I got older, I began more and more to meet Christmas and its trimmings with rolled eyes and positively Scrooge-like comments. I would complain to friends that Christmas would be easier to handle if popular Christmas music wasn’t so lame and repeated ad nauseum. “Speaking of nausea,” I would remark, “what’s with the decorations at the mall? It looks like Christmas just threw up in there!” I can remember making my college girlfriend furious when I mocked Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of her cherished childhood memories. “What does this horrible Claymation travesty have to do with Jesus? I thought that was the reason for the season??!” I shouted at her.

Even after I had placed my faith in Jesus as my Messiah, it was years before I was able to overcome the idea in my mind that Christmas was rank with hypocrisy. Would Jesus have approved of the focus on decorations, trees, and presents, I asked? If not, why did my Christian brothers and sisters continue to celebrate it with such materialism and greed, rather than focusing on Messiah? It wasn’t until I began dating my future wife that I experienced for myself a Christian family whose focus during Christmas was on celebrating the birth of our Savior. I began to get my first taste of this after being invited to spend the holidays with my wife’s family and being told that we would all be going to an 11:00 PM Christmas Eve service, so that we could worship and praise God for sending us His Son. At long last, I began to see that Christmas had depths beyond sugar cookies and brightly wrapped packages!

As I write this, I am getting ready to go to another Christmas Eve service at 11:00 PM, and I am reflecting on how my life in Christ has made both Christmas and Hanukkah important to me. Both holidays represent the Lord’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, and both holidays show us how the Lord brings light into darkness. During a very dark period for the Jewish people, God kept His promise to defend and preserve the children of Israel. Through Judah Maccabee, the Lord drove off those who would destroy the Jewish people. The miracle of the oil is symbolic of the light of God’s glory shining forth.

And what is Christmas, what is the Incarnation but the ultimate example of God’s light shining forth in the darkness? For those who trust in Jesus, the darkness in their heart is driven away, and they become the temple in which God’s Spirit abides. As my wife and I continue to celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, I remember the words of Jesus Himself as He declared,

“I am the Light of the World.” John 9:5

and as we welcome Christmas, I will remember that we are celebrating the birth of our promised Savior – the ultimate rescue mission by God on our behalf!

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Five

Up until this point in Erasing Hell, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle have leaned heavily towards examination of what 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were, what the New Testament records that Jesus actually said about Hell, and what the writers of the New Testament themselves wrote about Hell. All of this has had a rather deep theological weight to it. In Chapter Five, Chan addresses what all of it has to do with the average Christian. While this ranks as the shortest chapter thus far, it is by no means less important than the first four chapters. No theology matters much without the means to apply it to the Christian life, and the issues that Chan raises in this chapter are–like it or not–ones that the Church fails to grapple with today.

YOU FOOL

Chan begins by pointing out that Jesus threatens hell to those who curse their brother (in Matthew 5:22). The subject of Hell has been one that brings the worst in Christians, and as Chan accurately notes,

It’s ironic–frightening actually–that some people have written books, preached sermons, or written blog posts about hell and have missed this point completely. In fact, some people have slammed their Christian brothers and sisters in the process, simply because they have a different view of hell, missing the purpose of Matthew 5: Whoever calls his brother a fool may find himself guilty of hell.

Have you called your brother a fool lately? On a blog? On Facebook? Have you tweeted anything of the sort?

Here Chan seems to be engaging in some oblique reproof. Although he has not been shy about naming Rob Bell in previous chapters (see my reviews of the Introduction and Chapter One), this seems to be a reference to the controversy that erupted in the Christian blogosphere at the time Bell’s Love Wins was released — particularly as concerns a tweet sent out by John Piper prior to the book’s publication. The warning that Chan is giving here is that disagreement should not lead to vitriol — exactly what happened with Love Wins, and something that I was surely not the only one disturbed by (you can read some of my thoughts here and in the comments sections here). The standard, says Chan, is “that we would live holy lives.” Whatever our thoughts on hell, we must not demean our Christian brothers and sisters over the issue.

BUT JESUS, DIDN’T WE …

Chan next turns to Matthew 7, which he dubs “probably the scariest passage on hell in the entire Bible.” He offers the opinion that of all the hair-raising words used to describe hell — fire, furnace, everlasting, gloom, darkness, worms, torment — none of them are used in the passage. Rather, he finds the most terrible word to be many,  as in “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” (Matthew 5:23) Chan finds this terrifying because of the indication that “many” will go to Hell when they thought they were intended for Heaven, and it’s clear that he believes this will happen because of poor teaching on what the Bible says on the subject of Hell.

This is judgment day. This is the end. There are no second chances. This is the last peaceful breath that “many” will breathe before they spend the rest of their lives in hell. Put yourself there for a second. Fast-forward your life to that day. Will you sound like the many who will call out in desperation, “Lord, Lord, did I not  __________  and __________  and  __________ in Your name?”

How will Jesus respond to your laundry list of Christian activities–your Easter services, tithe, Bible studies, church potlucks, and summer-camp conversions? Are you sure you’re on the right side? What evidence do you have that you know Jesus? Please understand my heart. I believe I am asking these questions for the same reason that Jesus gives the warning. It’s the most loving thing I can do! “Many” will go to hell even though they thought they’d waltz into paradise. Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23).

FROM EVERY TRIBE AND TONGUE

Chan next takes on the elephant in the sanctuary of many churches in America: racism. What does racism have to do with hell? According to Jesus, says Chan, everything. He cites Matthew 8 as an example of Jesus standing the cultural and social mores of 1st-century Jewish life on their end, noting Jesus’ astonishment over a Roman Gentile military leader whose trust and faith in the authority of Jesus far exceeds that of anyone in Israel.

Jesus spins out a short message about many people of all nations and colors and ethnicities that will flood into the kingdom. And it is here that Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” who think that God values one ethnicity over another (in this case, the Jewish people) are damned to hell: “The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12 NASB). The teeth that once gnashed at the person of another race or color will gnash in the agony of eternal torment.

Chan throws out a figure that is both disturbing and sad: only 5.5 of evangelical churches in America could be considered multiethnic (where no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of its congregants). It’s hardly necessary to point out what a glaring contradiction this represents to the unity of every tribe and tongue to which Jesus calls the Church. Chan points out another glaring contradiction, however:

We need to see the glaring contradiction of saying we believe in hell while making no effort to tear down the walls of racism and ethnic superiority. If we’re going to take Jesus’ words seriously, we have to make a more concerted effort to forge avenues of racial reconciliation and unity under the banner of the gospel of Christ … If this sounds irritating, then go back and read Matthew 8. It’s written for you.

BLESSED ARE THE POOR

The poor are mentioned over 400 times throughout the Bible, and Chan notes that while Jesus might have been ambiguous at times about the nature or duration of hell, he is positively clear about the necessity of reaching the poor. His longest sermon about judgment, as Chan remarks, makes helping the poor one of God’s criteria for determining who goes where in the afterlife. Chan quickly follows this with an admission that Christians want to qualify this.

We want to add all sorts of footnotes to Jesus’ shaky theology in Matthew 25–justification is by faith, not by works; you don’t really have to help literal poor people, etc … it’s ironic that some people will fight tooth and nail for the literalness of Jesus’ words about hell in this passage, yet soften Jesus’ very clear words about helping the poor … Why do we assume it must be one or the other? Let’s keep the teeth of both truths. There’s a literal hell, and helping the poor is essential. Not only did Jesus teach both of these truths, He saw them as necessary and interrelated.

THE TONGUE OF FIRE

The short epistle of James has not been without controversy throughout the history of the Church. Martin Luther hated the book, denying it was the work of an apostle, due to its famous statement that “faith without works is dead.” It is not works that Chan focuses on in a brief discussion of James, but rather its single mention of hell, which Chan feels is directed right at him as a teacher of the Bible.

In the context of warning teachers that they will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1), James says that the tongue is capable of burning up an entire forest (v. 5). “The tongue is a fire,” James says, and it is ignited by the fire of hell (v. 6). Again, think teachers, those who stand up and communicate God’s Word to God’s people … No doubt James agrees that sinners of all sorts will go to hell, but for some sobering reason he saves his only explicit–and quite scathing–warning about hell for teacher’s of God’s Word.

This seems an apt warning from Chan for a Church that more and more is full of not just poor teaching, but outright false teaching (i.e., the prosperity movement). In this context, Chan sees this warning about hell in James as placed squarely in context with 2 Peter and Jude (discussed in Chapter Four), with their emphasis being a place for false teachers who claim to speak for God when they are really only speaking for themselves.

LUKEWARM AND LOVING

As in the previous chapter, Chan turns to the book of Revelation for some of the most terrifying images of hell. He notes that the epistle was not written to unbelievers, but to Christians, as a warning to keep faith in the midst of adversity. The descriptions of hell in Revelation 14 and 20-21, he asserts, were specifically written with the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 in mind.

In these churches, there were those who had left their first love (Rev 2:), followed the heresy of false teachers (v. 20), and become complacent and “lukewarm” because of the earthly wealth they hoarded (3:15-17). It is to these types of people–people who confess Jesus with their lips but deny Him by their actions–that God reserves the most scathing descriptions of hellfire and brimstone.

Chan states that he has seen enough of the Church in other countries to know that not all Christian live as American Christians do. He sincerely believes that the Church in American has become “dangerously comfortable.” He depicts American Christians as “believers who ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel.” Yet he also draws encouragement from growing numbers of Christians in America who recognize how at odds this is with what Jesus calls us to, and are making changes in their lifestyles. Chan closes by reminding the reader that in Revelation, Jesus addressed a few who had refused to succumb:

“You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” (Rev. 3:4)

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Four

Having delved into exactly what Jesus himself had to say on the subject, Chan and Sprinkle turn their attention to what Jesus’ followers said about Hell. Chapter Four of Erasing Hell is a short but pithy exploration of what the writers of the New Testament wrote about Hell.

HELL IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL, PETER, AND JUDE

Chan throws out the rather startling fact that in all thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul, the word hell is not used once, nor does Paul give any descriptive details of the place. Paul did, observes Chan,

… speak of “death” as the result of sin, whereby the wicked would “perish” or “be destroyed” by the “wrath” of God. The sinner, according to Paul, stands “condemned” and will be “judged” by God on account of his sin. And unless the sinner repents and turns to Christ, he will be “punished” by God when Christ returns. Paul described the fate of the wicked with words such as “perish, destroy, wrath, punish,” and others more than eighty times in his thirteen letters. To put this in perspective, Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy or heaven combined … he assuredly believed that the wicked will face a horrific fate if they remain in their sin.”

Chan reflects on how much creative effort would have to go into dismissing the idea of God’s wrath and the punishment of the wicked from Paul’s letters, and asks if what drove Paul’s efforts to reach the lost might have been that the apostle from Tarsus spent much time pondering the fate of those who had not heard or responded to the Gospel? He also clarifies that although Paul might never have gone into details regarding hell, he certainly,

comes pretty close–a passage blistering with passion and urgency about Christ’s second coming and the wrath that follows:

“since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  (2 Thess. 1:6-9)

Notice that this passage reflects wrath that is retributive, not corrective — an issue that Chan addressed earlier, in Chapter Three. It is not an expression of correction or salvation, but one of vengeance. One of the finer points of Chan as an author is that he continues to come back to the points of the argument, not to endlessly and pointlessly hammer them into the reader, but so that the reader might see that there are many passages that support the Biblical case he is building.

Chan closes this section of Chapter Four with a rather cogent observation regarding Christians and the Church today: we don’t like the terminology that Paul uses when he uses words such as “wrath” and “vengeance”. In fact, we think it is–as Chan labels it–“toxic and unloving.” Yet Paul might well have insisted that such terms, when used to warn people of what was to come, was as loving as it gets. Chan makes the confession that as a pastor he has deliberately distanced himself from such language so as not to be associated with Christians who might revel in the idea of wrath and punishment. And yet, he also is bold enough to state this:

“I believe it’s time for some of us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself.”

HELL IN 2 PETER AND JUDE

Chan skims the surface of two other epistles that speak of wrath and judgment on an extensive level. Chan compares 2 Peter 2 to a chapter from Dante’s Inferno, while he says the book of Jude reads “like a medieval tract written to scare peasants into unwavering church attendance and a steady tithe.” Chan notes the following uses of language or descriptions regarding Hell in these two letters:

  • “destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3, 12; 3:7, 9; Jude 5, 10, 11)
  • “punishment” (2 Peter 2:9; Jude 7)
  • “judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, 9; Jude 9)
  • “condemnation” (2 Peter 2:3; Jude 4)
  • “hell” (2 Peter 2:)
  • retributive suffering (2 Peter 2:13)
  • “the gloom of utter darkness” (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13)
  • “punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7, 23)

Chan affirms these two books as capturing “an important part of the Christian message: God will severely punish those who don’t bow the knee to King Jesus.”

HELL IN REVELATION

Chan concludes this chapter by examining what the final chapter of the Bible has to say about Hell. Immediately, he notes that even 2 Peter 2 and Jude can’t come close to the description of Hell in the book of Revelation. He quotes Revelation 14:9-11 to illustrate an important theme in Revelation: God’s wrath is terrifying.

“And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11)

Chan points out the physical description of fire and sulfur here, but more importantly notes the nature of that punishment as ongoing, with no end in sight. He observes that the author John describes the people being “tormented with fire” rather than being destroyed, and that the smoke of their torment goes up “forever and ever,” with “no rest, day or night.” Chan goes on to cite another passage from Revelation, demonstrating the fate of all those who do not follow Jesus–and showing that they share that fate with the Devil and his servants.

… and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:10-15)

As he notes that the lake of fire is the final destiny for the Devil and unbelievers, Chan very pointedly reminds the reader that the phrase “forever and ever” used to describe never-ending punishment for the wicked is the same “forever and ever” in Revelation 22:5, describing the reign of God’s people which will never end. Chan asserts,

“given that this terminology points to something that has no end in sight … it seems best to understand the word death not in terms of total annihilation but as a description of those who will be separated from God forever in an ongoing state of punishment.”

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