Posts tagged ‘Jews’

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Seven

We’ve come to the final chapter of Erasing Hell, titled “Don’t Be Overwhelmed,” a feeling that Chan admits is easy when it comes to the subject of Hell — in fact, he says thoughts of Hell can be paralyzing for some people.  All the more reason, asserts Chan, for us to have a sense of urgency , and not go on with life as usual.

A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel as it did for Paul, who “knowing the fear of the Lord,” persuaded people to believe (2 Cor. 5:11). We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled — as with all doctrine — to live differently in light of it.

This is a stance that Chan points that Peter is in agreement with, noting Peter’s descriptions in 2 Peter 3 of the Lord’s return, the day of judgment, and the destruction of those that are not godly. Peter, remarks Chan, does not implore people to throw up their hands in defeat at this news, but rather instructs them to live holy and godly lives.

 

In other words, we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it.

A GREATER URGENCY

Chan further stresses Paul’s sense of urgency towards saving people from Hell by quoting Romans 9:2-3, in which Paul wishes himself accursed if it would accomplish the salvation of his fellow Jews.

“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. “

Chan’s motivation in quoting this passage is to point out that while Paul had some terrifying things to say about the final fate of those who rejected Jesus, he loved those same people on a level that seems crazy to most. Paul devoted his life to seeing that those people got right with God so that they would not end up in Hell.

MORE REASON TO REJOICE

Chan points out what seems an incongruity in regards to Paul. While the apostle had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart, he also commanded Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4) How is it possible to reconcile what seem to be such paradoxical emotions as grief and rejoicing? According to Chan, this is a tension we are bound to live with when we follow Jesus. It is a tension between the joy we feel at knowing Jesus and the salvation He brings, and the burden we should feel for loved ones who don’t know Him. And Chan wants to point out that while can — and often is — a paralyzing doctrine, it is one that also magnifies the beauty of the cross.

Hell is the backdrop that reveals the profound and unbelievable grace of the cross. It brings to light the enormity of our sin and therefore portrays the undeserved favor of God in full color. Christ freely chose to bear the wrath that I deserve so that I can experience life in the presence of God. How can I keep from singing, crying, and proclaiming His indescribable love?

Chan closes the chapter (and the book) by asking another question: “Are you sure?” In this case, the question is asking whether or not the reader has embraced the God who can save them from Hell. “Do you know Him?” Chan asks. Are you secure in Him and in love with Him?  Chan closes by pleading once more that the reader be reconciled with God if they are not already, quoting 2 Corinthians.

 “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God … behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21; 6:2)

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 Three

Having dealt in Chapter Two with what the Jewish beliefs about Hell were that would have influenced Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, Francis Chan moves on to exploring what Jesus actually said about Hell. Chan gives the reader a reminder of what he labels a sobering reality: this is a subject which is not just about doctrines, but about destinies. He urges that anyone who reads the book and is wrestling with what the Bible says about Hell should not let it be merely an academic exercise.

“You must let Jesus’ very real teaching on hell sober you up. You must let Jesus’ words reconfigure the way you live, the way you talk, and the way you see the world and the people around you.”

As I wrote in my last post, Chan’s description of the 1st-century world Jesus inhabited is one in which the Jewish people saw hell as a place of punishment for the wicked after they faced God’s judgment. They described hell with images of fire, darkness, and lamenting; some believed the wicked would be annihilated after they were cast into hell, while other Jews believed hell to be a place of never-ending torment. Given this milieu, Chan notes the importance of understanding that if Jesus rejected these widespread Jewish beliefs in hell, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against them.

Chan is insistent that what Jesus Himself actually said about hell stands in line with the dominant views of hell in His 1st-century Jewish world. He examines Jesus’ teachings on hell using the same three categories he discussed in Chapter Two to demonstrate that Jesus believed:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

HELL IS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGMENT

Chan notes that Jesus used the word gehenna (hell) twelve times in the Gospel, employing imagery of fire and darkness to demonstrate that a horrific place of punishment awaits the wicked on the day of judgment. Chan cites Matthew 25:31-46 as the clearest example of this.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Chan is careful to admit that this is actually an instance where Jesus actually does not use the word gehenna, but that He communicates the concept of hell by phrases such as “everlasting fire” and “everlasting punishment.” The point that is important here is that this is a passage in which Jesus is clear that the wicked will be awarded everlasting punishment on the day of Christ’s return, judgment day. He singles out another instance, in Matthew 5:22, where Jesus does use gehenna passage concerning judgment, stating,

“… here the Judge has the power to sentence you to the “hell [gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 5:22). This is not a vague reference to hell and certainly not a reference to a garbage dump. The legal context of this statement ensures that Jesus is referring to the consequences of judgment day.”

According to Chan, this legal context is the indication that Jesus means that hell is a literal place, where punishment occurs after judgment.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGERY OF FIRE AND DARKNESS

Chan moves on to demonstrate that — like his Jewish contemporaries — Jesus described Hell using images of fire and darkness. He turns to the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13.

“Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30)

Chan notes that this is a verse that doesn’t say much on its own, but comments that Jesus’ explanation of the parable and what He means by the burning weeds is of significance.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40-43)

Chan unswervingly calls these statements of Jesus “terrifying,” and puts forward the image of the wicked being cast into hell — and the weeping that follows — as common belief among 1st-century Jews (an argument he supported well previously). In the light of some of the Jewish writing on hell that Chan shared previously, he is successful in making the case that Jesus is right in line with Jewish thought on Hell. Jesus was using an established vocabulary to communicate a message that no one who heard Him speaking would have had any doubts about: Jesus was speaking of gehenna (hell) as “a place of punishment for all who don’t follow Jesus in this life.” Chan tackles some contemporary stances on hell (and by “contemporary” some would almost certainly say “Rob Bell”) by asserting,

“The hell that Jesus describes here is not a hell-on-earth that accompanies our bad decisions during this life, and it certainly isn’t the never-ending party that AC/DC describes in their song.”

Lastly, Chan gives examples of Jesus’ use of the imagery of darkness to refer to hell as a place of punishment for those of Israel and the nations who do not follow Jesus.

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)

“And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30)

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Chan concludes Chapter Three by addressing a seeming dichotomy: Jesus seems in some passages give the implication that Hell will not last very long, while in other places He refers to Hell as a place in which unbelievers are punished with horrifying, agonizing pain that never ends.

This section of Erasing Hell is one in which it seems that the voice of Preston Sprinkle could possibly be rising above Francis Chan’s, as there is a very scholarly exploration of the precise meaning of Greek words and grammar. Chan believes this is beneficial but acknowledges that it may be more technical than some might be used to. He leads into this discussion of Greek grammar with the following:

“In almost every passage where Jesus mentions hell, He doesn’t explicitly say it will last forever. He speaks of torment, and we get the impression that hell is terrible, that it’s a place to be avoided at all costs, but He doesn’t clearly tell us how long it will last.

Jesus’ most suggestive statement–perhaps His only statement–about the duration of hell comes in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus speaks of the final judgment that will take place at His second coming (v. 31). The sheep (believers in Jesus) and goats (unbelievers) are divided in two camps, and Jesus decides who’s who based on what they’ve done in their lives. The sheep have served Jesus by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on, while the goats did none of these things. Jesus then gives His verdict:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the  devil and his angels.’ ” (v. 41)

Jesus reviews their behavior on earth and finds convicting evidence for their condemnation (vv. 42-44) and then concludes:

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (vv. 45-46)

The vital point Chan wishes to make revolves around the phrases everlasting fire and everlasting punishment. Those who believe that Hell is of limited duration, he states, argue that the Greek aionios kolasis which is translated “everlasting punishment” does not meant that punishment is without end. Rather they argue for aionios meaning “a period of time,” with kolasis being a horticultural term referring to “pruning” or “trimming.” Here Chan is very deliberately going on the offensive against Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which Bell stated:

“An aionios of kolasis. Depending on how you translate aionios and kolasis, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.”

The argument of Bell and others, Chan relates, is that the purpose of this pruning or correction is to improve something — in this case, to correct the wicked of their ungodly behavior until they have ceased to be wicked. According to this, Jesus is referring to a time of correction that will result in those who suffer punishment being eventually saved. In Rob Bell’s view, this then refers to “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”

Chan is honest enough to admit that this is an appealing argument, on the basis that it appears to reconcile the love of God with the bleak statements Jesus makes about hell. However, Chan refutes the argument on the basis of kolasis in no way referring to correction, only to punishment. He gives three reasons for this, the first being that in the three other appearances of the word in the New Testament, it refers only to punishment. Kolasis as used in Jewish literature of the first century refers to punishment.

Secondly, the everlasting punishment referred to is the same location as “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” in verse 41. This being the case, Chan notes that to argue that unbelievers endure a time of suffering for a period, which results in salvation, then the same must be true for the Devil and his angels. Chan labels this as a huge stretch, especially in light of Revelation 19-20, where it is stated that the Devil and his angels will be tormented forever and ever. Chan contends that Jesus is actually saying that unbelievers will share the same fate as the Devil and his followers. In other words, unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever.

The third reason Chan presents for kolasis referring to punishment instead of correction is that in other verses or passages in which Jesus refers to hell with phrases such as “the fiery furnace” or “everlasting fire,” He is speaking of a place of retribution, a place where sinners receive the punishment for their sins. He does not speak of correction, notes Chan, in other passages such as Matthew 13:41-42 and 49-50. He observes that the consensus of biblical commentators from diverse theological backgrounds, using diverse translations of the Bible (in numerous languages), translate kolasis as meaning “punishment.”

Chan’s final thoughts for Chapter Three contain his recognition that while he strongly favors the argument that Hell is everlasting, he is not ready to claim that with complete certainty. He concludes with this fervent admonition:

“We are bound by the words of the Creator, the One who will do what is right. The One who invented justice and knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves. God has never asked us to figure out His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee, to tremble at His word, as Isaiah says (66:2)”

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Two

“Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?” is the question that begins chapter two of Erasing Hell. Here, Chan discusses inaccurate ideas and images that many of us persist in believing. He begins with an embarrassing confession about the image that comes to his mind when he hears the name Jesus: a Caucasian man with long blonde hair, staring up into the sky, courtesy of a painting that hung on the wall of a church he attended as a child. Chan acknowledges,

“Jesus did not look that way when He walked the earth, and He certainly doesn’t look like that now. But as hard as I have tried, I have not been able to erase that picture from my memory. It occasionally creeps back into my mind when I hear the name Jesus. Sometimes it even happens when I’m praying!”

Chan’s point here is our tendency to choose a version of Jesus reinterpreted in the light of our own cultural, political, or theological opinions, rather than the Jesus presented by the Bible itself. Having made this point, he then applies it to the topic of Hell, noting:

“The question “what is hell?” has spawned many answers over the years. For Origen, hell was a place where the souls of the wicked were purified so they could find their way back to God. Dante depicted hell as a place under the earth’s surface with nine levels of suffering, where sinners were bitten by snakes, tormented by beasts, showered with icy rain, and trapped in rivers of blood or flaming tombs; some were even steeped in huge pools of human excrement. C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of hell was significantly less creepy. For Lewis, it was a kind of dark, gloomy city, or a place where “being fades away into nonentity.” A happier portrait of hell was painted by the band AC/DC, who said that “hell ain’t a bad place to be”–it’s where all our friends are. Most recently, Rob Bell said that hell is not “about someday, somewhere else,” but about the various “hells on earth” that people experience in this life — genocide, rape, and unjust socioeconomic structures.”

Chan’s plea is that we set aside notions of hell that are based on literature or music or popular culture, and that we examine what Jesus actually said about hell, in the context of the world Jesus actually lived in. To do so, insists Chan, is to acknowledge a world in which hell was seen as a place of punishment for those who did not follow God. So ingrained was this belief among 1st-century Jews, says Chan, that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to set Himself apart from such a view if he didn’t share it. Although he leaves the question of whether or not Jesus did that for the following chapter, Chan devotes most of the second chapter to examining the 1st-century Jewish view of hell, noting that for the Jews of Jesus’ day, three things were believed in regards to Hell:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment

Chan notes immediately that first-century Judaism built its theology from the Old Testament, which doesn’t have that much to say about hell. He does make mention of Daniel 12:2 as most relevant, with its reference to punishment in the afterlife: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Chan also refers to Ezekiel 32:17-32, another passage which mentions hell and punishment.

At this point, Chan wanders onto some possibly shaky ground, as he must depart from Scripture to examine Jewish belief in Hell — not the best place to wander when one is insisting on examining what the Bible says about Hell. He is careful to note that many 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were developed after reading the Old Testament, but that these beliefs are not in themselves inspired by God. The purpose of explaining these beliefs, for Chan, is to demonstrate the beliefs that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were surrounded by and would have been influence by.

HELL AS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGEMENT

Here is Chan’s description of 1st-century Jewish belief in Hell as a place of punishment after judgement:

“The typical afterlife scenario among Jews in Jesus’ day was that after the wicked die, they go to a place called hades, sometimes called sheol. This is not the same thing as “hell.” Hades is not usually depicted as a place of punishment, though the wicked may suffer there. It is a place where the wicked wait until judgement day. After they are judged, the wicked are then thrown into hell as a punishment for their sins.”

Chan notes that the punishment was not intended as corrective or remedial. It won’t make the wicked fit for salvation. Rather, he states, “hell is retributive — it’s God’s punishment for sin.” Chan cites from first-century Apocryphal book, 4 Ezra, by way of demonstrating this:

“[The chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgement … recompense shall follow … unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear … and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed.”

Chan also cites a second-century work, 1 Enoch, to demonstrate the Jewish belief that after sinners die they go to a place where they await judgement, as they have not been judged in their lifetimes.

“[T]he sinners are set apart when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed upon them in their lifetime, upon this great pain, until the great day of judgment–and to those who curse (there will be) plague and pain forever, and the retribution of their spirits.”

Chan notes how  at odds this is with the notion that Rob Bell asserts in Love Wins, that hell is the various “hells on earth” that people might face daily.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGES OF FIRE, DARKNESS, AND LAMENT

The length of time in which 1st-century Jews believed one would spend in hell was the matter of differences of opinion, Chan says, with some believing that the personal existence of the wicked would cease as hell was a place of annihilation, while others believed that the wicked would continue to exist, albeit in eternal torment and pain. What was consistent, he elucidates, is the common description of hell using images of fire.

“[T]he coming world will be given to these [i.e. the one’s obedient to God], but the habitation of the many others will be in fire.“(2 Bar.,  44:15, first century AD)

“Woe unto you, sinners, because of the works of your hands! On account of the deeds of your wicked ones, in blazing flames worse than fire, it shall burn.” (1 Enoch 100:9, first century BC)

Chan aptly compares the language of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the words of Jesus himself in their use of the images of fire and worms.

“And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24)

“where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (Mark 9:48)

“Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance upon them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.” (Judith 16:17, first century BC).

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Some 1st-century contemporaries of Jesus, Chan states, saw Hell as a place of annihilation, while others saw it as a place of never-ending punishment.

“And their dwelling place will be in darkness and the place of destruction; and they will not die but melt away until I remember the world and renew the earth. And they will die and not live, and their life will be taken away from the number of all men.” (L.A.B. 16:3, first century AD)

This clearly a view of Hell as being a place where — while there may be a period of suffering — the wicked are destroyed. Yet Chan also notes that other Jewish views on Hell posited a place where the wicked were punished eternally. He quotes Enoch’s description of

“a place of “all kinds of torture and torment” where “dark and merciless” beings would use “instruments of atrocities torturing without pity,”

as well as the wicked’s

“pleading that he may give them a little breathing spell from the angels of his punishment … begging for a little rest but find it not … Light has vanished from before us and darkness has become your habitation forever and ever; because we have formerly neither had faith nor glorified the name of the Lord of the Spirits.”

IS HELL A GARBAGE DUMP?

Chapter Two of Erasing Hell ends with an examination of the argument that when Jesus used the word hell (gehenna), he was in fact referring to a garbage dump situated in the Valley of Hinnom outside the city of Jerusalem, a place where the Jewish people discarded their trash. This is not a new argument, but it is one that has been thrown out (no pun intended) recently by Rob Bell. Chan does Bell the courtesy of acknowledging that “one of the most encouraging aspects of Rob Bell’s preaching and writing” is to “try to situate Jesus in His own context.” Unfortunately, according to Chan, as positive a step on Bell’s part this is, he is incorrect in identifying Hell as the city garbage dump. Chan asks the reader to consider how awkward some of Jesus’ statements are if by hell  he really meant garbage dump.

“Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 5:22)

“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into the garbage dump.” (Matt. 5:29)

“Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in the garbage dump.” (Matt. 10:28)

“It is better for your to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 18:9)

Chan labels Bell’s theory as both misleading and inaccurate. Misleading, because “it confuses the source of an idea for the idea itself.” In other words, the image of the burning garbage dump may have been the inspiration for Jesus’ description of hell, but Jesus does not mean that the dump itself is Hell. Chan labels this as a misunderstanding of the way language functions, using the example of people referring to a gridlocked freeway as a parking lot. The parking lot inspires the comparison, he argues, yet no one would claim that people are driving to the freeway, stopping, locking their cars, and then going about their business.

Chan also argues the theory as being inaccurate because there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that the Valley of Hinnom was, in fact, a dump. No archeological evidence of the valley’s use as a garbage dump has been found, and the first mention of gehenna was made by a rabbi, David Kimhi, in 1200 AD — over a thousand years after Jesus!

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called “Gehenna.”

It’s not logical — as Francis Chan is quick to bring out — that Jesus is referring to this alleged dump, when “there’s no evidence in the piles and piles and piles of Jewish and Christian writings preceding the time of Kimhi that the word gehenna was derived from the burning garbage in the Hinnom Valley.” More importantly, Chan highlights that Kimhi himself, the first writer to connect gehenna with the town dump, saw it as an analogy for the place where the wicked would be judged.

Chan closes the chapter by identifying what it was about the Hinnom Valley that might have caused the word gehenna to be associated with fiery judgment:

“In the Old Testament, the Hinnom Valley was the place where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. It was here, in fact, where they sacrificed their children to these gods (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) making them “pass through the fire” (Ezek. 16:20-21 NASB). When Jeremiah began to preach, the Hinnom Valley started to take on a metaphorical reference for the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast (Jer. 7:29-34; 19:6-9; 32:25): “Behold, the days are coming … when it will no more be called … the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:32). Jews living between the Testaments picked up on this metaphor and ran with it. The word gehenna was widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus to refer to the fiery place of judgment for the wicked … “

Although he spends much of the chapter in extra-biblical sources, this is a very satisfying and Scriptural closure to Chan’s examination of Hell.

From the Archives: The Day of Atonement

This is a reposting from a post originally published on September 14, 2010. Astute readers may notice that Yom Kippur this year also falls on a Saturday. This is coincidence. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and days are calculated as being from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur actually begins this year at sunset on Friday, October 7.

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live. Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

And Now For Something Completely Different …

HOW A NICE JEWISH BOY FOUND JESUS IN THE YELLOW PAGES

This is the 100th post on A Heart That Burns, so I thought I would memorialize that by a different sort of post. I’d like to share my personal testimony of how I came to follow Jesus, and came to be involved with the Church of the Nazarene. May it give glory to God.

I was born into a Conservative Jewish household, and while I was still just a toddler, my family moved to Northern Illinois. There I spent most of my childhood. We attended a Conservative synagogue, and both my older brother and I went to Hebrew school and had bar mitzvahs (a rite of passage into manhood) at the age of 13. But oddly enough for all that, I don’t ever remember a single discussion my family had about God.

The year after my bar mitzvah we moved to Kentucky — not exactly known as a hotbed of Jewish cultural life — and as a result I had little further practice of my Judaism. As I entered high school I began to rebel against my parents and most other authorities in my life. By the time I was a sophomore I was in full-scale rebellion. I acted very tough, and looked it too — with long hair and a leather jacket. Inside I was scared. I hung out with the “wrong crowd”, and I was soon drinking, smoking, and doing as many drugs as I could. Through high school and college I continued to struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism, finally getting clean and sober right before graduation from college . I drifted from one thing to another, trying to find some focus for my life. I felt only confusion, rage, and turmoil inside of me. I was desperately unhappy, and in complete denial of that unhappiness.

By my mid-20’s something had to change. I had been out in the workplace for several years and had just taken a new job in a new city. I felt an urge to reconnect to my Jewish roots, so I decided to find a synagogue. Not knowing the city well, I opened up the Yellow Pages to see if I could find one that I felt able to locate easily. The one I picked said in its ad, “Messianic” and “Proclaiming Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah.” These things meant nothing to me at the time, but I sure had a surprise coming. Little did I know that I had just found Jesus in the Yellow Pages!

I still remember the first night at that synagogue. Imagine how shocked I was to find that I had ended up at a Messianic congregation — a place where there were Jewish and Gentile people who worshiped Jesus together! They called him “Yeshua,” his Hebrew name. The people I met on that very first night were like none I had ever known before. They were so warm and welcoming. They seemed to really be happy to meet me, and they were obviously at peace within themselves. I compared this to my own inner turmoil, and I wanted what they had!

I began attending the synagogue and studying the Bible. One day I was shown some verses from Isaiah 53. The words seemed to point clearly to Jesus. That night, for the first time ever, I got on my knees and prayed.

“God, ” I asked, “can this be true? Can Yeshua be the Messiah?” I prayed for almost two weeks, and then He answered my prayer. A few days later, in November, 1997, I prayed once again, this time to receive Jesus as my personal Savior and Lord. At last I had peace within, for the first time. I grew swiftly in my newfound faith, and continued to devour the Word. I soon felt that God was calling me to serve Him, and that it wasn’t enough merely that I as a Jew had come to know my Messiah — the Lord wanted me to tell other Jewish people about Jesus.

In late 1999 I began to pursue this call as a domestic missionary with the ministry of Jews for Jesus, the largest mission to Jews worldwide. For eight years I did street evangelism, led bible studies, discipled individual Jewish people, spoke frequently in churches on subjects such as the Feasts of Israel and Jewish evangelism, and traveled as a member of the ministry’s music/evangelism team. At the end of this time, due to the illness of a family member, my wife and I left Jews for Jesus.

We began to attend the local Church of the Nazarene, where the pastor strongly urged me to seek God as to whether His call on me was finished. Acknowledging that His call hadn’t ended, but the form of the call had changed, I began my current journey towards ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene. I continue to praise Jesus daily for all He has already done in my life, and all that I know He will accomplish in the future.

From the Archives: Quacking Like A Duck

The following post was originally published on July, 2010

You’ve probably heard the old saw, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a  duck, it must be a duck!” One might think that this applies to Christianity as  easily as anything else, but this isn’t so. There are many who might claim  the name of Christian and fill your ears with language that sure makes  it sound like they are living the Christian life. I wonder if this isn’t mere  quacking, though. There’s much more than simply proclaiming oneself a  Christian and learning some phrases and words. Consider the following:

But the most common of all the enthusiasts of this kind are those  who imagine themselves Christians, and are not. These abound, not  only in all parts of our land, but in most parts of the habitable  earth. That they are not Christians, is clear and undeniable, if we  believe the oracles of God. For Christians are holy; these are unholy: Christians love God; these love the world: Christians are humble; these are proud: Christians are gentle; these are passionate; Christians have the mind which was in Christ; these are at the utmost distance from it. Consequently, they are no more Christians, than they are archangels. Yet they imagine themselves so to be; and they can give several reasons for it: for they have been called so ever since they can remember; they were christened many years ago; they embrace the Christian opinions, vulgarly termed the Christian or catholic faith; they use the Christian modes of worship, as their fathers did before them; they live what is called a good Christian life, as the rest of their neighbours do. And who shall presume to think or say that these men are not Christians? — though without one grain of true faith in Christ, or of real, inward holiness; without ever having tasted the love of God, or been “made partakers of the Holy Ghost!” — John Wesley, Sermon 37, “On the Nature of Enthusiasm”

Wesley was pretty adamant regarding inner holiness instead of outward display. Why such emphasis on holiness? Pastor Dale Tedder over at Shepherding Souls points out that in the New Testament alone, the word “holy” is applied to over 20 different things:

  • Holy angels
  • Holy servant
  • Holy Father
  • Holy One
  • Holy ones
  • Holy man
  • Holy Spirit
  • Holy temple
  • Holy ground
  • Holy place
  • Holy kiss
  • Holy law
  • Holy brothers
  • Holy scriptures
  • Holy hands
  • Holy people
  • Holy priesthood
  • Holy fear
  • Holy nation
  • Holy women
  • Holy prophets
  • Holy faith, and
  • Holy city

As someone raised in a Jewish household, who came to faith at a Messianic Jewish congregation, the concept of being holy has been something I’ve easily understood during my Christian walk.

“For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy,for I am holy.”Leviticus 11:45

In choosing the Jewish people as His own, the Lord called them to be holy as he was holy. How could the children of Israel, the Chosen People, teach the world of His glory  if they didn’t reflect an image of His holiness? The same holds true for the Church today. If we who call ourselves Christians do not live a life which is markedly different from those who do not know Jesus, what possible separation will the world see between us? My denomination — the Church of the Nazarene — has always been characterized by a devotion to holiness in living, a dedication to entire sanctification (Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection, which I’ve blogged on previously).

If Christians will not seek to turn away from the things which make us unholy, whether it is things we see or read or think about or say, are we the voice of Christ in this fallen world, or are we just quacking like ducks?

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