Posts tagged ‘New Testament’

Book Review: 1000 Days – The Ministry of Christ

Jonathan Falwell is the senior pastor of a church and the vice-chancellor of spiritual affairs at Liberty University. He also happens to be the son of Jerry Falwell (yes, that Jerry Falwell),  but he’s certainly not riding his father’s coat-tails anywhere in 1000 Days. Falwell begins with the premise that almost universally, human beings have an inner restlessness that drives them. Some are driven by such restlessness, opines Falwell, to climb mountains, others to search for the perfect relationship, while others seek to quench their restlessness through eating. Yet the only answer to this, notes Falwell, is one that Augustine observed in his Confessions: “Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

1000 Days starts with Jesus as the solution to humanity’s restless heart. But Falwell observes that Jesus could have calmed the hearts of men and brought them salvation without doing anything else. However, for the course of three years — the titular 1,000 days — Jesus had a public ministry. And Falwell wants readers to know why that is important:

“He didn’t need to provide this ministry, yet He did anyway, and that is key for us … This intentionality of Jesus’ ministry implies that there is a lot of information in the Scriptures worth grappling with. We need to understand what Jesus said and did during his 1,000 day public ministry so that we can apply His teachings to our lives today.”

What follows is a well-written, easy to engage study of the high points of Jesus’ ministry. It’s obvious that Falwell did his research and scholarship, not being afraid to occasionally discuss the meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word, yet the book goes nowhere near the lofty heights of academic writing that might scare off a reader who is just learning more about Jesus and the Scriptures. Falwell illustrates his points by sharing how he has seen the applications of Jesus’ teachings in his own life — particularly in his role as a father to his children.

One of the most useful parts of 1000 Days is at the end of each chapter. Each chapter ends with three to five questions for individual reflection or small group discussion. These are not shallow questions by any means, not when they are asking for reflection on items such as: “In your most honest moments, where are you spiritually right now, and where do you want to be?” The true goldmine of this book is in the appendix; Falwell provides a Bible Study Guide with Leader’s Helps that makes this ideal as a small group or Sunday school study (particularly, I would think, for a group that may not have a deep foundation the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry). There is also a breakdown of 100 main events in Jesus’ life, making 1000 Days a very practical resource.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 

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.”

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.”

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)”

The Cost of Following Jesus, Part One

This is the first part of a two to three-part series.

I did not have an interest in music – other than listening to it – until I was a  sophomore in high school, and then I dived into the deep end of the pool. In  the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I  learned to play saxophone, and then during my junior year of high school I  more or less taught myself to play guitar. The guitar I learned to play on was  a beat up old classical guitar loaned me by a friend, but I never think of that  as my first guitar.  My first guitar was an acoustic/electric Takamine, with a  glossy black finish and white detailing. I named the guitar Johnson, after a  famous blues musician, and I paid $600.00 for him at Currier’s Music Store,  which even today seems to me an enormous sum for a 17-year-old to spend  on anything. I paid $600.00, but that doesn’t begin to describe what I really  paid for that guitar. The real cost was a sacrifice of time spent with friends while I worked odd jobs. The cost was not having the money for getting a bite to eat with the gang I hung out with, or not being able to buy a new biker jacket, or a t-shirt from one of the bands I liked. The cost was staying in my room at home instead of cruising because I didn’t want to waste money on gasoline for my car that I could put towards my guitar. Johnson was costly, people.

I think that the generation in which I have found myself born is one that for the most part has never understood the true cost of things. It’s a generation that feels a huge sense of entitlement, and whatever it is that we’re supposed to be entitled to, we want it NOW, without any waiting! In previous generations this was not so. My late grandfather lived through the Depression, and until the illness which eventually killed him, seemed physically incapabable of inactivity for so much as a day. He spent most of his adult life as a bus driver in New York City, and continued to drive a school bus after his retirement. Even when he eventually stopped driving, he was constantly working, whether it was making some small repair in his home, or building some small item for a neighbor. Those who have come before us understood a connection between desiring something – whether it was tangible, such as food, or intangible, such as knowledge – and the price required to acquire it, a connection that seems more tenuous as time progresses. The blacksmith at his forge was standing there because he had served an apprenticeship of 7 or more years, an apprenticeship measured in his own sweat, and blood, and tears. The doctor treating patients walks the corridors of a hospital because he has served a different sort of apprenticeship of 8-10 years, years of endless studies and sleepless nights spent as an intern before being allowed to don the white jacket proclaiming him as a healer. The professor at a university is entitled to his podium in the lecture because he has gone through 4 years of undergraduate work, followed by 4-6 years of graduate studies, followed perhaps by yet more years of study and work on a doctoral dissertation which he must then defend before a panel of experts in his field of study. There was a price which the blacksmith, the doctor, and the professor paid to earn their place in society.

Today, I want us to consider a simple question: is there a cost to follow Jesus?

“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”   Mark 10:17-31

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? As Christians, we tend not to think this is so. After all, He paid the price for us, did he not? He died on the cross for us, as a sacrifice for our sins. We didn’t do anything to earn that sacrifice, nor was there anything we could have done. It was a gift that God gave to all humanity – His own Son, brutally murdered that you and I might gain eternal life. The apostle Paul bids us knows that if we but confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Doesn’t sound like much cost to you and I, does it? The story of the rich young ruler, found in three of the four Gospels, teaches us differently. The moral of this tale is that following Jesus is costly.

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? As Christians, we tend not to think this is so. After all, HE paid the price for us, did he not? He died on the cross for us, as a sacrifice for our sins. We didn’t do anything to earn that sacrifice, nor was there anything we could have done. It was a gift that God gave to all humanity – His own Son, brutally murdered that you and I might gain eternal life. The apostle Paul bids us knows that if we but confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Doesn’t sound like much cost to you and I, does it? The story of the rich young ruler, found in three of the four Gospels, teaches us differently. The moral of this tale is that following Jesus is costly.

The rich young ruler is distinctive in the New Testament as being one of the few figures of authority who demonstrates legitimate interest and concern in the afterlife. The nature of his question to Jesus indicates that he had prior knowledge that Jesus was offering eternal life to those who followed him. Although there are those who question the ruler’s sincerity, he genuinely seems to want to know how he can gain salvation. Jesus’ answer treats the question sincerely; our Lord responds by quoting the Ten Commandments. He refers to commandments six through nine, and then cites the fifth commandment. As we examine the passage, note that all these are commandments dealing with relationships with other people. Know that in Jewish tradition, citing any portion of a passage implies the context of the entire passage. By citing commandments dealing with relationships with other men, Jesus by implication is also citing commandments dealing with relating to God. This is important in answering our question.

As sincere as the rich young ruler is, his response shows his misguidedness. “All these things I have kept since my youth,” he says, displaying a certainty that he has the ability to live a righteous life on his own. Although I don’t believe it to be arrogance, the young ruler displays a sort of boastfulness in his own piety, as if to say, “Look how long I’ve been keeping the commandments!” He’s misguided because he thinks that simply doing commandments is the way to a relationship with God. As someone who grew up in Judaism, and has brought the Gospel to the Jewish people, let me make something clear: it is not about doing the commandments. What was the one thing which Jesus told the young ruler he lacked? He was lacking a heart that was truly, wholly and completely given over to God. Jesus’ invitation to come and follow Him was a test of where the young ruler’s allegiance truly lay; it was a call for him to sacrifice his wealth for his faith. Understand that Jesus’ command to the young man is not a call for all people in all times to give up all they own, but it was God’s will for this ruler. He went away sad because the cost of following Jesus, the cost of eternal life, was all that the young ruler believed was important in this world. His reliance ultimately was not on the Lord; he drew comfort from his possessions rather than his God.

In part two of this series, we’ll discuss the price which some have paid for following Jesus. Look forward to some thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Wurmbrand in particular.

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