This has been a week of controversy. Whether you love him or hate him, Rob Bell has stirred the pot of modern evangelicalism and brought into sharp focus the topic of heaven and hell – specifically, who’s in and who’s out. I can hardly believe it’s been 7 years since I started my own journey through this difficult subject.
Yesterday a dear friend of mine told me I should change my middle name to “controversy.” I told her I’d rather change it to “makes people think outside the box”, but, of course, that’s too long for a usable middle name. I guess what I’d really like to challenge people to do is examine their beliefs in light of the implications they carry. In other words, how many of us spend the time and energy it takes to walk our beliefs all the way out to their full conclusion – to really consider what our beliefs mean? In today’s modern age, not many. Rob Bell was willing to do that, and now he’s taken on the unenviable title of ‘heretic.’ Hey, Rob, welcome to my world.
Apocatastasis: meaning either reconstitution or restitution or restoration to the original or primordial condition (according to Wikipedia). The article goes on to say:
The word, apokatastasis, only appears once in the Bible (Acts 3:21). Peter heals a handicapped beggar and then addresses the astonished onlookers. His sermon sets Jesus in the Jewish context, the fulfiller of the Abrahamic Covenant, and says:
“[Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring (apocatastasis) all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago”; or in a less literal translation:”He [Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore (apocatastasis) everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
Both these translations use “time” (singular) to translate “χρόνων” (“of times”). A strictly literal translation of the whole verse is: “whom it behoveth heaven, indeed, to receive till times of a restitution of all things, of which God spake through the mouth of all His holy prophets from the age.”
What has boggled my mind for the past 7 years is how angry Evangelicals become when I even suggest that God has it in mind to restore everything and everyone to Himself. But what makes me angry is the reasoning they use to justify it. Bar none, the most maddening argument I hear over and over again is “what’s in it for me?” In other words, “if everyone is going to get a ‘free pass’ then why am I suffering through this life?” I cannot imagine a more selfish or heartless argument. I mean, they are basically saying, “I’m giving up all of these worldly things for God, there damn well better be a reward for me in the end!” Really? Or, “I’m trying so hard not to sin that there better be some serious punishment for all the crappy people in the world like Hitler.” I guess no one is teaching anymore that deep down we’re all Hitler. I mean, the whole, “there but by the grace of God go I” must be utter nonsense, since I’m obviously so much better than those dirty rotten sinners who are gonna pay, by God! That’s exactly what I’m hearing, whether they’re meaning to say that or not. But I’m not the only one hearing it … the very ones these people claim to be trying to save are hearing it too. And that breaks my heart.
I think what’s really at the core of that argument is the feeling that God owes me something. I mean after-all, I figured out that God wants me to believe in Jesus as my personal Savior, so if I do that I deserve some sort of reward, right? And yet, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is no favoritism with God. Sure, we hear those words, but I’m not convinced anyone really believes them. In fact, I don’t think people believe the Bible at all anymore. Do you know how many times I’ve asked my Evangelical friends to please produce Scripture which backs their claim of an eternal torment (or separation, for that matter) for people who don’t believe in Jesus as their personal Savior? A whole bunch of times. They can’t do it (because it isn’t in there). Oh, they produce Scripture all right …
Let’s see, the most used argument would have to be the rich man and Lazarus (the story begins in Luke 16:19). I love this one. I love how so many Bible thumpers are willing to take things completely out of context when it suits them. But they turn around and take the plain text (try Romans 5:18 – oh, by the way, all means all) and rewrite it to suit their church dogma. Whatever happened to ‘reformed and always reforming’? Where is the commitment to challenge every belief of man with what the Word says, no matter what it does to your pet belief?
I digress. This particular section of Jesus’ teaching actually begins in Luke 15 and ends in the middle of chapter 17. The issue is not heaven or hell but social class and money. How do I know this? It’s called context. In the beginning of the section the Pharisees are grumbling about who Jesus is hanging out with (social class). Right in the middle of the whole section and just preceding the little parable about Lazarus we read, “14Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him” (money). Finally, the section ends with Jesus talking about the obligations of slaves (a whole other interesting topic we could delve into related to this idea of ‘I believe so I’m entitled’). The context simply does not support the idea that Jesus was giving us a literal picture of what happens after we die. I don’t really think Jesus did a lot of that in general – Jesus’ focus was much more on what happens while we’re living!
But, just in case you still believe this parable should be read as a formula for going to heaven then by all means, follow in Lazarus’ footsteps:
Be extremely poor, very sick, and beg for crumbs while you are suffering public humiliation. Um, I can’t see anything in this passage regarding Lazarus’ disciplined spiritual life. We aren’t told anything about what he believed about Jesus or if he was even a Jew. No mention of him being a righteous man (like Job), only that he was poor, sick, and starving. This was a parable, and last time I checked parables aren’t supposed to be taken literally in the first place. Meanwhile, the purpose of this parable in context was to confront the false Jewish belief that God favored the righteous with riches while the poor were suffering His judgment. Jesus was speaking to the upper-class Pharisees of His day, urging them to recognize that God does not distinguish between rich and poor in the way they thought He did. This passage is the worst justification for a belief in hell that I’ve ever heard.
Next comes Matthew 25, the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats. Oh, check it out! If you want to go to heaven, all you have to do is be a liberal Christian! Yep, just feed the poor, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and you are good to go! No mention of faith, no mention of belief, nada. Do, do, do! Or maybe I should say, “work, earn, receive.” Clearly you guys aren’t doing enough to get in. I mean, you’re just saying people have to pray a prayer. That’s not what Jesus said! Tsk, tsk. It’s a lot more complicated than that!
And my last favorite Scripture justifying a belief in eternal, conscious torment is (drum roll, please): Mark 9:
43“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,
44[where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.]
45“If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell,
46[where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.]
47“If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell,
48where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire.
Hm. Did you know that there are 3 different words in the Bible all translated ‘hell’ by our Protestant forebears? As you would imagine each one has a different meaning. Let’s address Jesus’ favorite (actually, exclusive) one: Gehennah, the Valley of Hinnom. It was an actual location (you can even visit there today on your next tour of Israel) outside the walls of Jerusalem. Everyone in Jerusalem knew about this place – if nothing else, by the reek it produced. You see, Gehennah was the trash heap. It was where all of the refuse from the city was taken and disposed of. It was also where pagans used to burn their children in worship to their false gods.
So let’s look at this parable. What does Jesus say is the quickest way into Gehennah? Having an eye which causes you to stumble which you refuse to pluck out. Or a hand that causes you to sin which you refuse to cut off. So I’m thinkin’ there are way too many two-handed, two-eyed Christians running around today. I mean, if they don’t want to spend an eternity in hell then they better get to pluckin’ & a-choppin’. I know for a fact that any of you guys reading this have lusted this week after a pretty girl (possible in the last five minutes, and she didn’t even have to be pretty). Sounds like eye sin to me. How about you over-eaters out there? Whose hand pushed that extra bag of chips into your gluttonous face? I mean, hell is serious people. It’s time we start taking Jesus’ words to heart! (But let’s leave out verse 49, ’cause we wouldn’t want to let on that everyone is fixin’ to burn…)
This would be the extent of the utterly weak Scriptural arguments in support of hell as eternal conscious torment (or separation from God, if that’s your punishment of choice) that my Evangelical friends have been able to produce. Every one of these examples is a parable – a story told to make a point – and not one of them – if taken in context – makes the point Evangelicals try to use them to make. At the same time, my friends are not interested in the plain text (an abundance of them, actually) that teaches God’s intent to reconcile all things and everyone to Himself. These are rewritten with nonsense like, “Oh, ‘all’ obviously can’t mean ‘all’ because Matthew 25 clearly says … oh, ‘all’ means ‘all’ here, but not there. All the while what I really can’t understand is how any of you sleep! I mean, there’s a whole neighborhood outside your door getting ready to populate hell and you are wasting precious time going to yet another movie! Whatareyoukiddingme??!
So not only can you not produce any Scripture to support your belief, you can’t produce any compassion for the people around you whom you claim are going to hell in a hand-basket. From the recent conversations on FB I’m beginning to think some of you can’t wait for ‘us’ to get there! Real Christian of you, I must say. Or could it be insanity instead of Christianity?
Do any of you remember the lady a year or two ago who murdered her children claiming that she was saving them from going to hell? Guess what – she was the sanest of you all. Think about it. If it’s true that there’s an ‘age of accountability’ and prior to that moment every child gets a free pass into heaven, then why in the world aren’t you parents murdering your children before they become responsible for their own sins??! If you really believe that your own child is in danger of suffering eternal conscious torment (or just an extended stay at the Motel 6 while God is obviously inhabiting the Hawaiian Hilton), then not killing them before their ‘age of accountability’ is the ultimate hatred of your kids. I mean, you can’t leave that kind of thing to the chance of their free will! That would be madness!
The other night one of our FB friends made the comment that if everyone gets in then why not go out and do the worst sin you can think of? I mean, if God is going to forgive you anyway… I’m so glad you asked! In fact, that’s the exact question Paul’s Roman readers were asking! Hmm. Maybe Paul was sounding a lot like me. Maybe Paul understood and taught that God’s grace trumps … everything. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul taught:
Romans 5:18-21 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 11:32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.
How do I know that Paul was being as radical about grace as I am? Because the question people started asking was the same question people ask me:
Romans 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!
Grace has never been a license to sin, but rather the power to live a new life. But because we have turned belief into a work that earns salvation we have lost the true power that grace can give us. Martin Luther understood this, which was why he could say with confidence, “Love God and do as you please.” He knew that if we understand our acceptance before the Father is not based on anything we have done or not done, what we believe or don’t believe, but solely on what Jesus did for us, we will be free to live a life apart from the Law that will reflect the love of God and His holiness at the same time. Unfortunately, Armineanism and it’s focus on man – specifically free will – has insidiously eroded the true Gospel of grace and done irreparable damage to the Church, simply by making man’s will to choose the focus over and above God’s design. Sounds a whole lot like snakes, trees and fig leaves to me. But I’m not buying it anymore. I’m not God and I don’t wanna be. There’s simply no room left in my heart for guilt, legalism, or the belief that I can figure out who’s in and who’s out. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it doesn’t matter whether you believe love wins or not, He is going to anyway.