Posts Tagged ‘hell’

Hell and “optimal grace”

September 7, 2011

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

One book I read to prepare for our two-part sermon series on heaven and hell is Methodist theologian Jerry Walls’s fun-sounding book Hell: The Logic of Damnation. In it, he seeks to overcome the most important objections to hell and damnation on moral grounds. And unlike our hyper-Calvinist brothers and sisters, Walls isn’t content to say, “God is perfectly good, even though our human understanding of God’s ‘goodness’ bears no apparent relationship to God’s goodness”—that God is good, in other words, even if our account of that “goodness” makes God out to be a moral monster.

In the real world, skeptical people of good faith do raise honest objections to Christianity on moral grounds. Let’s assume for a moment that they are doing so of their own free will, and that God isn’t simply making them be that way. We Arminian Christians, who live in that same world with them, should try to answer their objections. Hence Walls’s book.

In his chapter “Hell and Divine Goodness,” he brings the problem in sharp relief by discussing a few hypothetical scenarios, one of which I excerpt below:

Next, consider the case of two young women, both of whom have been taught the Christian faith, but have rejected it. Both are involved in an automobile accident in which one is killed while the other lives. Let us say the second is eventually converted and becomes a saintly person, whereas the first is damned. Suppose God knows the first would also have become a saintly person if she had lived to a normal age before dying.

What all these cases suggest is that it is very odd, to say the least, to think that salvation and damnation might hinge in some way on such factors as the circumstances of one’s birth or the time of one’s death. If this is actually possible, it seems to raise doubts about the claim that God, in perfect goodness, desires to save all persons.1

In other words, doesn’t our salvation or damnation often depend on circumstances over which we have no control? And if so, doesn’t this reflect poorly on God’s goodness?

After all, I was brought up in a Christian home. I grew up going to Sunday school and church. I saw many Christians role-model the love of Jesus for me. I had one opportunity after another to respond positively to the gospel, which I eventually did. Clearly, the vast majority of people in the world today—and who have ever lived—have not had those same opportunities, to say the least. Would God damn them to hell without giving them a fair chance of hearing and responding to the gospel? (This was a primary objection to Christianity raised by Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century, and Walls frames his argument to meet Russell’s objection.)

Walls doesn’t think so, and neither do I. In fact, I think this opinion represents a consensus on the rightward side of the mainline Protestant spectrum in which the United Methodist Church finds itself (which is to say the leftward side of evangelical Protestant spectrum). I have believed (or hoped) for years that an equal opportunity exists for people to respond positively to the gospel, even after death if necessary.

Before Walls’s book, however, I’d read no writer who had explained in a plausible way what this might look like. Walls argues that God gives everyone an “optimal measure of grace” to enable a “decisive response” to the gospel. So, getting back to the hypothetical case above, Walls writes,

I am inclined to say the one killed had not decisively rejected God. Although her initial response to grace was negative, she would have become a saintly person had she lived longer. This suggests that her initial negative rejection to God was not really a settled response. If God knows this, it may be the case that God will give her the grace at the moment of death to begin to become what she would have become if she had not died. Further spiritual growth could occur after death.2

Walls concedes that this notion would involve some form of purgatory. Stripped of its medieval Catholic excesses, he doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently un-Protestant about the idea. Indeed, many Protestants of Lutheran and Anglican extraction (including my man C.S. Lewis) believe in some form of it.

Walls even addresses one objection I have to the idea: If God were to give people an opportunity after death to respond (because in this life they failed to decisively accept or reject the gospel), who could possibly say no? Wouldn’t it be rather obvious what the correct “choice” would be? I put the word in scare quotes because at that point, it would fail to be a choice. It would be coerced. Walls responds:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such a reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation  after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.3

Or maybe not… It’s obviously highly speculative. But I’m glad Walls is at least making the effort to explain it.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, what we know for sure is this: We have this time now, this moment now, to respond. Everyone who has life still has the opportunity to find salvation. This should give urgency to our mission. Moreover, along with Walls, I believe our choices in this life can have eternal consequences. I believe people can decisively reject the gospel. I also fear that if we continually fail to respond to the gospel, we may harden our hearts such that we can no longer respond, in this life or beyond. (This, I believe, is the “unforgivable sin” Jesus mentions.)

One thing is also for sure: We don’t know the mysterious ways in which God works in the human heart. We don’t know how the Lord might move in that liminal place between life and death. Could it be that Jesus meets everyone, arms outstretched, as he met the two criminals on the cross beside him?

Will we, like the first criminal, reject him? Or will we, like the second, ask him to remember us when he comes into his kingdom? The choice will be ours.

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 86.

2. Ibid. 90.

3. Ibid., 100.

Forgive me for being nerdy Methodist guy, but…

August 31, 2011

I love Mark Galli’s analogy of what we Methodists (and many other Christians) frequently call prevenient grace: the sense in which God’s Spirit enables human beings to respond to the gospel. As the analogy makes clear, we are free to accept or reject eternal life. But the very limited role we play in our salvation is hardly the point.

The point is that a loving God initiates and provides the means by which we can be saved. I made a similar point in Monday’s post about freedom: simply having freedom of choice, however good and necessary that is, hardly solves our human problem.

A man finds himself in the middle of a vast sea, treading water. There is no land in sight, no boat on the horizon. He is hungry and thirsty and rapidly tiring. He’s headed for death. This man may have free will to swim in one direction or another. He may choose to swim or to tread water. But when it comes to the most important thing, he has no choice—he cannot choose to survive. He’s going to drown.

Then along comes a rescue ship. When the ship gets close, it lets out a raft with three men on board. Rowing over to the desperate man, they stretch their arms out over the edge of the raft and grab him. He grabs their arms as they pull him into the boat. They take him on board the ship, give him medical attention, and get him home. The man is saved.

When this man then recounts his story to his family, how will he describe it? Will he say, “Well, the rescuers loved me so much, they pretty much let me decide my fate. And, really, it was my free will that made all the difference.” No, he will describe how utterly hopeless his situation was, how grateful he was to see the rescue ship, how wonderful those three men who pulled him aboard were, how excellent the navigator was to find him, and so on.

Galli employs this analogy to counter what he perceives as Rob Bell’s overemphasis in Love Wins on human choice in relation to salvation or damnation—heaven and hell are mostly a matter of God’s giving us what we want. Never mind, Galli might say, the ways in which sin offends God’s holiness. Never mind the ways in which hell is what we deserve. Never mind that hell is what we would get apart from God’s saving work in Christ.

Do we have a problem with hell because we underestimate our problem with sin?

Mark Galli, God Wins (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 73-74.

A couple of links for tomorrow’s sermon

August 20, 2011

In tomorrow’s sermon over Romans 9:1-5, our focus is on evangelism. I’m going to be referring to this episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine discovers that her boyfriend, David Puddy, is a Christian. He’s never mentioned it before. Worse, he believes that Elaine is going to hell, and he hasn’t done anything to try to change that fact.

The theology represented is terrible, of course—filled with caricatures about Christianity. But the episode does capture some truth about contemporary Christians’ failures to witness to their faith. The money line here is Elaine’s protest, “I’m not going to hell, and you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell!”

I’ll also be referring to this very funny and entertaining episode of This American Life, in which a writer tells her story about a devastating break-up, and how Phil Collins helped her through it.

A few “tough texts” sermons starting this Sunday

August 18, 2011

Don't forget Vinebranch is at two times now: 8:30 and 11:00. Come early, come often.

After agonizing over how to finish off our 12-week sermon series on Romans (understanding, of course, that we could take a year and not finish Paul’s letter), I’m relieved to have a new plan. My original plan—to cover a little of chapter 9, chapter 10, and chapter 12 (using the suggested Revised Common Lectionary readings)—doesn’t work for me anymore. By which I mean it wouldn’t work for the congregation.

Romans 9-11, which is virtually ignored in mainline Protestant churches, raises too many challenging questions to breeze by it. So, this Sunday, I’m covering Romans 9:1-5, and talking about the difficult question that Paul raises: What about ethnic Jews who aren’t Christians? I know what we all want to say about our Jewish friends: Our differences don’t really matter. The Jews have one perfectly good covenant with God, and we Christians have another.

And I would want to say that, too, if I believed it were in the vicinity of what Paul has been arguing for eight chapters of Romans, or what he focuses on in particular in chapters 9-11. But it’s not. And since, as a good Methodist, I am prima scriptura, I want to be faithful to the Bible more than anything.

So this Sunday, I’m talking about the problem of unbelieving Israel in the context of Romans 9, but I’m going to challenge the congregation to think more broadly about the problem: Do we really believe that what God accomplished in Jesus Christ through his life, death, and resurrection is for the whole world—indeed, for all creation—or is it only for the billion or so people in the world who call themselves Christians?

In Romans 9:1-5, Paul expresses great anguish for “his people,” ethnic Jews who don’t know the saving love of God in Christ. Do we, among our circle of friends and family, have that same passionate concern for our people, whoever they may be? If so, how is it reflected in our actions?

So that’s “Tough Text #1,” and it’s this Sunday.

Next Sunday, August 28, I’ll be dealing with another troublesome question raised by Paul in both Romans 8 and 9, that prickly word (and concept of) “predestination.” This sermon will be more topical, but I will focus on those passages from Romans that are used as proof-texts for important tenants of Calvinism.

The strongest, most conservative version of Calvinism, sometimes called the “neo-reformed” movement, which is enjoying a surge in popularity among followers of John Piper and Mark Driscoll, elevates God’s sovereignty so high that human free will—not to mention, in my opinion, love alongside it—becomes meaningless. Calvinism also emphasizes double-predestination, which means that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. If this sounds harsh to us non-Calvinists, it’s only because we fail to grasp that since everyone deserves hell, the fact that God spares some from it is to his glory. (Such is my revulsion that I struggle to even type those words!)

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get in the nitpicky details of Calvinism, but I do want to rescue these Romans passages from the hyper-Calvinists. What is Paul really saying in context and what does it mean for us today? Avoiding the issue seems irresponsible. If we Methodists—whose founder, after all, was an outspoken opponent of Calvinism—fail to talk about it, our people will only hear popular preachers and teachers in the media talk about it, and what they say often contradicts what we believe.

Finally, on September 4 and 11, I’m going to preach about a religious issue that’s been in the news recently: heaven, hell, who goes there, and why. I’ve read Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, and some of the book’s critics. I’ll bring that into the discussion.

But do I also have to read that best-seller about the little boy who goes to heaven and comes back to talk about it? Maybe… Ugh!

More on God’s “giving them up”

June 22, 2011

I said in my sermon on Sunday that we Methodists speak of grace so loosely sometimes that we may give the impression (never saying it out loud, since it sounds so blasphemous!) that grace is God’s finally giving in to us, letting us have our way, not getting so worked up about sin. Is there a small, sinful part of us that may wish that God would just leave us alone?

In Romans 1:18-32, however, Paul says that God’s leaving us alone is the opposite of grace: it’s punishment. After all, what does Paul say is God’s response to human rebellion? What, in other words, is the consequence of God’s wrath? Paul says it three times: “God gave them up.” This is exactly the meaning of letting us do our own thing.

Paul isn’t speaking here of final judgment or hell, and let’s please be careful: God’s letting us—as punishment that may lead us to repentance—experience, however partially and imperfectly, the consequences of our sinful actions in this life does not preclude punishment in hell. It can’t, as a matter of justice. But I wonder if Paul’s words don’t point in the direction of the nature of that punishment.

C.S. Lewis thinks so. In the chapter entitled “Hell,” of his beautiful book The Problem of Pain, Lewis takes a cue from Paul’s words in Romans. He describes hell as the final and ultimate state of God’s “giving us up.”

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a  fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.

Rob Bell stirs things up

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell’s publisher couldn’t ask for better controversy. Apparently, some evangelical leaders got hold of a promotional video for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and have gone crazy denouncing a book that they haven’t read. They fear that Bell has become a universalist.

I am not a universalist (as I have discussed elsewhere—here, for instance) for the following reasons: I believe that God revealed God’s self definitively in Jesus. Everything we need to know about God, we can learn from him. There are no additional revelations necessary. Jesus is identically equal to God. Moreover, I believe that reconciliation with God is available only through Christ. I’m not surprised or threatened by the fact that other religions have truth and value, but where there are competing truth claims between the Christian faith and other religions, I side with Christianity.

The above paragraph makes me not a universalist. (Is there a word for that? Exclusivist?) The question of hell and who goes there, however, is a separate question.

And on that question, I’m not nearly as firm as Bell’s critics would prefer (and for all I know, Bell’s book will struggle with the same question). I believe that hell exists. I don’t know, based on scripture, who goes there. I know for certain (at least as certain as faith can be) that through Christian faith and baptism, believers will be saved.

As for everyone else, I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I don’t have to judge. Fortunately, judgment is God’s business, so I’ll leave that up to God.

But I agree with Slacktivist Fred Clark’s exegesis of the Big Three hell proof-texts (Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 20:11-15) over at this post. (Fred is firmly in the anti-hell camp.) I’ve made this point before plenty of times. I like this paragraph, in particular:

What one finds in all three of these passages, instead, is a seeming Pelagianism. All that matters in any of these scriptures is deeds and actions. Not a word anywhere here about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Deeds and actions and those alone are what determines the eternal fate of everyone in each of these passages. They couldn’t be any clearer on that point — the main point of each passage above. What determines if someone is to be cast into Revelation’s “lake of fire”? The dead will be judged, Revelation says, “… according to their works, as recorded in the books. … according to what they had done.” Who are the accursed “goats” on Jesus’ left hand who will be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked or comfort the lonely. And why was the rich man in Luke’s gospel sent to Hades? Jesus never quite says, but he seems to suggest that the rich man went to Hades because he was rich just as the poor beggar Lazarus goes to Heaven justbecause he was a poor beggar.

Awkward, that.

I also share Slacktivist’s puzzlement on the larger issue: “The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true.”

As I’ve said in sermons before, I hope that God shows everyone the same love, grace, and mercy that God has shown me. Why wouldn’t I? What did I do to deserve it? But God isn’t going to force God’s self on anyone—and that alone is a sufficient reason for hell’s existence.