Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Walls’

The problem of God’s “hiddenness”

February 28, 2017

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

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

In his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation (great title, by the way), Jerry Walls, a United Methodist theologian, makes a case for perdition in the face of modern objections. One of these objections is this: “What about those who’ve never heard the gospel, or who’ve heard only a deficient version of it? Would God send them to hell, even though they had no fair opportunity to hear and respond to God’s message of salvation through Christ?”

It’s a good question, and one which the Bible doesn’t address directly. Walls’s answer, which he acknowledges is speculative, is that God gives everyone a sufficient amount of grace—either in this life or shortly thereafter—to accept or reject the gospel. In other words, in the liminal space between time and eternity, during the moment of a person’s death, God may yet reveal himself to an unsaved person and enable him or her to say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life.

Yes, you might say, but if someone were facing a choice of salvation or damnation right away—as opposed to in some hypothetical future, where most of us keep the prospect of our own death—who wouldn’t choose salvation?

Maybe no one, in which case, Walls would say, the “choice” wouldn’t be free. The dying person wouldn’t choose God out of a sincere desire and love for God; the person would choose God out of fear alone. Therefore, his or her choice would be coerced.

Walls responds to this objection as follows:

[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  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.[†]

Whether you agree with the idea of postmortem conversion or not—and let me say that I hope it’s possible (the rich man and his brothers in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 apparently already had a sufficient amount of grace in their lifetimes)—Walls’s handling of the “free response” objection helps me make sense of a question that has nagged me over the years: If God wants us to know him, why doesn’t he do more to reveal himself to us? Why does he often seem hidden, even from sincere atheists who, unlike virulent New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, would like for God to exist? (This question was debated in the most recent Unbelievable? episode.)

In “The Idea,” a punk song that I first head in 1983, Adam Ant pointed to the problem: “I could be religious if/ A god would say ‘hello.’/ I could be religious if/ An angel touched my shoulder.”

Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth remembering that God doesn’t want mere belief in his existence—or even the intellectual assent to facts about his Son Jesus and his atoning death. Otherwise, we might say—perish the thought—that Satan himself could be an orthodox Christian! “You believe that there is one God,” writes the apostle, with sarcasm, “Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Also, as is clear in John 3 (Nicodemus) and John 6 (the miraculous feeding), among other places in the gospels, plenty of people have a kind of faith in Jesus based on his miracles, but Jesus warns that this faith is insufficient. This gives the lie to the idea that if only people saw miracles today, they would repent and be saved.

Still, what would be the harm in God’s making his reality clearer to more people?

Here’s where Walls helps: Sure, if God made his presence more obvious, more people would seem to choose God and his way of salvation through Christ. But would it really be a choice? Or would it be coerced? If circumstances forced more unbelievers to acknowledge the reality of God and his gospel, their relationship with God might be based on something other than faith, hope, and love.

Remember: Paul says that faith and hope, alongside love, “remain” even after we know “fully, even as we are fully known.” They are permanent features of our relationship with God, both now and in eternity, not something we’re stuck with until we no longer see through the “glass darkly.” Whereas I might wish that I didn’t need faith, God doesn’t. And in his hiddenness, he’s forcing me to put it into practice.

All that to say, even in our finitude and sin, we have enough evidence to suggest that God knew what he was doing when he enacted his rescue plan for humanity.

But what do you think? Is God’s “hiddenness” a problem for you?

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992), 100.

Sermon 02-28-16: “The Fields Are White for Harvest”

March 10, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

I say the following in this sermon: “The message of the gospel, in a nutshell, is this: we human beings are in much worse shape than we would dare to imagine; yet God loves us more than we could ever dare to hope or dream!” Because of that love, God solves our problem through his atoning death on the cross. People need to hear and receive this message. If we ourselves have received it, are we willing to do all we can so that others may as well? If not, why not?

Sermon Text: John 4:31-42

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college near Chicago, made unwelcome national headlines recently for suspending a history professor. The professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, said that for Lent, even though she’s a Christian, she is going to wear the the hijab, the traditional Muslim head and shoulder covering for women, in solidarity with Muslims who feel persecuted by Western countries like ours. “After all,” she said, “we all worship the same God.”

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And that was the statement that got her in trouble. We all worship the same God. Since this idea violated the college’s statement of faith, which Dr. Hawkins signed, the administration suspended her. And based on the overwhelming criticism that Wheaton’s administration received, it must be the case that many people in the U.S. and around the world agree with Dr. Hawkins that we Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.

And why should that surprise us? Read the rest of this entry »

If you want to stop talking about hell, join a mainline Protestant church

January 29, 2015

A theologically-inclined evangelical friend of mine (who’s not United Methodist) linked to this post, “Giving up Hell for a Year: How it could revolutionize our relationships,” which struck me as a solution in search of a problem—or at least one that creates far more problems than it solves. Read it and tell me what you think.

Here’s how I responded to my friend:

The United Methodist Church tried this around 1950, and every year since then. It’s been wildly successful as everyone knows. I’m sorry… The grass is always greener, I guess, but if one dislikes evangelicalism so much, there’s always mainline Protestantism.

How about we resolve, instead, to tell the truth for one year, and see how that goes? This includes the truth about hell. People don’t go to hell because they fail to accept Christ; they go to hell because their sins have separated them from a holy God. This is humanity’s main problem. We are failing to tell the whole truth about the gospel if we omit that.

So, no, I think the blogger’s idea is terrible.

My friend responded:

Brent, how do you think our view of hell impacts our ability to develop healthy, service-based relationships with others? If we love them with the agenda of “winning” them out of hell, what happens when it becomes clear they’re not going to budge? Do we sever the relationship? That seems to happen all too often. I think that’s a valid point the blogger makes.

To which I said:

Jerry Walls, a United Methodist scholar now at Notre Dame Houston Baptist University (he was at Asbury), warns that we cannot write hell out of Christianity (again, as too many mainline Protestants have done) without fundamentally changing Christianity. He argues that it does, in fact, change our mission and mute the urgency with which we do evangelism. If we’re promoting a caricature of the gospel, then let’s correct that caricature. But hell, as a doctrine, is by far the consensual teaching of two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject—whether hell is an everlasting state or annihilation.

Walls is writing to an audience, including me, who have already been where this blogger wants us to go. Walls is telling us it doesn’t work. He gives us permission to take hell into consideration when we’re sharing the gospel. We ought to be concerned about people’s eternal destinies.

Besides, where are all these Christians in America going around talking obsessively about hell? Where are all these Christians obsessed with winning non-Christians because they fear they’ll go to hell. I mean, I know they’re out there somewhere, but it hardly seems like the widespread problem this blogger makes it out to be.

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 4: “Why I Believe Jesus to Be the Son of God”

June 5, 2014

graham_label

In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found in a 4-record box set called A Billy Graham Crusade from 1962 (RCA Victor Custom Record Dept. BG4314).

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world (¶ 129, The United Methodist Book of Discipline).

As I said in the sermon I shared yesterday, the community around the church where I pastor is filled with people who are lost, who have not received the gift of God’s saving grace. Unless or until they repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, they are bound for hell—for eternal separation from God. It’s sobering to imagine that the difference between hell and heaven for them could be us. It could be our church!

While I know that Methodists (among other Christians) often speculate about post-mortem opportunities to repent and turn to Christ—United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls made that case in his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation—I wonder if it’s not to assuage our consciences for shirking our duty to “convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.”

graham_label2

Billy Graham has devoted his ministry to “convincing or leaving unconvinced.” He rightly understands that decisions made on this side of eternity make a difference on the other. (I know this is baby-talk for many of you, but many United Methodists, including myself, need the reminder!) Like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, the more that sinners fail to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the less they’ll be able to respond—until it’s too late. Graham makes this point in today’s sermon, from a 1962 Crusade in Chicago:

You can neglect Christ long enough until you’ve actually rejected him! And it’s too late because unknown to you, there’s a quiet operation in your heart going on… You’re actually hardening your heart, and you don’t even realize it. Until after while, your heart is so hard that you suddenly wake up and say, “I better become a Christian! I’ve got to follow Christ! I better be born again!” But now you find that you cannot find the voice of the Spirit of God convicting you. And the Bible says there will be a day when you call on him, and he’ll not answer. You’ll seek him but you’ll not find him!

To listen to sermon, click on play button above, or right-click here to download as a separate .mp3 file.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Can you tell Jesus’ story without Satan?

February 22, 2014

the_bible_satan_barack_obama

Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who produced last year’s smash-hit miniseries The Bible, are recycling the portions of that miniseries to create a theatrically released film about Jesus called Son of God.

As Downey explained in a press interview, however, they’re leaving out one important scene: Satan’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

When The Bible originally aired, this scene caused a stir after Glenn Beck said on Twitter that he noticed a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. For Downey and Burnett, this controversy distracted viewers from the message they were trying to communicate. “For our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus,” Downey said. “I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.”

I don’t doubt Downey’s good intentions for a moment. She and her husband are committed Christians who believe in Satan. They even blame him for the original controversy in the first place. But, as one writer at the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s blog rightly complains, you can’t tell the full story of Jesus without the devil.

In reality, Satan and the temptation in the wilderness is pivotal to both the narrative of the Gospels and our theological understandings of Christ Himself. Theologically, Jesus’ facing temptation was necessary in order for Him to be fully human. As Hebrews tells us, Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” It isn’t simply happenstance that Jesus faced temptation. If Jesus hadn’t faced temptation of any sort, His sacrifice on the cross, His unselfish ministry to the poor and sick, and His sinless nature all would have been unremarkable. Jesus essentially becomes an Asimov robot, only doing good works because He is programmed to do so. How could mankind relate to a Savior like that?

He continues:

Evangelism is much easier when the only discussions are about love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation. Love your neighbor, God loves you no matter what; those parts of Jesus’ message poll pretty well among general audiences. Satan, sin, and an eternal Hell? Not so much. What results far too often is a kind of “feel-good Christianity,” with lots of loving the sinner, not too much hating the sin, and certainly no discussion of that guy with horns and a pitchfork you see in cartoons. In actuality, the Jesus of the Gospels spends a lot of time talking about why you should love your neighbors and give up earthly possessions: because the wage of sin is eternal damnation.

I almost completely agree… except for the first sentence of the preceding paragraph: Is evangelism much easier once you remove Satan, sin, and eternal hell? Surely our experience as United Methodists—or some other brand of mainline Protestant—tells us otherwise.

After all, Methodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell. Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Who knows? We mostly haven’t done evangelism. And our declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S.

How can this surprise us? Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, death, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “gospel”? United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls puts it this way:

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[†]

The world outside our church doors is telling us that it isn’t worth getting out of bed for a trivialized Christianity.

Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

The problem of fairness: “What about those who’ve never heard?” etc.

January 13, 2014

I like theologian Glenn Peoples, a Calvinist (he’s a fiercely intelligent Christian apologist; I only wish he would blog more often), and I like theologian Jerry Walls, an Arminian (who is also United Methodist—yay, team!).

In this post, Glenn critiques Walls’s unusual concept of Protestant purgatory. Walls wrote a book on the subject, which I haven’t read. Apparently, Walls argues that since everyone doesn’t receive a fair, equal, or “optimal” level of grace sufficient to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life, God “balances the scales” after death in a state of being that Walls calls purgatory.

This solves the problem of unfairness (assuming, against Calvinism, that it is a problem): no one will go to hell without having had a fair chance to accept God’s gift of eternal life through Christ.

As a Calvinist, Peoples naturally rejects Walls’s ideas. But he’s right about one thing: Arminianism’s concept of “prevenient grace,” which we Arminians offer as an alternative to the rigid determinism of “irresistible grace,” doesn’t completely solve the unfairness problem—as Walls well knows, otherwise he wouldn’t be proposing a Protestant purgatory. Peoples writes:

So actually, given Walls’ view that not everybody has had a chance to be saved in this life, Arminianism is in the same boat and subject to the same objection as Calvinism here: The distribution of grace isn’t fair! Of course, a Calvinist just bites this bullet hard: Nobody deserves eternal life, and God chooses to give it to some. If you don’t like it, talk to the hand. Now, Walls can say, of course, the Arminian who doesn’t believe in a second chance after death has a widerbase of people who can be saved: namely all those who have heard the Gospel in this life. But still, there are some who, as Walls puts it, have not “had such grace in this life.” Based on what has happened in this life, Walls thinks, they can’t be saved. So Arminians have a problem that is surely only better in degree than the problem had by Calvinists, but which is the same in principle (assuming there’s a problem here, as Walls does).

Lest you think I’m becoming a Calvinist, I would say that while prevenient grace doesn’t solve this particular problem, it also doesn’t introduce new ones: like how to square double-predestination and irresistible grace with the obvious (from my perspective) biblical truth that we human beings are ultimately responsible for choosing God’s gift of salvation.

I’ve heard Calvinists complaining about the misleading language of popular evangelicalism, which stresses the importance of “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord”—the good old-fashioned Billy Graham-style invitation. This, they say, places an emphasis on the wrong side of the equation: human response rather than God’s initiative.

Theologically, I understand the concern, but I dismiss it: any language we use will ultimately fail to capture all the mystery and nuance of salvation. To speak of “accepting Christ” is good enough for me.

Besides, call Arminians like me “semi-Pelagian” all you want, nothing in the Gospels and nothing in Paul’s letters convinces me that we don’t ultimately get to choose to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ—at some level, in whatever qualified way we wish to explain it. God doesn’t override our will, even if, through grace, God helps it along.

In the comments section of Peoples’s post, Peoples and his commenters discuss Molinism, another attempt to solve the problem of unfairness. Molinism says that since God knows whether or not an individual would accept Christ under the most favorable circumstances, he places that person in the right place—geographically and historically—so that they either will or won’t make that choice. In other words, no unsaved individual will die and face judgment who would have been saved under other circumstances. If, for example, an unsaved person dies having never heard or responded to the gospel—because they lived in North Korea or an Islamist country where the church is underground and Christian evangelism is illegal—it doesn’t matter: even if they’d been born in the buckle of the Bible Belt a hundred years ago, they still wouldn’t have accepted Christ.

I personally find Molinism less appealing than Walls’s purgatory. And Peoples raises an interesting proof-text against it:

In Luke 10:13 Jesus didn’t say “everyone who did not get the opportunity would have rejected the opportunity anyway.” In fact he seems to be saying the opposite: That some people who didn’t get a chance to hear are actually people who would have accepted the opportunity, and repented. So if we think about grace and our response to it in Arminian terms (as Bill does), it would appear that the contention that everyone who would have repented gets the chance to do before they die is not a biblical contention.

I confess I’m not as bothered by this question of “fairness” as I’m supposed to be. First, because I trust God to be perfectly fair in Final Judgment, so I don’t have to worry about it. Second, as far as I can tell, most people I know—at least in my little Bible-Belt corner of the American South—have already received a sufficient amount of grace to respond to the gospel. If they haven’t already accepted Christ, maybe they never will. Or maybe they need us Christians to work harder to persuade them!

I’m mostly uninterested in any theological proposal—post-mortem “optimal grace,” Calvinistic determinism, and difference-splitting Molinism—that diminishes the urgency of our evangelistic task.

Of course, even as I write this, I recognize my hypocrisy. What’s my problem when it comes to evangelism? It’s not like I’m beating down people’s doors to share the gospel with them! Am I living and ministering with a sufficient sense of urgency?

Well, I promise I’m getting better about evangelism. But I have plenty more work to do in that area!

What we know for sure is this: God has given us this time on earth to hear and respond to the gospel. Those of us who’ve already repented and said “yes” to God’s offer of salvation through Christ have our work cut out for us.

Preaching hell

October 28, 2013

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.


Yesterday, during the last Sunday of our three-week stewardship emphasis, I preached a sermon on Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I joked that visitors in yesterday’s services had chosen a perfect Sunday to attend: I would be talking about both hell and giving money, two favorite topics rolled into one!

I mentioned briefly that, having been to seminary, I’ve heard plenty of creative reinterpretations of hell as depicted in the parable. The most popular goes something like this: Jesus’ point wasn’t to say anything about hell at all, or even that hell was a real place to which God sends souls after death. His point was to say something about social justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and preaching good news to the poor.

[But even that’s not quite right: hell was hardly Jesus’ point, since, according to this stream of thought, we know very little that was said by that barely literate, itinerant peasant-teacher Jesus. Rather, the parable reflects Luke’s evangelistic concerns. These commentators always make Luke seem like a much more interesting fellow than Jesus himself. According to these scholars, we know that it’s really Luke speaking, not Jesus, because he has Jesus use the word Hades (translated from the Hebrew sheol) rather than gehenna (translated into English as “hell”). This is the giveaway, they say: Luke is importing Greek philosophy into the parable, portraying an immaterial afterlife rather than the embodied afterlife of traditional Jewish thought.]

This is all silly, of course. Modern liberal scholars rarely get so creative about the parables of Jesus that they “agree with,” like the ones from Luke 15.

Besides, as I said in my sermon:

The point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous, crime-ridden place; the point is to say something about loving our neighbor. But just because the highway isn’t the point doesn’t mean the highway didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t filled with bandits who wanted to rob you. Just as the Jericho highway was real, so hell is real.

Regardless whether it’s called hell or Hades, Jesus depicts a two-tiered afterlife immediately following death, a Paradise on the one hand and a place of torment on the other. As for the question of whether the afterlife is embodied, orthodox Christian thinking has always understood that the afterlife consists of two stages: a disembodied intermediate stage followed by general resurrection, final judgment, and resurrected life in a newly re-created world (for the redeemed). Since the rich man’s five brothers still walk the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is describing the intermediate stage.

As I said in my sermon, many Christians object to the idea that a loving God could send people to hell. These same Christians believe that God is a God of love in the first place mostly because of what Jesus revealed. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself. How is this not a classic case of picking and choosing?

A worse alternative to believing that we misunderstand what Jesus says about hell is saying that Jesus—limited in his understanding, a victim of his time and place—was wrong about hell—as if we’re now the moral geniuses who know better than Jesus what a “God of love” would and wouldn’t do. I’ve made this point about Satan, but it also applies to hell: If Jesus is wrong about a doctrine as central to his teaching, why do we trust him when it comes to doctrines that we agree with? If Jesus is wrong about hell, how do we know he’s right about God’s love, mercy, and grace?

So I appreciate that “new atheist” writer (I can’t remember which one) who strongly disagreed with many of his colleagues that Jesus was the proverbial (if condescending) “great moral teacher” because he found Jesus’ teaching on hell barbaric and bloodthirsty. Good for him! Unlike so many well-meaning Christians among us, he didn’t try to separate one part of Jesus’ teaching from another.

No, a far better alternative (to say the least) is to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt: if we can’t reconcile our understanding of love with Jesus’ words about hell, then let’s assume our understanding of love is wrong.

And here, as in so many other places, C.S. Lewis helps us out. Yes, hell poses a challenge to us, he concedes. If the Bible is our primary authority—not to mention the words of Jesus himself—we can’t simply dismiss the doctrine. But if we think about it, the doctrine is also reasonable, and reason is the cause that Lewis takes up in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain (my all-time favorite book, by the way):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’[1]

We may respond, “Yes, but who wouldn’t ‘give in’ if the alternative is an eternity in hell?” Lewis answers this question. In a nutshell, if we can’t see how that’s possible, then we’ve misunderstood the nature and power of sin. I also like Lewis’s saying that while “no one can make that surrender but himself,” many can help him make it. This gives urgency to evangelism.

I’m not persuaded (and Lewis isn’t, either) that everyone gets a second chance to respond to the gospel after death, because God knows that often a second chance, or even a millionth chance, may not avail. What we know for sure is that we have the opportunity right now to respond to the gospel. Again, our evangelistic task is urgent!

I agree with Notre Dame professor Jerry Walls that everyone, in the interest of justice, will get a sufficient amount of grace (which may differ from person to person), to decide whether or not to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ. How or when this happens we can’t say.

I especially like this (which I quoted yesterday):

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.[2]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 119-20.

2. Ibid., 130.

Even if we say we believe in hell, do we really mean it?

October 3, 2012

Jerry Walls

Because if we mean it, how does that not instill within us a great sense of urgency about evangelism? I believe the question I asked at the end of last Sunday’s sermon is on point: Do we we think it’s possible that people we know and love can be separated from God eternally? (This is obviously a follow-up to Monday’s post.)

Jerry Walls, in his book on the subject, discusses the question in an interesting way:

Since I profess to believe in hell, I have often wondered what it would take convincingly to show this belief in my life. If I am in a supermarket, should I stop all my fellow shoppers and urge them to believe in Christ, lest they be damned? If I am at a concert, should I stand on my seat during intermission and warn everyone within earshot of the wrath to come? While these scenes may strike us as silly, I submit that such actions would be at least plausible for a person who took hell with utter seriousness. For surely, if I knew the concert hall were going to collapse before the concert ended, it would be appropriate for me to warn everyone of the impending danger.[1]

Of course, in my own life, I am often made uncomfortable by those very Christian evangeliststhere are more than a few of them out there—who do behave in ways similar to what Walls describes here. I haven’t seen them in supermarkets, but I often see them on sidewalks outside sporting events—with large signs, bullhorns, and a word of warning to passersby. I may question their methods, but not the sincerity of their belief in the wrath to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the doctrine of hell an essential part of Christianity?

October 2, 2012

The scripture I preached on last Sunday, Acts 4:1-22, includes these words from Peter, which go against the prevailing Oprah-fication of American culture: “Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (v. 12).

If it’s true that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus, then our mission as a church couldn’t be more urgent. Toward the end of my sermon, I expressed this urgency as follows:

If we don’t start speaking and acting and praying and inviting, don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love will miss out on the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might die without having given their lives to Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might be eternally separated from God in hell.

To our shame, we United Methodists rarely talk about hell, even though Jesus himself talked about it frequently. We often avoid it like the plague, although we may do so for the best of reasons: none of us, after all, wants to be judgmental.

How exactly is it judgmental to warn people about the possibility of hell? We Christians don’t have any biblical warrant to say who goes there: God is the judge, not us. What we can say—and what we ought to say loudly and confidently—is that through faith in Jesus Christ we will avoid hell. An important part of what it means to be saved from our sin is to be saved from hell.

Of course, we can also avoid talking about hell for the worst of reasons—which is, we don’t really believe it exists. If so, we should heed the words of theologian Thomas Oden, a United Methodist, reflecting on both scripture and the church’s traditional understanding of the doctrine:

The stark words “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire” [from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats] have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text (Jerome, Ag. RufinusFC 53:109). The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it. Every mitigating theory is wrecked on these words, which are “not as doubtful or ambiguous as represented; and even if they were, the rule is to interpret the obscure by the plain” (Banks, MCD: 362). The problem is not that the words are obscure, but that they are all too plain (Augustine, CG 21:23; Kierkegaard, On Self-examination).[1]

To fail to believe in or emphasize hell, as theologian Jerry Walls, another United Methodist, points out, is to risk trivializing the gospel.

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[2]

I don’t think Walls would argue that the gospel doesn’t also mean personal fulfillment, or a positive self-image, or a better outlook on life. I have certainly experienced it that way, and I preach that. But long before we get there, the gospel must mean salvation from sin, death, and, yes, hell.

1 Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 827.

2 Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

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.

Footnotes:
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.