Why Do We Need to Believe in Hell? (Part 1: Fear)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Discussions on hell in the Bible can quickly become emotionally heated. Whether you feel the strong need to defend the doctrine or the strong need to argue against it, the concept of hell is not just a theoretical discussion.

Ironically, debates on the subject are typically focused on fact claims of what the Bible says, as if emotions played no role at all. The motivations of why we either seek to defend or question hell is considered to be a liability, a weakness in one's argument.

Consequently, those in support of it focus on the Scriptural evidence for hell, and those arguing against it similarly focus on Scriptural fact claims as well, for example, arguing that the Greek word translated as "hell" does not mean what you think it means.

In short, one side says "the Bible says there is a hell, and that settles it" while the other side says "no it doesn't say that, it's a mistranslation." Both focus on the "facts" of what the Bible says, ignoring what motivates each to focus on what they do.

But let's dig a little deeper. What motivates people to either embrace or reject the doctrine of hell? What drives a person to assemble an arsenal of verses upholding the doctrine of hell? Conversely, what motivates a person to dig into the Greek to try and find grounds to question the doctrine of hell? If we are unreflected and unaware of these motivations that drive our interpretation of Scripture, they will still drive what we see and don't see. So if we want to have anything approaching an honest and objective reading, we need to face them.

For those of us who object it's pretty clear. We object because it seems awful and immoral. Speaking for myself, as my love for God and my neighbor increased, the horror at the thought of many of those who I love suffering eternal punishment increased with it, leading me to ask how can a loving God send people to hell? In other words, the reason I became troubled with hell was because I was growing closer to Jesus. It was as I grew closer to Jesus that I saw more and more the moral problems with the doctrine of hell. Many people feel that way, and that leads us to really struggle with the doctrine of hell.

However, the way we see this framed is that while we are struggling because of moral or emotional reasons, those who defend it are just focusing on the facts of what Scripture says. I want to propose that that is simply not true. Those who defend hell are just as much doing so motivated by moral or emotional concerns. There is no side that is just rationally and non-emotionally looking at what Scripture "says." Everyone is motivated to defend what they do because of deep-seated things under the surface.

So why it do some people feel the need so defend hell? I was shocked at how matter-of-factly my fellow Christians accepted that the majority of the world was going to hell. How could they believe this and not be deeply broken and grieved over it? The reason is because there is something going on that causes people to need to believe in hell, to want there to be a hell. This may be masked in a matter-of-fact non-emotional tone because this works well as a debate strategy to pretend to be detached and just focused on the "facts," but until we can recognize the things that are really there behind this, motivating us to "see" what we see, we will only have a superficial understanding.

I would propose that there are two basic underlying reasons that people believe in hell. I'll deal with one of those here, and discuss the second next time.

One reason people believe in hell is rooted in an urgency to see people repent, and a corresponding belief that they can be motivated by fear. That is, they fear for the person, and so they attempt to communicate that urgency through threat and fear. We can see this in the prophetic "warnings" of Scripture, including the NT, where people are told that unless they turn from their ways, they await pain and suffering. While the OT does this with a focus primarily on earthly suffering (threatening people with starvation, famine, war, rape, etc) the NT shifts the focus to suffering in the afterlife. In either case, the intent is to cause the hearer to turn from their path to avoid the suffering. Be loving or else. This is motivation by fear.

We can see this continued in the classical fundamentalist preachers of hell, perhaps best exemplified by Johnathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Here's a taste,

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

That's how the "good news" is preached, with a mandatory intro focused on hell. Such "hellfire and brimstone" sermons can still be heard today, Sunday after Sunday throughout the Bible belt. This is not about making sober factual claims, the way a doctor might tell you that if you do not change your eating habits there could be adverse heath risks. Rather it is intended to evoke fear and alarm. The idea is to (literally) scare the hell out of someone. That's what Hell House is supposed to do. It's meant for good. However many can attest that this focus on fear has actually resulted in damaging them, pulling them away from God and away from love. So even if it was meant for good, we need to look at whether motivating people by fear may in fact make things worse, and we also need to look at whether there are more effective means for reaching our goal (seeing people repent of hurtful and destructive behavior).

Psychologists have observed that threat and pain only work as motivators temporarily. To remain effective the threat or punishment must be escalated over time. The context of the NT, scholars tell us, is that they saw themselves at a point where they believed the end of the world was close at hand. When the world did not end, for the threat to remain effective it needed to become more and more extreme until we arrived at Dante's graphic visions of hell, and the idea of conscious eternal torment. It's kind of hard to top that, so there is no place to go from there. All you can do is scream louder about it.

Fear and threat only work in the short-term  because they are external, rather than internal motivators. That is, when a person does something motivated by fear, they don't do it because it is right or because they care, but simply because they want to avoid punishment. They are not actually good, they are simply complying with it to avoid pain. They are not motivated by love, which cares for the other, but by fear, which only sees the self.

This is why many Christians, when they lose the fear of hell, turn away from God. They do this because they never actually loved God, they only feared God. To understate the case, it's hard to maintain a constant state of fear in any relationship without it messing you up. So people running from a relationship rooted in fear -- including a relationship with God -- is probably a healthy and good thing to do. John tells us that love and fear cannot coexist. "There is no fear in love" he says. Many Christians fight that statement tooth and nail because they believe that fear goes hand in hand with love. Fear is so internalized by them that they can't imagine a relationship without it. So while some Christians question hell and fear, others question love and forgiveness. The fact is, we all question things based on what we really believe in.

That strategy of motivation by fear of punishment may work with parking tickets, but it simply does not work when the goal is to produce people who love, who care for others as they care for themselves. If we really want to see people repent from being unloving and selfish, we need to show them how to develop empathy and social maturity. Fear cannot do that. Love can. Fear may work in the short-term, but we need to go deeper than that and move people long-term towards real internalized moral maturity and social development. 

We might ask here, "If that is true, why does the NT use fear as a motivator?" This is a place where the NT is stuck in the morally wrong assumptions of the culture of the time. At the time it was assumed by everyone that physical punishment (and to be clear, we are not talking about spanking, but physical punishment that we would today consider to be criminal abuse) was "for your own good." Compared to that, simply threatening people with suffering, as opposed to inflicting it yourself with a whip, seems comparatively mild. But it is still hurtful, and perhaps more importantly it is simply not the most effective means to achieve the goal in mind, which is to motivate people to be loving and good. We need to be able to see that end goal of the NT -- motivating people to embrace Jesus' way of radical grace and forgiveness -- while recognizing that there are better, more loving, and more effective means to get there. Fear of hell is not a prerequisite to accepting the good news of the gospel.

Next time we'll discuss the other major motivation behind people's need for hell -- a deep-seated desire for retributive that shapes most people's understanding of justice. CONTINUE TO PART 2 

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The Bible We Wish We Had And The Hermeneutic Of Denial

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Peter Enns has spoken of differentiating between the Bible we wish we had, and the Bible we actually do have. We might expect that if God were to write a book for us, it ought to contain perfect, unchanging, absolute truth which is plainly understandable. That is the way we think the Bible ought to be, similar to how we assume that if God is good and powerful then the world ought to be a place where there was no suffering or injustice.

But there is a big difference between the way we wish the world was, and the way we wish the Bible was, and the way they actually are. As Enns writes in The Bible Tells Me So

"This kind of Bible— the Bible we have— just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith... When we try to squish the Bible’s diverse voices into one voice, we are no longer reading the Bible we have— we are distorting it and cutting ourselves off from what it has to offer us."

Nowhere is this more true than in how conservative Evangelicals approach the issue of homosexuality. The assumption is that we can take what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, and trust that this can be taken as a timeless and binding view that we must uphold and defend, regardless of what science and life tell us, regardless of what our conscience tells us, regardless of what others tell us first hand. We are "safe" to discount others, discount our own moral conscience, discount what we find in our lives, and instead trust in the Bible here.

This was exactly the hermeneutical approach taken by conservative Christians in their defending of the perpetuation of institutionalized slavery in the United States. However, rather than finding a better way to approach Scripture based on understanding the mistakes of our past, conservatives continue to use this same approach of unquestioning obedience. 

To do this, they need to deny that there ever was a problem with how their Christian forefathers used that same approach to the Bible to justify slavery. For example, Tim Keller makes the claim that, "there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible.” The implication is that supporting slavery was always a minority view in the church. As I have pointed out before, that is simply not true. The reality is, the church has a long history of endorsing slavery based on the authority of the Bible, including the New Testament, which says that Christians can own slaves.

Others have argued that because slavery in ancient Rome was not based on race that this somehow makes it okay. This of course ignores the fact that slavery has always been characterized by dehumanizing violence, including rape. There is simply no way to paint slavery of any time as morally acceptable. Not the slavery of the Old Testament, not the slavery of Rome, and not the slavery endorsed by the church for centuries and centuries.

In his book Every Good Endeavor, Keller writes that, "Many critics of Christianity simply assume that the Bible wrongly endorsed slavery and that therefore it may be wrong about other things it teaches. Actually, biblical theology destroyed the coercive heart of the institution of slavery within the Christian community and finally led Christians to abolish the inevitably oppression-prone institution itself."

What Keller does not say is that the way of reading the Bible so that it leads to the abolition of slavery is a categorically different approach than the one he takes in regards to homosexuality. If we read the Bible as a timeless and eternal guide for God's morals, then we must conclude that either God wants slavery or that the Bible is wrong and cannot be trusted. That's one way, and it is a dead end.

In contrast, we have the way of reading the Bible that does lead to the abolition slavery. This involves learning to read the Bible on a trajectory, accepting that the Bible does not always provide us with timeless eternal truths that we must unquestioningly perpetuate and defend, but instead requires that we question and grow and develop -- moving in some cases beyond where the Bible is stuck in the morally wrong assumptions of the religious and political culture of the time. 

What we find is not a timeless and eternal blueprint, but a view that is on the one hand limited by the blinders of the surrounding culture, and at the same time giving us clues of how we need to grow beyond that, towards transforming our world to more and more take on the values of Jesus' politics and economy where, as Paul says, "There is division of slave or free... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

If we want to read the Bible like that in regards to slavery, then we need to do the same in regards to homosexuality. Now, of course just because the Bible is wrong in endorsing slavery does not automatically mean that it is wrong in condemning homosexuality. However, it does necessarily follow that we cannot simply claim in regards to homosexuality that "this is what the Bible plainly teaches" and defend that. We need to instead look at the evidence in our lives and world, and learn how to morally discern what is good in connection with life and reality.

However, the predominate "party-line talking points" approach of conservative Evangelical leaders today (such as Keller, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today Magazine, and so on) in regards to homosexuality is to not do that at all. Their strategy in the culture war is to instead utterly ignore everything but what "the Bible clearly teaches." This approach is an exact mirror of how Christians in the past defended slavery in the United States.

Conservative Christians like Keller continue to make the same mistake today with the issue of homosexuality that their forefathers made in the past with slavery. Nothing has changed in how the Bible is approached. Nothing is learned from the past. Instead we have a hermeneutic of denial -- denying the reality of the past and the harm it caused, and denying the harm that same approach of unquestioning obedience continues to cause today.

It seems clear to me that the priority is not on caring for the oppressed and the marginalized, but rather defending the way we wish the Bible was. Conservative evangelicals wish the Bible were a book they could unquestioningly look to for timeless and absolute moral guidelines, and have so based their faith on that assumption that to question it is to question the very inspiration of Scripture and with it the very foundation of their faith.

That's why they so vigorously defend it, they feel threatened. It's understandable that people who feel threatened become blind to how they are hurting others. It's understandable, but it's not okay. In focusing on defending their system of the Bible they wish they had, the focus is placed on defending that fictional view, at the expense of hurting the very people Jesus said we should especially care for.

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How To Read The Bible Spiritually, Not Religiously

Saturday, November 14, 2015

What is the foundation of our faith? What is our faith based on? One of the most prevalent approaches within Evangelical circles is to make the Bible the primary foundation. This is typical of Calvinism, and in its stronger forms can involve a distrust and dismissal of things like prayer, worship, and mystical experience. In other words, anything that might be connected with feelings and emotions is seen as suspect. The rational is equally mistrusted. People are taught that they can't trust their own thoughts or moral judgments. 

The problem here is not with the Bible, so much as it is with a particular way of reading the Bible which results in a faith that is disconnected from our experiences, relationships, feelings, and thoughts -- in short, disconnected from life and what makes us human. 

That means that rather than having an experience of God, rather than having a living relationship, all there is is the Bible. It is not the Bible as a means to lead us to God, but the Bible as a replacement for God. The Bible being our one and only source, becomes our de facto god. 

When we then discover that the Bible is morally fallible, this shakes the very foundation of our faith. We then need to figure out for ourselves what is right and wrong, but we have zero tools for doing this. Since we've been taught for so long to mistrust our own ability to make moral judgments, these parts of our brains are like atrophied muscles.

That brings us to the Charismatic movement which also has had a huge impact on Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it does not offer much of an alternative. Here the problem is not that feelings are involved, but that very little thought has gone into how to connect our own life experiences with the Bible. Really all we get is something like "Just make sure that it does not go against the Bible, your pastor, or what your church friends think (in that order)" In other words, it boils down to falling back on authoritarianism, which is where we started. There's no thought of how we can be counter-cultural (including religious culture), or how we can question abusive authority like Jesus did.

What I'd like to propose is a third option that goes like this: We live our lives, and we have experiences. Say, for example, you experience what it is like to be loved unconditionally by someone. Like that guy who wrote Amazing Grace, you experience how that kind of "unmerited love" breaks you, changes you, heals you. Or maybe you experience what it means to forgive someone who has hurt you, and how your hurt and the relationship itself is healed and renewed through that. You live those things, and in that experience you recognize that, while these things were by no means easy or comfortable -- in fact, it was extremely hard and difficult -- yet, nevertheless, there was something amazing going on, something deeply good, something... God

That's spirituality, where we connect those deep things in life to meaning, where we see what maters, what we were made for, where we recognize our telos.

Then you pick up the Bible and read where people are making those exact same connections, living out those same things, and you say "Yes! That's exactly what I'm experiencing, too!" The Bible then is not read as a catalog of dogmatic statements detached from life, but becomes a means for us to explain and understand what we experience, connecting it to meaning. 

That's the function of story, and why a movie or novel can bring you to tears as it helps you connect life experience with meaning. The Bible is filled with stories, and the New Testament in particular is a testimony of a people's encounter with God among us.  Their purpose in writing is for us to encounter the same living Someone that they had. That's why John writes,

"We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!" (1 John 1:3-4 MSG)

The Bible helps us to connect the dots between our own life experience of what is truly and deeply good, so we can recognize, as we walk in grace and forgiveness and love, "God is in this! This is the way! This is the life! This is the truth!"

The Bible has a vital role to play here in that it helps us to connect the dots, pointing us to Christ. But equally important is that we are living our faith out, growing in it, walking it out. Even better is to be walking it out together in a Jesus-shaped community which may, or may not, meet in a building with a pointy roof on the weekend to sing songs and listen to a talk. The important point here is not the thing that happens on the weekend, but that there is actually a community, a group of people who are all living this out in their day-to-day lives. When that's a reality then it becomes possible to benefit from the shared wisdom of others who have been down the road you are now on. However, when church is instead a thing we attend as spectators, that's not actually community at all.

Here I see the most fruits from those in the peace churches -- Quakers, Mennonites, and Anabaptists. They seem to have a deep history of walking out what it means to live in forgiveness, grace and enemy love. So those are the traditions I'm looking to, and hoping to learn from, as I stumble along towards the light.

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My Disarming Scripture interview with David Peck

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A while back David Peck interviewed me for an episode of the Drew Marshall Show. We talked about my book Disarming Scripture, the problem of violence in the Bible, as well as the dangers of fundamentalism.

If you missed the live radio broadcast of that interview, you can now listen to the full audio interview on David's podcast Face2Face. Enjoy!




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