Saturday, September 05, 2009

Three Views of Hell, Conclusion

If you hadn’t noticed, over the last several months I have devoted this blog to an introductory investigation of the actual Biblical teachings on Hell. This series seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people as I have heard from many people I had no idea even knew about this blog who asked questions of me about the topic or expressed thanks for a genuine investigation of teaching. The topic certainly sparked a lot of interest.

Making a Choice Between Views

I have been asked repeatedly over the last few months which interpretation of Hell I favor most. I am still up in the air regarding my preference of view (and feel no great need to come down anytime soon). Actually, this is a very good place to be as it has allowed me to notice something very interesting about how many people decide controversial issues like this one. From the research that I have done on the three views so far it seems clear that one could be Biblically justified in holding to any of them.

The reason this is possible is because no matter which view one subscribes to, he has to interpret some passages literally and some figuratively. Which passages are written literally and which figuratively is up for debate; there are guidelines that one should follow (i.e. context, type of literature, audience, purpose, etc.), but even so, determining the author’s intent is not always clear cut and easy. If you take the passages that talk about sinners receiving the punishment of death literally then you will likely fall into the Conditional Mortality (CM) camp. If you believe that the passages that speak of the death of the soul in a more figurative way and take God literally at His word when He says that He desires that none should perish and that the works of the devil will be totally destroyed, then you will likely fall into the Universal Reconciliation (UR) camp. Like-wise for many passages that speak of the eternality of aspects of the punishment of the wicked and the Eternal Torment (ET) view.

Interestingly, it seems to me that many will be swayed largely by their view of the nature of God Himself. If you are particularly impressed with the holiness of God and the greatness of His offense at our sin, then it’s likely you will be partial to ET. If you are favorable to the vision of God as the ultimate victor over sin, where God expunges every final particle of sin from creation, then you are likely most favorable to UR. If the primary foundation for your understanding of God rests on His total and perfect justice, then you are likely preferable to the CM view.

Why is this interesting and why does it matter? Because I think that our image of who God is and what He is like deeply colors the way we understand the Bible - maybe more than any other factor. Think about it. Why do liberal Christians hold the views they do? In their mind the superceding trait of God is His love; since God so deeply loves, he must be far more accepting than perhaps traditional Christianity has portrayed, or so they think. On the flip side, extremely conservative Christians who likely tend towards legalism have a primary image of God as a righteous judge. If you understand this point it becomes clear that a good, biblically thorough understanding of God’s nature, and particularly His relationship with us, is crucially important as it can and, I think, does affect many other theological issues we engage with.

Consequences for Evangelism

Let’s face it. The vast, vast majority of Christians, at least in the West, hold the Eternal Torment view. One of the primary concerns that many voice when beginning to consider either of the alternate views are the implications to evangelism. Many Christians believe that one of the best tools in the evangelist’s belt is the average unsaved individual’s fear of eternal torment. While throughout this series I have refrained from taking sides, on this point I can’t remain neutral: The threat of Hell is not a good tool for bringing the lost to Christ. Not only that, the apostles never evangelized in using such threats.

If you read the Book of Acts with an eye toward the “evangelism techniques” of the apostles you will notice that they almost never speak about “Hell” when talking to the people. In Acts 2, Peter’s speech to the people gathered at Pentecost simply proclaimed the truth about who Jesus was, the facts surrounding his life and teaching and concluded with the simple statement that He is the Christ, the anointed one, who is the Lord. The simple implication of Peter’s sermon is that Jesus is the one to whom all the people of the earth owe their allegiance. Peter presented the facts, and the facts backed up the claim of Christ. Those who acknowledged the claim were “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles how they could be saved.

In Acts 3 Peter credits Christ with the healing of a crippled man and, taking advantage of the scene this created, convicts the listeners of their injustice in killing “the Holy and Righteous One” and choosing a murderer in His place. He then tells that events had to transpire in this way in order that God might complete His plan to bless all people by turning them from their wickedness.

Likewise, in Acts 4 Peter continues to proclaim the Lordship of Christ, proclaiming that he came to save the lost, and that it was his duty, as Christ was his Lord, that he continue to spread the message of Jesus.

Acts goes on and on in this way, the apostles frequently referring to Christ’s claim over all people and the allegiance they owe Him, and only occasionally making vague references to “punishment” or being “destroyed from the people.” The point is, that someone who decides to follow Jesus because he wants to escape eternal torment has not actually come to Christ, but is simply fleeing destruction - something John Baptist accused the Jewish religious authorities of doing at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. He hasn’t come to Christ for Christ’s sake, but out of a desire to save himself from pain.

If the New Testament is clear about anything, it’s clear that we are to come to Jesus on our hands and knees, broken down by our sin because we know that it was rebellion against Him who has the rightful claim over us as our Lord and Creator. Our sin hurt Him who loved us first so deeply that He chose to suffer and die that He might bless us by turning us from our wickedness and bringing us into His family. This should be our desire and the primary impetuous for our salvation, not necessarily a fear of punishment.

We See Through a Glass Darkly

I love the Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 13 of the present state of our knowledge as believers:

1 Corinthians 13:9-12

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I
spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I
became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but
then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have
been fully known.

I like answers and believe that there are more and better answers to many of the questions Christians ask than many realize. That said, Paul acknowledges that even he, the most important figure in Christianity next to Jesus himself, doesn’t have all knowledge, all reason, or all understanding available to him. There are things, many things on many subjects, which will never be known to man in our present state on this Old Earth. As I have studied over the past three years many issues have become more clear to me, whereas others, like the issue of Hell, have become less and less defined the more I study. It appears that God did not give us complete information on many subjects. Like the mirror, or glass, in which we can see only a hazy, clouded image, there are topics in scripture which we cannot see with any specificity, but can only perceive in the most general way.

Hell is clearly one of these subjects. God, apparently, doesn’t feel the need to fill us in on the details of the punishment of the wicked, but gives us just enough to know that it exists and it is a fearful fate. He doesn’t think we need to know. Someday, as Paul says, we who belong to Christ will see face to face and know fully those things about which we have questions or cannot presently comprehend. As someone who likes answers that expectation is exciting and deeply satisfying.


Faith Alterton said...

Hi Nate! Interesting point about an individual's perception of God leading them towards certain conclusions on other topics too. Now I'm gonna spend the rest of the afternoon wondering about my own perceptions ... . :)

Also I really appreciate your reference to Corinthians and Paul's limitations. I was kinda wondering if you'd decided on a position, and staying neutral makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for sharing on this topic. It's not one that I would have done much thinking on otherwise.

Greg Alterton said...

I think that's a good point too. And why shouldn't our understanding of the character of God, in as much of its totality that a finite human can fathom, affect one's understanding of Scripture? Sadly, some (many....most?) reduce Scripture to a complex series of formulae, so much so that some Christians seem to have no real need for God or the indwelling Spirit. I've come to a couple of conclusions: Rather than give us a formula for living and thinking about God, Scripture points to Christ, and if the apostles were obsessed about anything, it was Jesus, and the new life we have in Christ, not a series of formulae.

During my years as a Christian, God has continually impressed me with the expanse and depth of His grace. If the rain falls on the just and the unjust equally, I've also seen surprising examples of God's grace extended to people whom we'd consider to be "lost," to the extent that I've seen examples of God "improsing," if I may use the term, His character and blessings upon those who might never claim to be Christians. Why is this? When my dad was dying, and literally weeks away from death, he had every reason to be bitter and withdrawn. But he told me that the one thing he had as the darkness closed around him, was an overwhelming sense of thankfulness. Where does something like that come from? Was God making a connection to him before he even realized it?

At the center of my "theology" is a strong conviction about God's grace, love, and sovereignty. I don't believe there's a person alive, at least not since the apostles, who truly comprehend the depths and God's grace toward people, even those who do not acknowledge him. I believe we will be surprised when we get to heaven to see how victorious God's grace and mercy were in the history of mankind, and in individual's lifes. I cannot build a "systematic theology" on this, but I do know God and His grace, and the church would do well to dwell upon His grace, mercy, sovereignty, and love.

On the justice side, yes, God is a righteous God who cannot and will not tolerate sin. But didn't Christ take away the sins of the world? Did God, or did He not, pour out all his wrath and judgment for sin upon Christ on the cross? Think about it. How broad is mankind's redemption in Christ? How complete was his work on the cross? Why would God, after pouring out all his wrath upon Christ on the cross, and after satisfying his holiness and righteousness and justice by pouring out his wrath on Jesus in our place, why would God now reserve wrath for this individual or that? I don't believe that any of us have more than a glimpse of the depths of Christ's completed work on the cross and God's grace which that death now allows Him to pour out to many. Remember, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He died for sinners. So his work of redemption must be applied to sinners, people who are still "enemies" of God. And if indeed he died for the world, well, the world is filled with sinners who need grace, mercy, and rescue. I'm now more of a mind that God will be completely victorious over sin.

Thank you for this series, Nathan. It's been outstanding, and thought-provoking.

Greg Alterton said...

Another thought re: approaching Scripture from our understanding of God:

When I began to understand the grace of God (and I had been a born-again Christian for some 13 years before I came to understand and appreciate the grace of God), portions of Scripture that I either had scratched my head over, or didn't understand (and didn't know that I didn't understand them) opened up and became clear. And going further back, I never understood any of the Bible until I became a Christian. Parts of it then made sense, in the context of understanding something of my sinfulness, and God's work of redemption in Christ. So, I doubt there's a Christian alive who doesn't understand some of Scripture from their interaction and relationship with God.

It reminds me of an analogy made by Malcolm Smith. He's written that the Bible is like a menu -- it shows you and tells you all about what's on the fare, what you can have to experience in the restaurant. But a menu is not the meal itself. The menu can tell you a lot about the food available, and the waiter can fill you in on how it's prepared, etc., but if all you did was go into a restaurant and read the menu, then got up and left, you really can't say you've experienced the food at the restaurant. Same thing with God. You can read the Bible, understand it, talk or read information provided by pastors or teachers, have your own systematic theology, but the Bible is meant to lead us to God, to an encounter and a walk with Him. And if it doesn't do this, in one's life, it's like reading a menu at a restaurant and walking out without ever tasting the food. So, yes, the Bible is vital, but it is not an end in itself. It is the menu that tells us the riches and blessings we can experience in a life with God. Evangelicals have almost made a mantra of "Christianity-is-a-relationship-with-God," but many (even evangelicals) may not have gotten beyond the concepts of God that they've put into their heads from weekly sermons, Bible study, reading books, etc.

malterton said...

Thanks so much for writing this Nathan. It has be very thought provoking and has definitely expanded my view of God.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Nathan Alterton said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

I plan on writting more. I certainly have no intention of stopping writing. Right now I am using most of my free time that I previously used for writing to study for a major professional certification (Professional Engineering License).

When I finally get some time I plan on writing about the kingdom of God. It's an issue I am still coming to grips with, and writing as I learn often helps me work through the subject.

Nathan Alterton said...
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