Thursday, March 31, 2011

Biblical Backing for the C&MA View of Hell, Part 2

This is part three of a series investigating the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada (my home denomination) specifically as it regards its fifth article regarding hell, seen in part here:
The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matthew 25:41-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
This analysis will be the context for my own response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. Check back for the intro, an exploration of the statement, and the first part of my assessment of its biblical backing. What follows are my reflections on the last two passages cited in support of the above article.
  • Matthew 25:41-46
(41) Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (42) For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, (43) I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ (44) They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ (45) He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (46) Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
This is from the end of Jesus' famous parable of the sheep and the goats, in which Jesus tells the story of a King who divides the nations up and then tells those on the right: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." The parable is referenced in the third article of the C&MA statement of faith to support the affirmation that Jesus "will come again to establish His kingdom of righteousness and peace" (referencing his promise at the ascension as well). In the fifth article the concern appears to be a bit more for the people on Jesus' left (since only verses 41-46 are referenced).

Missing from the first footnote but implied in the second are the above verses which tell us that those "blessed by the Father" are the ones who give food, drink, clothes, and visitation to those in need, because basically they did so to Jesus himself. In the parable Jesus (once again!) identifies with those who are suffering and makes the blessing of His Father's Kingdom dependent upon those who show mercy and compassion. I tend to think that Jesus is giving this parable not to add fodder to end-time speculation but to call out a certain discipleship and mission in this world. He is calling for the life that lives in accord with this apocalyptic vision of reality. People are broken and needy. God is about overcoming that fissure. We are either for Him or against him.

By referencing this parable in support of the fifth article, then, the C&MA (at least subconsciously) holds in mind a thicker concept of the type of "believing" that corresponds to "everlasting joy and bliss." Once again, the C&MA's roots as both a holiness and a social gospel movement are shining through the white spaces of the text. Of course we would say that one is not saved by works but by faith. However, it is clearly part and parcel of belief to turn in love to one's neighbour. This puts some focus on what eternal life (and everlasting destruction) look like in this space and time.

Narrowing in on the specific topic at hand, however, in the verses cited above we are told that those who did not help the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned would be the ones to "go away to eternal punishment". This in support of the statement that the "destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment." Do the verses support this?

In verse 41 we have Jesus saying "depart from me you who are cursed" and the description of their destination as the "eternal fire" which is "prepared for the devil and his angels." This is filled out further in verse 46, where we are told that "they will go away" into "eternal punishment" (κόλασιν αἰώνιον) rather than "eternal life" (ζωὴν αἰώνιον). What is all this telling us?

A lot seems to hinge on how we interpret the word αἰώνιον (eternal). Would Bell be right to lean harder on a qualitative rather than quantitative interpretation, taking it as an indefinite time period rather than one which is necessarily of an infinite duration? (I'm not sure he denies the latter, but he definitely stresses the former). And if this is one of the legitimate renderings, does the C&MA statement of faith nonetheless mark it out of bounds?

Other important words are the nouns for which αἰώνιον is the adjective: κόλασιν (punishment) and πῦρ (fire). Assuming "eternal" refers to a quantity of time, is the punishment eternally experienced or eternally binding? Is the fire literal or metaphorical? Since the statement of faith takes a step back and talks about "torment" in general, it clearly does not wish to make the literal/metaphorical question one of dogma. However, it does suggest that the punishment is experienced over an infinite duration, whether the fire is literal or not.

We'll deal with αἰώνιον (eternal) in the next passage. What about κόλασιν (punishment)? The word appears in this form twice in the New Testament, and a good smattering of times elsewhere in ancient literature. On its own I don't see it requiring a necessity of duration, but it could certainly do so with the adjective "eternal". In 1 John 4:18 the word makes an interesting appearance: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." Not sure what to do with that at the moment so I'll leave it there.

If we expand our search of NT usages to include other forms of the word we also find the religious leaders trying to figure out how to "punish" the early Christians in Acts 4:21, and we find the Lord keeping the "unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment" in 2 Peter 2:9 (NASB). In the latter reference it seems that the punishment ends rather than begins at judgment, but I am not sure how much to make of it. The context is a reminder that if God sent sinning angels to hell (ταρταρόω, the underworld), sent the ungodly ancients a flood, and burned Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly and punish the false prophets. Reference is also made to the rescues of Noah's family and of Lot, who, curiously enough, was "tormented" during his life in Sodom by all the lawless deeds around him. All this 2 Peter uses to encourage the readers that they can trust God to preserve them in their trials and to administer justice in time.

  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10
(7) This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (8) He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (9) They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (10) on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
This passage does double duty for the C&MA statement as well. Article ten talks about "a bodily resurrection of the just and of the unjust" which is "for the latter a resurrection unto judgment," and it references these verses again.

The verses cited come in the context of Paul's encouragement of a church in Thessalonica which is suffering at the hands of its "own countrymen" what churches in Judea were suffering from the Jews (1 Thess. 2:14). Acts 17 tells us that Thessalonica is the place Paul and Silas had to escape from because their initial preaching started riots and got church members thrown in prison. Paul did not leave for his own safety but for the sake of that church. They were safer if prominent members of the Christian mission were not in their midst throwing the city "into turmoil" (Acts 17:8). Paul later sends Timothy to check how the Thessalonian church is doing under persecution, and 2 Thessalonians is Paul expressing both his pleasure at the news of their resolve and his encouragement that they not lose heart.

Thus in verses 7-10 we see Paul assuring them that, despite appearances, when "the Lord Jesus is revealed" there will be "punishment" for "those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus." The word translated "punish" here is δίκη, which refers more to the sentencing than its result. Despite the doubts and discouragements disheartening the faith of the Thessalonians, they should expect that the cause of Jesus in the world will be vindicated. Verse 6 assures them that "God is just."

Verse 10 says that one day Jesus will "be glorified in his holy people" and "marveled at among all those that have believed." With that Paul turns his attention to the present day and prays for Jesus to be "glorifed in" the Thessalonians so that "he may fulfill every good purpose" and "act" which has been "prompted by" their faith (11-12). He wants them to keep on in faith, hope and love even though their movement in the city is met with harshness and oppression.

In verse 7 we see that God will pay back the oppressors and give relief to the oppressed "when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (v. 7). The literal translation of verse 6 indicates that their "pay-back" is commensurate with the affliction that they have been inflicting. The image provided calls to mind a second coming with judgement and wrath for that which is opposed to Christ's purposes for creation.

Interesting that Jesus is "revealed (ἀποκάλυψις) from heaven" in verse 7 and "comes to be glorified in" people in verse 10. This doesn't necessarily contradict the images of descent from the sky that take place in other passages, but the image is, here at least, more a matter of revelation, apocalypse, or perhaps realization. The NICNT notes that the retribution that the verses talk about is not necessarily subsequent to but part of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It also notes that where other apocalyptic literature would have gone on in gory detail, this account seems more reticent, preferring instead to talk about this apocalypse coming "from heaven", "with the angels", and "in blazing fire" (NICNT 1991, 201). Some hold that the 'blazing fire' describes the punishment, but this commentary reminds us that it more directly describes the revealing of the Lord Jesus. These may not be mutually exclusive, mind you, but this verse is not giving us a literal description of hell. Fire is not uncommonly a "symbol of the divine presence" (202).

Basically I think Paul is paraphrasing Jesus' saying in Matthew 10:28: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."The contrast between the immediate threat of death and the ultimate destruction of hell gives a Buckley's-dose of perspective, but the fear is reserved for the Person on whom such determinations depend. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to keep on with grace and love (presumably even to their enemies) in the faith that justice is in the hands of God, and will supersede any suffering they may be undergoing now.

But let's deal with the description of judgement that is given (v. 8). The word used here does not imply "vindictiveness" but "unwavering justice" for those who "do not know" and "do not obey God"; who are "culpably ignorant" of the Lord Jesus (203). Their sentence is "everlasting destruction" (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον) wherein they are "shut out", or "away" (ἀπὸ) from the presence of the one they oppose.

When we read of "eternal destruction" we get the point that it is the frightful alternative to "eternal life". The word used for destruction is ὄλεθρον, and at first glance the word seems to be repeated in the next chapter of Thessalonians, but there the word is καταργέω, which can mean to bring to an end. Here we have a word implying utter ruin. What kind of duration it has is perhaps not a point for speculative detail about end-times scenarios, but we have no reason to doubt that it wishes to carry all the force of a heavy indication of the life-paths open before us. The point is that "life here and now has a high and serious dignity" and "facing up to the gospel invitation is a choice fraught with the most solemn and lasting consequences" (205). But what do we mean by "lasting"?

Let's get to this word αἰώνιον (eternal). The NICNT says that here, as elsewhere, it is an adjective meaning "age-long", recalling that the New Testament doesn't ever really bother saying whether that age has an end (204). The Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Early Christian Literature indicates that αἰών is often used to refer to "a long period of time without reference to a beginning or end" (32). However, the word can also refer to a specific age of history and be taken to imply an infinite span of time. So I'm not sure how to decide which meaning applies here, aside from context. The lexicon places both the texts we're dealing with in the category of a "period of unending duration" (33). But if Rob Bell wants to suggest that the word does not necessitate a picture of infinite duration (which I'm not sure he does), I suppose he has some license to suggest it just refers to an frightfully indefinite "after-time" (my words). The C&MA statement of faith does not seem to leave this option open.

Whether the word study leaves us with the idea that a period of infinite duration is in mind here, we still have to ask whether it is being literal or metaphorical. What if, when it applies to that which follows our time on earth, it is using a time-bound analogy to represent that which is unmeasurable according to time as we know it?

Let me put it another way. 1 Timothy 1:17 says: "Now unto the King eternal (αἰών), immortal, invisible, the only wise God, [be] honour and glory for ever (αἰών) and ever (αἰών). Amen." I get the impression that these are apophatic rather than kataphatic descriptions of God being given here. We are being told that God is not bound to mortality, visibility, or time as we know it. God transcends these things. I doubt we want to say that alongside God there is this thing called "time" by which He can be measured. God created time as we know it when God created the world.

Difference is, there we're talking about God and here we're talking about people. People who are, according to the statement of faith, raised bodily for the judgement incurred. If they can have bodies, presumably they can have time. Nonetheless, if the New Testament is in any case using spatial/temporal images to convey realities that are beyond them, and if ancients and medievals pictured hell according to notions of immortal souls or subterranean underworlds, I wonder how legitimate it is for moderns to translate that into contemporary cosmology or metaphysics? Or, considering the amount of speculation this would involve, perhaps to let it stand as a mysterious and staggering apocalyptic imagery meant to convey theological truths about ultimate reality?

I don't know. But I also don't think I'm being unfaithful to the biblical text by asking. On its own it kind of seems to beg such questions, doesn't it? I mean, imagine a "destruction" which never ends. Isn't that kind of an oxymoron? What if it is meant as a metaphorical hyperbole? We seem happy to take some of Jesus other statements that way. Couldn't the point be to drive home the seriousness of the path-ways before us without engendering speculation into geography or chronology of the after-life? One would be wise not to give either a hard-sell or a soft-sell to that apocalyptic imagery. The language kind of speaks for itself. Does it need the C&MA's "existence forever in conscious torment"? What does a doctrinal statement of faith need to specify, and leave unspecified?

However we answer that, the take-away point of the passage seems to be that those doing the afflicting are ultimately returned to the source and end of their own afflictions. When Jesus is revealed they will be away from (rather than enfolded in) "the presence of the Lord" and "the majesty of his power" which "comes to be glorified in his holy people and marveled at among all those who have believed" (v. 9-10). Other apocalyptics may have dwelt on or marvelled at the destruction to be avoided, but here it is the glory of God's majestic intentions that is the marvel. So we see that there is a new creation coming in Christ and that you have to believe it to see it. The point is, Thessalonians, don't stop believing! This particular passage is not one which was preached on the street corners of Sodom or Ninevah, but a letter to the persecuted from their pastor-at-large. Paul has given his fellow-sufferers reason to hope for the victory of Jesus, despite present appearances.

  • What shall we say then?

Based on these two passages, does the C&MA statement find the support it needs to affirm (1) a finalized "destiny" which entails (2) "existence forever in conscious torment"? In the first case it seems the answer is Yeah, it seems like it. In the second, Not necessarily.
  1. What else can we picture in terms of "destiny" when the one passage has Jesus tell those on his left to "depart" for "eternal punishment"? Whenever this takes place, that seems pretty binding. In the other passage, I think it entirely possible to read it in terms of a day of reckoning amongst other possible days of reckoning during our time on earth, but even then there doesn't seem in these verses to be any option left open for repentance, as Bell has been reputed to suggest. We'll have to deal with that later. Suffice it for now to say that the C&MA has indeed pointed to passages which seems to support its rendering of things in terms of a sometime-finalized 'destiny'.
  2. However, when we see that the punishment and the destruction are eternal, I think based on these two passages we have to leave open the possibility that, while it could involve (a) an infinite duration of self-aware suffering, it could also refer to (b) an eternally binding decision in which the person is separated from the life of God and either (b.i) destroyed or (b.ii) punished in some eternal "moment" with no duration of the sort we'd be familiar with. I'm not saying I know what interpretation to land on (if any), but I am saying that these particular verses alone do not themselves necessitate a belief in "existence forever in conscious torment".
Where does this leave us? I think another post is merited to tie up some loose ends and transition to an assessment of whether Rob Bell's Love Wins really asks for anything different from what the C&MA would have its members and pastors affirm. Thanks for reading this lengthy post. I would value your feedback thus far.


Ron Krumpos said...

Which Afterlife?

In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

(46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

(59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

(80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

P. Smitty said...

Wow Jon, you do not disappoint. I had to go back and read a few paragraphs a few times to be sure I was tracking with you but in the end I think you're probably right on the money as to your conclusions. It would certainly be nice to believe in an indefinite term of destruction rather than an infinite and I think you've shown that one can argue for that from the proof texts that the C&MA uses but the pertinent issue is still that the authors of our statement of faith did not interpret them that way. It still seems very clear to me that to sign onto the Alliance statement of faith it's a fair expectation that one believes in eternal (everlasting,infinite) conscious torment. Should the Statement of Faith override good exegesis? Absolutely not, but as you've also demonstrated the view espoused in article 5 is thoroughly defensible. So where does that leave us?

Perhaps it's fatigue, but we have a huge mountain to climb in our family of churches right now with another issue near and dear to our hearts in the ordination of women - I don't know if I have the stomach to lobby for a more open statement on Hell that would make room for annihilationists and the like (similar to what was done to accommodate differing views of the eschatalogical millennium). I believe (as I think that you do) that a statement of faith should not be unnecessarily specific and limiting but on this issue I think that enough people would feel differently to make it a difficult battle.
Thanks anyways for your thoughtful interaction with the text and I look forward to your next post in this series.

Jon Coutts said...

Ron: Thanks for your comment. I don't think Rob Bell suggests that our beliefs have some kind of power to come true, but that in all belief systems there is some spark of truth relating back to our common humanity and to the work of God's Spirit in all the world. He still says that belief in Jesus is going to be necessary because the core conviction of Christianity is that God and humanity are joined in this One man. Why this man and none other? Because this is not based on a mysticism but an actual incarnation.

This spreads to us by His Spirit, and so there is something mystical and unprescribable or systematizable about that, but that Spirit is going to lead into truth, not away from it. In other words, there may be many Spirits, but Christianity looks for the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ as the hope of the world. Bell wants to affirm that this Christ is indeed concerned for and active in all the world, even where we don't necessarily recognize him in our evangelical garb. Ours is not necessarily to spread our evangelical convictions (although those will be relevant) but to look for where the Spirit is active, even in surprising ways, and to participate in what God is doing in the world in Jesus Christ. This isn't "many road lead to Christ", but "Christ can meet you on any road".

I'm not debating the different mysticisms you mention, I'm just trying to get Bell right here, or at least give my take on what he means to mean.

Chris: You are absolutely right and it is gratifying to come to exactly the same page on this. I don't necessarily raise all this as a hill I want to die on right now. There are more pressing issues, I think, as you know. At the very least I just wanted to wrestle this one through so I'd know what to say and do when I had to sign the statement of faith. Also, to sort through what to accept from Bell's book. Turns out, now that I've read it, that I'm not sure hell or universalism are the real problems with his book, so this almost feels like a minor side project that I'd not have bothered with if not for all the hubbub.

the Doug said...

Thank you Jon for this little detour. It has been helpful for me to sit and read this series thus far.
Hell is a difficult thing to wrap your head around. It's often an emotional thing to consider, because depending on your belief (or not) it puts you and friend perhaps in very different eternal circumstances.

Looking forward to read more. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

Sean Davidson said...

"Turns out, now that I've read it, that I'm not sure hell or universalism are the real problems with his book ..."

Looking forward to you filling that out ...

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for tracking with me Doug.

Sean: Not sure how much of a book review I'll tackle, but there will be something in due time. I'll give you this though: It almost emphasizes human freedom to the expense of God's. My friend called it "Desiring God" for Arminians.

Sean Davidson said...

Ben Witherington III (from his blog): "While it may seem a little strange for me, an Arminian to say Rob has overstated the case for human freedom, I think actually he has in some respects. Human beings are fallen creatures, and most of their choices are made according to their own inclinations and predilections. This is not so much divine determinism as the natural outworking of being a fallen person. I also happen to believe in God’s prevenient grace which operates not just in the saved or those on the way to being saved, but in all persons. It is this grace of God which restores in humanity a limited power of contrary choice. But apart from that grace, the Bible is quite clear that we are all in the bondage to sin, trapped in a spider web of our own weaving. Can we move about within the web? Yes, but outside of Christ we do not have true freedom, true liberation from the bondage to sin."

Jon Coutts said...

Whoa, that's really interesting. I need to get that blog back in my blogroll, I'd fallen out of touch with it. Thanks Sean.

Ron Krumpos said...

Jon, my initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: "The Kingdom of Heaven is within." If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.