Thursday, March 24, 2011

Examining the C&MA Statement on Hell

As explained at length before, I am setting out to analyze the statement of faith of my denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada, as it applies to the doctrine of hell. Although I haven't finished his book yet, I am doing this in order to ask whether one who was convinced by or open to Rob Bell's recent take on these matters could sign on the dotted line as a member in good standing.

This is where things get a bit hairy. Although I intended to begin by examining the biblical references provided in the statement itself (and beyond as necessary), I found myself mulling over the statement at great length just to understand fully what it could mean. Thus below, following the relevant point of the statement in question, you will find ten reflections exploring the range of interpretive options available.
5. Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God, fell through disobedience, incurring thereby both physical and spiritual death. All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:8; 1 John 2:2). The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matt. 25:41-46; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
1) 'originally created' > 'sinful nature'

It seems to me that one's understanding of hell is going to be informed by one's understanding of what is entailed in sin and the fall. What happened here? The statement of faith deems it necessary to say that something did happen, and it was very bad. Humankind 'fell through disobedience'. And now, whatever the original 'image and likeness of God' might have been, all are born with a 'sinful nature'.

It is not specified whether the statement has in mind a change of the actual nature of humankind or the addition of the adjective 'sinful' to it, indicating a thorough tarnishing or self-contradiction or deprivation of some kind. In the one case you'd have a new kind of human born into the world by sin. Evil would have a radical kind of positive force to it. In the other case you'd have a good humanity but tainted to the core. Evil would have no force or being of its own, but would only have a privative, parastic kind of negation to it. The latter view is the preferred one, and I believe that orthodox Christianity for many centuries has born this out. The C&MA statement's further description of that fall in terms of people's estranged relation to 'the life of God' should probably lead us to think of the fallen sinful nature more primarily in these terms as well.

Whether the 'sinful nature' is inherited by physical genealogy, social contagiousness, or by virtue of an ontological separation effective for all is not clearly delineated by the statement of faith. It is now simply something we are 'born with'. That's okay, I think. Statements of faith should not be needlessly specific.

2) 'physical and spiritual death'

The human stands estranged from God and from its own humanity because of the state of disobedience into which it has fallen. Thus it has incurred both physical and spiritual death rather than 'the life of God' (characterized by free obedience) for which it has been made. This death is the result of the creature's deluded stab at an illusory autonomy. It is neither soul-death nor merely physical death. Both have been incurred.

[A note to Dennis pertaining to his comment on the prior post: It would indeed be tough to get around the statement's suggestion that physical death entered human experience at the fall into sin. Thus I imagine that one who believed in a divinely created evolutionary process would either have to (a) deny that physical death entered the human experience with sin, thus putting the emphasis on spiritual death as the real problem, or (b) say that physical death took on a new found finality or character because of sin, or (b) imply that the evolving humans were yet-to-be declared and constituted human in the image of God until the Spirit breathed that likeness into them at the alpha-point to which Genesis refers (i.e. some moment within the metaphorical 'day' six, after the creation of non-human animals).]

3) 'existence'

Having read about our 'physical and spiritual death', we might then ask what is meant by the 'existence' which follows. Is this form of existence physical or spiritual or both? The statement itself doesn't say exactly, although in what follows we get some indications of what it thinks is important to say about this existence.

4) 'forever'

Is 'infinite duration' the way to understand the word 'forever'? It seems pretty clear. If one wanted to say that conscious torment came to an end at some point, surely one would have left out the word 'forever'. Furthermore, if one wanted to say that it was binding forever but was not experienced as the passing of time in duration, then one would leave out the words 'conscious' and/or 'torment'. The statement has not wished to leave those options open to us, as far as I can tell.

The only way I could maybe see one reinterpreting this would be if 'forever' was defined as a placeholder for that realm which is outside of time as we know it. 'Existence forever' uses our earth-bound language to indicate a state of being which is outside our experience of measurable space and time. This is not outside the realm of interpretive possibility. (After all, when the Bible calls God 'Everlasting' does it really mean to say that there exists something called Time within which God lives and moves and has his being? No, God is the Creator of Time as we know it. 'Everlasting' indicates his transcendent quality as such.)

Even if the 'forever' refers to duration, perhaps one could imagine an existence in a state that lasts forever but is not felt as such by the one who is conscious within it. Just the way that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, perhaps a state of eternal torment could be to the one experiencing it (outside of time as we know it) no different than a moment.

I suppose one could read it one of these ways. However, it seems clear to me that the framers of this statement meant no such thing. We are to understand the maximal frightfulness of our destiny apart from the 'life of God' and we are to be mindful of the extremity of the situation for those creatures hell-bent on their inherited state of disharmony with God. When it comes to the details we are left with the question whether it is the authorial intent or the reader's intent that is authoritative on such matters. We will leave that question for a later time. Right now we are just exploring the interpretive options.

5) 'conscious torment'

What does it mean for that fall to end in 'existence forever in conscious torment'? Is physical death a temporary transition on the way to an everlasting existence in another mode of physicality? What are we to imagine here? If this existence forever is disembodied, or 'spiritual' only, what does one do with the biblical language ascribing to it a physical painfulness? We'd be in the realm of metaphor in that case for sure.

However, we might be in the realm of metaphor in the physical reading as well. Are we to imagine a post-mortem physicality that can withstand torment without ever succumbing or losing consciousness? Like Moses' burning bush, is the person burning without ever burning up? Is the body being somehow sustained at the brink of perishing in order to feel forever the pain of the fallen human condition? I'm not trying to dramatize the statement as either unsettling or absurd. As I look for what is deemed important, these questions arise.

The statement, here, doesn't spell out every detail. However, a later point in the statement of faith leads me to believe that the C&MA wants us to think of this as an embodied reality for which the person is resurrected by God.
10. There shall be a bodily resurrection of the just and of the unjust; for the former, a resurrection unto life (1 Corinthians 15:20-23); for the latter, a resurrection unto judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
Taken together, these points suggest that the 'conscious torment' seems not to be simply the natural result of the impenitent's fall into sin but the reality for which God actively and purposefully resurrects them. Thus the statement pictures for us a divine granting of 'post-mortem' existence in which the eternally binding judgment is not only passed, but felt in all its eternality.

To sum up, then, it seems that the important thing for C&MA members to affirm is that the God-enacted destiny of impenitent fallen humanity involves a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons have the ability to be conscious of pain. I haven't investigated the biblical texts that are footnoted yet, but having grown up in the C&MA I have little doubt that this is how the statement is meant.

6) 'destiny'

Is the word 'destiny' meant to indicate 'final fate' or is it more of a descriptive word, connecting the fallen state with the 'after-life' that can be expected as long as that fallen state continues? As should be clear by now, I have little doubt that 'destiny' is meant to suggest 'final fate'. Not only that, but God is the active agent in passing judgment and issuing that final fate.

In other words, though the fall into sin has already incurred physical and spiritual death, the moment of physical death seems to imply passing the brink into that God-declared destiny from which there is no return. In that case the real sting of the physical death is that it represents the end of all opportunity for repentance.

Of course, one could, theoretically, read this statement as descriptive of the kind of existence that an unbelieving and impenitent person should expect to have as long as they remain impenitent and unbelieving. In other words, this is what fallenness looks like, when the turn to God is resisted ad nauseum. Again, I hardly think this is what the statement's authors meant. We will have to discuss the authoritative weight of authorial intent later on.

7) 'saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.'

Clearly there is an emphasis here on the need for Jesus' atonement of sin in order to save the human from this 'sinful nature', this 'separation from the life of God', and this 'destiny' of 'conscious torment'. Whatever the extent of salvation and the population of heaven, no one gets there apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. Herein is not bad news, but good news. Indeed, 'all people ... can be' rescued.

8) 'impenitent and unbelieving'

Of course, the statement fills in the 'can be' with the requirement of belief. Interestingly, in the case of unbelief it qualifies it with the other descriptor of impenitence, but in the case of belief the penitence is either assumed or deemed too misleading to include. Does penitence bring too close to mind the legacy of penance and the Pelagian idea of salvation by works? Interesting that this door is reopened slightly in point 10 of the statement of faith anyway, where the parting of ways is not rendered according to 'believing' and 'unbelieving' but 'just' and 'unjust'.

The point is that one needs to repent and believe in Jesus, turning from the injustice of a humanity steeped in sin and enmity to the justice of a humanity reoriented to God. This is rather sensible, if you ask me. As per #1 above, if sin incurs a disorientation of the creature away from the free obedience to God for which it was created, then it makes sense that belief and penitence and justice characterize the reorientation of the human enabled by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Belief and justice characterize a redeemed humanity, just as they would have an unfallen humanity. Penitence is, of course, required because of the fall into sin. Anyone who is unbelieving and impenitent is, by nature, still in that fall and experiencing all that it entails.

But here are some nagging thoughts. Why is the turn from God into disobedience and injustice sustained forever? What is the rationale or the purpose of that 'existence forever' in the 'conscious torment' of 'separation from the life God'?

Is it the case that being made in the image of God means being made to last eternally, whether one is born into a sinful nature or not? Is it the case that our inheritance of and participation in that sinful nature in time merits the punishment that lasts for eternity? There would be some who would scoff at such a thought, and yet in history there also have undoubtedly been some who have prayed for eternal punishment on their tormentors. In either case I think it best to trust justice into the hands of God. However, I have to admit that I am squeamish at some of the possible answers to these questions. I'm not going to answer all of these. But I do want to explore their importance for the statement of faith. What does seem clear is that the C&MA has felt it warranted and important enough to say that members and pastors must sign the statement that there is 'existence forever in conscious torment' for all of us who remain unbelieving and impenitent to the point of death.

9) 'joy and bliss'

Before we come to some final thoughts, I have to ask: What is the meaning of 'bliss' here? If there need be a second word besides joy, why not something like 'love' or even 'life'? These seem more biblical and more commendable alternatives. Perhaps 'bliss' makes a fitting opposition to 'torment', driving home the point that, despite the harsh words about the fate of the disobedient impenitent, it doesn't have to be that way.

10) Is there any variance of interpretation available here?

For instance, would a C&MA pastor or member be free to imagine or hope that there would be an annihilation of the impenitent unbeliever rather than an existence of unending suffering? Does the statement leave open the possibility that the fire of hell could at some point be 'consuming'? that one might actually perish, in the most final sense of the word? Whether or not this view can find exegetical biblical credence, on the statement's own logic it would undoubtedly be tough to support. I don't know how you could interpret 'existence forever in conscious torment' in a way that allowed for annihilation.

But there is another question, and it is the one which Rob Bell has apparently sent ringing in the ears of evangelicalism: Could one be a C&MA pastor and hold a reasonable hope for the possibility that 'existence forever in conscious torment' is conditional upon the 'existence forever' of impenitence and unbelief? In other words, would one be free to imagine a so-called post-mortem repentance? Again, this may or may not be tough to sustain biblically. However, in this case on the face of it I actually think the statement of faith would allow for such an interpretation, even if it would undoubtedly go against the grain of the original authors' intent.

Of course, we haven't looked at the verses which the statement footnotes. If they recommend to us an understanding of the statement which excludes any 'post-mortem hope' whatsoever, then I think we'd have to conclude that such a reading might be rendered highly questionable if not eliminated. We'll have to get into that in the next post, when we examine the biblical passages cited by the statement itself.

For the moment I am not sure what to think about all this. I would at least like to consider the possibility that the C&MA could have a statement which was more inclusive of either or both of these latter positions, simply because I feel like a good rule of thumb for a statement of faith is 'less is more'. But then again, I haven't done the textual background study all the way yet. Maybe there is warrant for the exclusive position that has been taken. I'm just saying that at this point I find the specificity on this point a tad uncomfortable. But I am sure I am missing some things. Can you shed light on any blind spots for me thus far?


the Doug said...


I appreciate this line of thought very much. For me the thought that comes up first in thinking about all of this is 'justice'; what does divine justice look like?
I suppose the other question I have is: how does our sin affect God?
Does our sin hurt God's feelings, and if so, how big is that hurt?

Hopefully that made sense.

Joel said...


Although I lost my Greek skills long ago, it seems that the Matthew 25:41-46 and 2 Thes. 1:7-10 passages the CMA website reference seem to support an annihilationist position. Matthew mentions eternal punishment (rather than punishING), and 2 Thes. mentions eternal destruction. It seems difficult to use these passages to defend "eternal conscious torment". Just a thought from a guy raised in the C&MA.


Jon Coutts said...

Doug: Whether and how there is justice is a good and important question, although I do wonder how much we need to know its appearance ahead of time. Also, the wrath or God is an important question. Will keep them in mind for sure.

Joel: Thanks for that! I'll be watching for it when I investigate the passages involved.

Anonymous said...

excuse me,
Please don't try an include the C&MA in expansion thoughts. If you were a true C&MA member(which I doubt) you would acknowledge that the C&MA doctrine on hell is very accurat, not because of them, because they are clearly stating the truth. If you are even contemplating a false doctrine of no hell than you are probably not even saved yourself. Please just explain all the scripture that does metion eternal punishment, too many to list(romans chapter 2 all matthew, John & Luke all over)

Please explain to us what you are saving us from? with no hell.


Jon Coutts said...

leave me your name I'll be glad to talk to you. I think I've made it pretty clear, if you care to read graciously and thoughtfully, that I do this out of a deep commitment to the denomination, and that I'm not trying to "expand" anything. Our commitment to the denomination is submitted to our commitment to Jesus Christ, who is alive. Thus we do theology carefully and considerately, aware that all through church history part of the vitality of that means being willing to reevaluate as honestly as possible. If you have no interest in such a thing, I would suggest you have idolatry rather than faith and I'd be glad to take up our conversation if you want to actually have one. Otherwise, I wish you the best.

Your question about what I am saving us from makes no sense by the way.