Thursday, April 28, 2011

Questions about Franklin Graham and The Christian Social Imagination

Franklin Graham's organization, Samaritan's Purse, is all about helping those in need. I have always been an admirer of Franklin Graham's ability to join consistent preaching of the gospel with an organizational concern for the poor and oppressed. It seems to me that such a thing enabled him to avoid the rather gnostic implications that are in play when we proclaim a gospel that is focussed mainly on 'saving souls' for 'eternal life' and not upon living the gospel bodily and socially here on earth. Thus his interviews this past week have been perplexing, even downright concerning.

I'm referring to the one with Sean Hannity in reference to the Easter interview with Christine Amanpour, but my main focus is his Christianity Today follow-up with Sarah Pulliam Bailey, since it is there that he defends his statements to his own evangelical folk. Here's a few excerpts from that interview, but by all means go and read them yourselves for fuller context.
SPM: Before you go, I wanted to ask you about your comments about Donald Trump. You said, "The more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, 'You know? Maybe the guy's right.'"
FG: Not on the birth [certificate] issue. I'm talking about the economic issues, how to get our country out of the economic mess we're in.... No question, the guy's got a lot of baggage. He owns casinos. He's had multiple marriages. He's got a lot of issues. No question he is a very smart guy. I did not endorse him. Christiane Amanpour asked me if he could be the right candidate. He could, under the right circumstances, but we're still not there yet.... We have to look at the policies, are they consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ?...
If a person says that they're a Christian and then they have policies that are against what Christ teaches, that's a problem. There are candidates out there other than who we have talked about who are very good people who I could support. Mike Huckabee is a great man. He is a preacher. No question this man is saved.... You have Sarah Palin, who is a fine lady, who has great experience as governor, as a mayor, a very successful author, good family. Her husband is a man's man. He is one tough guy. Her kids are nice... You do have Mitt Romney.... He's a Mormon, but he is a smart business guy, a good man. Mormons have very strong families, and I appreciate that about him.

I'm not going to get involved in the political process. There will be people who I like and dislike. It's obvious the policies that are governing our country right now are not working.... Economic issues are issues that affect the church because if the country is not strong, we're not going to be able to support the mission work that we do. We're not going to be able to get involved in social concerns in the
community. If we have more and more people out of work, it's going to affect the churches in a big way.
SPM: Are there times when a reporter asks you a question and you decide not to weigh in on it?

FG: Again, if someone asks me a question, I try to answer it. I was on MSNBC and they came after me. I decided that I'm going to see how many times I can get the gospel in. I think I got it in three times. Of course, they were attacking me. The most important message is that there's no one politician that's going to save America. The only hope that we have as a nation is if we repent of our sins.

Asked about his politics, even though he emphasized family values (defined in regard to abortion, homosexuality, and being 'good people'), Graham made it pretty clear that, for him, economic issues are right now the number one priority. The social action of the church is somewhat dependent on what it has available to give. Fair enough point, but is it really the case that the church's abilities depend on its economic prosperity, and does it matter how that prosperity is achieved? Does the economic system itself come under the confrontation of the gospel, or is it merely a neutral means for gospel proclamation and good deeds?

To be more specific, for all his ability to make money, is Donald Trump really going to give the USA the economic policies that reflect Christian values? For all the legitimate concerns over how Obama has turned out, surely we don't see Donald Trump as more in line with the gospel?

It seems to me that Samaritan's Purse reminds us that the Christian gospel demands a self-sacrificial concern for the poor and oppressed both at home and broad. Certainly one can not legislate such self-giving sacrifice, but can one work for a country that does not legislate the opposite?

Franklin Graham knows that when he goes before an interviewer he is going to be pushed in the directions that they want to talk about. This is why I find it odd that he is willing to give them the sound-bytes they want, and in doing so to imply unquestioning support for the powers of capitalism just so that he can 'get the gospel in' a few times. It seems so counter-intuitive for a man who runs Samaritan's Purse. The only way I can make sense of it is if Graham sees the socio-economic system of the West as either morally neutral or gospel-consistent, thus making it an appropriate and relatively untouched tool in service of gospel proclamation and world mission.

I'm no economist, so maybe there are some arguments to be made there. But I'd like us to consider the contrast between Graham's words and those of Willie James Jennings' 2010 The Christian Imagination.

As my previous three posts on Jennings' book have indicated, I think it serves as an important reminder of the devastating ways that the church has harmed its witness by getting into bed with colonialist and capitalist impulses in the past. I see this book as something of a clarion call to a more socially appropriate enactment of the gospel in a world torn up by the divisions of race and greed. Hopefully by quoting at length from its final chapter I can illustrate the tension I'm seeing here between Graham's interview and the gospel he has heretofore been serving. Jennings writes:
I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property.... Of course, our imaginations have been so conditioned by economically determined spatial strictures that .... imagining [change] is no small thing. Yet I am convinced that such a change is not only necessary but now stands before human communities as the only real option for survival in a world of dwindling natural resources and tightening global economic chains of commodification. To imagine along the direction I suggest in this book would be nothing less than a theological act, indeed, as I suggest, a Christian act of imagining. And if, as I believe, Christian life is indeed a way forward for the world, then it must reemerge as a compelling new invitation to life together....

Jesus entered fully into the kinship structure [of his time] not to destroy it but to reorder it -- around himself.... The kinship network in Israel would not be profoundly qualified. Jesus came first -- not husband or wife, not mother, father, sister, brothers, not familial obligations and demands, not cultural conventions, and not social responsibilities. If the strongest bonds of relationship were qualified through commitment of Jesus, then the entire socioeconomic and political structuring processes deeply woven inside these bonds came into qualified view and ultimately unrelenting challenge. Jesus drew a new communion together in Israel. This new communion carried of necessity the distinctive marks of his scandal....

[No doubt Jesus and the apostles expose] the tremendous challenge toward intimacy created by the presence of the Spirit of God.... [But if] the struggle toward cultural intimacy was not faced by the church as inherent to the gospel itself, despite the constant work of the Spirit to turn Israel and Gentile peoples toward one another, then over time the only other option was the emergence of a Christian segregationalist mentality....

Imagine a people defined by their cultural differences yet who turn their histories and cultural logics toward a new determination, a new social performance of identity.... This new cultural politic is a complex new configuration and social alliance and political allegiance bound up in life together with the many. The implications of this new space in which a new cultural politic emerges are breathtaking.

(quoting pages 293-294, 263-264, 270-271, 273)
Indeed! And perhaps they are entirely unrealistic! Perhaps they can only be striven for in community's confessing Christ as Lord. Perhaps such communities can only seek this out within the limitations of their societies at large at cost to themselves -- doing so in the self-giving and cruciform love of Christ. Jennings himself concludes exactly this. This is the place where such a Christian imagination hits the ground and plods forward patiently.

But what if Christians, instead of confessing that this 'can only be striven for', simply rest content with the status quo socio-political constructs? How can we be satisfed, even proud of ourselves, when we 'get the gospel in' to conversations that end up offering their support to the perpetuation of economical value systems which are (arguably) contrary to that gospel itself? This is at best a failure to take seriously the machinations of society and at worst a gnosticism of the gospel. Based on Franklin Graham's track record, I can't imagine he would want to support the latter, but given the politicization of everything American and the publicity such interviews garner, the trajectories recommended in these interviews is concerning.

Based on mainstream evangelicalism's zealous and immediate outcry against Rob Bell about his alleged break from the gospel, should we not expect even more concern about the misrepresentation of the gospel that has manifested itself so much more concretely and publicly here?

Correct me where I'm wrong? Push me in a healthier direction with this?

Monday, April 25, 2011

K'naan's "Take A Minute" (An Easter Reflection)

K'naan is a Somali-Canadian from a Muslim family who moved to North America when he was thirteen years of age, thus removing him from the conditions of civil war. In Canada, before becoming a hip hop artist, K'Naan apparently spent time in prison and lost friends to murder, suicide, and deportation. This is the extent of my knowledge of him, other than the fact that he's written a song or two that my family enjoys. The song I want to share, however, is 'Take a Minute'. I find it remarkable.

How did Gandhi ever withstand the hunger-strikes at all?
Didn't do it to gain power or money if I recall.
It's the gift, I guess I'll pass it on,
mother thinks it'll lift the stress of Babylon.
Mother knows, my mother she suffered blows
I don't know how we survived such violent episodes
I was so worried, it hurt to see you bleed,
but as soon as you came out the hospital you gave me sweets.
Yea, they tried to take you from me,
but you still only gave 'em some prayers and sympathy
Dear Mama, you helped me write this
by showing me to give is priceless.

Yesterday on the way to Church on a sunny Resurrection Sunday we walked, as we always do, past a Mosque. I wondered what they think of Easter. Then I recalled K'naan and wondered what I think of this song.

This probably pressed on my mind because of a question a friend put to me last week: What should Christians think of the fact that in the world right now there are Muslims standing in solidarity with suffering and raising up for good causes? How should Christians engage with such Christ-like activities (where they happen) and self-giving impulses which are taking place outside its walls? I'm not getting into global politics in this post, but raising the general question. I think it relates pretty strongly to resurrection.

This Easter season held some firsts for me, as I thought back on the year past. This year I attended a Ramadan feast at the Mosque on the corner. I was invited and welcomed warmly. I have never invited, let alone welcomed, a Muslim into my home or my church. It is not that I wouldn't want to, it is just that I wouldn't know where to start.

This year my son's best friend in his class was a Muslim. He is a very well-behaved and smiley seven year old boy. A good influence. I love seeing them chum around. My son told me one day that his friend believes that if he lies or cheats he will go to hell. Asked what I thought, on the spot I said that we believed that Jesus had gone to hell to set us free from our sins by grace. I encouraged him to ask his friend what he thinks of the prophet Isa....

On the walk to church we also go past King's College chapel. Being Easter there was a large purple-robed choir waiting outside in the sunshine while we went by. It was a joyful scene. It occurred to me that it is easy to believe in Jesus' Resurrection on a beautiful day like this, and in company such as this. Surely that's partly what church is for - the edification and encouragement of believers and the communal acts of worship and Word-hearing.

But how different is Easter morning on a dark and cloudy day? How easy is it to believe in war-torn Afghanistan or in strife-riddled countries of Africa and the Middle-East? At home or abroad, how does one interpret the resurrection of Christ amidst the squalor of the poor and the oppressed?

I think one has to think also of the ascension. And Pentecost. Shortly after raising from the dead Jesus left it to us. To be honest, that sounds oppressively daunting. However, we believe He also left the Holy Spirit; the power of His resurrection; the promise of hope; the prompter and enabler for speaking truth in love. This is the Spirit who Jesus said was on him and anointed him and sent him
to proclaim good news to the poor.
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Perhaps what it means to celebrate Resurrection Sunday, no matter what the weather, is to take that to heart and live as if Jesus is alive in the world to reconcile it to God. This would mean recognizing that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. It would also mean recognizing that it is for the joy set within and before us that we too find a willingness to endure crosses in this world for the sake of kingdom come. Heaven knows there are many corners of the world (not to mention our own hearts and minds and churches) which await the resurrection's revelation.

Which brings me back to K'naan's song and my friend's question. How does a Christian make sense of such self-giving mercy outside of Christian circles? We might presume such a thing is to be the monopoly of Christ followers, but what happens when the culture at large offers the church reminders of what it ought to be doing? How do we make sense of this?

Some go back to natural theology and say there is a moral law in human nature which, despite our fall into sin, shines through on occasion in human beings no matter where they are or what they know of Christ.

Another answer is that the Spirit is at work in the world, guiding people to truth. The Spirit is concerned to build the Church and is 'at home' among the worshipers and disciples of Christ, but is not constricted by our statements of faith and membership charters. The Spirit is active in the world. Jesus is alive. We who obey his command to go into all the world can not go anywhere or accomplish anything where His Spirit has not already beat us to the punch and stirred things up already.

I find this answer rather biblically resonant and missiologically stimulating. It tells me that our commission is not to go as the superiors with something to offer, but as confessors of Christ looking to take part in what the Spirit is doing and to witness to the risen Lord as the Spirit raises the opportunities. Sometimes this could mean hearing a rebuke or a call to action that comes from outside our walls, resonates with the Word of God that is sharper than a double-edged sword, and shows us our blindspots. But if we hear this Word we will engage. Undoubtedly we believe that as Christ-followers we have something to offer, but it will be as servants and not as lords.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Hebrews 12:1-4

Friday, April 22, 2011

On the Mount of the Lord it will be Provided

Today at morning prayer we read Genesis 22:1-18 and Hebrews 10:1-10.

It reminded me of this little powerpoint I put together for Sufjan Stevens' Abraham a few years back. I offer it here again as both a follow up to the last blog post and as a meditation for Good Friday.

"Through your offspring
all nations on earth will be blessed,
because you have obeyed me.”
- Genesis 22:18 -


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Apocalypse Now: Sufjan's "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

I just ran across a video for Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and I think it is a good example of how contemporary art (and perhaps preaching) can alert us to the tragic trajectory of sin and enmity by way of a dynamic paraphrase rather than a literal translation. The song is beautifully melancholy but when you pay attention to the lyrics and see the video it brings home (subtly and tastefully but all the more powerfully) the dark story that it depicts. It is a contemporary hell rather than apocalyptic imagery, but it has the potential to evoke awareness of what separateness from the life of God really amounts to. Perhaps for those with ears to hear it also amplifies our holy fear of the One who could just let us have it.

25 victims identified. 8 unidentified.
Found in the crawlspace beneath his home.
The last line of the wikipedia article on him says: "Examination of Gacy's brain after his execution revealed no abnormalities."

Having heard the song but not contemplated the lyrics, I wondered about Sufjan's tentative gasps of breath at the end. Now my voice is stuck in my throat too.

On one hand the imprecatory Psalms come right into focus with stories like this. It is unimaginable to me how the God who reconciles the world to himself in Christ could give us heaven on earth without also bringing justice with him. The biblical images assure me that God is more upset by injustice and evil than I am, and give me unimaginable pictures of the end of evil. How it all works out exactly is beyond my imagination and abilities to postulate (thank God), but I recognize that His judgement is good, am glad that there is justice rather than everlasting tolerance, and trust Him with it.

On the other hand, I also recognize my complicity with the broken conditions of the world and the different ways that evil drags on my own heart. And whilst this fills me with the fear of God I am also gratefully reminded of the Son of God's words to the penitent people thrown desperately at his feet. He said "do not be afraid," told them to get up, and sent them into the world as ministers of His reconciliation. Perfect love drives out fear and mercy triumphs over judgment, we are told -- though all around the world may crumble. Into this world we are sent to live.

We can paint our stark pictures of reality, and this is probably all the more necessary when we are bombarded daily with the self-soothing comforts of the globally advantaged. However: Ours is not a spirit of fear, but of love, and this is the love for which all creation groans. Our motive is not guilt, but grace; not fear, but love; not hellfire, but kingdom come. Fear and guilt just can't sustain the kind of cross-bearing self-sacrificing love that the gospel's trajectory of social justice requires, let alone the hope it holds out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the C&MA View of Hell

In order to offer a contextualized review of Rob Bell's Love Wins, the question I have been considering in recent weeks is whether its author could sign the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada. Based on early reactions to the book I decided to focus mainly on article five of the statement, which states in part:"The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment." In the preceding posts I came to the conclusion that, however one might interpret this article, it intends to say that hell is a finalized God-enacted judgement of impenitent fallen humanity involving a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons are ever aware of their pain. Having dwelt at length on the C&MA's view (see parts 1, 2, 3a, 3b, and 3c), I turn now to Bell's book.

Before we begin we should note that Rob Bell says that he "believes in hell." (It's an odd phrase, but I guess we know what we mean). Undoubtedly aware that he is thinking against the grain in some ways, Bell himself does not think his book a "departure" from "the orthodox Christian faith." Indeed, while Love Wins claims to be about "life's biggest questions," it also claims that its more controversial parts concern matters that are "not that essential" (x). Thus on one hand I believe Bell might genuinely be stymied if he were refused membership in the C&MA.

On the other hand, however, this book is rather provocative in tone, and I think its at-times-haphazard imaginations bear considerable responsibility for the confusion that the it created. Although the UK title is a bit less misleading and incendiary than the US release, it is tough to deny that in its attempt to focus on "the heart of life's big questions" Love Wins does its fair share of sword-rattling speculation about "the fate of everyone who ever lived". That said, I think that a generous reader ought to recognize fairly early on the following:
Love Wins gives an extreme Arminian response to a certain brand of Calvinism in order to counter a caricatured view of God that Bell thinks has disenfranchised and confused too many people for what he considers to be all the wrong reasons. The book is an apologetic meant to re-emphasize the 'good' in Good News and the 'love' in God is Love. Bell does this rather sloppily and provocatively at times, but also clearly and creatively at others. In my view the book does not need to be categorically dismissed, but like much of the pop-theology genre it does require further thought, in some places more severely than others. Mainly, however, Bell wants to get first things first in our understanding of who God is and what God is about, and in doing so he is much more interested in the ramifications for discipleship and mission than with speculation about the after-life. To these ends I think he by-and-large succeeds.
But since we're talking about hell here, we better get on with it. As indicated, when Bell talks about hell he does not want to talk as much about its after-life component as its presence on earth in human history. The most prominent example of this is his creative reading of the fantastic parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus which claims it is not primarily about then and there, but here and now (74f, 107). Bell continually turns eschatology-talk into a consideration of the realities at stake in everyday life (67, 74). But on further reflection, isn't that what the New Testament itself is trying to do? For all the hiccups along the way, I do think that if we miss this we may not only get off on the wrong foot with Love Wins, but with many of the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament that are concerned.

But alternate emphasis is one thing, and contradiction another. Does Bell go so far as to flatly deny the eschatological implications which the C&MA has seen fit to categorically assert? To be sure, he is often rhetorically at odds with the common evangelical view. Most notably in this regard, Bell:
  • raises questions about the justice of infinite punishment for finite years of impenitence (4);
  • opts for a qualitative rather than quantitative rendering of the biblical words for "eternal" (31, 57f, 92);
  • steers away from the picture of heaven as only being "somewhere else" (23f);
  • exposes the scarcity of the word "hell" in the Bible and undermines common views based on some background context for the words "gehenna", "abyss", and "hades" (67f. He is right about these, but doesn't really give the whole story either, after all, people didn't invent the common view of hell out of thin air);
  • refers to statements (like ours) on church websites which announce that the "unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment," suggesting that this is a rather unwelcoming and potentially confusing message to offer online passers-by (96);
  • suggests that people will be free to get out of hell at any time in the future if they come to believe in Jesus because "love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility" (114, 155).
So far this doesn't sound very C&MA-friendly. However, let's also note the following point by point qualifications. In addition to the above, Bell:
  • returns to the eschatological vision and suggests that "there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God" (106-107);
  • allows that one of the words for "eternal" is "a versatile, pliable word" (92) and opts for a view different than either annihilationism or universalism (104-106);
  • maintains that the word "hell" and much of its connotations should be retained (93);
  • affirms the usefulness of "agonizing language" about "fire" in certain contexts to communicate the awfulness of injustice and sin, also noting the brilliance of a "nuanced, shocking story" about the "gruesome details" of good and evil when used in the Spirit of Jesus (73, 77);
  • resists declaring for certain that all will be saved and affirms repeatedly and clearly that God is a "God of judgement" who "says no to injustice" and acts "decisively" to "put an end to it," because heaven, he says, has "teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points" (34-36, 49)
No wonder people either love this book or hate it. You can find in it whatever you want. All this goes to show that Bell could have been more clear. But should he have been more clear? What is Bell actually trying to accomplish?

Let's keep in mind that by someone's count Bell asks 350 questions in this book, and I would venture to guess that most of them are meant to show he is not the only one whose views contain some tensions asking for resolution. I have to admit, I'm with him on this. The first issue he raises in the book is the issue of "double-predestination" and the next one has to do with the infinite torment of hell (2). The former is to me a highly unsettling and theologically problematic view and, as I discovered again in the last few posts of this series, the latter is not without its layers of perplexity either. The more literally we think about the "God behind the back of Christ" or the vivid descriptions of hell the more the vision seems ready to slip through our hands. We probably have to admit that we get into the realm of speculation pretty quickly with these issues, and my level of sympathy with Love Wins probably has a lot to do with Bell's willingness to confront them and paint a different picture.

Of course, this doesn't excuse Bell for adding further confusion. But let's note that he is less dogmatic about the picture he paints than some holders of these other views have tended to be about theirs. In fact, it occurs to me the more I reflect on this book that what Bell is trying to do is mine the tradition for that thread of material that opens up alternate imaginative space that helps people to recognize and trust that God is just and loving and good. Disturbed by overboard speculations into the after-life, Bell wants to bring us back to the basic point. In doing so no doubt reverts to overboard speculations on another extreme. There are some problematic theological tendencies that arise (such as in his account of freedom), but his basic point is well taken, I think, even if he doesn't really resolve all the tensions he raises.

"Hell is refusing to trust [God]," says Bell, "and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God" (175). Bell's point here is not to describe hell in order to scare us out of it, but to get God right so that a few more might seek the kingdom of heaven on earth. "We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell" (177). The problem is defining God by His No rather than His Yes: "Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us" (177, 182). "When your God is love," Bell says, "you are free from guilt and fear and the terrifying, haunting, ominous voice that whispers over your shoulder" and "you are free to passionately, urgently, compellingly tell the story" (181-182).

But what is this after-life thing called hell? "Hell is being at the party," and like the older son in the parable of prodigal, it is "refusing to join in the celebration" (169). "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of the story" (170). Could it be that the C&MA statement, while being more specific, might still be reconciled with Bell's agenda? I'll try to assess this by tackling the statement in two parts and seeing what Bell has to say about it.

1) "Destiny"?
I think the C&MA statement means to say that the "resurrection of the unjust" entails their finalized judgment, from which there is no return. However, there are many reasons to believe that Bell would prefer the C&MA statement's "destiny" language than this "finalized fate" interpretation (see 102). For one thing, Bell suggests that hell may be a place of pruning rather than punishment. I don't recall seeing this in my research on the word kolazo [punishment], but Bell is able to find several passages to support this agricultural rendering and the implication that God's goal in discipline is always our repentance (86f, 90).

Bell squirms at the idea that "God would have no choice but to punish [people] forever in conscious torment in hell" because this makes God out to be "fundamentally different" in the next life than He is in this one (174, emphasis mine). Note that Bell doesn't deny the possibility of an everlasting hell for the unbeliever - his issue is with the vision of God which makes this somehow necessary for Him.

Love Wins imagines a continued state of freedom wherein one could have life with God if one wanted. This second-chance post-mortem reality raises some serious exegetical red flags, and most certainly does not jive with the perceived intent of the C&MA statement. The word "destiny" might give a bit of wiggle room in this regard, but the move is definitely problematic.

Curiously, however, Bell asks: "Does God get what God wants?" And even though everything he has said points to yes, he refrains from answering. We can't answer it. We can't speculate, and we are in no position to make demands, even if they conform to our own logic and desires. The whole problem with the older son in the parable of the prodigal was that he thought the Father owed him (186). At the limits of our knowledge, Bell turns instead to the question we can answer, which is whether we want God (116). "Do we get what we want?" Bell's answer is yes, because "God is that loving" (117). Even if it means an infinite hell of separation from the life of God (113f). With this move Bell puts our free will atop the pile in an extremely Arminian way, and the problems with this would take a whole series of blog posts. Is God so bound by our freedom (see 103)? Is this even the best way to define "freedom"? Do we even have that kind of freedom (see 104, 106)? Has this account really answered the objections of theodicy? How could God let it get like this? Surely it is a "terrifying freedom," Bell admits (72f).

This is where all the questions of people who seemed to have no chance come flooding to mind. Those who die as young children. The people who got picked on in youth group and never went back. The unreached. It is not uncommon at this point to imagine an "age of accountability" to account for the children making it to heaven or to leave open the possibility of dreams or visions from Christ for those who have died without having heard the gospel. There are some proof texts for each of these ideas, but by and large we recognize that they are imagined scenarios which help us trust God with what is clearly the mystery of His justice. Our knowledge of God's love and mercy inspires them, but doesn't become an indifference-feeding dogmatism that takes away our desire to evangelize. For Bell's part, he imagines a "second chance". Hebrews 9:27 makes it pretty tough to go along with him, even if he does rally a few texts and some Prophetic themes to his support. Whatever we think of Bell's biblical backing, I think we can grant him a bit of imaginative ground-clearing, so long as he admits it is speculative (which he does). Indeed, Bell leaves the tensions "fully intact" and unresolved, and confesses that there will be many objections (115, 111). But what Bell wants to say is that the love of God is preeminent and it has no absolute need of a populated hell (let alone evil) in order to be seen glorious and good and true and right.

As many new questions as this opens up, it certainly does shift the tension to the right place. Rather than being left to contemplate the absurdity of a God behind the God revealed in Christ who actually elects people precisely in order to damn them, we turn our attention to the absurdity at the doorstep of hell (113-114). Evil is the unresolved paradox confronted by the death of the incarnate Son of God for humanity. We might think we know sin, but at the cross we see it for what it is (a point Bell would have done well to make, but didn't). There we see the impossibility of our situation if we are left to ourselves; the situation we need reconciled. However, we also see that Jesus rose from the grave.

The "destiny" seems clear. Life with God, or not. I'd venture to say that the C&MA is more interested in calling this a finalized fate at death or Christ's return, but if one allowed Bell to interpret it in terms of "results" or "pathway", there might be some room for him yet.

2) "Existence forever in conscious torment"?
At first glance it seems we have an even bigger problem here, but this is not necessarily the case. Although he does plenty of exegetical gymnastics with the word "forever", Bell ends up needing it to last plenty long, because "there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God" (106-107). This means existence, and it means it could last forever. It could be that Bell has some kind of "after-time" in which there is no real measurement of duration, but we don't get any specification along those lines besides the aforementioned undermining of quantitative translations of the words for "eternal".

If Bell does use the image of "burning forever" he usually does so in order to gain leverage against the idea in favour of what he considers to be more striking images of hell in the contemporary experiences of rape, genocide, abuse, and oppression (70-79). I think this has at least some rhetorical merit to it. After all, in many cases the Bible's hell-talk seems meant to startle us with the frank realities of evil and death and judgment. Thus it may be worthwhile bringing some dynamic equivalent translations to bear where the literal translations have lost some force due to the now-cartoonish pictures of medieval hell-scapes in the modern mind.

But that still leaves us with the question of the actual eschatological realities involved. Bell balks at the idea of infinite divine torture, but reckons at every point that God is actively the Judge (174, 36-38). As is seen in Romans 1-2, God can be wrathful in letting people have their way. There were some critics who said that Bell removed God from the equation, but I do not see how this is the case. Hell can be God's active judgment on human rebellion without being God's design for any of us. God can be active in such a way without being the author of evil or even the one to blame.

But what kind of experience is this post-mortem hell? Is it to be thought of in bodily, spatial, and temporal categories or is this where the "forever" question comes into play as a reconsideration of the kind of reality which is actually entailed? Are our attempts to describe full separation from God from within our life-span as fraught with difficulty as our attempts to imagine eternity from within time?

Bell is adamant that God is anything but "a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that [people] had no escape from an endless future of agony" (174). He adds that "no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise" the "glaring, untenable, unacceptable" construal wherein "your God is loving one second and cruel the next" and "will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years" (175). Not leaving us much guesswork here, is he? But not so fast.

For all its rhetoric, when it comes back to the descriptions of hell, Love Wins reminds us that Jesus himself told parables like the sheep and the goats "to wake us up" (197). These stories contain "strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities," presumably because the choices we make "matter more than we can begin to imagine" (196). Thus, on page 93 Bell concludes:
[W]e need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way. And for that, the word 'hell' works quite well. Let's keep it.
Of course, Bell is less disposed to speak of hell as a place of fire and brimstone, but he does seem to believe that it involves consciousness, and that the experience will be more in line with the hellish parts of earth than otherwise. Here again I think we are in more amicable territory with the words of the statement than with what the C&MA probably means by it. The statement doesn't describe Bell's view, but it doesn't have to exclude it. (It kind of depends how we interpret statements of faith.) "Torment" may not be the word he'd use, and "forever" would require some imagination, but on the face of it the statement might work for him if he really wanted to be in the C&MA.

Frankly, I think if he were looking for a denomination he could do a lot worse. Historically speaking, many in the C&MA will have shared Bell's Arminian leanings and most certainly his missionary impulses.While concern about hell-fire has traditionally played into the C&MA's motives for mission, these have historically been more conditioned by the compassion that springs from the good news of the gospel and the hope that Christ's kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. Indeed, the final article of the C&MA statement says "the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is ... the believer’s blessed hope, [and] this vital truth is an incentive for holy living and sacrificial service toward the completion of Christ’s commission," citing Matthew 24:14 in support. As mentioned before, Rob Bell is right in the spirit of A.B. Simpson here, and so there is plenty of common ground to be had.

But would the C&MA want Bell? Or would it (should it?) see his treatment of hell as a liability? I think it possible that the two could be reconciled if they so desired, although obviously there would be interpretive work to be done in both directions. I trust we would be willing to so engage one another. This brings us to the actual purpose of this series, which is obviously to ask not about Bell personally but about the sympathizers or opponents he may have in the denomination already. My conclusion is this: Those pastors and members in the C&MA who might be at odds in regard to Rob Bell and our statement of faith should be able to come to a mutual understanding, even if it involves some mutual theological sharpening along the way.

To this end I hope my series might be helpful, and yet my dissatisfaction with the extent of my own exegetical and theological work thus far employed tells me that I would have plenty to learn in the future myself. I only hope that in this matter my denomination will be willing to move from the communion table to the foyer and and the board meeting together, willing to open our Bibles and speak the truth in love. I said before that this doctrine of hell isn't a hill I'd personally like to die on, but something I would be willing to give my life for would be a church that can theologize together without fear of caricatured dismissals, ungracious labeling, or arrogant interpretation-thumping. I would need a church to help me avoid those things myself.

In that regard, let me close with Bell's own appeal, which is that we need to come to terms with the fact that we're going to have plenty to disagree about and react against, and so we are best to come to peace that passes our understanding rather than perpetually recoiling in hostility to those who tarnish our vision of God (194-195). Bitterness and reactionism aren't going to help. There is a downward spiral and there is a miraculous interjection of self-giving grace that has resurrection as its promise of peace and hope. Which do we celebrate at the communion table, and how much does it really depend on us?

We could define love a thousand different ways and make it our god and it wouldn't really get us anywhere. Such love may not win, but we do believe that Jesus does. So we pray for his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and we love our neighbours and even our enemies in the way that Christ has loved us from first to last.

Recently "Published"

An essay I gave at an Oxford Postgraduate Conference last fall has now been published online as part of an e-book of sorts at the Oxford Research Archive. My friend Martin's essay is chapter seven, and mine is chapter eight, called "Once for All and New Every Morning: Forgiveness in the Theology of Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth." If you follow the link you can download it from the sidebar on the right. Since Volf got me into reconciliation theology and Barth has kind of taken over, this essay tracks a bit of that journey and shows me wrestling with some of the finer issues involved as they relate to the conference theme, which was "The Present Moment".

I continue to welcome your thoughts on the Rob Bell review. If anyone would like an unofficial but reformatted and slightly more succinct version in a Word document, drop me an email at coutts dot jon at gmail dot com, as I do have one available. I also would be willing to present these thoughts more formally or lead discussion on these matters in the Canadian C&MA context in the coming year.

Friday, April 15, 2011

You Scored as Neo Orthodox

Just took a quiz on my theological persuasion. It is probably not far off. See my results below, and if you take it let me know what you get and whether you think it accurate.

Neo orthodox


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Roman Catholic


Modern Liberal


Reformed Evangelical




Classical Liberal




You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the only issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God's most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Liverpool 3 - Manchester City 0

If you happened to hear the result from Monday night, or better yet saw the highlights, you'll know my trip to Anfield was almost everything I could have wanted. This isn't the greatest video footage, but it gives you the idea.

Besides the traditional anthem, before the game there was also a very moving minute of silence for the 96 who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. I was glad to have had the opportunity to take part in the memorial.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

This week: York, SST, and LFC

Tomorrow I'm off to York with a large contingent of Aberdonians for the three day annual conference of the UK's Society for the Study of Theology. Last year the conference was in Manchester and it was a great time, even though the plenary papers were rather disappointing and it was up to the seminar papers to pick up the slack. This year, however, the conference theme is the doctrine of Scripture and not only do the plenaries look highly interesting but the seminars are chalk full of desirable options as well. There are plenty of intriguing papers, but below you'll find a list of those which have most immediately caught my eye.

First of all, having heard dry runs of several of the papers already, I can say that all seven delivered by my colleagues from the University of Aberdeen will be brilliant. They include:
~ Joe McGarry - "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Scripture, and Formation in Christ"
~ Leon Harris - "The Bible as Relational Indwelling Knowledge: Colin E. Gunton's Pneumatological Approach to Inspiration and Revelation"
~ Justin Stratis - "On the Not-Necessarily-Odious Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy"
~ Ben Rhodes - "Karl Barth on the Spirit of Scripture: The Miracle of the Circle of Inspiration"
~ James King - "The Meaning of Adiaphora"
~ Darren Sumner - "On the Dispensability (and Indispensability) of the Extra Calvinisticum"
~ Martin Westerholm - "Faith, Memory and Love: Augustine's Trinitarian Way of Knowing"
There are a few others going down to York University (pictured here) from Aberdeen University and I must say that, though I don't mention them much on the blog, being around these theologians week after week has had the double benefit of (a) making me realize how much I have to learn and (b) helping me hopefully learn some of it. Beside theirs, other intriguing papers include:
~ "The Offensiveness of Scripture" (Hugh S. Pyper)
~ "Reception History, HR Jauss, and the Formative Power of Scripture" (Anthony C. Thiselton)
~ "Scripture as the Voice of God" (Henk Van den Belt)
~ "The Role of Community in Scriptural Authority" (Josh Reeves)
~ "The Living Authority of Scripture" (Angus Paddison)
~ "Interpreting Psalms for the Church" (Ellen Charry)
~ "Words have become cheap" (Ian Clausen)
~ "Dragons, Darkness, Winds, and Spirits: How Bible Translators have dealt with Genesis 1:2" (Daniel King)
~ "The Nephesh Hayyah of Humans and Animals" (Kris Hiuser)
~ "Divine Animals: Imago Dei, human creatureliness, and the commonality of all creation" (Matthew Barton)
~ "Schleiermacher and the Doctrine of Scripture" (Paul Nimmo)
~ "Congregational Hermeneutics" (Andrew Rogers)
~ "Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the Book of Job" (Christopher Thornhill)
~ "Barth's Ethics of Responsibility" (Michael Leydon)
~ "Text of Submission or Text of Equality: Revisiting gender-biased scriptures and its impact on women's roles in churches in Hong Kong" (Jenny Wong)
And last, but certainly not least, seeing as I am in the area I will be skipping the Monday night session of SST, jetting west on the train, and fulfilling a (nearly) life-long dream:

Oh, and in the week to come I hope to conclude my series on hell, the C&MA and Rob Bell here on the blog, so stay tuned.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Karl Barth on the Question of 'Universalism'

If you read my last excerpt from Barth (about the judgement of God carried out on Jesus Christ), likely the question of universalism (or the ultimate scope of salvation) came to mind. Well, about 1500 pages later Barth addressed this, not so much with a dogmatic answer but with a two-sided re-framing of the question:
"A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands .... Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not be finally executed, ... that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? This question belongs to eschatology, but two delimitations may be apposite in this context.

First, .... To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations [of His grace]. We should be denying ... that evil attempt and our own participation in it if ... we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain anapokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things.

No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.

Secondly, there is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves, or be forbidden, openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect and therefore the supremely unexpected withdrawal of that final threat, i.e., that in the truth of this reality there might be contained the super-abundant promise of the final deliverance of all men.

To be more explicit, there is no good reason why we should not be open to this possibility.... [in fact] we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is 'new every morning' He 'will not cast off for ever' (La. 3:22f., 31)."

(Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation 3, 477-478)

On my first read of Barth's theology I thought he was just a master at avoiding the question, but I've come to see that he simply did not want speculations about the future to crowd out what actually had to be said on the basis of Christ's revelation.
"In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." (1 Peter 3:15)
Basically I think Barth wants to say that universalism is a reasonable hope in Christ, and while it can't be more than a hope, it can't be deemed unreasonable either.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Karl Barth on God's Judgement

In one of the online classes that I instruct the students are evaluated on their correct memorization of the Apostles Creed, and it so happens that someone lost a mark for forgetting the line "He descended into hell." To my chagrin, however, the student pointed out that the line did not appear in the course binder's copy of the Creed! So the mark was given back and we have corrected the situation. But it struck me: What is lost if we forget "He descended into hell"?

I don't know if I can answer that at the moment. However, before I get to the rest of my series I want to pause on two excerpts from Karl Barth that speak well to the kind of thinking I've had in the back of my mind lately. Tomorrow I'll post Barth's response to the question of universalism from the final volume of his Church Dogmatics. But first consider his account the judgement of God in his section on justification. Hopefully these excerpts speak for themselves, but let me know if any questions arise from reading them out of context.
[Christ] has therefore suffered for all men what they had to suffer: their end as evil-doers; their overthrow as the enemies of God; their extirpation in virtue of the superiority of the divine right over their wrong. They had to suffer this, but they could not suffer it, not one of them.

[And] even if it had been, or were to be, laid upon one of them really to taste and experience in his suffering and death the judgment of God on himself and his wrong, how could he experience it for others, for all others? And even if it were laid on all men really to taste and experience the judgment of God, even if they were willing and able to do so, how could they who have given offence, suffering merely what they have deserved, banish the offence from the world by their death, even their eternal death? For the offence would still be there. It would not be as though it had never happened. It would not be made good. As something which had been it would remain as an unerased blot on the world of God's creation, an element in its history.

And even if by their suffering of the divine judgment they were able to erase the blot, even if their suffering and death were costly enough for that, would not the will of God for elect and created man be given the lie by their destruction? To satisfy His righteousness they would have to perish genuinely and finally, to fall from His hand. But then God would not be the God who has sworn to be faithful to them. Or He for His part would not have kept His oath and covenant with them.

(Incidentally, this may explain why Barth would not have been an annihilationist. Not because of some abstracted Platonic belief on the irreversible immortality of the soul but because God made this covenant to be with people, and their total perishing would be his reneging on that covenant. God would be totally free and in His rights to wipe humanity out, but God has freely bound Himself to them, and therein lies our hope and our warning.)

Barth goes on to say that what we must suffer can be suffered for us only by God Himself as a human being, 'if it is to be suffered in accordance with the righteousness of God' and to 'the erasure of that blot from the world of God's creation':
And Jesus Christ was ready and gave Himself up to suffer and perish and die in that way—in accordance with the perfect righteousness of God. God judged the world in Him — and judged it in righteousness — by delivering Himself up in Him to be judged. To suffer validly and effectively for us His own judgment upon us, He condescended to us, He humbled Himself so profoundly, He was willing to be so lowly, and in our flesh the eternal Son, the man Jesus of Nazareth, rendered the obedience of humility to the eternal Father, thus fully satisfying the righteousness of God on its negative side, the side of wrath.

God identified Himself with man in Jesus Christ. In the person of this one man He set a term, an end, He was Himself the end which must come upon us all. And because of that our wrong has in fact become a thing of the past. It is no longer there. It is extinguished. It is present only as something which has been eternally removed and destroyed. And we men as the doers of it, as those who willingly identified ourselves with it, are dead and buried. We, too, are in fact a thing of the past. We are present only to the extent that our existence as such has this past. In Him our sin and we ourselves have perished....
Barth explains that this was not merely a matter of Jesus being the object of the Father's wrath. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the acting subject, the Judge, in this event.
He was lowly where we are proud. He condescended to us where we arrogantly try to rise up. He the Lord became a servant. He the Judge became the judged. He accepted what was laid upon Him by the Father. He let the will of the Father be His will. He drank the bitter cup instead of putting it from Him. He suffered the shame of the cross. And all this in freedom, in free obedience, in the obedience of humility....

He has not merely suffered for us, but suffering for us He has done the right for us, and therefore suffered effectively and redemptively for us. Judged in Him we cannot be to-morrow the proud men we were yesterday. Those men are no longer there, for yesterday we were delivered up to the divine judgment. As those who are freed from our past in Him, we no longer have the freedom (the false freedom) to return to our old pride.

Between us and our past there stands positively and divisively the act of right which is His death.... On the other side, the justification of man in Jesus Christ is the establishment of his right, the introduction of the life of a new man who is righteous before God.

(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 532-534, emphases and paragraph breaks added for clarity)
I take from this an important clarification. If (if!) one were to hold a reasonable hope for universal salvation it would not be to the detriment of the justice of God or the diminishment of the biblical view of God as an active Judge. Why? Because the reason for the hope would be that God's judgement has been carried out quite actively already. This not only according to the Father's will but also the Son's, thus not only carried out from the divine side but also already on ours.

Now, hopefully we all know -- and hopefully we all believe -- the line of the creed that follows "He descended into hell."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Coen Brothers in San Francisco?

The deadline for paper proposals for the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion came shortly after I'd seen the new Coen brothers' film, True Grit. I was inspired. Unsure whether I'd be able to go to San Francisco in November or not, I pitched a paper. It has been accepted, and I need to confirm with them whether I'm going. See the short abstract below.

"Relative Grit: The Mutual Reshaping of Gender & Honour in Film"
Both the 1969 and 2010 cinematic adaptations of Charles Portis' True Grit portray a feminine infiltration of the masculine wild west. The result is not a conflation of the genders but the revelation of their mutual adaptivity, which has both negative and positive potentiality not only for men and women but for the honour codes of society. This paper will detail these insights based primarily on Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent film, including comparisons with Henry Hathaway’s adaptation and the original novel in order to highlight ways that honour codes, gender, and their dynamic of mutual reshaping have changed (or not changed) in America in the last forty years.
The subtitle needs a bit of work. Anyway, I'm interested in this on two levels. This would be my second essay on a Coen brothers film and I love doing such things. But I'm also always fascinated by societal gender role and identity studies and would love the excuse to go on a side trail from my dissertation for a couple weeks and make sure I get my sociology right. Then again, a couple weeks is a couple weeks, and going to San Francisco isn't cheap. Guess I should have thought of that before. This is a decent academic opportunity though, and I'm excited to have this decision to make.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Biblical Backing for the C&MA View of Hell, Part 3

In this post I offer a four point summary of my provisional analysis of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada's statement of faith as it concerns the doctrine of hell. To catch up on the series, see the intro, the examination of the statement, and the first two parts of my back-check on its biblical footnotes.

1. Article five's "destiny" of "existence forever in conscious torment"

Having examined the statement of faith I have little doubt that the framer's intent for the fifth article was to assert the following specifications on behalf of its members and workers: Though it goes unnamed in the article, hell is
the finalized God-enacted judgement of impenitent fallen humanity; involving a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons are ever aware of their pain.
The justice in this lies in the fact that all humanity has rebelled against the life of God, and if one wonders why one is saved when others are not, one has to (a) trust that God is just (see article 11) and (b) take this as a motive for missions.

2. The biblical backing

Although I do not wish to pretend that statement's footnotes are meant as comprehensive proof-texts, based on the biblical references provided I concluded that
the article seems to have support for (a) the notion of a finalized "destiny" but not necessarily for (b) the insistence that it entail "existence forever in conscious torment."
In the case of (a), what else can we conclude when Jesus tells those on his left to "depart" for "eternal punishment"? Whenever this takes place, be it many days of reckoning or one, the determination seems pretty binding. There doesn't seem in these verses to be any option left open for repentance (although neither the statement of faith nor the verses in question explicitly exclude further discussion that might be had on this matter).

In the case of (b), when we see that the punishment and the destruction are eternal, on the basis of these two passages we could leave open the possibility that, while it may involve (a) an infinite duration of self-aware suffering, it might 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 indefinite after-time with no duration of the sort we'd be familiar with.

3. Further thoughts on biblical interpretation

Although I am anxious to call it a day with this series, it does seem to me that there are a few open avenues of biblical interpretation on those passages that inform our view of hell. I am not sure exactly which of them I'd land on, if push came to shove (and I'd kind of rather it didn't), but I do see some initial credibility in each of them and would love it if our denomination either clarified the dogmatism of its own position or left some room (either temporarily or open-endedly) for a wider range of interpretation on these matters. I am sure there are others, but the three basic streams of interpretation that seem plausible to me are as follows:

(a) Apocalyptic:

The passages indicating "eternal fire", "eternal punishment", and "eternal destruction" could be seen to be utilizing the language of old- and inter-testamental apocalyptic literature in order to indicate ultimate realities. Perhaps the imagery is meant to garner a theological understanding of two kingdoms in competition; perhaps to hold two pathways at play in our moral character development and ethical scenarios; perhaps to depict the urgency and the severity of the stakes of daily life, especially where our comfort-level with the evils of our time threaten to dull our senses. Invisible realms are exposed and true reality is laid out for the reader. Every moment hell and heaven are at stake.

I'd be willing to entertain arguments that some, if not many, of the texts in question are to be read this way. There is some precedent for it: After all, we already take these passages in an ethical direction, as motivation for missions or holy living. Plus, we've dialled back the specificity of our statement of faith on eschatology before. The C&MA had its roots in postmillennialism before it landed on premillennialism in its statement of faith, but not long ago it took such specification out in order to leave room for a legitimate variety of interpretations. (Good thing too, since I've basically leaned toward amillennialism the entire time I've been a C&MA worker!) In some ways this apocalyptic reading of the hell passages reminds me of amillennialism. Hell and heaven are a bit different than the millennium, but the issue is not unrelated.

(b) Highly Metaphorical

In this view, one might say the passages describing hell serve the purposes in (a), and yet also signify in very image-laden ways a certain destiny that awaits the unsaved - doing so in words that are highly symbolic of something we simply cannot fathom. For instance, when the Bible describes God as having a giant body, we don't presume God is "super-big", but beyond "bigness". Of course, descriptions of hell are not the same thing as God Himself, but the language might be in that metaphorical ball park. The basic idea is that "eternal fire" indicates something, and yet the language and the warnings against over-speculation lead us to conclude that this something defies further description on this side of the spatial/temporal divide.

In this camp one might say that "eternal destruction" is a kind of intended oxymoron meant to point to a kind of negative-life of separateness from God which pervades in the indefinite after-time which follows our time on earth. Of course in some contexts it is much easier and more evocative to just say "eternal destruction", but if we do want to spell it out further we need to remain as ambiguous as the imagery and the canonical theology ask us to.

By the way, to take something metaphorically is not to say either way whether the reality being signified is any "worse" or "better" than, say, a "literal" rendering, but is to say that we do damage to it by specifying further in the mode of anything more than imaginative paraphrase.

(c) Literal Wherever Possible

In this view the biblical depictions of heaven and hell are to be taken as literally as possible. There may be metaphors, but even then they are pretty direct, one-to-one metaphors signifying precise outcomes. Thus, being "cast into eternal fire" means exactly that, necessitating a body that can burn (and feel the pain of it) without burning up. Or, it might be a fire, it might not, the point is: "existence forever in conscious torment".

This straight-across reading is often called the "literal" one and it is often assumed that it takes the Bible most seriously. But this is a bit of a misnomer, for two reasons. (1) Taking the Bible as literature (i.e., literally) ought to mean paying attention to metaphor- and genre-indicators rather than pretending the literature itself always means to be read "plainly" (i.e., woodenly). (2) As mentioned above, taking these things as highly metaphorical does not necessarily mean the are any less striking or serious. (In fact, where images of devil-horns and pitchforks and fire-caverns have decreased the effect of the apocalyptic language it may be that taking them as metaphors can revive some of the effect.)

It seems to me that even on the most literal reading possible, many of the texts in question ask us to be careful not to assume too much. Let the images do the talking and don't over-speculate about hell's geography or chronology. Obviously, the C&MA statement only gave a few texts to work with, but let me take a few examples from The Resurgence, a website fairly opposed to Rob Bell in recent months. In their article entitled "To Hell with Hell?", they translated the Greek aion to mean "unending" (which we considered in the last post and found to be open to debate), and used a summed-up list of passages to support their conclusion that "the Bible speaks of hell as conscious, eternal punishment." Some examples of how this all gets a bit misleading follow:
Revelation 14:11 is quoted to say that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image."
  • Of course, what lasts forever in this image is the smoke. There are indications that the torment itself may last "day" and "night" (i.e., forever), but in Revelation 20 it is just the devil and his angels who are tormented "forever", and in this current passage it may not necessarily mean an infinite number of days and nights. I mean, they are tormented in the presence of "the holy angels and the Lamb." Does the Lamb stand watching over this torment incessantly for infinity? It is a stark and frightening image that ought to drive home the seriousness of rebellion against God. But I'm not sure it needs speculative elaboration - the images are powerful enough on their own.
John 5:28–29 is referenced to say: "Those in hell suffer intense and excruciating pain. This pain is likely both emotional/spiritual and physical."
  • These verses actually just say that a day is coming when all in the graves will rise for judgement, some to life and some to condemnation. Jesus is talking, and his point is that his judgement is just (v. 30).
Matthew 25:41 and Mark 9:48 are referenced to say, "The suffering never ends," and Matthew 3:12 to say: "The wicked will be 'burned with unquenchable fire.'"
  • In these verse we have an "eternal fire", a "fire [that] is not quenched", and a "worm [that] does not die". Even if the fire is literal and the eternal is unending, it is the fire and the worm that never die. In the Matthew 3 reference John the Baptist says the chaff are burned at the judgement. Surely they represent the unrepentant but, again, it is the fire that is unquenchable, and in this case the chaff gets "burned up".
We could go on, but I've probably made my point and I don't want to be cynical. It just seems to me that that the passages are asking both more from us and less. More in the way of getting the point, and less in the way of raising the imagined and speculated details to the level of dogmatism.

4. A Modest Proposal:

In my first post I suggested that upon further inspection I would hope to come to a provisional conclusion along one of the following lines. The Statement of faith could either be:
(1) Left as is, thus excluding certain views.
(2) Expanded to include an alternate view.
(3) Amended so as to allow more variance.
(4) Left as is, with ample room for local interpretation.
I had intended to defer this until after I'd read Rob Bell and compared his view, but I'm prepared to say already that if I had the opportunity to vote on it today I would vote #3. I wouldn't mind if the C&MA amended its statement of faith so as to allow for more interpretive variance on this matter. I say this not because I have a solid, dogmatic view I wish to hold up against it, but because I don't. That said, I do not feel the currently asserted specifications are necessary for a statement of faith.

Alas, as much as I'd love our statement to be more minimalistic in some areas and to be vitally debated every half-decade or so, I'm not sure this is a hill I want to die on at the moment. If the fifth article is left as is, I think it is likely to be highly problematic for some, but it may also be possible for local congregations and districts to interpret the statement in conversation with their members and official workers and come to an amicable understanding. If you are eavesdropping here from the C&MA I encourage you to chime in an dialogue with me about this rather than hold it against me or leave me in the dark on what you think I'm missing. Let me know if you (a) think I'm out to lunch or (b) think this one needs to be taken to General Assembly. (You can do so by email if you like).

In the next post I ask: Could Rob Bell sign the C&MA statement of faith?