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?


jonkramer said...

"I'm not sure this is a hill I want to die on at the moment."

That pretty much sums it up for me as well.

And I hope I come across properly here: But, I mean, if the statement of faith really were treated with value and respect within the denomination - as a living document - something that was often reviewed by our school's theologians and possibly revised every assembly; If we actually submitted ourselves to it in practice in this way - THEN, I could see myself pushing for and participating in a real dialogue about this stuff. But, to me, the statement of faith is something that the denomination mostly supports in word nowadays. Again, that's just my view-point from my point-of-view.

Anyways, I think we've got to re-learn a lot about "togetherness" (as you often write so wisely about) in the C&MA before we can actually start doing theology together again.

Oh, and we watched "How to Train your Dragon" on our flight to China - thought it was lovely, even on those small little screens.

Alex Weston said...


I've been very impressed with your thoroughness and thought. I think in your series you've done a great job of being fair to the statement and also fair in your critic. I think these are issues that we need to look at as a denomination.

I agree with Mr. Kramer. The Alliance seems to do lip service to these statements rather than hold them as the grounding principles and beliefs that they are meant to be.

That being said, if, as a denomination, we are not interested in re-examining our statements and having honest discussions about them, then we are further encouraging our apathy towards holding them up with the value and respect they are meant to have.

I applaud your series here. You have done a fantastic job and while we have lost touch a bit over the years, the journey that God has you on is exciting to witness.

Blessing on you, Angie, and your family!

Sean Davidson said...

As we know, it's common for most churches/denominations to pay lip service to their doctrinal statements ... until a book like Bell's comes along that is. Check this out:

Sean Davidson said...

and this:

Jon Coutts said...

Oops, I had it in my mind that I had thanked you for your comments, but I see I haven't. Thank you and once again I appreciate your joining me on this thought-experiment.

Jon Coutts said...

Sean: Crazy stories you linked to there. I wonder how much these pastors in hot water were given a chance to defend themselves or discuss there way to a reconciliation of viewpoints. I am not closed to the possibility that this situation manifested differences between pastor and congregation which were simply a legitimate cause for finding another match. However, I feel it rather unfortunate that this took place, and the quickness of the firing is a bad sign, in my view.