Discriminating, Unfathomable, Precious Grace

So, as I seem to be doing often (maybe too much) these days, I was posting comments on a blog article and have ended up in a sort of debate with various folks about the nature of hell, among other things. Now I figure if I am going to spend my precious time thinking about these issues and writing long comments on someone else’s blog, I must as well turn them into a blog post right here on Reforming Christianity. Someone named Corcoran posted the following question:

If the penalty for sin is eternal torment, and Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, why is he not in eternal torment at this moment?

I responded,

It was God’s plan to make Christ Jesus the source of eternal salvation for His children, the One who would perfectly and completely bear all His people’s sins at the Cross. Christ took upon Himself the full wrath of God. Accordingly, He paid the eternal penalty for the sins of His people at the cross and accomplished what He set out to do– the eternal salvation of His people. This free gift of salvation is to be received by faith alone, because we can do nothing to merit or earn it. He suffered once for all (all of His followers, and once for all time), in accordance with God’s plan. Thus according to Scripture, it is not needed for Christ to continue to suffer for sins since He has already done so.

See, among many other passages: Hebrews 5:9, 9: 11-28, Romans 5:1, 8-9, John 10:14-18.

In between this exchange was someone else interjected their comments saying I wasn’t giving a very good answer. I responded to them too but they were not too happy with that answer either. I guess he’ll need to give his own answer then. But to get back to this particular conversation, here is Corcoran’s response to me:

So all isn’t everyone – we wouldn’t be wanting “indiscriminate” grace. But isn’t indiscriminate part of the whole definition of grace? Because if grace isn’t indiscriminate, it has to be earned. But you say it isn’t earned. That means that God is indiscriminately graceful only to people he chooses. Of course that means that if people do not receive grace, it isn’t their fault and punishing them is indiscriminate.

But that’s another topic. To get back to my point, you say the answer to my question is unfathomable, but only “god-man” could accomplish it. But how can you be so sure about the god-man part if in fact the question is beyond human ability to grasp? It has to be one or the other. Either it is unfathomable or you know the answer.

And finally my reply to him, which makes up the remainder of this blog post. What do you think of my answer?

Corcoran,

It is not what I want that is important. It is what Scripture declares that is relevant and needs to be understood properly. I know the dictionary definition of grace as well as anyone but I’m more interested in what Scripture says about how God Has demonstrated His grace. Scripture shows that a loving God nevertheless chooses some but not others to be recipients of His saving grace.

In John 10, did not Jesus say He lays His life down for His sheep?(John 10:7) This is discriminating isn’t it? It does not say He lays down his life for all, but only for His sheep, and Jesus defines His sheep as those whom He knows and who know His voice and follow Him (John 10:3-4). So we can conclude: all are not His sheep; only those whom Jesus knows and who follow His voice are His sheep (i.e., His people)

Similarly, Jesus distinguishes between those who believe, and those who don’t believe. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)… And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65). According to Jesus’ teaching here in John 6 and elsewhere in the gospels, do all believe? Will all receive God’s offer of grace through Jesus Christ? Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.(Matthew 7:13-14) So many did not believe in Jesus then, many do not and will not believe today.

Yet Jesus explains unbelief in John 6 by saying it is only those to whom it has been granted by the Father that come to Jesus; that the Father must draw people to Jesus. In John 8 He says something similar, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:47). Jesus explains the source of belief in someone in terms of God’s action in or upon that person, describing those who hear and believe His words as those who are “of God”. But people are not naturally of God. Scripture states of all believers before they came to Christ: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Paul says that all were by nature children of wrath, following after Satan, dead in sins and walking in disobedience. Yet the grace of God comes to such people, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.(Ephesians 2:4-9)”

Here again we see the thought that it is God who must act upon sinners by His grace—yet that He does not do this for all people is patently clear in Scripture and from observation.

Going back to Jesus’ analogy of “sheep”, Jesus elsewhere says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left (Matthew 25:31-33). This apparently describes a time of judgment in which Jesus separates His sheep from goats. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”(Matthew 25:41-46). Now is this passage teaching that it’s only those who do good works who will be saved? This passage does point to good works as evidence that one will be saved by Jesus at the judgment. But as Jesus says elsewhere, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:21). The Bible teaches that good works are produced in us by God. We may not boast before God, but only humbly point to His grace upon and in us. Yes, grace is not something we can earn, yet as I have shown from Scripture, God’s love and grace are discriminating.

You wrote, “Of course that means that if people do not receive grace, it isn’t their fault and punishing them is indiscriminate”. I give you Paul’s answer, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?(Romans 9:19-24).”

So we have Scripture telling us that God must act in us so that we can hear His voice and bear good fruits and come to Him and live for Him, and says that if this doesn’t happen we will not come to Him and we will be condemned for our sins. I find Scripture saying that we have a moral responsibility to obey the God who created us, and at the same time I see Scripture describing us-apart from God– as without hope and by nature sons of wrath. These truths and many others are, according to Scriptural testimony, are “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”(Romans 11:33-35). We can know what God has revealed, for example, He revealed Himself as the God-Man. This is altogether different than being able to explain or fully understand His ways.

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Filed under Grace, Hell, Theology

Abortion and Todd Akin: Political Correctness Distracts from Real Issues

Congressman Todd Akin’s ill-conceived remarks on rape, during an interview in which he was asked a question about abortion in the case of rape, were certainly unfortunate.  Yet the media frenzy that has ensued in response to his remarks illustrates yet again the negative, inhibiting effects of political correctness on public discourse.  The congressman apparently was operating on misinformation– the notion that somehow the female body thwarts pregnancy in cases of rape, which of course is not true scientifically.  His thoughts on this may seem far-fetched, but others have shared this misconception.  Thus it seems Mr. Akin’s words were not just poorly chosen (he apologized for his choice of words the following day), but reflective of this misunderstanding.  What did Akin mean by using the phrase “legitimate rape”?  I’m not entirely sure, but it’s clear this is the phrase most were offended by, even many pro-life Republicans.  OK, so Akin is, or was, seriously misinformed on the science behind rape and pregnancy, and he used very unfortunate language.   Yet it seems clear from the interview in which his remarks were made, and his subsequent apologies that Mr. Akin is not unsympathetic to rape victims.  Rather, as a consistent pro-life advocate, he was emphasizing his concern that the unborn child conceived under the horrific circumstance of rape is nevertheless a human being whose life and rights also ought to be protected.  Aborting the unborn child, he argues, only creates a second victim in such tragic circumstances.

An effective way to defeat the view one opposes is to frame the public debate in language favorable to one’s cause.   Framing abortion as a matter of “women’s health”, portraying it as a “choice” and thus as an issue of liberty, has been a powerful, successful tool in the pro-abortion arsenal, one that has helped sway the thinking of many to their side on the issue of abortion.  What better way to put the anti-abortionist on the defense than to bring up scenarios of abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, or when the woman has been raped.  Just to raise such questions arouses natural sympathies towards women, shifting the focus of the abortion debate to women’s health and her freedoms.  But while it is a tactic that works, it is also a maneuver that diverts attention from realities about abortion.  The fact is that only a small minority of abortions each year are performed because of rape, or a mother’s life being endangered. “Only 12% of women included a physical problem with their health among reasons for having an abortion (NAF). [Just] one per cent (of aborting women) reported that they were the survivors of rape (NAF).”

Rape or health concerns account for relatively few abortions, so to frame the abortion issue by bringing up rape and health concerns is effective, but disingenuous.   The vast majority of abortions in the USA are performed to avoid the inconvenience of bringing a child into this world.  “On average, women give at least three reasons for choosing abortion: three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; about two-thirds say they cannot afford a child; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.” “Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended; about 4 in 10 of these are terminated by abortion. Twenty-two percent of all U.S. pregnancies end in abortion. (AGI). “At current rates, nearly one-third of American women will have an abortion (AGI).”

Since Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that  legalized abortion, nearly 50 million legal abortions have occurred in the U.S., between 1973 and 2008 (AGI).  Abortion in America has become a way of life, as the stigma surrounding having an abortion seems a thing of the past.  It is a billion dollar industry that is highly profitable for its practitioners.

So by all means, let the debate on abortion continue.  We can discuss whether or not the unborn are indeed human beings with rights just as their mothers have rights.  Or argue whether it is more humane to allow abortion when societal conditions might seem to indicate that bringing more children into the world will just mean the world gets more neglected, abandoned and abused children.  But let’s not be fooled into thinking that the primary issue when it comes to abortion is either women’s health or rape, when the facts demonstrate that abortion is mostly about unwanted pregnancies, killing for convenience, and profit.

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August 22, 2012 · 11:43 pm

Surprised by the Gullibility of the Charismatic

I just finished re-reading an article, Should Type-R Charismatics Get a Free Pass? that Phil Johnson posted a few years  ago at Pyromaniacs, a stylish blog that consistently (and sometimes with sarcasm and great humor) offers sharp biblical critique of charismaticism.  A few days ago, I posted here at Reforming Christianity my own brief reflection on charismaticism, titled The Subjectivity of Charismaticism.  Responding to a commenter on that article,  I asked:

Could it not be that the underlying principle that God speaks today via unverifiable personal revelations is faulty and leads into many errors?

Mr. Johnson’s excellent article ably tackles this question, asserting that:

The belief that extrabiblical revelation is normative does indeed “regularly and systematically breed willful gullibility, not discernment.

He demonstrates this by pointing out that even the most theologically, biblically sound charismatics (“Type R”, i.e., Reformed charismatics, such as Wayne Grudem or blogger Adrian Warnock), seem unwilling to connect the excesses and errors of the movement with its underlying principles.  Jack Deere’s book, “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” extolled Paul Cain, a man once regarded by many as a highly gifted prophet and miracle-worker.   The book features an enthusiastic endorsement by Wayne Grudem, and in the book Deere credits Paul Cain as having changed the course of his life.  But as Phil Johnson’s article points out, Paul Cain’s track record of accuracy in prophetic announcements was abysmal, and Cain’s ministry would later be discredited, as he confessed long-standing alcoholism and homosexuality.  Johnson even tells about the time he, Lance Quinn and John MacArthur met with Jack Deere and Paul Cain (at Deere’s request). Cain appeared to be drunk!  Even with this knowledge about Paul Cain coming to light, brought to the attention of Mr. Grudem by Phil Johnson, Grudem stood by his endorsement of Jack Deere’s book.

I have observed among charismatics precisely this lack of discernment that Phil Johnson is talking about.  Despite the fact that charismatics like Paul Cain or Todd Bentley are demonstrably ridiculous and utterly unbiblical in their practices, the more responsible, biblically oriented in the movement typically are loath to acknowledge or admit the errors. Instead they rationalize them, arguing that we ought not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”.  In other  words, don’t dismiss all charismatic gifts because of the excesses and mishandling by the few.  This principle is true enough, but as Johnson points out, saner, more biblical charismatics actually represent a “fairly small minority of the worldwide charismatic community.”  Most of the movement is characterized by the excessive and the unbiblical!

A few years ago I wrote quite a bit about Todd Bentley on my previous blog, Jordan’s View, in an article titled Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 1(Dangerous Deceptions). For a brief period in 2008 Bentley was a rising star in charismatic circles, the central figure in the so-called Lakeland, Florida “revival” that was being broadcast internationally, night after night, on the network GodTV.  Bentley was described as highly anointed, personally holy, a man deeply gifted in miracles and the prophetic.  It turns out that during the time of the revival meetings Bentley had been dealing with serious marital problems; these would eventually lead to his suddenly dropping out of the revival. A short time therafter all of the marital issues surfaced; Bentley divorced his first wife, and married someone from his ministry team.  Bentley’s marital problems were known to many who were endorsing him, yet Bentley was allowed to carry on. Even after his divorce and a brief period of being marginalized, it seems many in the charismatic community have welcomed him back with open arms, and he has been rushed back into public ministry. So what am I saying here? It’s not that one can’t be in ministry and have sin in one’s life. In that case, no one would qualify for ministry. But Bentley was one for whom it was claimed that his closeness with God and his personal holiness was the source of the supernatural powers flowing through him and his ministry. So it does tremendous damage to the credibility of Christianity and to the honor of Christ when someone is claiming to heal and speak in the power of God, yet is carrying on in this way.

Today I looked up Adrian Warnock’s coverage of Todd Bentley, recalling that at the time he’d posted many articles on his blog on Bentley.  Despite the fact that Warnock thoroughly covered the Todd Bentley story from beginning to inglorious end, I couldn’t find any posts in which Mr. Warnock himself took Bentley to task for his failure to live up to biblical standards in ministry, or in private.  Unfortunately, this lack of calling out such shenanigans and condemning them is all too typical.

Now I really do sympathize with the charismatic desire to see great miracles happening in our day. Who would’nt like to see healings, and revival sparked by the Spirit?  Yet we must not allow the desire for such things to cloud our judgment and remove our discernment.  If the sinful, unbiblical antics of a Paul Cain or Todd Bentley can escape the severe disapprobation and condemnation they deserve, it demonstrates that biblical discernment has entirely gone out the window among most charismatics, even among those who ought to know and do better.

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Filed under Charismaticism, Discernment, Theology

The Ultimate “Why”

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:1; cf. Luke 11:13).

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18; cf Luke 18:19)

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:9-12, ESV)

Many labor under the delusion that man is basically good, and that it is environmental factors such as poverty, an abusive home or other bad influences, that turn people toward evil.  For this reason, many reason that to be acceptable to God (if indeed He truly exists and there will be a time of reckoning wherein this God will judge all things) one simply must be found at the positive end of the scale, when a lifetime of good deeds are weighed against bad.  Surely on this basis God will accept us and we’ll make it into heaven, for our good deeds must count for more than our bad deeds, and comparatively speaking, we are not as bad as some others!  Perhaps we think to ourselves, “I love my kids, don’t cheat on my wife or girlfriend, pay my taxes, do a little volunteer work, and I’d gladly give up my seat on the bus (if an old lady happened by); plus, I’m not a serial killer!”  Are these all good things?  Of course.  Everyone knows right and wrong.  No one need go to church to live a moral life.  There are fine, decent, upstanding men and women, both in and out of the church, who live their lives doing right by their neighbor and being kind and loving to their families.

Why then does Scripture teach us (see passages above) that no one is good, and moreover, that we are all evil!  This is exactly what Jesus Christ, the one whom Christians believe was God-in-the-flesh, affirmed.  Why does it say “no one is seeking for God?”  Why does it put unbelievers in the category of disobedient, followers of Satan, destined for wrath due to innate wickedness?  This doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t sit well. One protests, “Hey, don’t call me evil. I’m a good, decent guy.  I know I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m far, far from evil!”  By human and worldly standards, one may very well be an outstanding citizen.  But God’s standard of righteousness derives from who He is, a holy God in whom there is no sin, no moral imperfection, no blemish of character.  Now we have never encountered a sinless person, and if we saw one probably wouldn’t know what to make of them.  Such a person would be strange and foreign.  Yet there was One who walked among us who was without sin.  He is the same One who said we are all evil.  But why does He say this?  He says it simply because it is the truth about us humans: we’re sinners by nature, and sin has corrupted us to the very depths of our being.  In reformed teaching this is known as the doctrine of “total depravity”.  This doctrine doesn’t signify that any of us are as evil as we might be (after all, most of us are not serial killers).  It means though that every part of human nature has been entirely corrupted by the effects of sin– our thought life, our emotions, even our bodies (which will someday die– due to the curse of sin).  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  And Jesus Christ has come to undo this terrible fall– as it’s written, He “takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29).  By His death on the Cross, Jesus destroyed the power of death, power the devil had over us (Heb 2:14).  Does this sound like science fiction?  Perhaps.  But as the saying goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

When we think about someone such as James Holmes, the suspect accused of opening fire on people in a crowded Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 58 others, we naturally ask, why did he do it?  The specific impetus for this particular man’s actions are likely quite complex.  The science of human behavior may someday be advanced enough to be able to explain, or even predict, the actions of such a person, in terms of a number of contributing variables.  But this still would not give us the answer we’re really looking for, the ultimate “why”.  Why does evil exist?  Why did an all-powerful and good God create a universe in which evil is an everyday occurrence?  Does the Bible give us a fully satisfying answer to these questions?

The Bible does give us at least the beginning of answer to these important questions. In Genesis the Bible story of the creation of the world relates how evil came to be a part of this present world.  Evil is the result of a bad human choice, one that was made under the influence of an evil, fallen angel.  So particular evils happen since then because a principle of evil exists in this fallen world we are born into.  If sin had never entered the world, there would be no death; there would be no evil acts.  But sin did come into the world; and apparently, a good God allowed this to happen.  Since God is not only good but holy, wise, all-powerful and loving, it seems He uses sin and all its evil fallout, while abhoring it and intending to someday completely rid the world of it.  His aim is to accomplish a redemptive purpose that perhaps could not have been accomplished otherwise, one that brings about the most good and blessing for mankind while bringing the most glory to Himself.  And though we too have fallen under the influence of sin, a mighty Savior has come to break its power, if we have faith to believe and put our trust in Him.

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Beware of “Spiritual Formation”

Yesterday I posted a spontaneous reflection describing how I find that the “noise” of this world can keep us continually distracted, in such a way that we lose ability to focus our thoughts on things of eternal importance.  We may get so wrapped up in the worries, cares and “busy-ness” of this world that we neglect to give attention to God, and draw strength from Him.

Today I would like to point you to a helpful article series by Gary Gilley that critically examines a trend in many evangelical Christian circles today towards spiritual practices (or disciplines) often included under the banner “spiritual formation.”   The practices include such things as contemplative prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading).  While it’s certainly true that we need discipline in the Christian life, many (not all) in the “spiritual formation” movement advocate practices that are more mystical than they are biblical.  I therefore commend Dr. Gilley’s article series as an aid to helping discern right and wrong spiritual practices in accordance with Scripture.  It is so important that we remain biblical as we walk with God.  We must not burden ourselves or others to pursue spiritual disciplines not authorized by Scripture.   And I want to clarify that the primary intention of my article yesterday was to say that getting alone with God in a quiet place is a good practice, one modeled by Christ Himself. Yet Scripture does not lay this practice down as a commandment we must obey.

Dr. Gilley is a long-time pastor who writes from a reformed perspective. I have been reading his helpful articles and reviews for some time now.  The series of articles I mention above is as follows:

Solitude and Silence
Sacred Reading (Lectio Divina)
Contemplative Prayer
Spiritual Formation

 

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Filed under Discernment, Hearing from God, Orthopraxy, Theology

Noise- Enemy of the Soul

As my wife will attest, I really dislike noise– I’m always ranting about jerks who drive by our house blasting their car radios so loud my TV  rattles violently.   In those moments, I’m rattled too, and feel dark and violent impulses.  But don’t worry, I’m not a gun owner.

My mother tells me I was always very sensitive to noise, as a child and even as a baby.   Perhaps then, my antipathy to noise is a personal quirk.  Or maybe I’m deficient in some vitamin.  This could be, but I think I’m not alone in my aversion to noise, and I think there’s good reasons to think the constant noise we deal with in modern life in America is not a good thing for anyone’s soul.  Really, for the life of me, I have a hard time understanding why people enjoy blasting music into their ears (especially, BAD music– another rant).  I’m a music lover myself– and occasionally I turn up the volume a bit– certain songs just sound better that way– but I can’t imagine sitting in my car, mindlessly listening to the “boom-boom-boom” at sound levels designed to destroy eardrums of entire neighborhoods.  I can’t figure out how or why that is enjoyable to some people.

More than ever, we’re the plugged-in generation– especially the younger folk among us– from sunup to sundown we’re attached to our devices– TVs, cell phones, iPads, PCs, Macs, car radios, tablets, etc–  it seems we can never not have background noise.  Is this constant din a comfort to our souls?  Can we not stand a few moments of silence?  Perhaps in the silent moments our secret frustrations, disappointments, sadness, musings  about death and God and what’s it all about– are apt to come tumbling into our heads, giving rise to feelings of dreadful anxiety.  Such reflection is stressful, unpleasant and unnerving.  Maybe we find it comforting then to have noise that distracts us from these questions to which we don’t think we have answers.  I’m as guilty as anyone of listening to music, or watching a movie as a way of de-stressing and not facing issues in my life.  I don’t think those moments of escapism are necessarily always a bad thing.  Music has wonderful power to calm our souls.  Having a good laugh while watching a TV show, or feeling a thrill as we watch an action movie may not just distract, but bring temporary respite to a weary soul.

But the danger I see in today’s habit of allowing the constant noise of modern life to overtake us, rarely stopping to be silent, is that this practice diminishes the capacity to be  reflective, which in turn short-circuits personal growth.  Not all of us have genius IQs, not all of us have gifts of artistic or creative expression, but I’m convinced that by keeping ourselves continually distracted, we don’t allow our minds and souls the opportunity to think the profound, creative thoughts we’re capable of having.  What is genius anyway?  Is it not the result of concentrated effort to solve a creative problem or solve a scientific puzzle? But when our minds constantly flit about from one thing to another, we lose the powers of concentration and focus that could bring us into genius insights, healthy self-recognition, and perhaps even place us on the path to finding truth.

So as you can see the noise I’m talking about isn’t just loud sounds, but it’s also the noise we manufacture to drown out pain, soothe fears, to forget and ignore our troubles.  In this sense, we’ve all been noisemakers at times, haven’t we?  But  this noise making works against us, because after the distractions are over, the problems and questions still remain.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ was God-in-the-flesh.  He came to Earth to live His life as a flesh and blood human being and to demonstrate how we ought to live.  Jesus was a busy man and full of life.  He attracted followers wherever He went, He spoke as no Man before Him ever had spoken, He had powers that attested to His special relationship with the Father.  Yet in all the activity of His life, we have this report about Him… “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35).”  Apparently it was the custom of Jesus to get away from everything and everyone, to be alone, presumably in a quiet place, and to pray to God.  Oh, how we need this as human beings!  If Jesus Christ, the Perfect Man, needed time alone in a quiet place to pray to God and be strengthened and find direction for each day, how much more do we as imperfect beings require this time of quiet.

If you don’t yet know this Jesus, you can find Him through the Bible.  Read a gospel such as the book of Mark of John, and there you will see a picture of the perfect human being, the One who came to show us how to live and how to die.  And for those of us who know Him and follow Him, may we take time each day to go to that quiet place, to be alone with our God and reach out for His grace.

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Home Pages – Why Use One?

My personal Netvibes page

Recently Google announced that it would be retiring iGoogle, a personalized homepage service they have offered since 2005.   Many iGoogle fans are protesting, and Google says iGoogle won’t be phased out until November 2013, so perhaps with enough user feedback they’ll change their minds.  But some of you may be asking, “What’s a home page” or “Why do I need a home page?”

A personalized home page is set up by a user to be the “landing page” when opening their browser of choice as they connect to the Internet via their PC, Mac, or laptop.  Home pages provide a convenient way for users to gather together in one place the information they want ready access to.  Typically users place on their home page such things as local weather, personal calendar, email, news feed, favorite blog and anything else they want quick access to.  I have been using home pages for a long time, and have found them very helpful for their intended purpose of conveniently gathering together information in one page.  iGoogle is one of the home pages services I’ve tried out over the years, and I like it because it has a clean look and and loads quickly.  However I have mostly used Netvibes, which I found more customizable, especially visually.  But I have also found that Netvibes often loads slowly, especially on pages which include  a lot of media content.

So why use a home page?  Well, as already noted, they provide convenience in getting to information one wants quickly.  Instead of visiting several different sites for information on weather, news, calendar, email, etc., one can put all this information in their personalized home page.

But it seems with more and more people accessing the web via their cell phones , iPads and tablets, leaders in the web industry such as Google are focusing technical efforts on developing apps which provide the same rapid access functionality that home pages have provided.

As a smartphone user I am a big fan of the Pulse apps, which provide lightning fast access to the big news stories of the day, customized by user selection of sources.  Pulse also has a cool web-based version of their apps, which I have been using lately as an alternate home page.  Feedly is another favorite of mine.  It takes one’s existing Google reader feeds and arranges them in a magazine-style web page.  And Google Reader is my favorite feed reader, with the usual clean Google look  and intuitive functionality.  Both Feedly and Google Reader also have mobile apps.

So I’ve found that home page services and feed readers alike provide convenience and efficiency as one seeks information from the Internet, whether it’s news, weather or reading favorite blogs.  Personally I think that there will still be a need for home pages like iGoogle in the foreseeable future, but if iGoogle is gone there will always be other good alternatives.

Do you use a home page?  If so, which one do you use?

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The Subjectivity of Charismaticism

I have been commenting over at Parchment and Pen on a post titled, Surprised by the Deficiency of the Spirit by Lisa Robinson.  I decided to turn my comments there into a post here:

To know the right answers to the most critical questions of life, such as, how does one inherit eternal life, Jesus consistently directed people to Scripture (e.g., Luke 10:25-28). He characterized Scripture as the highest authority, and His own ministry as being, not a contradiction to the Law and Prophets, but a fulfillment of them:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV).

Paul concurred with our Lord’s view on Scripture, testifying that

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).

The Spirit of course speaks through the Scriptures, being the Author of them. Can and does He prompt people towards certain thoughts and actions apart from direct interaction with Scripture? Yes, but I would argue such promptings are always in accord with the Word of Scripture.

Are we supposed to be directed specifically by God’s “voice” in every decision and choice we make, as many in charismatic circles claim? I don’t think the Bible teaches this. In fact we read in James 4 (cont.),

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13-17, ESV).

James speaking by the Spirit tells us human beings don’t know the future (and cannot know, since we are but “mists”) . Yet so many supposed “words” given in many Christian circles today deal with precisely this– what we cannot know, not being God. If we claim to know, James says we’re boastful sinners. Moreover, as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, in Scripture we already have all the information we need  to live a life pleasing to God.

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)”.

Reading James, it seems to me then that the hunger for secret, unrevealed knowledge is evil and leads believers into dangerous territory. Open the door to “subjectivity” and all manner of deception follows, as evidenced by the rampant error that characterizes so much of Christendom today, as it follows in the charismatic way.

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Eternal Hope Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Conclusion

Mishandling Scriptural texts, Bell’s view on hell in “Love Wins” is distorted, revealing weak views of God’s holiness and man’s depravity, which in turn impact his understanding of the work of the Cross.  As we have already mentioned, Bell denies clear biblical evidence that God is wrathful towards sin, because for him such wrath is incompatible with an understanding of God’s character as essentially “love”.  Yet in Scripture we find God’s various attributes co-exist peacefully, and that there is no implied contradiction between a God of love and a God who hates sin.  In fact, the wrath of God is an attribute just as perfect and integral to God’s character as His love, and one whose contemplation serves importance purposes in sanctification. As theologian Arthur Pink writes,

A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness. Because God is holy, He hates all sin; and because He hates all sin, His anger burns against the sinner (Psa 7:11)… The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character upon which we need to frequently meditate. First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God’s detestation of sin. We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness. Second, to beget a true fear in our souls for God: “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29). We cannot serve Him “acceptably” unless there is due “reverence” for His awful Majesty and “godly fear” of His righteous anger, and these are best promoted by frequently calling to mind that “our God is a consuming fire.” Third, to draw out our souls in fervent praise for having delivered us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).[1]

God’s holiness compels Him to hate and actively oppose all sin, but this passionate hatred of sin is also fueled by His love, for it clearly sees the destructive force of sin in the lives of people and of creation.  Bell’s portrait of the Christian life in “Love Wins” often speaks of how human sins hurt people and holds mankind back from realizing its “God-given goodness and humanity,” but he hardly mentions sin in relation to its deep offense against a holy God.  It is a very man-centered perspective that misses the major emphasis Scripture puts on sin as man’s major problem.  Bell’s view of the cross is similarly man-centered, subjective and psychologically oriented.  In one place he writes,

We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In the ancient world, people regularly sacrificed animals—bulls, goats, sheep, birds. You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you’d done and you were very grateful for the rain and crops and children and any other gifts you could think of that the gods had given you…  That’s how it worked. Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed. So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea… The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. That’s how the writer of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus died on the cross.[2]

Here is the reason why Bell can dismiss the Old Testament sacrificial system as something barbaric– he thinks it is something the Jews picked up from surrounding pagan cultures!  Bell betrays lack of understanding of the depth of man’s sin behind this God-instituted practice, as well as stunning lack of comprehension that the sacrificial system was not a pagan, human invention, but something God Himself instituted.  The Jewish sacrificial system was not on a par with “appeasing gods” as Bell seems to think, but a system God established because of the deadly serious nature of sin, which must be atoned for by blood (Lev 17:11).   When Jesus by His one-time sacrifice brought to an end the sacrificial system under the old covenant (Hebrews 9), Bell doesn’t seem to recognize that His act was not the dismantling of a pagan practice, but bringing the system to the fulfillment of its purpose.  Jesus’ sacrifice is the better and perfect sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean the old pattern He was replacing was unnecessary and wrongheaded.  His interpretation also indicates a seemingly low view of Scripture’s inspiration, for it is clear from both Leviticus and Hebrews that the pattern of animal sacrifices was God’s idea.  And this from a man reputed to have begun his pastoral ministry preaching through Leviticus?  Kevin DeYoung’s book review offers good thoughts on Bell’s conception of sin:

It would be unfair to say Bell doesn’t believe in sin. He clearly does. But his vice lists are telling: war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (36–37). In another place, he says that in heaven God will say “no” to oil spills, sexual assault on women, political leaders silencing by oppression, and people being stepped on by greedy institutions and corporations (37-38). These are real problems and throughout the book Bell mentions many real, heinous sins. But … What’s missing is not only a full-orbed view of sins, but a deeper understanding of sin itself. In Bell’s telling of the story, there is no sense of the vertical dimension of our evil.  Yes, Bell admits several times that we can resist or reject God’s love. But there’s never any discussion of the way we’ve offended God, no suggestion that ultimately all our failings are a failure to worship God as we should. God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.[3]

From the start Bell’s book suggests that Scripture is hopelessly unclear on the nature of salvation, in that it supposedly describes numerous different mechanisms by which one might be saved.  But this again seems merely clever strategy on Bell’s part.  If he can persuade the reader to believe that the process of salvation, the nature of the afterlife or details of how one gets into heaven and avoids hell are all murky and impossible to determine, then he can present his speculative theories under less scrutiny. But of course Scripture is not unclear about how one can be saved, for the one who has ears to hear.  Bell ignores such passages as Romans 10: 8-17, which presents clear instruction on how one is saved.

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.[4]

Bell asks about this passage, “what if the missionary gets a flat tire?” implying that for God to place the fate of people’s souls in the hands of human preachers puts eternal destinies on shaky footing.  But the answer is that God uses human means to accomplish His ends, but isn’t absolutely dependent on them.  Again, it seems Bell raises such questions as part of a strategy of shaking the reader’s confidence that there are definite answers.  In this way, Bell can propose that there isn’t just one way to salvation, but many, which perhaps to his way of thinking gives one better odds of being saved.

Conclusion
What do we lose if we replace the traditional message of the gospel that includes the teaching of an eternal, conscious, punishment in hell with a friendlier, more inclusive message like Rob Bell’s?  Would it not be easier, as Bell suggests, to enthusiastically share the good news knowing that such a terrible and scary doctrine was not part of the package?  Perhaps we might feel less unpleasant preaching a gospel message stripped of hellfire, but we would also hopefully feel convicted, for we would be preaching a lie.  In Rob Bell’s bloodless story, God has saved us from what, exactly?  Bad choices?  But choices don’t really matter that much in his system– won’t we have endless opportunities to re-think them and say “yes” to God?

If Bell is right, why is Christ so urgently pleading with us to heed His warnings, that we might escape the dreadful hell He paints with images terrible and true?  No, my friends, eternal hell belongs to the gospel, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news set against the backdrop of very bad news—that our sins have separated us from a holy God and condemned us to wrath and hell.  God in His wisdom has given us this solemn message, and it is not for us to refashion or compromise.

The teaching of hell highlights the black and white nature of the gospel message— Christ is not one option among many; He is rather “the way, and the truth and the life”, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6) for “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Hell underscores the urgency of the decision to be made—we all stand on the edge of a dangerous abyss, not knowing if we will be given another day to make this momentous choice. The prospect of hell wakes us up out of our stupor, challenging us to act now.  “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).”  Finally, hell reminds us what God in His great and glorious mercy rescues us from, though we were once His enemies.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you have enjoyed this series.  Below, under “further reading” I’ve listed resources for further study on these topics.

 

[1] Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, first edition printing 1930 (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993), 36.

[2] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc, 2011), 123.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review.

[4] Romans 10: 8-17 (English Standard Version).

WORKS CITED IN THIS SERIES

Bauckham, Richard. “Universalism: A Historical Survey.” Themelios. 4.2 (1978, September 1).

Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Kindle edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2011.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 793.

DeYoung, Kevin “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review

Keller, Timothy, R. Albert Mohler Jr., J. I. Packer, and Robert Yarbrough. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Edited by W. Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Pink, Arthur W. The Attributes of God. First edition printing 1930. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993.

Walvoord, John F., William V. Crockett, Zachary J. Hayes, and Charles H. Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. Edited by Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Wittmer, Michael E. Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011.

Zondervan Academic, “Four Views on Hell: An Interview with William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed March 1, 2011, http://www.koinoniablog.net/2011/03/interview-crockett.html.


Further reading

Books on Hell and Responses to Love Wins:

Four Views on Hell by William Crockett (Author), Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor), John F. Walvoord (Contributor), Zachary J. Hayes (Contributor), Clark H. Pinnock (Contributor)

Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven Contributors: Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Jr. J.I. Packer, Robert W. Yarborough. Editors: Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson

Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die by Bobby Conway

Book reviews of Love Wins:

Bell’s Hell- Review of Love Wins by Michael Horton (PDF)
God is Still Holy & What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True by Kevin DeYoung (PDF)
If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Love Wins by Rob Bell by Paul B Coulter
Love Wins – Universalism’s New Champion by Gary Gilley
A Review and Commentary on Rob Bell’s Book by Jay Zinn

General Articles on Hell

The Rationale of Hell By John H. Gerstner
The following 9 articles included in a PDF:
The Greatest Loss by J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)
What Is Hell? by Edward Donnelly
Eternal Torment for the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
The Resurrection of Damnation by Samuel Davies (1723-1761)
The Torments of Loss by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
The Torments of Soul by Edward Payson (1783-1827)
The Torments of Sense by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
Exhortation to Escape Hell by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Christ Has the Keys of Hell and of Death by Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
The Christian Doctrine of Hell:
Hell, by R.C. Sproul. A brief introduction to the doctrine from Sproul’s book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith.
Eternal Punishment, by Arthur Pink. A non-technical explanation of the traditional doctrine and its biblical basis, with responses to arguments commonly raised against it by Universalists and Annihilationists.

Misc. articles on hell

Sermons
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards
The Eternity of Hell’s Torments, by Jonathan Edwards

Scholarly Articles
Future Punishment, by Charles Hodge
Hell, by Stewart D.F. Salmond
A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell? by Larry D. Pettegrew
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One, by Alan W. Gomes
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two, by Alan W. Gomes

Inclusivism
Series on Inclusivism
The “Very Pernicious and Detestable” Doctrine of Inclusivism Robert L. Reymond
Lisa Miller Interviews Rob Bell
Monergism articles on Inclusivism

The Arrogance of Inclusivism
Inclusivism: Is God Really Fair?
What is Inclusivism and Why Does It Matter?
What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?

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Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope: A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Part 5 Bell’s Hell and Scripture

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. Why them? Why you? Why me? Why not him or her or them? If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family, or country? Having a youth pastor who “relates better to the kids”? God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?[1]

One may observe from the long quote above that Bell can’t stomach the traditional view of hell and wants people to stop believing it, because he thinks it paints a bad picture of God.  Accordingly his strategy in “Love Wins” (typified by this quote) is to barrage the reader with emotionally charged, loaded questions seemingly designed to provoke doubt that one can ever arrive at any certainty concerning how one may be saved or what happens after death, and at the same time, to make the reader question the rightness of traditional understandings on salvation, heaven and hell.  This post will be the longest in our series.  I want to look at the numerous arguments Bell makes against the traditional view of hell and respond to them as thoroughly as possible within the space constraints of a blog article.


Can a Loving God be Wrathful?

One of Bell’s chief arguments against traditional hell is a running theme throughout his book: a loving God must love all equally, give everyone an equal chance at salvation, and doesn’t punish sinners without a redemptive purpose behind the punishment.

Bell’s God is all love, no wrath.  He echoes the perennial refrain of many who’ve objected to the tradition doctrine of an eternal hell, “It is not fair that God would punish eternally the sins committed in a finite lifetime”.  But to find the truth, we dare not rely on our own deliberations and feelings, but must yield to the revelation of Scripture.  Are we more righteous, just and holy than God?  Is the sinner qualified to tell his holy Maker how, and on what basis, to execute judgment?

Contrary to those who argue that the punishment of an eternal hell makes God cruel, unfair or capricious, but base their argument on the biblically unsubstantiated assumption that God must show equal compassion to all, Scripture does not obligate God to show mercy to everyone.  Rather it emphasizes His absolute sovereignty and freedom in this matter.  God declares, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:15; cp Ex 33:19).” In contrast to Bell’s salvific scheme, in which human beings become equal to God in determining their own destiny of heaven or hell, in Scripture the emphasis in redemption is always on God’s initiative and power, for apart from God’s work in us, the Bible tells us we are lost and condemned sinners enslaved in lust to our sins, having no hope and without God in the world, destined for wrath (Eph 2: 2- 5, 12; Luke 19:10, Romans 1:18, 5:6-8).  As rebellious sinners, we aren’t owed salvation or rescue from hell (Romans 9:20-23), and God must intervene if we are to be saved (John 6:44), yet at the same time Scripture affirms that human beings have a genuine choice between turning to God in repentance through Christ, or rejecting Him and continuing on the path of rebellion, a choice that has real, eternal consequences (John 3:18, 36).  Certainly there is mystery here, but this is specific information Scripture gives on questions of salvation and eternal destiny.  To take care of our sin problem, God did not simply forgive unilaterally, as Bell proposes.  Scripture is clear:  we receive forgiveness of sins through a conscious act of faith that trusts in Christ Jesus as payment for our sins, thus escaping the wrath of God (Romans 10: 9-13; Romans 5:9).
Bell and those who argue along his lines ignore the biblical record that consistently highlights God’s righteous wrath against sin and against sinners. Bell writes:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us.[2]

It is telling how Bell makes his argument.  Notice he dismisses the importance of establishing whether the traditional view of God’s wrath is true “technically or theologically (i.e., biblically).  To him this is not as important as how such a view makes us feel about God.  Presenting no substantiating argument, he simply asserts that we do not need to be rescued from God’s wrath, his implicit argument being that such a view of God is psychologically disturbing to our “peace” of mind (“we shape our God”, indeed).  Bell overlooks the biblical theme that to be saved from sin isn’t primarily about being rescued from damage we do to ourselves through sin (though this is a benefit), but escaping the punishment and judgment rightly due to sinners.  The entire Old Testament could be put on exhibit to make the case that God never takes sin lightly, but rather, in unrelenting wrath against sin, punished evildoers, instituted the pattern of animal sacrifice designed to atone for sins (foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice for sin Christ would make as Lamb of God), and gave His law to command Israel into holy living.  The theme of wrath against sin continues prominently into the New Testament revelation, where the record plainly shows, even from partial listing of passages, that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness of men and that there is a terrible wrath against sin still to come (namely, hell), which one escapes only through  Christ.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Romans 2:5,8)

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 9:22)

…and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10)

The overwhelming thrust of Scripture reveals that Bell couldn’t be more off-base when he downplays God’s just wrath against sin and implies such a view of God is inaccurate.  A loving God can be wrathful against sin, because sin is the negation of everything good and right and beneficial.


After Death – a Total Mystery, or Judgment to Heaven or Hell?

In his chapter on hell, Bell argues that the Bible doesn’t provide much specific information about life after death.  By taking this stance, Bell positions himself to freely speculate about what may occur post-death.  In the New Testament, Bell finds a paucity of references to hell.  He notes that “Gehenna”, the Greek word for hell, literally means “garbage dump”.  Because it is an actual place His listeners were familiar with, Bell implies that Jesus used this word to make His hearers consider hell more in terms of this world than the next.  That there is mystery in Scripture concerning full details of the afterlife is not surprising. 1 Corinthians 2:9 tells us “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  But just because we haven’t been given a complete picture of all that will come after the grave doesn’t suggest there is lack of clarity or information in Scripture about what we must do to be saved and avoid hell.  We’ll speak more on this in the concluding post of this series.

Second, Bell claims Jesus used hyperbolic, at times violent imagery in depicting hell to jolt his listeners, not into fearful apprehension of what will happen to them in the next life, but so they will contemplate the terrible things that happen to them in this life when we reject our “God-given goodness and humanity.”  But the images Jesus uses in describing hell are consistent and precise.  He speaks of “unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43)”, the “worm that doesn’t die (Mark 9:48)”, eternal fire (Matthew 18:7)”, and “hell of fire (Matthew 18:9)”.  Jesus’ language suggests terrible future judgment, not warnings about bad things that happen to people in this life when they reject God.  Though indeed the sin that rejects God brings untold pain and suffering to this life, hell is far, far worse. That’s why Jesus warns us to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” We are to fear God, who can and will punish the unrepentant in hell.  The urgency of His warnings and the severe language He uses give no hint that we get a second chance after death, but instead there is a definite air of finality.  Scripture confirms that we only have this present life to decide for or against Christ when it says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27 ESV).”


The Rich Man and Lazarus- Is Hell the Self-Imposed Chasm of a Proud Heart or Irreversible Destiny Set by God?

Bell also examines Jesus’ famous story of Lazarus and the rich man.  For Bell, the story’s lessons are primarily directed at the religious leaders who were listening in.  Bell notes that the rich man in the story was asking Lazarus to serve him water, apparently even in death seeing himself as Lazarus’ superior, as he was in life.  The “chasm” between the rich man and Lazarus, according to Bell, is his own heart, his proud ego that demands that Lazarus still serve him.  Bell says that the story illustrates the message that Jesus teaches again and again, that “the gospel is about a death that leads to life”.   The key understanding, Bell says, is that the rich man hasn’t yet died to himself in such a way that he could find life.  The rich man is a stand-in for his audience, showing them their failure to love their neighbor, and the story teaches there are different kinds of hells (individual and communal) we must take seriously.

Here Bell reads details into the story that aren’t there but favor his interpretation.  First, the story never says that Lazarus was the rich man’s servant, but only that he had stood outside his gates and begged from him.  Second, the story mentions that the chasm fixed between the rich man and Lazarus was fixed by God, “in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us (Luke 16: 26).”  Contrary to what Bell proposes, the chasm has nothing to do with the rich man’s heart, and the actual details of the story contradict Bell’s notion that if the rich man somehow dies to himself and overcomes his ego, he’ll be able to cross the chasm over to Lazarus.  In order to fit the story with his purgatorial notions, Bell simply invents details.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man testifies further against Bell’s post-death theories.  Though as a parable the story should not be pressed for exact details regarding the nature of the afterlife, it is a story on the afterlife being spoken by our Lord, who was certainly in a position to give such details. As such, we should pay close attention. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus would include helpful, not misleading data to help generations to come in their understanding of what comes after death.

So we learn from the story that the rich man is aware of the blessedness of Lazarus in heaven, and remembers his past.  Though the story is concerned with the pre-resurrection state (Hades) rather than final destination (heaven or hell), we observe that there is immediately after death a conscious awareness of one’s eternal status before God, and entry into blessing or suffering in accord with that status.  The rich man wants desperately to send a warning to his loved ones who remain on earth, that they may escape his terrible fate.  Yet he cannot, and the story directs attention to the fact that there is a chasm fixed by God between Lazarus and the rich man.  Again, we find here no support for a post-mortem turnaround.   It would seem a chasm also exists between the dead and the living, for Abraham dismisses the rich man’s request that Lazarus be sent to his brothers on earth, saying “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”(Luke 16:29).

Finally the story also teaches that the testimony of the Law and Prophets if heeded was sufficient to save, but to a sinful heart indifferent to the sufferings of others, even a resurrection from the dead (pointing to Jesus) would be ignored.  An observation Bell makes about the story challenging us to be concerned about individual sin that leads to suffering on a societal level is valid, but Jesus is  also clearly warning about individual sin that leads to individual suffering in the afterlife, because of God’s just punishment of evildoers.


More Bell arguments:  the Greek Word “aiōn” and Sodom and Gomorrah

As mentioned, Bell raises other objections against the traditional view of hell.  He tries to show that the Greek word “aiōn“, used to describe both heaven and hell, really means an “age” or period of time, and that the writers of Scripture did not conceive of eternal life as an endless duration of time, but rather as a certain quality of existence.  In a section titled “Does ‘eternal’ mean ‘forever’?” Paul Coulter in his excellent review of “Love Wins” points out that Bell does not demonstrate that the Greek word “aiōn” cannot mean eternal,  and that in fact Bell concedes that the term is the equivalent to the Old Testament word  “olam” which can mean eternal, especially when referring to God.  Coulter writes,

On page 31 he equates aiōn with the Hebrew word olam in the Old Testament and on page 92 he accepts that olam can mean something like our common meaning of ‘eternal’, at least when it refers to God as being God “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). This amounts to an admission that aiōn can indeed mean everlasting, and this conclusion is backed up by its usage in the New Testament in contexts where it must include the meaning ‘unending’. It is used to describe God (Romans 16:26) and elsewhere Paul says that God is worthy to receive “honour and might for ever” on the basis that he is “immortal” (1 Timothy 6:16). Surely he did not mean to say that the immortal God who will live forever deserves to be honoured and has power only for an age! Similarly Paul calls the resurrection body an “eternal house” (2 Corinthians 5:1) while in another passage he says it is imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53). We must conclude, then, that Bell is wrong (indeed he contradicts himself) when he says elsewhere in categorical terms that aion […] doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever” (p.31). His error is not in recognising that aiōn has a range of meanings in the New Testament (any Greek lexicon of the New Testament will reveal that it can) but in his attempt to narrow the range of possible meanings in relation to the life Christ gives and the nature of Hell and Heaven. Aiōn does not only mean ‘eternal’ but ‘eternal’ is contained within its range of possible meanings as defined by New Testament usage. Whether or not it means ‘eternal’ in a given usage can only be determined by a careful study of the context and I maintain that the usage to refer to the life that Christ gives, the Kingdom over which he rules and the punishment of which he warns must include the sense of ‘unending’ when the context and the wider New Testament evidence are taken into consideration.

In keeping with his argument that there is no fiery, everlasting hell because of the endless opportunities sinners will have to reconcile with God, Bell provides an inventive take on Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. In Matthew 10:15, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” Bell interprets this as meaning that in the judgment, even the infamously evil Sodom and Gomorrah gets another shot at redemption. But one certainly must read such an interpretation into the text. The context here is Jesus sending out His twelve apostles with the gospel, and Jesus is simply saying that with greater revelation (Jesus actually visited and performed miracles in these places where the gospel is being preached) comes greater culpability and condemnation should the message be rejected.


Does “Making All Things New” Mean Everyone Will Be Saved?
Yet another argument Bell raises against the traditional understanding of hell is his insistence that God reconciling all things to Himself and Jesus “making all things new” means that God intends to save every single individual. As Michael Wittmer relates in his book, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”,

Bell pushes ahead with numerous promises from the Old Testament prophets that God will restore both his people and the pagan people of Egypt (p. 88). Bell assumes that such passages imply that every person who ever lived there will be able to leave hell. But the idea of escaping from hell never comes up in these passages. God is merely promising that those who call on the Lord in this life will be saved, and that, in fact, many will call on him.[3]

Those who argue along the lines of Bell would have us think that a loving God simply cannot send anyone to hell.   Yet it is a loving Savior who continuously warns us of the reality of hell, whose words powerfully contradict the idea that all will someday find their place in heaven.

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.(Matthew 13:40-42 ESV)

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
(Matthew 25:41 ESV)

And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.
(Mark 9:45 ESV)

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46 ESV)

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.(Revelation 20:15 ESV)

The word of God warns us in strong, urgent language so that we will turn to God and escape His wrath. And if this picture of hell that Scripture gives is accurate, it is unspeakably wrong to offer anyone any other hope of salvation than what Scripture gives, that is, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31)”.

Next time, we will present our concluding thoughts.


[1] Ibid. 2

[2] Ibid. 182

[3] Michael E. Wittmer, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” (Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011), 54-55.

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Filed under "Love Wins" Series, Controversy, Hell, Theology