Mar 122008

After my last foray into hell, David Reimer kindly pointed me to an article by Tim Keller reproduced from Christianity Today. I’ve finally had a chance to look it over and, rather than tag it on to the other topic, I though it merited separate discussion.

I think I can see what the article is getting at – contextualise how you speak about hell. Keller identifies two groups – traditionalists and postmoderns – who need to have hell explained differently. For traditionalists, the focus is on the horror of hell, but used as a demonstration of God’s love for us. Jesus endured hell so that we don’t need to. He says, “When Jesus was cut off from God, he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. And he did it voluntarily, for us.” I have one major issue with the phrasing of this – “when Jesus was cut off from God…” Is the Trinity separable? Setting this aside though, I can see what he is getting at. A traditionalist will accept the hellfire and brimstone image, but the point they need to take away is not the fear of hell, but the love of God. Which raises the following question – “Is our preaching of the love of God adequate to overcome the fear of hell?”

For postmoderns, Keller has an interesting characterisation – a ‘vague’ belief in God and little sense of moral absolutes. I’m not sure that that’s an altogether accurate characterisation or more of a caricature, but again, setting that aside, his approach here is very different. Keller seems to be suggesting that hell is not the fire and brimstone place of the traditionalists at all, but rather a ‘state of mind’ or perhaps more accurately, a ‘state of soul’.

So, the big question is, is it a place or a ‘state’. The answer seems to be, “that depends”. Do we create our own hell?

I also think Keller makes a major omission here. He speaks of traditionalists and postmoderns, but I don’t think I fall into his characterisations of either group, so where would I fit? Modern perhaps? Or something else? Either way, moderns are a pretty major grouping who, arguably, need yet another approach. They want the rational, the scientific, the explicable. But then, where does God fit into that lot?

Overall I think I found Keller’s article ‘unsatisfying’. But maybe that’s because I’m a postmodern looking for definite answers.

Feb 252008

I never cease to be amazed at the discussions I end up getting sucked into. I never cease to be amazed at how easily I am distracted from my, currently hell-ish, workload (actually, it;s not that bad, but I really ought to focus on it more). And I never cease to be amazed at the often quantum shift that occurs when we engage in open dialogue.

Since starting this blog, I have been drawn steadily deeper into the blogosphere although I do try to be discerning about what I read. Strangely enough, I generally ending up reading (and enjoying) blogs that I don’t agree with. It helps clarify my own thoughts to set them against a different perspective. Via a somewhat convoluted trail, I ended up reading the Parchment and Pen Blog. They’ve recently been running a series on how one might characterise ’emergent/emerging church’. One of the series of articles took a bit of a tangent in the comments section and it was here that I got sucked in to the discussion.

The topic was hell and its literal-ness or otherwise. Now, I’ve always had an issue with hell, or at least the classic fire, brimstone, pointy-tailed demons with pitchforks version of hell. I’ve also always had issue with the idea of eternal punishment. It simply doesn’t square with the idea of a loving, forgiving God and it certainly doesn’t square with the idea that Jesus came to take all all the sins of the world so that all would be forgiven. Don’t get me wrong though. This is not a licence to dismiss sin and judgement. They are still there and God is still a God of judgement – this is a look at our idea of what hell is.

I implied on the comments of that other blog that, for me, the idea of separation from God, Godless-ness, is a far more hell-ish vision of hell than anything with fire, brimstone and pitchforks. Imagine a place of no love, no hope, no light, no healing, no relief, no joy, no peace, no acceptance, no laughter, no smiles, none of the ‘good’ from God. Well, actually I can’t, but even just trying to scares me. A place where God isn’t is my idea of hell.

But doesn’t the Bible speak about hell? Well, actually, no it doesn’t. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol, the place of the dead where all go. Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the noxious, ever-burning rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem. He uses it as an example of what being cut off from God is like. There are a few other instances, but let me point you to a series of articles on another site (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and a useful summary here.

It also raise another issue I’ve long been uncomfortable with – the concept of bullying people into becoming Christians through fear of hell. And, to me, that’s exactly what it is – bullying. It preys on people’s fears; it’s emotional blackmail. Someone on the discussion I got drawn into said that Jesus speaks a lot about hell (Gehenna), so we must give it its place. Well, to my mind (and as I replied there), Jesus spent much more time on the positive. He didn’t speak about what God isn’t (and therefore where God isn’t – hell), but about what God is. Jesus spoke about forgiveness, about the kingdom of God (the one now and not just the one to come – yes, I do have have sympathy with a semi-realised eschatology), about Christ the exemplar (and others and not just the substitute – there are many viable ways of looking at atonement), about the church as the body of Christ (His do-ers, not His conscience), about imago dei, grace, relationship, new Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life, about love to those in need (the ‘widows and orphans’) and so much more. Maybe Jesus did mention Gehenna more than once, but He spoke about all those other things far more still. And that’s where our emphasis needs to be as well!

I’m not saying throw away sin and judgement because if these didn’t exist then the cross and salvation become largely meaningless. But put them in their place – alongside, not ahead of, the rest of the gospel.