Stuck in the mist

20 March 2020

Hiking in the Yorkshire Dales was a regular delight in my younger years. Fresh air, glorious scenery, challenging terrain and, once you got to the top of the fell, a magnificent view.

But on several occasions there was no view at all, because the summit was covered by cloud. As you enter the cloud you lose perspective. You have no clear bearings. No visible summit-cairn to head for. It can be truly disorientating.

mistLots of people are feeling like that at present under the coronavirus ‘cloud’ that has descended upon us all. Suddenly, everything is confusing. Might I catch the virus? Is my job safe? Should I hug the grandchildren or not? Will we get our holiday deposit back? What if the supply of loo-rolls runs out? Which way is ‘forward’? Just mist all around.

I was encouraged by an ‘in the mist’ experience recorded in the New Testament. It’s the account of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36 (also in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8), witnessed by Peter, James and John. Please read it. The key bit is: ‘A cloud appeared and covered them’ (v34). Here’s what I learnt from it.

It’s easy to get confused in the mist. Peter got confused on the Mount of Transfiguration. He started saying all kinds of unhelpful stuff: ‘He did not know what he was saying’ (v33). We’re the same, liable to be confused by the fake news on social media, and by the weird rumours circulating all around. Be aware of the danger of falling for them, and think before you speak or pass rumours on.

It can be frightening in the mist. ‘They were afraid as they entered the cloud’ (v34). And these were big, tough working men, not usually scared by anything. Even the most psychologically robust of us can suffer qualms of fear when plunged into the unknown the way we have been at present. But there is an antidote to that fear…

Jesus was in the mist with them. The cloud covered them all. Maybe the three apostles couldn’t see Jesus because of it, but he was there, close by, nonetheless. Jesus is with us, too, in the midst of this coronavirus cloud. His promise never to leave or forsake us holds good, even here. He has always delighted in standing in solidarity with his people, and he’s doing that right now.

You might not be able to ‘see’ him, but he is near. Hold on to that. He still says, as he did so many times during his ministry, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

God spoke to them in the mist. He urged them to focus on Jesus: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him’ (v35). Your heavenly Father still speaks in the mist, so keep your spiritual ears open for his voice. It might even be that, in the forced inactivity that the current crisis is bringing to many, you are in a better position than usual to listen to him.

God doesn’t waste words, so expect him to speak pointedly into your situation, maybe giving you a steer when you are confused. Above all, he will nudge you towards a closer relationship with Jesus.

Eventually, the mist cleared. The ‘in the cloud’ experience of the transfiguration didn’t last forever. In due course, Jesus himself led the three apostles out of it into normality again (Matthew 17:6-9).

Our current cloud will pass, too, so don’t despair. We have no idea whether it will be weeks or months, but it will eventually pass.

The disciples were forever richer for their experience in the mist. They came out of it with a better understanding of God and his ways, a deeper appreciation of Jesus and who he is, and a clearer idea of the mission to which he was calling them.

Let’s learn from them and determine that, when all this is over, we too will be the stronger for it.


Dry powder

17 March 2020

‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’

That was Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops as they prepared to go into battle. He was a wise man. He understood that while trust in God’s providence was to be their basic attitude, it needed marrying with practical common sense—in their case, ensuring that the gunpowder used in their muskets was kept dry, and thus effective.

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_CooperThe same balance is vital in our coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

All committed Christians will say amen to the ‘trust in God’ bit. But I’ve already seen some weird Christian posts on social media suggesting that this is all we need. The gist is, ‘Repeat this Bible verse often and loudly, and shout your defiance at the devil, and you’ll be OK.’ No mention of taking sensible precautions in line with the guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer and others who are qualified to advise us.

At the other extreme are posts—from people without a faith—that make everything dependent on our own sensible actions, and give no room for God at all. That can leave us open to debilitating worry, or even panic.

So we need to embrace both factors: trust in God, and practical self-help steps.

I’m reminded of the young man developing as a preacher who, hearing that a famous preacher was in town, got an appointment to see him. He had a burning question. ‘When I’m booked to preach,’ he said, ‘how should I go about it? Some say I should prepare my sermon down to the last detail. Others say no, I should just stand up and rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. What’s your advice?’

‘That’s easy,’ replied the wise old man. ‘Work hard at your preparation, as if there were no Holy Spirit to depend on. Then, when you stand up to preach, rely on the Holy Spirit as if you hadn’t prepared.’

God has always shown himself to be committed to collaborating with human beings this way. Even in Eden, he did the donkey work of creation, you might say, but then handed over the running and shaping of the planet to human beings. That’s the way he continues to work: he asks us to trust him as the foundation of our lives while, at the same time, he expects us to do our own bit. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both.

Wise and godly people in every generation have understood this. Nehemiah is a case in point. He was in charge of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem after Judah returned from exile. Not everybody liked the project, and ‘they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ How did Nehemiah react? ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat’ (Nehemiah 4:8-9).

Not either/or, but both/and. Let’s tackle coronavirus the same way.


Perishing?

2 March 2020

Familiarity breeds contempt. For evangelical Christians, no Bible verse is more familiar than John 3:16. As you know, that’s probably the ‘gospel text’, much used by Christians to explain the gospel to enquirers. It says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

perishing roseWonderful! But because I don’t want to let familiarity breed contempt here, I’ve been trying to look at this glorious statement with fresh eyes.

As a result, I’ve realised that people, almost without exception, take ‘have eternal life’ to mean ‘go to heaven when you die’, and ‘perish’ to mean ending up in the other place. Is that justified? Well, it’s certainly open to question.

The first part of the verse is no problem: God’s love for the world motivated him to give his Son. And, as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, putting our trust in him is altogether beneficial. No issues there. It’s in the second part that we are conditioned to think we know what it means: the perish’ and ‘eternal life’ bits.

Take ‘eternal life’ first. Older Bible versions tended to have ‘everlasting life’, emphasising its duration. But because Bible translators realised that this doesn’t do justice to the original Greek, more recent versions go for ‘eternal life’, which doesn’t home in on duration and is, to be honest, a bit fuzzier to the average English reader.

The Greek words mean, literally, ‘life of the age’—that is, ‘the age to come’, which will be inaugurated at Christ’s return, when the ‘new heavens and new earth’ will burst upon us in all their glory. But the life of that age is available today. We could say that the age to come has, to an extent, overlapped with the present age. It has moved back through history to make some of its benefits available now. The primary benefit is ‘life’—life of a superior quality, the life we enjoy in union with God through Christ.

As the book of Hebrews puts it (6:5), those whose trust is in him ‘have tasted…the powers of the coming age.’ Sure, it’s far from the full banquet that we shall enjoy then, but it’s a superb ‘taster’ to keep us going. and transforms our everyday living. Jesus said, ‘The one who believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47). Since we have it now, the emphasis is more on the quality of that life than on its duration—though its endless duration is taken for granted. It begins the moment someone decides to commit their life to Jesus, so we err if we see it purely as an afterlife benefit.

And what about the ‘perish’ bit? Is that a reference exclusively to fire and brimstone? To the lake of fire? Far from it. To live life without God is to be perishing here and now. That’s why Paul refers several times to ‘those who are perishing’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:15). Without the sense of purpose, direction and forgiveness that comes from staking all on Jesus, people are perishing daily. They are struggling with a sub-standard existence. And the gospel offers relief from that grim condition: if they believe, they can exchange it for ‘eternal life’, starting right now.

Does the ‘perishing’, like the ‘eternal life’, have a longer-term aspect? If, after a life of perishing, I die without consciously putting my trust in Jesus, am I doomed to go on perishing forever?

Some say yes. But deep down it’s doubtful if they really believe it. They probably just believe in their belief in it. No crime, or lack of trust in Jesus, committed in the infinitesimally brief confines of a human life, merits everlasting suffering, especially in the type of hell portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. And how could a just God impose that on the billions who, for one reason or another, have departed this life without even hearing about Jesus? A God who would do that is not, in my view, the God who ‘so loved the world…’

Most evangelicals have been schooled to believe that death is the cut-off point, after which one’s final destiny is sealed—you make your choice in this life and reap the endless consequences in the next. But when I’ve asked people to give their reasons for that conviction, I’ve always got vague, unconvincing answers.

Surely God’s love, and his reach, extend beyond the grave? And if ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:19), how can he be satisfied with a partial outworking of it? So if, post mortem, some fiery cleansing of clinging earthly defilement or unbelief proves necessary, will it not result in every sinner’s ultimately being drawn through by God’s love to a place of acceptance, and the enjoyment of ‘eternal life’? That’s the way the early generations of the church interpreted the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:15). It’s a pity we have lost that.

I recently posted a review of a book on universalism. It upset some evangelicals. One responder asked, ‘What’s the point of bothering to preach the gospel if, in the end, God saves everybody?’ The answer is, ‘Because people are perishing now!’ Are you going to let them carry on stumbling through life without the grace and blessing that Christ brings? Or are you going to offer them ‘eternal life’—now? 

John 3:16 remains the great gospel text. Give it some breathing-space!

 


Will God one day be ‘all in all’?

30 January 2020

Can we realistically hope that, in the end, God will restore everything, and that all will be saved? This hope, usually called ‘universalism’, seems to be gaining ground steadily in evangelical circles. A new book on the subject tackles it head-on, and concludes we have every good reason—biblical and otherwise—to embrace it. The book is

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2019).

tasbsIt takes its title from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which reads: ‘Our Saviour God…intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.’ Yes, your Bible version might have ‘wants’ instead of ‘intends that’, but either is a legitimate translation of the underlying Greek word.

The book comes in three parts. Part 1 is The Question of An Eternal Hell. It faces all aspects of the topic and concludes that the classic view of hell is ‘inherently incredible’ and is certainly not forced upon us by Scripture. Part 2 consists of four extended meditations under the heading Apokatastasis (that’s the Greek word translated ‘restoration of all things’ in Acts 3:21). These give a detailed examination of the reasons—biblical, logical and philosophical—pointing to the inevitable conclusion (in the author’s view) that all will indeed be saved. Part 3, What May Be Believed, pulls it all together by way of summary, and drives the message home.

The author is not suggesting that all will come to salvation this side of death, but gives reasons for believing that, post-mortem, God’s love will draw to him even those who outstandingbookdeparted this life spurning him. He has a sound grasp of church history and is thus well able to show that, down the centuries, many churches and Christian scholars and leaders have believed that.

In line with the seriousness of the subject, this is not a light read. The author is verbose, rarely using five words when twenty-five will do. But in spite of that, his reasoning is razor-sharp and his line of argument clear. He is familiar with every argument against his position, including the ones you yourself are probably turning over right now, and he deals robustly with them all. You should hear him out.

In the wake of earlier books on this subject, particularly Gregory Macdonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2006) and Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2011), this new one is a forceful wave guaranteed to send the tide of evangelical opinion still further up the beach of universalism. Deep down, if we’re honest, we all want it to be true.

[Hart lists the following as New Testament passages pointing clearly to universal salvation, noting that the list is by no means exhaustive: Romans 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:29; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; John 12:32; Hebrews 2:9; John 17:2; John 4:42; John 12:47; 1 John 4:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2; John 3:17; Luke 16:16; 1 Timothy 4:10.]

Here is a selection of quotations with page numbers.

[In the church’s first 500 years] They believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds. (1)

Some will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not).  (3)

The very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. And a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. (18)

Christians have been trained at a very deep level of their thinking to believe that the idea of an eternal hell is a clear and unambiguous element of their faith, and that therefore the idea must make perfect moral sense. (18)

[We have] been taught to approve of divine deeds that, were they reduced to a human scale of action, would immediately be recognizable as expressions of unalloyed spite. (21)

I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious, resolve to do so, prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it. (28)

I still insist that most putative believers in an eternal hell do not really believe in it at all, but rather merely believe in their belief in it. (29)

The most popular defense of the infernalist orthodoxy today is also, touchingly enough, the most tenderhearted: the argument, that is, from the rational freedom of the creature, and from the refusal of God to trespass upon that freedom, for fear of preventing the creature from achieving a true union of love with the divine. (33)

The better the rational will knows the Good for what it is—the more, that is, that the will is freed from those forces that distort reason and lead the soul toward improper ends—the more it will long for and seek after the true Good in itself; and, conversely, the more rationally it seeks the Good, the freer it is. (36)

We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. (43)

Another, even feebler attempt to make sense of eternal retribution is the traditional claim that a soul cannot alter its orientation after death. (45)

If there really is an eternal hell for finite spirits, then it has to be the case that God condemns the damned to endless misery not on account of any sane proportion between what they are capable of meriting and how he chooses to requite them for their sins, but solely as a demonstration of his power to do as he wishes. (47)

A father who punishes his child for any purpose other than that child’s correction and moral improvement, and who even then fails to do so only reluctantly, is a poor father. One who brutally beats his child, or wantonly inflicts needless pain of any kind upon his child, is a contemptible monster. And one who surrenders his child to fate, even if that fate should consist in the entirely “just” consequences of his child’s own choices and actions, is an altogether unnatural father—not a father at all, really, except in the most trivial biological sense. (54)

It is not God we are trying to judge when we voice our moral alarm at the idea of an eternal hell, but only the stories we are accustomed to telling about him. (55)

I do in fact believe in hell, though only in the sense of a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free. (62)

I have always found what became the traditional majority Christian view of hell—that is, a conscious state of perpetual torment—a genuinely odious idea, both morally and emotionally, and still think it the single best argument for doubting the plausibility of the Christian faith as a coherent body of doctrine or as a morally worthy system of devotion. (65)

If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all, and that any understanding of what God accomplished in Christ that does not include the assurance of a final apokatastasis in which all things created are redeemed and joined to God is ultimately entirely incoherent and unworthy of rational faith. (66)

All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. (70)

Paul dared to ask, in the tortured, conditional voice of the ninth chapter of Romans, whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusted that there are not: because he believed instead that all are bound in disobedience, but only so that God might finally show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). (73)

Many Christians down the centuries have had to reconcile their consciences to the repellent notion that all humans are at conception already guilty of a transgression that condemns them, justly, to eternal separation from God and eternal suffering, and that, in this doctrine’s extreme form, every newborn infant belongs to a massa damnata, hateful in God’s eyes from the first moment of existence. Really, no one should need to be told that this is a wicked claim. (75)

The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.” (75)

The most civilized apologists for the “infernalist” orthodoxies these days tend to prefer to defend their position by an appeal to creaturely freedom and to God’s respect for its dignity. There could scarcely be a poorer argument; whether made crudely or elegantly, it invariably fails, because it depends upon an incoherent model of freedom. (79)

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34): not seeing the Good, says God to God, they did not freely choose evil, and must be pardoned. (80)

It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy. (80)

…those three or four deeply ambiguous verses that seem (and only seem) to threaten eternal torments for the wicked. (88)

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. (93)

If one can be swayed simply by the brute force of arithmetic, it seems worth noting that, among the apparently most explicit statements on the last things, the universalist statements are by far the more numerous. (101)

I prefer a much older, more expansive, perhaps overly systematic approach to the seemingly contrary eschatological expectations unfolded in the New Testament—an approach, that is, like Gregory of Nyssa’s or Origen’s, according to which the two sides of the New Testament’s eschatological language represent not two antithetical possibilities tantalizingly or menacingly dangled before us, posed one against the other as challenges to faith and discernment, but rather two different moments within a seamless narrative, two distinct eschatological horizons, one enclosed within the other. In this way of seeing the matter, one set of images marks the furthest limit of the immanent course of history, and the division therein—right at the threshold between this age and the “Age to come” (‘olam ha-ba, in Hebrew)—between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not; and the other set refers to that final horizon of all horizons, “beyond all ages,” where even those who have traveled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride. Each horizon is, of course, absolute within its own sphere: one is the final verdict on the totality of human history, the other the final verdict on the eternal purposes of God… This way of seeing the matter certainly seems, at any rate, to make particularly cogent sense of the grand eschatological vision of 1 Corinthians 15. (103)

Though Paul speaks on more than one occasion of the judgment to come, it seems worth noting that the only picture he actually provides of that final reckoning is the one found in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, the last two verses of which identify only two classes of the judged: those saved in and through their works, and those saved by way of the fiery destruction of their works. (105)

True, the book of Revelation does contain a few especially piquant pictures of final perdition, if that is what one chooses to cling to as something apparently solid and buoyant amid the whelming floods of all that hallucinatory imagery; but, even then, the damnation those passages describe chiefly falls upon patently allegorical figures like “Hades” (Death personified) or “the Beast” (Rome “brutified”), which hardly seems to allow for much in the way of doctrinal exactitude. (107)

If one chooses to read Revelation entirely as a picture of the final judgment of all creation, and of the great last assize of all souls, one must then also account for the seeming paradox of a prophesied final judgment—one that includes a final discrimination between the saved and the damned—that will nevertheless be succeeded by a new Age in which the gates of the restored Jerusalem will be thrown open, and precisely those who have been left outside the walls and putatively excluded forever from the Kingdom will be invited to wash their garments, enter the city, and drink from the waters of life. (108)

We might even find some support for the purgatorial view of the Gehenna from the Greek of Matthew 25:46 (the supposedly conclusive verse on the side of the infernalist orthodoxy), where the word used for the “punishment” of the last day is κόλασις, kolasis—which most properly refers to remedial chastisement—rather than τιμωρία, timōria—which most properly refers to retributive justice. (116)

It is hard, I know, to convince most Christians that the picture of hell with which they were raised is not lavishly on display in the pages of scripture. (118)

There is, it turns out, no final division between the elect and the derelict here [Romans 9-11] at all, but rather the precise opposite: the final embrace of all parties in the single and inventively universal grace of election. This is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. Esau, we must remember, is not finally rejected in the story of the two brothers; he and Jacob are reconciled, to the increase of both, precisely as a consequence of their temporary estrangement. (136)

[Re Romans 9-11]  For the time being, true, a part of Israel is hardened, but this will remain the case only until the “full entirety” (πλήρωμα, plērōma) of the gentiles enter in. The unbelievers among the children of Israel may have been allowed to stumble, but God will never allow them to fall. And so, if their failure now brings enrichment to the world, how much more will they provide when their own “full entirety” (plērōma) enter in? Temporarily excluded (like Esau) for the sake of “the world’s reconciliation,” they too will at the last be restored to God’s grace; and this will be nothing less than a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15). This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if” in the ninth chapter of Romans, its clarion negative. It turns out that there is no final illustrative division between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy; that was a grotesque, all-too-human thought that can now be chased away for good. God’s wisdom far surpasses ours, and his love can accomplish all that it intends. (136)

This is perhaps the most depressing paradox ever to have arisen in the whole Christian theological tradition: that Paul’s great attempt to demonstrate that God’s election is not some arbitrary act of predilective exclusion, but instead a providential means for bringing about the unrestricted inclusion of all persons, has been employed for centuries to advance what is quite literally the very teaching that he went to such great lengths explicitly to reject. (138)

It would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. (144)

On the whole, Christians rarely pay particularly close attention to what the Bible actually says, for the simple reason that the texts defy synthesis in a canon of exact doctrines, and yet most Christians rely on doctrinal canons… But the Bible is not a system. A very great deal of theological tradition consists therefore in explaining away those aspects of scripture that contradict the finely wrought structure of this or that orthodoxy. (161)

How many modern Evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal lord and savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the “body of Christ”? (162)

If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. (166)

The idea of a punishment that does not serve an ameliorative purpose—as, by definition, eternal punishment cannot—should be a scandal to any sane conscience. Endless torture, never eventuating in the reform or moral improvement of the soul that endures it, is in itself an infinite banality. A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned. (168)

If a rational creature—one whose mind is entirely unimpaired and who has the capacity truly to know the substance and the consequences of the choice confronting him or her—is allowed, without coercion from any force extrinsic to his or her nature, to make a choice between a union with God in bliss that will utterly fulfill his or her nature in its deepest yearnings and a separation from God that will result in endless suffering and the total absence of his or her nature’s satisfaction, only one truly free choice is possible. A fool might thrust his hand into the flame; only a lunatic would not then immediately withdraw it. (179)

If human nature required the real capacity freely to reject God, then Christ could not have been fully human. (189)

Evil has no power to hold us, and we have no power to cling to evil; shadows cannot bind us, and we in turn cannot lay hold on them. In the end, God must be all in all. (193)

God’s final victory as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? (193)

Over the years, I have dutifully explored all the arguments for hell’s eternity from Christian antiquity to the present, philosophical and theological, and I continue to find them all manifestly absurd. (202)

I honestly, perhaps guilelessly believe that the doctrine of eternal hell is prima facie nonsensical, for the simple reason that it cannot even be stated in Christian theological terms without a descent into equivocity so precipitous and total that nothing but edifying gibberish remains. To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. (202)

Can we imagine—logically, I mean, not merely intuitively—that someone still in torment after a trillion ages, or then a trillion trillion, or then a trillion vigintillion, is in any meaningful sense the same agent who contracted some measurable quantity of personal guilt in that tiny, ever more vanishingly insubstantial gleam of an instant that constituted his or her terrestrial life? And can we do this even while realizing that, at that point, his or her sufferings have in a sense only just begun, and in fact will always have only just begun? What extraordinary violence we must do both to our reason and to our moral intelligence (not to mention simple good taste) to make this horrid notion seem palatable to ourselves, and all because we have somehow, foolishly, allowed ourselves to be convinced that this is what we must believe. (204)

The two exceedingly simple—almost childish—questions that have persistently bothered me down the years, whenever I have tried to make sense of the doctrine of a hell of eternal torment, are whether it lies within the power of any finite rational creature freely to reject God, and to do so with eternal finality, and whether a God who could create a world in which the eternal perdition of rational spirits is even a possibility could be not only good, but the transcendent Good as such. And, for the reasons I have given above, I believe that the answer to both questions must be an unqualified and unyielding no. (208)

 


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


APITF Second Edition!

16 December 2019

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

apitf cover 2nd edn small for FB

Cover of the new Second Edition of A Poke In The Faith

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

Now (December 2019) I have updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involves a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

You can download the book for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]

 

 


Badly Behaved Bible

27 November 2019

There seems to be, these days, a steady flow of new books about what the Bible isn’t and is. I find this very heartening; many of the problems evangelicals are encountering today stem from an unhealthy adoration of the Bible, and untenable ideas about its inerrancy. So it’s good to see a respected author like Nick Page weighing in on the subject. The book is

The Badly Behaved Bible: Thinking again about the story of Scripture by Nick Page (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

tbbbNick is known for his unique mix of humour and serious issues, and he lives up to that reputation in this, his latest work. Our difficulties with the Bible, he maintains, arise from the fact that we have been misinformed about it. We expect it to be something it’s not. And the way to find a better position is ‘to stop studying it’. He brings balance to our perception of what ‘the word of God’ is, and what ‘inspired’ means in relation to the Bible, and his answers are not the usual mainstream ones.

He faces up to the complexities of the canon and its formation. He makes a strong case for the prominence of the ‘story’ aspect of the Bible, and how this requires us to respond to the text. He faces the unsavoury bits of Scripture head-on, and pulls no punches in his assessment of them. For every point he makes, he pulls together lots of biblical instances. Like the Christmas story which, in today’s world is a long way from what the New Testament says and means.

A key focus is the plain fact that the Bible portrays a people whose understanding of God is constantly developing, so that we get contradictory views about him at different stages of Old Testament history. Hence the folly of trying to reach a composite biblical view of what God is like; it just can’t work. God is like Jesus; end of story.

I like the way that Nick Page, a totally committed Christian, extols the virtues of doubt. It outstandingbookis a key part of the lives of all who are honest about their spiritual journey. He gives examples from various Bible characters and cautions his readers against equating doubt with backsliding. Well done! His tackling of the theodicy issue in this respect is brilliant.

He cautions against a blind ‘obedience’ to the Bible; it isn’t that kind of book. He shows how both the Law and the Prophets changed position on various issues, so which one should we obey? In practice, we all pick and choose the bits we prefer, opting, for example to insist on tithing but to look down on tattoos.

He covers all the major topics that Christians have tended to ignore, like the violence in the Bible and God’s commands to commit genocide. His answers are convincing and clearly argued. Ancient approaches to writing history were a far cry from modern historiography, and we should expect the ancient Bible texts to conform to it. And he examines the way Jesus and the New Testament writers treated OT scripture in a cavalier manner, with little regard to its original context.

He concludes with some wise guidelines for reading and using the Bible today. They are sensible, balanced and workable. So read Page’s book, and start putting his advice into practice!

[The numbers that follow are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

We are told that the Bible is inerrant, infallible and without contradiction, and then discover that there are two different creation stories and two versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and that the New Testament writers misquote the Old Testament. Not only that, the Bible thinks the world is flat, with a big domed canopy above it to hold the water out.  (72)

Many of the saints whose Christlike lives changed their world were illiterate. For them, the right way to read the Bible was simply to listen to the stories, to learn the texts and to live it out.  (150)

I’ve come to this conclusion: I hate the phrase ‘Bible study’. And I want to ban it.  (177)

For the early church the ‘word of God’ was not the written text, but the spoken gospel: it refers to words said, not words read.  (325)

The Bible was written and compiled by humans, but God filled it with his presence.  (452)

If we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges: one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple authors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.  (867)

The contents of the Jewish Scriptures were not finally settled until about AD 90; the contents of the New Testament not until around AD 400.  (898)

Countless sermons and talks give the impression that characters in the Bible are really just like us, only with loincloths and more sheep.  (1797)

The Bible shows us people as they are, not as how we’d like them to be. Samson slept with prostitutes, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, Jacob was a blasphemous liar, Joseph was a spoilt brat, Moses disappointed God so badly that he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, and Solomon, as well as building the Temple, ended up worshipping all kinds of other gods and marrying any woman with a pulse. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. Peter flip-flopped between eating with Gentiles and not eating with them. Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was mad. And Paul had the temper of a bull hippo with a toothache.  (2052)

For much of the Old Testament history they believed that there were loads of gods, but Israel’s was the best.  (2223)

What I’m trying to show here is that (a) Israel’s concept of who God is changes through time, and (b) much of the Old Testament assumes the reality and presence of other gods.  (2249)

So much of our theology is built on the idea that everything is in God’s plan, but what if that doesn’t mean quite what we think it means? How much does our disobedience and our failure come as a surprise to God? How much does God change his mind? Is he playing the great tune of history from a written score or is he a jazz improviser working within patterns but always adapting creatively?  (2420)

Israelite ideas about who God was and what he was like changed and developed over the centuries. So we often find theology in the Bible that is either wrong or incomplete. Because the people in the Bible are still trying to work things out.  (2462)

People will insist on trying to turn the Bible into a systematic theology. But the Bible refuses to behave that way. There’s nothing systematic about the Bible, largely because it’s about humans who, despite valiant efforts throughout the centuries by various philosophers and sages, generally tend to prefer unsystematic thinking. The Bible isn’t a unified theology, but it is a unified story. Stories don’t deal in systematic thought. Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out, but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.  (2514)

The contradiction between doctrine and real experience: that’s what doubt is all about.  (2623)

Monotheism brings with it a problem: if there is only one God, then who can you blame for the bad stuff?  (2638)

[Re Job]  Yahweh accepts the challenge. He allows The Satan to put Job to the test. (It seems to me that, right away, we’re in a work of fiction. And if you don’t think this is a work of fiction, then you have some explaining to do as to why God kills people and tips Job’s whole life down the toilet simply to win a bet.  (2759)

Churches that deny oxygen to doubt and questions are really protecting not the Bible but the pastor.  (2914)

I am convinced that our failure to bring lament into our acts of worship is one of the reasons why so many people drift away from the Church.  (2979)

Gifts need to be given. People need to be paid. But it’s no longer a law. The tithe as it was originally stated no longer holds force. You can’t claim that tithing is obligatory for Christians from the Bible.  (3251)

Ultimately, I believe the authority of Scripture means the authority to live like Jesus. I’m a Christian. I’m not a follower of Paul of Tarsus or Moses or Isaiah.  (3412)

A disciple is one who learns by imitation – in this case by centring our whole life on the presence, teaching and example of Jesus Christ. This is why in your canon within the canon the Gospels have to take pride of place.  (3412)

If the Bible has authority in my life, then it will not be as a set of rules and regulations telling me exactly what to do in any circumstance, but as a story that authorises me to act in a Christlike way.  (3425)

All this – the hyperbole, the formulaic writing, the presence of different traditions within the Bible itself – should alert us to the possibility that the account of the conquest is not documentary history as we would write it today.  (3576)

If you have found this interesting, you might like to look at my own e-book on the subject, entitled A Poke In The Faith. You can find it here.


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