Friday, March 18, 2011

A Bicoastal Attack on Hell & Satan

Heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world.
N.T. Wright

Our friend Lance from Atlanta writes screenplays and, one of these days, he's going to make it big in Hollywood. Until then, we think he's asking some great theological questions (that many other Christians are asking too). After a series of emails, we decided to post our eDialogue for the benefit of our readers (all of Lance's words are in italics).
Q: I wanted to get your take on an issue that, for some reason I can't explain, seems to keep coming up in my world, either through conversations with friends, articles I happen to come across, etc.

Essentially it's the age old question of "what happens to people who never hear the gospel"? Kind of a FAQ in the realm of apologetics, but I wanted to get your take on it and see what you thought. Do they go to hell? Are they given another chance? Or would you argue against the idea of "hell" in a traditional sense and say that the question of whether they go to hell is a misframing of the issue?

A: Over the past 5 years, as I've studied Scripture and read different theologians and Biblical scholars, I've come to the conviction that hell-as-an-afterlife doesn't exist, breaking with my conservative evangelical roots. The NT, no doubt, speaks of a great Hope in the future of God making "all things new," and of bringing heaven to earth. Jesus was the first-fruits of the someday-soon resurrection from the dead of all humanity. I believe that the Bible portrays a God of love and justice and that God deeply cares about what happens every moment of every lifetime in every continent on this planet (and perhaps others as well). The significance of Jesus is that he perfectly lived out and taught the divine nature--the "image of God" embedded in every human (as Genesis attests and Colossians redefines). We all contain this vocation and potential (to bear God's image) and God's Spirit quietly, mysteriously tugs on us and whispers to us to live this divine nature out. Jesus lived out this "image" perfectly and boldly...and got killed as a result (more on this later). Salvation is to live out Jesus' Way (contextually, creatively and consistently) and to invite others to join us.

When hell language pops up in the Gospels it is the Greek word "Gehenna" which was the name of the smoldering trash heap outside Jerusalem. It was a metaphor that Jesus used to motivate/warn God's People of living in ways that are counterfeit to God's design. Essentially, Jesus (as a Jew) was reminding Jews of their vocation: to be "the light of the world"...and to fail in that vocation was to have a value equal to Gehenna (not a very uplifting thought and definitely not an "anything-goes-Jesus")). I really believe that the idea that only people who invite Jesus into their hearts get to go to heaven when they die does not reflect how God is portrayed in the Bible. Over and over, God really cares about how Israel, as a community/nation, portrays the God-imaged life: looking out for the interests of everyone, including neighbors, strangers and enemies. Throughout the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets pound on Israel for her refusal/failure to care for the most disadvantaged and marginalized. Jesus--the ultimate Prophet and Deliverer--embodies and teaches that Way and calls Israel to repentance, inviting Gentiles (like you and I) to join in this truly fulfilling (and deeply challenging) adventure.

Very interesting thoughts. So let me be clear first off that my position here is one of total openness. This not an issue I have any strong convictions on, so you're not running the risk of me starting some emotional, angry debate.

And i'll even go a step further in the interest of full disclosure. I think everyone comes into a discussion with their own preconceived notions and biases, so i'll just be open with you about mine: I want what you're saying to be true. That idea is a much more comfortable one to me in that it paints a more loving, compassionate picture of God. It also makes my faith that much easier to defend because it takes away the straw man of Christians as "condemning everyone to hell who doesn't agree with us".

My perception of "hell" has changed over the years. Growing up in the Bible Belt, you can imagine the Dante-esque version of hell that I was raised to believe in. It was never celebrated by any means as a happy punishment place for people who disagreed with us, but more of a source of urgency for Christians to "save" people from it. In the past few years, that image of hell has been altered through some things i've read and just thought through. Hell doesn't really make sense as a torture chamber, because who created it, and why? Fire is frequently used as a symbol of separation between God and man, so the "fire" part of it makes sense as allegory. (Also, how could it be dark if there's fire everywhere?). So all that to say, i definitely agree with you that hell has been transformed over the years into something that it isn't really.

My concern though is that as someone who wants to be a thoughtful person whose beliefs are based on reason and logic instead of emotion and kneejerk reaction, I have to look at it from the other side too. I don't want to believe something simply because it "feels good" or is "convenient". And I don't ever want to twist things in a way that makes them more digestable than they might really be. So hopefully that side of it makes sense. I want my beliefs and theology to be consistent and evidence based, not based on what I want to be true.

So considering all that, some questions come up.

Q: What was the purpose of Jesus' death/resurrection?

A: Bottom line: Jesus died because he was a threat to those in power (the Powers—Col 2:13-15). They formed a coalition (Herodians, Pharisees, scribes, etc) to kill him. In the Gospels, when Jesus talks about it being “necessary” that he had to die (Luke 24:26: the simple Greek word dei), he is referring to a “prophetic script” that plays out over and over in the Hebrew Bible. THe prophet of Israel is always called (by God) to confront the dehumanizing ruling class (religious, social, political, economic leaders) and then eventually gets killed because they can’t handle the truth (think MLK and Gandhi).

What sets Jesus apart from MLK and Gandhi is the resurrection which vindicates his Way. If Jesus is alive, then his Way is the Way and we are called to follow it...all the way to the cross. And that’s what I believe is the primary meaning (of many layers) of the cross in the NT: it is the path to real transformation and it will be confronted with risk and will demand an allegiance that challenges powerful, privileged and popular worldviews/narratives/mentalities. The cross is also a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice (for his disciples and for the whole world). It took a sacrifice of this magnitude to unveil the lunacy of those in power (who demand to be worshipped and followed for their own greedy and self-serving agendas) and there were supposed to be 13 crosses, but the disciples failed in their vocation to follow Jesus all the way. But this is where forgiveness/mercy come into play. We commit to Jesus’ subversive way, but when we fail, we are forgiven and commissioned back to the path (just like the original disciples were at the conclusion of each of the Gospels). The resurrection is a sign and a foretaste of what will happen in the future to all humanity. Until then, all of God’s Creation groans (Romans 8), longing for that release to the captivity of evil. Until then, Christians are those who intentionally embody the healing, liberating, loving and serving path that God revealed in Jesus.

Q: Does that mean everyone ends up in heaven regardless of what their actions on earth are, or regardless of what their reaction is to the gospel?

A: The British Bible scholar N.T. Wright is credited with a classic quote in regards to this: “Heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world.” By this he means that heaven (God’s ordained space) is not where "saved souls" go when they die, but that heaven is being extended on earth by “saved souls” here, now. Basically, to be "saved" is to pledge allegiance to learning, living, breathing, embodying the Way of Jesus...and teaching/inviting others to join us.

Your question, I think at its core, is about justice. What about Hitler? What about Bernie Madoff? What about Osama? What about the thousands of “innocent” civilians who have died in Pakistan by Pentagon drones? This evil needs to be righted. Right? Absolutely. A God who is indifferent or laissez-faire on these matters is not worth worshipping. The whole Biblical narrative, I am convinced, is about God’s determination to make all things right. This is referred to as tsedaquah (in Hebrew) and dikaiosune (in Greek) and is translated as “justification” or “righteousness” in English. But here’s the mysterious part. The Bible makes claims that God will have the final word, but we’re not quite so sure how that’s all going to come about (although there are a handful of Christian preachers that make some very confident claims). The whole point of following Jesus is to participate with God in this redemption adventure. We bring justice to this world just like Jesus (and MLK and Gandhi) did: nonviolently, strategically, always looking for God’s Spirit to breath this peace and justice in mysterious new places and through surprisingly new people. In short, our lives are all about extending heaven to the specific context that we live in (a "colony of heaven" in Philippians 3:20-21--colonies exist to extend the Empire--unfortunately, Christians have done this colonizing in dominating, dehumanizing ways over the centuries). When we die, we’ll be in the presence of Christ (Phil 1:23), but this will not be a disembodied heaven (this is more Hellenistic, philosophically, than biblical), but instead a fully embodied and renewed earth (Jesus & Paul were very Jewish).

Q: Is hell meant more as a warning against how we live in this life as opposed to a warning of some sort of eternal state?

Carlton Pearson, the former heir to Oral Roberts’ kingdom, courageously changed his mind about the hell question just a few years ago while watching scenes of African famine survivors on TV from his plush couch in Oklahoma. Pearson lamented, "These folks are already living in hell and conservative Christian theology states that they will burn in hell when they die from starvation because they don’t know Jesus?" This was too absurd to believe anymore so he searched the Scriptures, prayed about it and dialogued it with men and women he respected and confided in...and then he boldly preached this new theology from the pulpit. Needless to say, he got run out of town quicker than a convicted child molester at a playground.

My point here is that “hell” is both warning and metaphor for what life is actually like living in a world that refuses to live with love, service and generosity at its core. The fact is that those Ethiopian famine “survivors” lived that hellish experience because of the policies of the “Christian” West of the past five centuries. And this is an example of a tragic consequence of a whole Western Christian culture theologically missing the point. If the significance of Jesus is all about how everyone can get to heaven when they die, then everyone needs to hear about it and this is why Western missionaries joined their fellow Christian conquistadors and entrepreneurs to force-feed it to the rest of the “uncivilized” world. Wrong messages about Jesus lead to tragic outcomes. We've got to pursue a more biblical message. And that leads to your next question.

Q: And have you found that your view is explainable against all the verses that mention hell/judgment/etc.?

A key component to the answer to this question has to do with how exactly we construe the Bible. Is it a self-evident encyclopedia of truths about God, an easy-to-read manual for living God’s Way? Or is it a diverse collection of complex documents that need to be interpreted with hard work, passion, dialogue and prayer? I’m compelled by the latter. So with that in mind, the narrative or worldview that we bring to the text will determine outcomes. These presumptions are either overlooked or highly underrated by most Western Christians. When we bring the “hell-is-not-a-real-place-but-a-metaphor” controlling narrative to the text, I am compelled that it stands up to scrutiny, especially when we take seriously the very Jewish nature of these 1st century texts (the Jews never believed in an afterlife, but some believed in the future resurrection from the dead on the Day of Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem). A more biblical eschatology (the study of "last things") should focus on how the NT writers (and early church) understood Jesus' death and resurrection as this long awaited return of Yahweh to Jerusalem. No doubt, this happened unexpectedly and partially. We now live in an overlap of "the present evil age" and the "age to come," when Jesus reappears (Greek parousia) to put an end (once and for all!) to pain, suffering, inequality, greed, bitterness, competition and hoarding. Now, we live on earth anticipating that parousia by living as a sign and foretaste of God's Reign, a commitment to image forth the divine nature to all creation.

Q: I guess the overarching question to all of it would be, how do you know that your view is based on logic/reason and not convenience? For example, how would you respond to someone who said "oh, you're just trying to twist the gospel to make it more attractive to non-believers"?

A: Admittedly, this is a difficult question to answer. My therapist wife reminds me that people tend to think more emotionally than logically and that it is awfully difficult (even with a lot of therapy!) to determine the real reasons why we make the decisions we make. I would propose a counter-question: isn’t it awfully (in every sense of the word) convenient for conservative evangelical Christians to believe in a “gospel” that claims that there indeed is a heaven and that only those who have Jesus in their heart (and basically believe in exactly the same thing they do) get to go there? I understand the genuine concern that some Christians have about being too “relevant” or “popular,” not wanting to “water-down” the “gospel.” But I sincerely believe that the “gospel” that I am proclaiming is a lot more challenging and unpopular when we get down to what it actually looks like. Trust me, inviting people to enemy love, simplicity, sharing, sacrificial service and forgiveness (without the guarantee of an automatic entrance into heaven when we die) is not an easy task. Quite frankly, bringing heaven to a world of hell is a bitch most of the time.

Q: Sort of tangential to this, what does that do to the notion of Satan? Does he/she/it exist, and whether he/she/it exists or not, is his existence linked to whether or not hell exists.

A: Satan is a personification for evil, which, of course, is very real. What isn’t real is the one specific spiritual being that lurks around every corner to catch us with our pants down (or off altogether). Evil exists within every human heart and in every institution and culture (these principalities and powers) that organize our lives. These powers have the horrific tendency to play god and seek unrivaled worship. This is why so much of the Bible is filled with idolatry warnings (this is why I do not participate in the pledge allegiance to the flag every morning at the school I work at--isn't this putting the nation before God?). In short, we humans are embedded in powers (or systems) that are good, but fallen. They shape us in satanic ways and we need redemption and healing from them.

This systemic rendering of evil gives us eyes to see where and how evil tangibly affects us and allows us to discern where we can transform the powers in imaginatively strategic ways. Unfortunately, too many Christians have been taught to look out for Satan the mascot of hell who plays a silly game of hide and seek with humanity and can be blamed on anything without any real action plan besides prayer and a call to an individually pious life (which are both great things in and of themselves). Does the woman “feel ugly and insecure” because Satan the mascot from hell is making her feel that way...or is it the constant bombardment of magazines, TV shows, internet sites and those real comments from real men that tell her she must look a certain way (or else)? I think it’s the latter...which is really satanic and we should do everything in our Spirit-inspired power to stop.

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