What follows is part of a wider response to various questions that theologian Rob Knowles has responded to. Here, after writing a thorough response and critique of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, to which the opening of the article below refers, Rob proceeds to outline the actual biblical view(s) of what is associated with biblical notions of judgment and hell.
This debate suffers from the worst kinds of crappy-Christian polemics, historical amnesia and hermeneutical foreclosure, and dare I say, the real possibility that many Christians are going to be really cheesed off if God does indeed save everyone! Similarly, if God does or will save everyone, would that constitute what my brother refers to as ‘a pleasant hostage situation’?
If someone of the scholarly stature of A. C. Thiselton can confidently and unashamedly assert that within the Bible there exists three contradictory traditions, the interpreting community that is the Church had best sit up and pay proper theological attention! At the very least, this would make an interesting discussion actually worth listening too, if our three traditions named in my title ever got into that pub!
Anyway, enjoy. Cheers….
How could hell be just?
I have already said a lot on this question in my earlier theodicy on “the problem of evil”. There I offered a highly modified version of C.S. Lewis’s theodicy in his book, The Problem of Pain (see above). The theodicy went into some detail on the question of hell, and broadly rejected C.S. Lewis’ thinking on the matter in favour of A.C. Thiselton’s view, which we might call the “deliberate ambiguity” approach to hell. Lewis’s theodicy, in my view, was at its strongest in describing how, given that God had decided to create “persons” with (at least some measure of free will), then this was impossible without (a) some kind of neutral background – creation or “nature”, and (b) the possibility of us deciding to do wrong. These two factors explained 80% of the suffering in the world: that is, when it comes to the question: “why is there so much suffering in the world?” our answer is – roughly speaking – about 80% in agreement with the atheists. They say: there is no God; there is suffering; so humankind must have caused the suffering. We 80% agree that humankind must have caused the suffering – with the qualification that demonic influence on humanity also has to be accounted for.
The main exception to this was (c) what Lewis referred to as remedial suffering – suffering associated with God’s disciplining intervention into our lives, and with our going “cold turkey” on sins once we had decided to follow God – a “cold turkey” experience that Lewis, rightly, likened to crucifixion, since Paul speaks of the crucifixion of the sinful nature in the Christian.
In my view, though, Lewis’s theodicy was at its weakest in its depiction of God as being less than able to fully resolve the problem of human sin – as though the Almighty God was threatened by sin, and could only partially guarantee a partial salvation that heavily depended on our co-operation and works. The effect was to leave the reader exhausted, thinking that his or her works could be the deciding factor in his or her salvation.
To my mind, this view, whilst rightly stressing human responsibility, fails to present the biblical picture of God’s sovereignty. Yes, God is the crucified God, who suffers with us in weakness. And, for God as a man in Jesus Christ, nobody can under-estimate the suffering of the cross, and the difficulty God faced at that point, given the parameters that he had placed upon himself.
“Whether Prince or pauper, commoner or King, wealthy or poor, foolish or wise, lost or found, young or old, man or woman, sinner or saint, Conservative or Labour, despairing or hopeful, healthy or unhealthy, rested or tired, faithful or unfaithful, hungry or full, grumpy or happy, doubting or sure, successful or failure:
Come to this Table.
The Table of Christ.
One Table, One Saviour, One Church, One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Do not come because you are perfect, but because you are not.
Do not come because you know everything, but because you don’t.
Do not come trying to earn God’s love, you can’t.
Do not come to impress others.
This Table of Christ is a Table for sinners.
There is room for everyone.
This Table of Christ speaks of a sacrifice for sinners.
The invitation is to all who are near and all who are far off.
The invitation is for all who believe and who want to believe.
The invitation is to share in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
The invitation is to show God’s willingness to draw you near to Himself.
A God so near: Take and Eat.
A God so near: Drink this, all of you.
As He was crushed for our sins;
So we crush the bread between our teeth.
As He was lifted up;
So we lift up the cup.
The Cross of salvation; the Blood of the New Covenant; A broken body – Jesus the Son of God slain. For all sin everywhere.
And as you eat and drink physically, so eat and drink spiritually.
This physical act, sharing the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is a profoundly spiritual act of the heart.
It doesn’t depend on feelings or mood, but on Christ who says come.
Take Mary’s advice and “Do what He says!”
It depends on a rolled away stone, an empty tomb, a Risen Saviour.
Here it is.
The gracious offer of God to forgive and redeem.
The gifts of God to the world.
The power of God for salvation.
Body, blood, cross.
Bread, wine, table.
One God, One salvation, One Cross, One Saviour, One Way, One Church.
Re-reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have been re-staggered by his sheer realism of Kingdom perspective. Bonhoeffer is no religious hack mass producing religious visions of a utopian ideal – an ideal that only serves to wear thin before wearing out the Christian community.
“Innumerable times a whole Christian Community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”
Of course, he admits there are those who come in among the community with a definite image of what it should look like and what it should be, and lo and behold, they often have the plans to enable the community to get there!
“But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture. For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth.”
The point is quite wonderful. The genuine Christian community is one that sees, identifies, experiences all the garbage that goes with its own manufactured dreams and visions; its own “great disillusionments.” The community that clings to man-made visions (even if they are wrapped up in religious language and presented with biblical texts), fails to recognise this inherent idolatry. Such a community, or church, may look and sound like a religious gathering, may even be great at social action, and evangelism, but the die is cast: “Sooner or later it is bound to collapse.”
“Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself, become destroyers of that Christian community even though their intentions may be ever so honest, ernest, and sacrificial.”
This is liberating news, it is good news. The Church is not to succumb to man-made idolatries, nor is she to succumb to fads and gimmicks, visions and utopias that smooth out the necessity and urgency of being the Community of the Christian Church. God will not be mocked!
“The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
Dreamy visions are an idolatrous plague on the Church, especially in the management controlled, targets obsessed West, because they become a means of assessment and measurement. That is why we often count success in numbers attending, or by the state of the bank balance. We are conditioned this way, and so we take it into church, devise plans and strategies, and so lose the heart beat of the Christian community. Bonhoeffer reminds us, the Christian community is not measured by trendy techniques ripped from a secular world, but by the continuing, nurturing, profoundly simple act of thankfulness.
We cannot engineer the Kingdom of God among us. Pity the fool who tries. But what we can do is grow into the community by practise and communion. We are all bent on a self-centred, self-serving, self-focused love. It is precisely why we need saving. But when we bring this into the community, unchecked by the Word of God, we masquerade as angels of light among our brothers and sisters, when in Kingdom reality, we are shadowy fools neither under-standing nor standing-under the Word of Christ.
“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realise, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate….In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis (Association of Piety), but instead, understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, universal, Christian Church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.”
“We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all. This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences if at times God does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”
This is stunning…..
Subversive Preaching in a Postmodern World – A Targum based on Colossians 1:15-20 by Brian J Walsh
In an image-saturated world,
a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
permeating your consciousness,
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted,
to be able to dream of life otherwise.
A world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoloy of our imaginations;
in this world,
Christ is the image of the invisible God.
In this world,
driven by images with a vengeance,
Christ is the image par excellence;
the image above all other images,
the image that is not a facade,
the image that is not trying to sell you anything,
the image that refuses to co-opt you.
The incompleteness of our faith is quite astonishing. Don’t misunderstand me. Not an incompleteness in the faith, but an incompleteness insofar as we are part of a complete faith.
I am convinced, personally, intellectually, academically, historically, experientially, that Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels of the New Testament; as experienced by millions the world over; as known and loved; as thought upon, as worshipped….is the point of life itself. The purpose of existence, mine and yours, is only and truly and fully found in this Jesus Christ.
That means we do not live for ourselves in the here and now, but for eternity, standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, to live well in the present, that we may see and believe and live the glorious future of eternity that Christ Jesus has promised.
I have found the following prayer by Catholic Bishop Ken Untener such a thrilling description and encounter with the Divine-ness of God in a temporal world. A world saturated with plastic faith and sound-bites and short-termism and quick-buck economics and cliche spirituality and hackneyed vision statements churchmanship and other Disney spiritualities.
Let us pray….
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Known as the ‘Oscar Romero’ Prayer but ironically never spoken by him. They were offered by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, as a prayer in 1979 for departed Catholic Priests. Oscar Romero was a priest and bishop in El Salvador. His love for his people who were suffering violence and oppression led him to take their side and to denounce their oppressors. And so he was killed, whilst saying Mass, on 24th March 1980.
Having sat under the excellent ministry of Dr David Coffey for a few years, I must say his wealth of wisdom and depth of insight is unsurpassed.
The primary gift of Dr Coffey (UK and world Baptist Supremo – my phrase not his) is in his pastoral integrity and love for the Church of Jesus Christ. He is a leader of leaders and is in himself a most excellent example of what a leader, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, is like.
David spotted something within the pages of Scripture that few people would dare to see. That when God calls a person, they are incomplete, imperfect, sinful, even rebellious.
He writes, “It seems God only calls people who have struggles with faith. Having called them, he gets to work on the parts of their lives that are not yet perfect.”
Here are the examples he cites:
- Moses the reluctant leader (Exodus 3 & 4)
- Esther the courageous leader……eventually (Esther 4:12-17)
- Jonah the reluctant missionary
- John the Baptist – the preacher with doubts (Mat 11:1-3)
- Mary the homemaker with a ministry (Luke 2:19; 41-52)
- Martha the manager whose work was a distraction (Luke 10:38-41 & John 11:17-27)
- Peter the fisherman who nearly threw everything away (Mat 16:13-20 & 26:69-75)
- Apollos the gifted preacher who needed deepening (Acts 18:24-28)
- Philip the fisherman who lacked confidence (John 6:7; 12:20-22; 14:9)
- Paul the great Apostle to the Gentiles who battles with his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10)
My dear Christian brothers and sisters, God doesn’t call perfect people because He doesn’t save perfect people. He calls sinners because He saves sinners. Our job is to say ‘Yes’ to God and see what He does with our lives. Perfectionism has no place in the Christian life. Making us perfect is His job, and ‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the Day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil 1:6).
Christian ministry and the Christian life is Cross-shaped for a reason.
The reason is Jesus Christ. Perfect people need not gather at the Cross (because they don’t exist)!
The only Perfect One was on the Cross.
He was broken so we would never have to be.
He is Perfect, for that is what we will be.