What does God call us?

Stumbled across this gem of a chapter in Isaiah 62

1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.

Who is Zion? The people of God. The church, both Jew and gentile united together as one body, one people, one holy nation…

And it’s for Zion’s sake, for the sake of the church, that God will not keep silent. At least I think its God speaking but it may be the prophet (quick check of commentaries shows both views are argued but there is certainly good scholarly backing for it being God. In any case just like in the Psalms and of course Isaiah 61, prophetic words can find their fulfilment on the lips of Jesus). He has to speak out. So what does he say? What will make the righteousness of the church shine out? It’s the gospel. As it is heralded, proclaimed and preached, the church is built. People from every tongue and tribe and nation are called forth from the far reaches of the earth and are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Her salvation shines out the dazzling glorious grace of God.

2 The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

The glory of the church will be seen in all the nation, and reach even into the thrown rooms and council chambers of rulers and kings. But here’s the thing. The people of God will be given a new name by God. A name that defines and encapsulates her identity. Are you apart of the church? Then listen up for your name!

3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

We are kept in suspense as the church’s destiny is described. A crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD. Crowns designate authority and riches and power and such is the destiny of God’s people but why in the hand?

1)       Maybe because God is intimately involved in its construction,

2)      Maybe because it is under his care and control

3)      Maybe God delights to look upon his people and enjoy them,

4)      Maybe God wants to show her to others. Draw their attention to it. Look at my beautiful church. My people. See her glory shine in my hand.

4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.

To take on a new identity, the old must be done away with. The city of God will no longer be called Forsaken and Desolate. This may have once characterised her, at least in the eyes of others, but no longer because here is perhaps the most amazing statement in the whole bible. The name by which God’s people will be called, the thing that will define them and shape them will be “My-delight-is-in-her”. That’s worth seeing in the Hebrew script. Someone should make a poster of it.

חֶפְצִי־בָהּ

“My delight [is] in her.”

God the Father loves the Son, and his focus is on the son, he is pleased with his son. Yet God’s delight is also in his people. The church. How is that possible? The son delights in his bride and the two will be united.

The word translated “married” also means “belongs to” or “dwelt in”. There will be an eternal owning and a dwelling in of the land by God’s people.

5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I’m not to sure about this bit but I guess “marry” may not be the best translation of “your son’s will marry you”. Maybe it’s “belong to” you again or be “dwell in”. My best shot is that there is a strong unity being spoken of here between the people of God. A high view of being joined to the church? (better check commentaries again. Mmm, not sure I quite get it but it looks like the people who are part of Zion/church/God’s people will be delighted about it and really be joined forever to her. Kind of the oposite of when people talk about the church as “they” or “why can’t the church do such and such”. God’s people who are part of the church will have a real deep sense of “we/us”. )

The second half is easier and surely finds it fulfilment in Jesus and his bride, the church. The bible starts and ends with a marriage. First there is Adam and Eve, being united together, both imaging God and prophetically pointing forward to a time when the church is finally united to Jesus. The book of revelation, the last book in the bible, joyfully proclaims “the wedding of the lamb” Rev 19:17.

Haven’t got time to write up the rest but its worth a read!

6 On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, 7 and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth. 8 The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: “I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink your wine for which you have labored; 9 but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the LORD, and those who gather it shall drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.” 10 Go through, go through the gates; prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway; clear it of stones; lift up a signal over the peoples. 11 Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” 12 And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.

 

The End (Love Wins Chapter 8)

I have come to the last chapter of Rob Bells book “Love Wins” where I think he is saying that we urgently need to trust Jesus now. Jesus tells parables about people who didn’t, and they suffered tragic loss. But he is also saying that we have a chance every moment to trust God and he doesn’t seem to be saying that time will ever run out. In fact, he is implying that it may never run out. We will never get the moment back, but there will be another along shortly, and another after that. Somehow the sense of urgency is lost in that but he argues (in subsequent interviews) that the opposite is the case, and as people see that God will never ultimately shut the door on them they want to go through it sooner rather than later. I can kind of see how that could be the case. (It reminds me of Calvinism where its opponents see negative logical outworkings that its supports do not.)

Having finished the book in a few short hours I will put down my thoughts while they are fresh:

1)      It was an engaging exciting read. I didn’t get bored for a second!

2)      There are some gems in the book like “we end up with a garage full of nouns”.

3)      It gave me a good workout and made me think, examine, shape, and defend what I think the bible says.

4)      He seems to be asserting possibilities rather than making any strong statements of truth. He says the book is about answering questions but he doesn’t really do so.

5)      He blurs to the point of eradicating the end of this life and the start of the next. I think the bible says that the judgment comes when we die (well, when Jesus comes back) and people are separated after this life, but he alludes to a continuous chance to respond, and heaven and hell always being mixed together.

6)      The book has got me thinking and I enjoyed interacting with it but it also worried me. It seemed to dull the gospel call to trust in Jesus now and hold onto him as the only certain means of salvation (forgiveness, eternal life, adoption into God’s family, knowing God’s love, gaining an inheritance, ….)

I like listening to and reading Rob Bell. He is an excellent communicator and makes me think about stuff. The Numa videos were really engaging, I shamelessly copied and developed the white board style of presentation in “Everything is Spiritual” and I am currently enjoying his talks on preaching (link). His latest book was no exception to all this in that it was set out clearly and provoked me to much thought. On the whole though, while it contained many excellent points, on a first read through at least, it seemed to me that a reader was more likely to be put off the scent of biblical truth rather than pointed towards it.

Well, that’s it. I hope I have not been too negative and what I have said is constructive in some way. I have tried to be as tentative as possible in my response knowing that this is only my first read through the book. I would love to know if I have misread it at any stage. I kind of hope I have.

Other great reviews of the book:

http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/love-wins-a-review-of-rob-bells-new-book

All together? (Love Wins Chapter 7)

As I get further into Rob Bell’s book, particularly the last chapter, I feel more and more in unfamiliar territory. This does not smell like home. Reformed theology makes my heart leap but this, to be honest, leaves me a bit cold. I know that is a very subjective observation though and others will find the opposite to be true. What matters is how something lines up with the truth of the bible. In chapter 7 of his book Rob talks about the story of the prodigal son.

Talking about the elder brother he says:

“hell is being at the party, It’s not an image of separation but integration. In this story heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.”

I would caution that any notions of integration drawn from this story need to be processed in the light of the separation passages (Mat 25:32, Mat 8:12, Mat 22:13, Mat 25:30, Mat 25:11).

“Millions have been taught that ….a loving heavenly Father, who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them, would in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. If there was an earthly Father like that we would call the authorities”  p 173,174

“if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one true glaring untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.” p 176

I do find this sort of thing hard to understand and relate to but here are a couple of my thoughts on the matter:

1) People may continue to reject Jesus for all eternity. If a person hates a god who will judge sin, it’s possible (and biblical Rev 16:9,11) that they will continue to do so even under that god’s judgment.

2) For God to be loving, does he have to love everybody in the same way for all eternity? Does he love Satan?

3) The Bible says God is loving because he sent his son to die for us. This he has done. Does the refusal of some to take him up on his offer reduce God’s love?

4) We must be careful in mapping all aspects of God the Father, and God the Son, to their earthly image bearing counterparts. God is the ground for all justice and will punish all wrongdoing. We (and he) will forgive because he (not us) will see justice done either on the cross or when Jesus returns.

Rob continues:

“ We are at the party. but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party” p 176

“ we do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.”

God is love but he is also Holy and just. Reading through the book of Revelation does not leave me with the impression that resisting God’s love creates hell. Disobeying God and rebelling against him makes us objects of wrath and rightly liable to God’s judgment.

He talks about church leaders who are so burnt out slaving for Jesus now, that they don’t enjoy life now, nor do their wives or their kids. They have a sneaky feeling Jesus has let them down. “it is the gospel of the goats”. A good point! There are some real gems in this book.

“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.”

Speaking for myself, my problem was that I had done things that God would rightly punish me for. I would have been excluded from his presence to bless me and experience his anger against me for the things I had done. My problem was that I was wrong and that God was good. Dangerously good for someone like me who wasn’t. What is the solution? In his love this Holy God sent his son to take my punishment in my place. To experience the exclusion and wrath I deserved. I do not have a problem thinking that God rescued me from God since my problem was his wrath and my solution was his love.

“Our beliefs matter.
They matter now for us
and they matter then, for us.
They matter for others, now
and they matter for others then.”
p184

I think he may be saying that it matters if you believe in Jesus now in this life because of the difference it makes now in this life. The sooner you believe in him, the sooner your life will be changed for the better. Knowing Jesus now and being tortured, is better than walking away from him now (thus avoiding horrible pain) and walking back to him later.

“On the cross Jesus says “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. (Luke 23). Jesus forgave them all, without their asking for it.

Although Jesus didn’t forgive them, He asked that they be forgiven, I guess it’s safe to assume his Father granted his request in some way but how? I would see it as a cry from the cross expressing the very purpose of the cross which is the forgiveness of our sin. The means by which that forgiveness is worked out is in the preaching and response to the gospel. To interpret Jesus’ cry as a request for all to be forgiven (either all present at the time or all people over all time) creates problems with passages that seem to suggest that not all are saved (Mat 7:13, Rev 20:15).

“forgiveness is unilateral…God has already done it” p189

I would say forgiveness is available to all now in this day of favour because of what God has done through Jesus. I do not think that the bible implies that all are forgiven now because of what Jesus has done. It would be odd to be an object of wrath and yet forgiven at the same time.

“Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and Hell, here now, around us, upon us, within us” p 190

True in a sense, but any hints or expressions of the reality of heaven and hell now, as God allows the wheat and weeds to grow up together, must not detract from the knowledge that God will one day separate the two.

A game of “it” (Love Wins Chapter 6)

As I read through Rob Bell’s book for the first time I made a few notes. For what they are worth, here are my thoughts on chapter 6.

In this chapter he says that the Israelites drunk from the rock that was Jesus without knowing it. I guess the point is going to be that you don’t need to know Jesus in order to benefit from what he has done for you. One thing to bear in mind though, is that though all who drank would have been physically refreshed, they would not all have been spiritually renewed. My understanding is that it has always been through faith in God’s revelation of his saving grace that people are saved. Now what was seen dimly in the OT sacrifices etc is seen clearly in the person of Jesus.

He points out that in John 12 it says Jesus will draw all people to himself and that:

“John remembers Jesus saying “I am the way the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me” (Chap 14). This is as wide and expansive a claim as anyone can make. What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world, is happening through him.” p154

But doesn’t other bits of the bible give us a pretty good idea that it’s responding to the gospel that does it? Is any other way ever described?

“As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

 

Not true.

 

Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe….

 

Talking about baptism, the Lord’s supper he says:

“these symbols are true for us because they are true for everybody. These are signs, glimpses, and tastes of what is true for all people in all places and at all times – we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven.

 

He holds the entire universe in his embrace. He is within and without time. He is the flesh – and – blood exposure of an eternal reality.” p159

“People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways…they drink from the rock, without knowing what or who it was. This happened in Exodus, and it happens today. The last thing we should do is discourage or disregard an honest, authentic encounter with the living Christ. He is the rock and there is water there for the thirsty there, wherever there is….sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t.” p 158

Is Rob saying that Jesus saves everybody and then opens the way to God through Buddhism, Islam and New Age religion and philosophies? Does Jesus stand at the end of the wide easy path and welcome all in along with those who travelled the narrow path? Surely the most important question is what are the possibilities for entering eternal life? Can we drink from Jesus through worshipping Baal? I really don’t know what to say to all this. I feel I have misunderstood something here.

I love playing “it” with my children. The catcher chases the other players and tries to touch them. When you get touched you are out of the game. When all players have been got the game ends. In order to make the game last longer we sometimes have a “home”. If you are “home” you are safe and can’t be got. Now one of my children likes to keep adding “homes” so as I am about to get her she nominates a nearby tree as “home” and grabs it. Can we do that with eternal life? As death and judgment come near can we call anything home knowing Jesus will be in it, or is there just one home that is Jesus and is called Jesus?

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ESV) Acts 4:11-12

There are no other bases nominated by God as “home” other than Jesus. A name is not a mysterious unknown reality that has many expressions and handles. It is the handle. A name is given so that we might take hold of God’s grace and mercy and there is no other handle given to us. Sure in the OT other handles were given to be taken hold of by faith, but they all pre-figured and pointed to Jesus so that when he came we would take hold of him as the reality to which they pointed. To make them mean that any and every expression of sincere belief can be a means to eternal life, is like driving through a no entry sign and over arrows in the road pointing in the opposite direction. I surely must have misunderstood what Rob is saying here. The shadows in the OT were shadows of Jesus. Now Jesus is here we should not be looking to take hold of shadows. There are no more shadows!

Does “as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” mean that Jesus is the only way, but that there are many doors that don’t look like Jesus that actually are Jesus? That the nearest, most convenient tree is home? Surely not. Have I misunderstood what the book is saying here?

Did the sheep die for nothing? (Love wins Chapter 5)

A quick quote from chapter 5 of Rob Bells provocative book, and then a short summary of the rest of the chapter.

“is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system, or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled, or a guilty defendant who’s been set free, or a battle that’s been won, or the redeeming of something that was lost?…. Why all the different explanations? For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said: what happened on the cross is like…” p 127/128

“For the first thousand years or so of church history, the metaphor of victory in battle, Jesus conquering death, was the central, dominant understanding of the cross. And then at other times and in other places, other explanations have been more heavily emphasised.”

He then seems to say that because our culture does not understand sacrificing things to gods to appease them it is not a great way to communicate the cross. He says it is off people’s radar and though it may work in some small pockets of primitive cultures around the world it is not helpful in ours.

I think though that God was purposefully trying to create his own culture in his own people as a context for Jesus’ saving work to be understood. A lot of sheep lost their lives so we could “get” sacrifice!

For me, the fact that Jesus took my place, owned my sin and bore God’s wrath for me are the foundation upon which all the other aspects of the atonement are based. It was necessary for my sin to be dealt with in order to be brought into a relationship with God as Father. I was guilty and the means of my acquittal was Jesus bearing my sin. It cost God to redeem me because  something so precious (his son) needed to be given to die in my place etc. The victory over sin and death was through my sin being dealt with in Jesus.

He then moves on to the resurrection; life from death, and notes that John has seven miraculous signs in his gospel before the resurrection. Jesus rising from the dead is therefore the first act of a new creation. He emphasises that it is not just people that are saved but the earth is renewed, all of which are quite helpful insights for me.

Do we jump or are we pushed? (Love Wins Chapter 4)

A few months ago Rob Bell put a universalist coloured cat among the evangelical pigeons with the release of his book “Love Wins”. In chapter 4 he quotes from church web sites that say people who don’t believe are going to be separated from God and punished forever and asks how this is compatible with a good and loving God, full of grace and mercy, who created everything in the first place, and for whom everything is possible and whose plans cannot be thwarted.

He continues with more questions that ask to be answered in the negative by taking the moral high ground:

“Will all people be saved or will God not get what he wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end? …Is his arm long enough to save? p98

He seems to say, or imply that Psalm 22 “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD” means every single person who has ever lived will be saved, rather than many people from all places.

He continues that Jesus’ parables teach that God searches until he finds and asks if we get what we want (life without God) while God does not get what he wants (everyone to be saved)? In relation to the view that there is a second chance after death to accept Jesus he quotes Martin Luther as saying “who could not doubt God’s ability to do that?”. The immediate context is:

It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. 

Luther’s point was the necessity of faith. In arguing strongly for it he says God could even give people faith after death if he wanted, but he is clear to say that there is no evidence he does so. His point, therefore, is not that he thinks post mortem faith is an actual possibility, but that faith is an absolute necessity. Our best bet is to go with what the bible does say and that is the emphasis on people responding to the gospel in this life.

He then says, and this is at the heart of the book although it is introduced as something that “others then say,”:

“why limit it to just one more chance, why not keep the time frame open until God melts every heart? “Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well. In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people”, Basil said the “mass of men” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God… to be clear, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts”. p107

“Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response “God’s love, of course”.  p 109

Is that true? Did Origen affirm that God saves everybody ? (the technical term for this seems to be apokastastasis). The internet (after a few googles) says “yes”, but “everybody” includes Satan and demons! Each soul, Origen said, after endless opportunities for repentance would eventually return to its original pure state.  Historians say that his thinking was heavily influenced by Platonic ideas of things emanating from God/pure form and coming back to God. His teachings were apparently condemned at a council in Constantinople in 543 and possibly again in the ecumenical council of 553, although that is less sure (I am only going on googled info at this point). At any rate Augustine refuted universalism and influenced the majority of thinking from that point on.

Biblical support for Rob’s thesis that “God melts every heart” (and that is the argument in the book, even though it is argued for in the form of leading questions and “others have said”) is found in the great statement: “Love never fails” 1 Cor 13

“At the centre of the Christian tradition since the first church, have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God”. p 109

“May people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that”. Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to the Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few committed Christians will ”go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or another, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it….forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian” p110

But it was the compelling figure of Jesus who taught most about hell. If hell is just an experience you move in and out of as you decide to move to and from God and not a terrible punishment for evil and rejecting God, then why did Jesus use the “thrown” language in relation to hell:

Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (ESV) Mat 3:10  (Mat 7:19)

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (ESV) Mat 5:29

the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (ESV) Mat 8:12

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. (ESV) Mat 18:8

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (ESV) Mat 18:9

Hell is not pictured in the bible as some sort of open prison where you can come and go as you please. Hell is not locked, as some have reassuringly suggested, on the inside.

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

But Rob writes:

“Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. In contrast everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all wrongs being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” p110

I find hell very hard to process and cope with and believe, but the question is not whether it makes a good or bad story but whether it is true. In any case, I suspect truth does make the best story if we have an appreciation for its beauty, but our faulty subjective response to a story cannot be the sole arbitrator of its truthfulness.

“to shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now” p111

We need to extend grace to each other regardless of the truthfulness of another’s opinion. The challenge is of course to be full of both grace and truth. To be respectful and gracious to someone in the way you clearly disagree with them.

Another great Rob Bell quote:

“we can have all the hell we want” p113

He points out that the gates of the new cityare “never shut” so people can come and go as they please. I think that is more to do with there being no threat to a city so it doesn’t need to defend itself rather than people being free to leave and enter at will. “Just popping outside to be bad for a bit, then I’ll be back for lunch”, or “after a billion years of sin I’m ready to give holiness a go now”.

“will everybody be saved or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” p115

He says that “see I make everything new” means we can’t rule anything out in this new creation.

“hard and fast, definitive declarations about how God will or will not organise the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities” p116

A better question than “does God get what he wants?” he says and one that we can answer is “do we get what we want?” and the answer is “a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes. Yes we get what we want. God is that loving. If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option”. Is he saying that hell is God’s grace? I think that blurs grace and justice too much.

You could say that it would be even more loving for God to change what we want, if what we want is not good for us and actually I think he goes on to say that God does that through various means but it just takes time.

Hell on earth (Love wins Chapter 3)

I have been asked recently about Rob Bells new book “Love Wins” and so I thought I would post some of my notes on it. They are only from a first read through, so are mainly my immediate “live” thoughts on it. I think Rob Bell is a great communicator and has many helpful insights into biblical truth which he delivers in a very provocative way.

However, I am finding this book a little troubling. It is digging around the roots of what I understand to be biblical truth, but so far has not put much good compost down on them. To my mind at least, he has inferred that saying God will eternally punish people for wrong doing is toxic, that a personal relationship with God is not central to the gospel, that repentance and belief are incompatible with grace, that God cannot judge us because he created us, that salvation in this life seems unfairly based on the luck of where you were born, and in fact, that any criteria underlying God’s choice of some and rejection of others is questionable.

There have been many good points too though and I am very keen not simply to notice the negative or be nit-picky, though I fear I may already have done so! Positives I remember are: that questions can be really good and helpful, we experience (I would say “aspects of”) God’s wrath and the new creation in the here and now, and that wealth can be dangerous. Anyway, moving on to the next chapter:

“For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with” P67

Here he is talking about the Old Testament. Although the NT does major on these things [Jesus reassures the thief on the cross that today he will be with him in paradise. Paul is torn between going to be with the Lord and staying on earth to build the church. People will be separated to eternal life and eternal destruction (Mat 25:46). Paul says that if it is just for this life that we have hope, we are to be pitied. Jesus tells a parable about what happens to two people after they die and the vastly contrasting places they go to (Luke 16:19-31, see also Luke 12:20).] I guess it’s true that the OT doesn’t really say a lot about them. Perhaps one of the reasons for that is that the OT is drawing pictures in the here and now (or then and there) that point to a future reality. The OT stories are shadows of things. So the reality of eternal life and death is played out in the visible realm of physical life and death. In the OT if you live right, and obey God it will go well with you. You will prosper and have money and health etc. In contrast in the New Testament, living right is likely to get your possessions taken away from you, and maybe even your head.

In Chapter 3 Rob gives a helpful word study on hell.

“in the NT the Greek word that gets translated as hell in English is the word Gehenna. The “ge” bit means “valley” and “henna” bit means “Hinnom”. Gehenna, the valley of Hinnon, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem. Gehenna, in Jesus’s day was the city dump.

 

People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gahenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out” p67-68

James mentions hell in connection with the tongue (James 3:6) but otherwise Jesus is the only one to use this word.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (ESV) James 3:6

Peter uses the word “Tartarus” (2 Peter 2:4 )“a word borrowed from Greek mythology referring to the underworld, the place where the Greek demi Gods were judged in the “abyss”

 

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; (ESV) 2 Peter 2:4

“Hades” is used in Rev 1, 6, 20, and Acts 2.

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,

    or let your Holy One see corruption. Acts 2:27

I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (ESV) Rev 1:18

Another great Rob Bell quote:

“we are terrifyingly free to do as we please…God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.” page 72

I so like the way he puts stuff sometimes (although I see an irony in the word “free” here). He uses language so well. He is also a pastor, not an ivory tower theologian.

“When you’ve sat with a wife who has just found out that her husband has been cheating on her for years, and you realise what it is going to do to their marriage and children and finances and friendships and future, and you see the concentric rings of pain that are going to emanate from this one man’s choices – in that moment Jesus’ warnings don’t seem that over-the top or dramatic; they seem spot on. Gouging out his eye may actually have been a better choice” P 73

On the story that Jesus tells in Luke 16 Rob says that the “rich man” still sees himself as better than Lazarus because he tells him to get him some water. “the chasm is the rich man’s heart”.

“hell is now and hell is later and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” p79

“When [Jesus] warns of the coming wrath, then this is a very practical, political, heartfelt warning to his people to not go the way they are intent on going. The Romans, he keeps insisting, will crush them…The tragedy in all of this is that his warnings came true. In the great revolt that began in 66 CE, the Jews took up arms against the Romans  – who eventually crushed them, grinding the stones of their temple into dust.”. p 81

It is true that God’s wrath is being revealed now, and is not simply all stored up till later, but my reading of the New Testament is that the emphasis is on the latter. ie endure injustice now for the sake of Jesus, knowing that God will be vindicated on the last day.

He says Jesus talked about hell to religious leaders who considered themselves “in”, not to pagans who were thought of as “out”, but wasn’t the sermon on the mount addressed to a crowd, including his disciples?

He says “The story is not over for Sodom and Gomorra (Ezekiel 16). They will be restored. There is still hope.” True. Jeremiah 32 says “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger …I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety”. He lists lots more bible verses about restoration and sees wrath and punishment in a restorative light. However, from what I have just been reading in Revelation 15 and 16, God’s wrath does not change people’s mind’s, it hardens them in their rebellion. It’s grace that changes people.

He suggests that the goats go to “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction”. He can say that and blur the finality of Jesus’ judgment, because for him:

“Forever is not really a category the biblical writers used” p 92

Does the NT talk about “forever”? The simple answer is the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal destruction” in Mat 25:46. Is eternal life a “forever” life or simply a “long time” of life? It is forever, as there is no more death (Rev 21:4). (this reminds me of related discussions on annihilationism. http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html).

‘Hell’ for Rob is:

“the real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us… the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world, God’s way.”

That is true, but it is not simply the natural, unfortunate outcome of rejecting God, it is the active punishment of a God who hates sin and evil. We see glimpses of it now even in this “year of favour” but there will be a “day of vengeance” (Is 61:2). This “day of the Lord” (Isa 13:6, 9, 12 Cor 5:5, 1 Thes 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10) is a massive theme in the bible and we should not be too quick draw it into the here and now.

 [do] not be quickly shaken in mind, or alarmed either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (ESV) 2 Thes 2:2

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