Hell

“He descended into hell, er… to the dead, er…”: Reflections on the Apostles’ Creed for Holy Saturday

In honor of Holy Saturday, I thought I would post here a response to a question I was posed last week.  Some churches recite the Apostles’ Creed with the line “He descended into hell,” but other churches recite the line as “He descended to the dead.”  What’s going on here?  I also had to do a bit of checking first, and the answer turned out not to be what I suspected! (more…)

An Open Letter to President Trump From an Evangelical

Mr. President:

I do not write to you today about politics, because you know more about politics than I do.  Instead I write about something much more important: your future, and where you will find yourself within thirty years.

The God who created the skies and the ground also created humans, so that they might worship him and enjoy everything good thing with him forever.  This includes you.

But humanity, from our first ancestors onward, rejected God and rejected his promise of eternal enjoyment.  We humans have set ourselves up as our own gods, and the result of this sin is separation from God, now and forever.  Separation from God is what causes our death, both our physical death and our eternal spiritual death deprived from the source of our life.  This includes you.

But God loved the world so much that he sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to become one of us, to live a sinless life in poverty, to die a blameless death on a Cross, to rise again to new life since it was impossible for death to hold him, so that everyone who puts their faith in Jesus should have eternal life, not eternal death.  This is not automatic, but is an opportunity available to everyone, including you.

But do not be deceived; God is not mocked.  The free gift of forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ requires only that each sinner acknowledge their sins and turn away from them to the powerful gracious love of Jesus.  But it does require turning away from sins; any attempt to claim the forgiveness of Jesus without acknowledging the sins committed is doomed to failure.

I expect you know your sins better than anyone, but you said in 2016 that you do not ask for God’s forgiveness.  That made me worried that you were deceiving yourself, since all of us need God’s forgiveness every day.  As I have watched your presidency, it has become increasingly clear that you are in the bondage of deceit, ceaselessly peddling lies about yourself and your enemies, so that I fear you have even come to believe these baseless falsehoods yourself.  To pick examples only from the last six months, your deliberate deceptions include insisting that the Mueller report exonerated you, when in fact the Mueller report explicitly stated that it did not exonerate you (vol. II, p.8).  You have claimed your July 25 phone call to the Ukrainian president was “perfect” and legal, when you obviously set up the withholding of military aid for the sole purpose of pressuring him to help you in your reelection campaign, which is illegal.  In order to distract the news media, you ordered a poorly considered withdrawal from Syria in order to allow the Turkish armed forces to attack the Kurds, at the cost of hundreds of lives.  Just as David killed Uriah by the sword of the Ammonites (2 Sam 12:9), you have murdered Syrian Kurds by the shells of the Turkish military, all for the sake of your political benefit.  You have not saved lives; you have destroyed them.  No doubt you have other sins, but these sins are obvious, and they will be condemned by God who is righteous and accomplishes justice.  Your only hope to escape eternal condemnation is the forgiveness offered by Jesus.

It is claimed that you are a Christian.  That is a good name which I am glad to wear myself, but the label alone does not get you anything.  What matters is not what men call you, but what you are in the sight of God.  The benefits of Christ are not for those who call themselves Christians (Matt. 7:21-23), but for those who trust in Jesus, follow him, serve him, and love him.  You must ask yourself if this is what you are doing.  The Lord Jesus said, “You will know them by your fruits…  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:16, 19).  Lying, corruption, and murder are not good fruits, but the fruits of the devil which lead to death.

Even now you have the opportunity to escape from the damnation that your sins deserve, if you will turn away from your sins to Jesus and place your trust in him for forgiveness.  If you do so, he will take command of your life, fill you with his Holy Spirit, and guide you along the path to eternal joy.  The Lord Jesus Christ, in command of your life, will lead you to apologize to those you have wronged and to begin to live rightly, which is better for you and for everyone.

There is no other way.  You may be able to escape human punishments for your crimes, and you may be able to continue spreading lies, but you will not be able to escape God’s judgment.  He cannot be tricked.  He cannot be manipulated.  He will not “make a deal.”  God has made known the only opportunity for salvation, available to you and to everyone, in his son Jesus Christ.  Be warned: Jesus himself said, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of Heaven like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15).  The apostle Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Your name and your wealth will not help you on the day of judgment (Psalm 49:16-20), only humbly acknowledging your sins, renouncing them, and turning to Jesus in submission.

You may not have many more opportunities.  You are already seventy-three years old, and none of us knows how long he will live.  You might have a heart attack and die tomorrow, or you might live for another twenty-five years; we do not know.  But we do know that when you die, whenever that might be, it will be too late then to seek forgiveness.  The opportunity to renounce sin and run to Jesus is an opportunity only in this life, and your time is running short.  Within thirty years, less than half of the length of time you have already lived, your eternal judgment will be determined.  I encourage you, by the mercy and love of Jesus Christ, not to let this opportunity go by; you may not have another.  Repent and believe in the good news!  Be cleansed from your sins, and live!

I pray for you to recognize the truth, and that the truth would set you free from the deception and lies which you perpetuate, which now bind you.  I pray for your repentance from sins, for you to accept the eternal well-being in the forgiveness which only Jesus Christ provides.  I pray for the evil you have done to be struck down and overcome by the goodness of God, who loves truth and justice, and he is merciful to you, giving you the opportunity even now to leave behind the deceit and death you have worked, and turn to his light and his life.

There is nothing more important than this.  The Lord Jesus himself said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).  Don’t be a tough guy.  Don’t be a fool.

May the Lord have mercy on your soul.

Theophiletos

Hell and the God of Love

Hell is a problem.  It makes compassionate Christians uncomfortable.  It makes hateful Christians gleeful.  Some people say that hell is unfair.  Others say a loving God could never create people to send them to hell.  How can hell be reconciled with “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)?

Let us be careful.  Jesus, who revealed God’s love, discussed hell more than any prophet. (more…)

Afterlife in the Old Testament

It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death.  This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do.  Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible.  I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post).  On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic).  Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.

A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33).  Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.”  What does this mean?  It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom.  The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author.  On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases.  Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter.  So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body.  What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with.  How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?

The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding.  When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).  Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30).  Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial.  But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”  Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1).  Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death.  The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.

Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do?  No, nor need I.  Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice.  Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death?  No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either.  Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time.  My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false.  What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question.  But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.

Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.

A Starting Point for Practical Ecumenism

In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians.  In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:

But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”

She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)

Optimism, Christianity, and Pessimism

Some Christians are optimists, and they think everything is going great and getting better all the time.  Other Christians are pessimists and think that the world is falling apart around us and just going from bad to worse.  Is there a right of it?

I try to be a realist, but I know that most people would say the same thing of themselves.  I see there are many things that are bad, and some are increasingly bad.  But I also see that there are many things that are good, and some are surprisingly good.  But most importantly, I think Christianity gives solid ground for hope.  Not optimism, but hope.

On the bad side of the ledger, there are many things that Christian pessimists complain about, ranging from cultural alienation from Christianity in the West to resurgence of militant Islam to growing inequities worldwide.  Here are a few big ones from my perspective:

  • In Europe and North America, most people know basically nothing about Christianity, yet they still presume that they know what Christianity is, and they reject it on the basis of their misconceptions without really understanding the Christianity which I have found.
  • Most churches, it seems, are doing a poor job even in educating their children about the truth of Christianity, and many people who have grown up in the churches are leaving them, not out of any principled or considered rejection, but simply because they don’t see the point.
  • It is increasingly common for public discourse in Europe and North America to claim that traditional Christian views on a range of subjects are offensive, and that expressing them constitutes harming others.
  • Many church leaders in basically all denominations are primarily concerned with maintaining or, if possible, increasing their power through manipulative techniques; many others seek to make Christianity indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, claiming that what matters is the church structure.  Godly leadership is hard to find, and not widely celebrated.
  • The US government is increasingly willing to maintain American prosperity through killing non-Americans over whom it has no jurisdiction.  Drones are a new technology, but essentially they fire missiles or drop bombs, and at no prior period were so many foreigners being killed by US missiles and bombs outside of a state of war as at the present.
  • Christian communities in the Middle East (between Egypt and Pakistan) are experiencing very difficult times, as certain Muslim extremists hold them accountable for American imperialism, and their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.
  • Public discourse, at least in the US and perhaps in other places, has been neutered by polarizing talking heads who misrepresent every other viewpoint.  Opt-in discussion groups and news media mean that most people in developed countries have very little experience working through any substantive disagreement, or seeing anyone work through any substantive disagreement.
  • New technologies are widening the gulf between those who have and those who have not, while at the same time online discussion groups (as wonderful as they can be in many ways!) cannot fully replace flesh and blood communities, leading to increasing social fragmentation and isolation.  I think people are less happy now as a result of television, the internet, cell phones, and smart phones, as useful as those devices are for certain tasks.
  • Destructive behaviors such as alcoholism and rape are endemic on American university campuses, and even in many high schools, while teachers and administrators are busily saying that such actions are none of their business.  Indeed, if people in authority address such topics, they are likely to find themselves disciplined for trespassing on their students’ rights.

There are other things that bother me and seem to be making things worse, but those bullet points are what come to mind.

With that list of things to worry about, is there anything good to be said about the situation today?  Or are Christian pessimists simply right, and Christian optimists living in fantasy-land?

There are good things happening in the world as well, some of which are trumpeted by the optimists, while others seem to be largely overlooked.  Here are a few that strike me:

  • The “good old days” were not, as far as I can tell, all that great.  When I read or hear stories from before the 1960s, I am often shocked by the frankly hateful racism and sexism which is tolerated (if not advocated) by them.  While Western societies today have certainly not achieved justice, I think that racism and sexism have decreased in many ways.  Some of that apparent decrease, of course, is just political correctness, but I think some of it is genuine as well.  In some areas of society, indeed, sexual violence may be decreasing rather than increasing, to judge from the degree to which date rape and domestic abuse were taken for granted in certain demographics in a previous generation.
  • It seems to me that, despite all its vaunted rejection of Christianity, modern American society is surprisingly taking a more traditionally Christian line on at least one aspect of sexual ethics: the prohibition of adultery.  Only fifty years ago, the sexual double-standard led many people to turn a blind eye toward married men keeping mistresses, and concubinage was apparently acceptable.  While today a small but loud minority is calling for “open marriages” and “polyamory,” and many people think that anything goes (as long as it’s consensual) before marriage, “cheating on” one’s spouse is more widely despised and censured among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings than, I think, previously.
  • If Christian church attendance is decreasing in Europe and North America, it is increasing in other areas of the world.  In particular, Christianity has been growing very quickly in China for a number of years now, and since China is the world’s most populous country and quite possibly its next dominant superpower, having a substantial Christian presence there will preserve the gospel for generations to come.
  • Christianity is also very strong in South Korea, which is sending more missionaries worldwide than any country except the US.  (Indeed, South Korea is sending more Christian missionaries per capita than the US because the American population is six times that of South Korea!)  Korean missionaries are working widely through the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and have an easier time in areas where American Christians cannot get visas to preach the gospel.  Some of those Korean missionaries are even coming to the US, breaking stereotypes about how Christianity is a religion for dead white males.
  • Increasing numbers of people are realizing the emptiness of secularism.  They may not know what to replace it with, and there are many ideas on the table, but for some, Christianity is once again considered a live option.
  • Most encouraging is the evidence in continued changed lives.  Non-Christians continue to find the grace, forgiveness, and joy that God offers in Jesus Christ and are converting to Christianity, while some nominal Christians discover the wealth of the heritage they didn’t know they had.

So there are good things going on as well as bad.  Readers inclined to quantification may notice that I listed more bad points than good, but these points are not all equal and cannot simply be tallied up.  The fact is that the world’s a mess, but it’s not a straightforward mess.  This is what Christian doctrine should lead us to expect.  The world was created good, so some good things should be expected to remain visible in it.  Humanity fell and made a mess of everything, so we should expect a lot of harm and a lot of damage, and this is what we see in every age of history.  Theologians often emphasize that every aspect of creation has been damaged in the process, and thus even good things like relationships and technology can be turned to bad.  But that’s not the end of the story, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, through his Holy Spirit, is redeeming the world.  So we should expect him to have had some success, and for some things to be getting better!

And this is why Christianity is neither a religion of pessimism nor a religion of optimism, but is instead a religion of hope.  The world is a horrible mess, but there is a Savior.  His work is not simply past (although he has been working), nor simply future (although he will finish the task), but is past, present, and future.  He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20).  He promised that Hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).  He didn’t promise us a rose-garden; instead, he foretold that in this world we would have trouble, but even so he told us to be encouraged, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).  We do not see these realities fully (although we often see far too much of our present troubles, if you ask me!), but as Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees?” (Romans 8:24).  Even without fully seeing the display of God’s sovereignty in our present world, we can trust his character, for he who died on the cross out of love for the world is now he who superintends the world’s redemption.  We hope in him, we wait for him, we pray to him, we worship him, and we will one day see him face to face.  He will come again and will bring redemption to its completion.