Tag Archives: hell

Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book One

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies. There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.

Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of NT scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings offer fresh insight and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise as to why I have chosen one of his books as the first in a list of five books offering up a new vision for evangelicalism.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

Is our evangelical language of our future existence reflective of NT orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic view of the future that fouls up our presentation of the gospel in the present. He believes we have lost sight of the biblical vision for the future.

Our future home is not “heaven”—for this is where God is presently—another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that we find our hope, and a hope for the world.

Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”

It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the 21st century.

“Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).

This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as some evangelicals have embraced. Wright says that his misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not fully account for evil.

This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.

Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). Evangelicals have also been guilty of preaching the apocalyptic demise of the space-time universe! Therefore, we all must get ready to be raptured for another world altogether.

This belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future—a future where we “fly away” and are “raptured” to spend an eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.

Wright believes that embracing the biblical vision of the future will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not entirely about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God, more specifically in ways keeping with the example of Christ who has revealed what it means to be human.

It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the NT—a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).

Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter into our promised resurrected existence.

In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.

We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.”  Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).

Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things. But if evangelicals ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead, then we miss the entire Christian hope.

God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the judgment gives the unbeliever much to worry about.

While Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that are reflective of a theology from the Dark Ages, he finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” for those who have rejected God’s purposes for the earth. He says that these folks will cease to bear the divine image, and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”

Wright believes that whatever “hell” is in reality, beyond the bizarre biblical metaphors, it should suffice for evangelicals to agree that it is a horrible end. And that should be enough. It is time to stop arguing over evangelical views about hell. Belief in a literal hell is not the true test of orthodoxy.

Wright’s main idea is this:

Heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Gospel.

The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these look like in light of this radical message of hope? What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Furthermore, what should the mission of the church be in light of this biblical hope for the future? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).

Finally, I have chosen Surprised by Hope as the first book in this series because it is a much-needed theological challenge to popular evangelicalism. It gives us a biblical vision of God’s good future for heaven and earth.

I pray that Wright’s message will begin a move among evangelical churches to return to the biblical hope for the future, and offer the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell for a distant realm in a bodiless heaven.

For those interested, you may also purchase the 6-session DVD study with this book. It is an excellent resource for both independent and group study.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two

* See the first post Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series.


Hell: Eternal Torture?

“For the wages of sin is death…” Paul, Romans 6:23

Why have I decided to tackle the highly controversial issue of eternal punishment? Well, I feel I have too many friends. Not really, I truly like the friends I have. Honestly, I must say it’s because that’s where I feel the Lord has led me in my pursuit of the centrality and supremacy of Christ.

As a student of the Scriptures and as a lover of Jesus, I must share what I have come to believe is closer to the biblical teaching concerning the end of the wicked. It’s a reflection of where I stand at this moment in my journey with the Lord.

So why broadcast it? I will let my recent acquaintance and new friend answer for me.

“Few people want to study the subject any more.  The liberals do not believe in such things, and the conservatives are satisfied that they already have the answers.” Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes p.20

I believe in eternal punishment, but I’m not satisfied with the traditional view of never-ending torture or with those that would soon do away with all verses that speak of a horrible destruction of the unregenerate sinner; those that say, “What’s all the fuss about worms, darkness, and death? God’s love would not allow for such a thing. It’ll be alright in the end.”

Let me begin by very directly stating my intent with this article. I desire to shake you up a bit. If you’re not ready for that… please stop reading now. If you’re up for the challenge and a respectful dialogue, I hope that this article will cause you to run into the arms of Christ and into the Holy Scriptures that testify to God’s truth.

I am but a man and I can err. And so can you. We must look to the counsel of Scripture in pursuit of the Living Word.

This post is for the purpose of stirring the pot a little. It originally began as a section in Part III of Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection. I felt it needed to be expanded into a single article because it was distracting readers from the primary purpose set forth in the Heaven to Earth series.

With that said, it would be best if you read that 3-part series before reading this article. If you’re looking for more than what is offered in this article, I strongly recommend that you check out some of the books mentioned along the way and those listed in the Suggested Reading below.

Now… stop and pray… grab a modern translation of the Bible and a concordance… sit down and strap in. As Short Round said in Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom, “Hold on lady… we’re going for a ride.”

Might We Be Missing Something?

The more I am coming to know God in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the less I am able to find the traditional idea of eternal torture in “hell” as being reflective of God’s character and consistent with the biblical teaching on eternal punishment.

“When we say something about heaven or hell we are also saying something specifically about God.” Randy Klassen, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? p. 28

Let’s quit fooling ourselves by pretending that what we believe about heaven and hell doesn’t communicate something about God and the way we relate to Him and the world around us. A person can’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter. Who can really know? It has no bearing on me for I am saved.” I submit to you that it does matter. Your salvation is bound up in the person of Christ who is God incarnate. Who is this God you serve?

In my personal study, I will at times come upon inconsistencies. I know that I’m not the only one that has known these moments of crisis. However, I do know that not everyone bothers with taking the time to address those concerns with patience and honest endurance. It usually becomes about defending a preconceived idea that we believe is biblical, deferring to our favorite Bible teacher, or ignoring the matter altogether.

“we protect ourselves either by saying that not all of us can be theologians or we take comfort in the fact that ‘this is the way we have been taught!’  We may respond by drawing our doctrinal coat about us even tighter… or we may examine the Scripture again…” Gerald Studer, After Death, What? p. 111

So, I am merely setting forth a challenge. If you believe that we have missed something, or that something is out of place and is inconsistent with your present beliefs, then come along with me in the spirit of the Bereans. And realize that you’re a theologian whether you like it or not. The question is… “Will you be a responsible one?”

Where the Tradition Began

The traditional view of hell was born in the second century AD and it later became a concrete idea in the Middle Ages after being perpetuated by Augustine (c. 354-430). It was Augustine’s views that largely shaped Western Christianity.

Tertullian (c. 160-230) believed that hell was a “secret fire under the earth” where torment was everlasting.  Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught that believers would be able to watch the eternal damnation of souls in hell from their lofty place of comfort in heaven. And of course it was Dante’s Inferno in his Divine Comedy that gave us a vivid close-up of the torments of this medieval hell.

And like the famous Jonathan Edwards sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, we revel on with the preposterous idea that God is moody and hell-bent on having his enemies over for a barbecue. Edwards’ notorious speech is more reflective of a vivid imagination than it is of sound biblical exposition.

These ideas, along with a whole host of pagan beliefs on hell, have penetrated the church and continues to permeate the culture today. Still today books are written by folks who have “been to hell and back” and have lived to scare the hell out of you too! It is a message of fear intended to produce converts.

It’s no wonder that many are presently emerging to see the pendulum swing in the opposite direction on the doctrine of hell.

Anyone carefully reading the book of Acts can’t help but notice the absence of “hell” in the preaching of the apostles. There isn’t even a promise of heaven to convince others to “walk the isle” and receive Christ.

The apostles did however speak about the resurrection of Jesus and the people saving themselves from “this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). They did proclaim a coming judgment foretold by Christ and the Old Testament prophets.

Before we look at those Scriptures, let’s take a minute to reflect on the words of the one who is largely responsible for a slew of misguided teaching and practice within our faith.

“Do not follow my writings as Holy Scripture. When you find in Holy Scripture anything you did not believe before, believe it without doubt; but in my writings, you should hold nothing for certain.” St. Augustine, Preface to the Treatise on the Trinity

Let’s heed the words of Augustine and go to the Scriptures themselves.

Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

The Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible in Jesus’ day. What does the Old Testament say about death and eternal punishment?  Let’s take a brief look. Whatever is being said by Jesus in the New Testament must be born out of the language and the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.

In the Old Testament there are sixty-five references to Sheol. The KJV inappropriately translates Sheol as “hell” numerous times. A balanced reading of the Scripture will prove Sheol to only be a reference to death and the grave. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). Those who trust in the LORD have reason to hope in His unfailing love (Ps. 34: 8-22).

The poet clearly wasn’t envisioning Sheol as a place of eternal (never-ending) torment. We do see that all men go to Sheol. But only those God raises up on the last day will live on in the Lord. Job expressed this hope when he said, “If a man dies, will he live again? I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer You. You will long for the creature Your hands have made” (Job 14:14,15).

David writes, “The Lord watches over all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy” (Ps. 145:20). The poet writes, “On the wicked He will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (Ps. 11:6).

This harkens us back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 19. God destroyed the wicked and Abraham could see nothing else but “smoke rising from the land” (v. 28).  The smoke signifies that everything was destroyed and the wicked were no more.

In the Old Testament, those who have not trusted in the LORD will “wither like the grass” and will be “cut off” to “perish” and “be destroyed” (Ps. 37:1-40). The poets remind us in powerful language that there will come a day when the wicked will meet a horrible end.

We must carry over the meaning of the Old Testament images into Christ’s words and the whole of New Testament teaching on eternal punishment.

Immortality of the Soul?

In Genesis 1-2, God creates man in His image. In chapter 3 man sins and is put out from the Tree of Life. Man begins a descent from God’s image and the LORD sets in motion His eternal purpose; God wants man to live in community and bear His image!  God makes a way that leads back to the Tree of Life. His way is Christ.

I don’t see Jesus as plan B (1 Pet. 1:20). The Lord must have anticipated the Fall as it set up a greater revelation. It’s all part of His grand story. God wants to bring His realm “heaven” to our realm “earth.”

We see this very thing in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body is the consummation of heaven and earth. And the Lord said He would return to establish a new heaven and earth right here where we live—where God’s reign in His creation is made complete.

We must understand that the biblical composite of man is spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23). It’s always been God’s intent to redeem the whole man. There is no life apart from the body and God’s resurrection. It’s the heart of Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17: 16-34).

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), the second-century Christian apologist, understood this and he opposed the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul. He viewed the Platonic idea as a direct challenge to the resurrection.

“For a Christian one simple sentence of revelation must in the end outweigh the weightiest conclusions of man-made philosophy.” John Wenham, The Goodness of God, p. 29

Greek wisdom taught that the soul is immortal. (I addressed this in the Heaven to Earth series. Reading that series is strongly suggested. Did I mention that already?) This is the one leg that the traditional view has stood on for 1500 years. As Greek-thinkers came to be Christian theologians and apologists, the popular idea of the soul’s immortality crept into Christian teaching.

“our traditional thinking about the ‘never-dying soul,’ which owes so much to our Graeco-Roman heritage, makes it difficult for us to appreciate Paul’s point of view.” F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 311

Christian teaching is quite clear that only God has life immortal (1 Tim. 6:13-16). Any human being that is not receiving the life of God, taking from the Tree of Life (i.e. Jesus), is most certainly headed toward death and destruction.

God placed Adam in the Garden and laid before him two paths: life and death. Life is given only to those who enter into the Kingdom now and take from the Tree of Life (Matt. 7:13-14; Jn. 3:16; Rev. 2:7).

Even the Didache, a mid second century text for training Christian converts, presents the entire Christian life in this manner: “There are two ways: one of life and one of death!” This early text of recitation very simply describes the way of life and the way of death.

This is in keeping with Paul’s own language in his theological work to the Romans (5-6). Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Let’s be clear about this. The immortality of the soul is not found in the Bible. And without the immortality of the soul, the literal interpretation of the metaphors used to describe “hell” falls apart before our very eyes.

Rethinking the Words and Metaphors

The Pharisees believed in a literal hell where folks would be tormented day and night without a real death. However, Jesus painted a picture of a judgment for the unbeliever, like the poets of the Old Testament, that should in no way be interpreted literally. Let’s take a closer look at the words and metaphors that are often used to support eternal torture.

The word Gehenna is translated as “hell” in the Gospels. Gehenna was the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside the southwest walls of Jerusalem. It was also once the site of child sacrifice to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh.

This dump was continually burning. Everything from trash to dead bodies were disposed of there. The trash was consumed but the fire continued to burn as the smoke rose forever without end.

Jesus references Gehenna on numerous occasions to speak symbolically of the judgment of God (Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15,33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; 16: 23). Jesus’ metaphors would have undoubtedly spoken of a horrible judgment for those who did not accept God’s salvation.

But it would indeed be foolish to hear Jesus describing a literal hell where there are worms, fire, and darkness all at the same time (Mk. 9:48). Worms and fire speak of a complete and total destruction. Darkness is the absence of God.

It’s worth noting that Jesus uses “Gehenna” when speaking to the Pharisees, but he uses “Hades” when speaking to Gentiles. The Gentiles would have been familiar with this term. Hades was known as the Greek god of the underworld; the place of the dead. Jesus says to those that reject him, “you will be brought down to Hades” (i.e. grave, land of the dead). He even uses Hades in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31).

Notice that the point of the parable is to show the finality of the matter, not describe for the listeners a literal description of hell (v. 26, 31). In listening to a joke, it is important that you get the punch-line of that joke and not be distracted by the details. It is the same in this parable told by Jesus. He is telling us that a person can reach a point that is beyond the life sustaining power of God.

In this sense, we find that a proper understanding of the adjective aionios (i.e. “eternal”).  Eternal judgment does not speak of duration, but of consequence or result (Heb. 5:9). The judgment is final—it is done.  The Scripture also declares an “eternal redemption” and an “eternal salvation” that we would never take to mean that God will forever be saving and redeeming us.  In the same way, “eternal” describes the far-reaching consequence of this judgment.

The “eternal” nature of the matter is not that these things will be happening forever (never-ending), but that the results will never end. The results are “eternal” because they proceed and are final in the Age to Come. So when the Scripture speaks of eternal punishment, judgment, and destruction, it means to say that there is no end to the result. It can’t be reversed, as its results are final.

If we take Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 literally, should we then assume that we too shall see our loved ones roasting eternally and crying out for mercy? “Sorry, Charlie! Uh, I guess I should have witnessed to you more?”

This even causes a problem for those who are our enemies. For our love for them will be perfected upon resurrection. There is plenty of reason that we should steer clear of this Inferno of imaginative lies.

After all, if God is “all in all” in the newly remade world, how is it that there will exist a place of never-ending damnation (1 Cor. 15:28)? Will God be known for His mercy or His wrath? We shouldn’t interpret descriptions of hell in a staunch flat-footed literalism anymore than those words of John concerning the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven to earth (Rev. 21).

Well, then what did John mean when he said that “outside” the city walls of the New Jerusalem are “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22: 15)? In keeping with the literary style of the book, we understand this powerful image to speak of something much worse.

Like the valley of Gehenna outside the walls of earthly Jerusalem, John saw the eternal destruction of the wicked in the Age to Come. They shall never enter through her gates because they are destroyed. But “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and may go through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).

The Final Judgment

Without the life-sustaining power of God in Christ, having not accepted Jesus as the sacrifice for sins, a person faces the judgment alone with no resurrected life to carry them through to the new heavens and earth. A person is resurrected in the old body only then to be judged according to his deeds (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2).

The wicked then experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:12-15).

James D.G. Dunn calls this “the final destruction of the corruptible” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 125.) It is in the fire that the chaff is consumed and is no more (Matt. 3:12). The fire is “unquenchable” because it can’t be put out!  The fire consumes what is thrown in it. Then there is a real “second” death.

But don’t suppose I am proposing a simple annihilation. I believe there is a real punishment according to one’s deeds.

What is it to be judged according to a person’s deeds (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 20:12.13; 22:12)? What exactly causes a person to suffer in punishment? Is God tormenting them? Is the Lord causing nightmarish pain by afflicting them with hellish horrors?  Here is where I believe Tom Wright offers great insight into this discussion.

In his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright proposes that the wicked are punished through a “dehumanizing” process. What does it mean to be human? It means we bear the divine image of God. Christ is the image of God and the image by which God seeks to conform all of humanity.

Therefore, hell is what happens when people say “No!” to the creator God in whose image they have been made.  Those who reject God’s image enter into His judgment. They experience God as wrath. The righteous have been judged in Christ as He has incurred the wrath of God upon the cross (Eph. 2:14-16).

“But judgment is necessary—unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 179.

Judgment is necessary in the sight of our Holy God. And judgment “according to deeds” may just be the factor that determines the degree and duration of eternal punishment.

The Dark Side of God’s Love

Stanley Grenz calls God’s wrath the “dark side” of God’s love. We must refuse to believe that God has a “wrath switch” that He flips on when He momentarily decides not to be love. For we know that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16).  It’s not a guise that He puts on to woo us to Himself. Love is His very nature. We must accept that God’s wrath is found in God’s holy love. His wrath is known and experienced as a result of rebellion and in rejection to His image.

It’s the “dark side” of God’s love.

Therefore, it is consistent in seeing that eternal punishment comes in accordance to a person’s deeds as the Lord withdraws His life from the unregenerate. God’s nature is love and in that love is wrath. A parent doesn’t cease to love a child in punishment, the child simply experiences this love as wrath. It is a real thing, but not something outside of love. This punishment is indeed loving because it has a goal.

What then is the goal of eternal punishment?

Jan Bonda says, “Nowhere in Scripture do we find a statement that tells us that God wants those who are punished to suffer without end—this is not the purpose for which God created humans” (The One Purpose of God, p. 212). What sort of God endlessly tortures unbelievers for the sake of punishment alone? Even in this punishment we must reconcile our view to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

At this point, many universalists are likely sitting on the edge of their seat anticipating the next few words. This is at the point they wish to say, “Yes, God’s goal is to restore them to Himself.” And I would agree. His goal is the same as it is for us believers who are purged by fire and being fitted for the new heavens and earth (Lk. 8:17). Yet, that intended goal has been eternally thwarted by the choice of the wicked on earth.

The righteous enters death in hope of the resurrection because they have been indwelled with the resurrected Christ (Jn. 11:25; Eph. 1:13). The Lord burns away all that isn’t reflective of Him. He sifts us down to Christ.

The wicked enter the grave without having experienced this spiritual resurrection in Christ. They rejected God’s image on earth. Their purging can only end in death. Like Adam, their eyes are fully opened. They see that man has no life within himself; only guilt and shame in the face of God.

How then can the wicked experience the future resurrection of the body that suits us for God’s resurrected world? Can a person turn from their wickedness in eternal punishment and be reconciled to God? Not if we accept “eternal” as the consequences and results of a person’s present decisions reaching over into the next age.

The Scripture simply does not allow for any teaching that gives man a choice after this life. Christ comes to those who await His coming (Heb. 9:27,28). Any teaching that promotes the idea that “everyone will make it in the end” can only come from isolating certain Scriptures and from building on obscure words and passages. This is always a recipe for error. Many denominations and cults have made a living at it.

This life really does matter and something happens upon death that seals that decision for eternity. God gave us choice in the beginning and He never removes it from us. What is “choice” if we have but only one real option to forcefully accept God’s image?

Why is it that the wicked are described as “gnashing their teeth” in punishment? They do not “gnash” out of pain, but out of hatred and anger! These are not repentant people. They are people who have rejected God’s image and God has given them over to their decision not to bear His image.

All the while God is pouring out His love, proving Himself to be good, the wicked gnash their teeth in human rebellion against God. Because of their own wicked hearts, they experience God as wrath.

It was not the Lord’s desire that anyone ever perish (Ez. 33:11). It’s also not His desire to choose life for us. He has placed us before two paths: the way of life and of death. And through the incarnation He has broke into human history to show us His great love and make a way for abundant life (Jn. 10:10). All are invited to the great banquet, but not all RSVP (Matt. 22:8,9).

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  (John 11:25)

Concluding Remarks

Is it not more consistent with the Lord’s character that those who reject the divine image would cease to bear it after having experienced God’s justice once and for all? What could be more dreadful than to experience a gradual shrinking of human life, life created in God’s image, until that soul can no longer be supported by God’s life any longer?

If we accept the “eternal life” Christ promised in John 3:16 to those who believe, should we not also accept His words that the wicked will “perish” (i.e. be destroyed in death) upon disbelief (Lk. 13:3-5)? God’s mercy is evident in allowing the person that rejects the divine image to fade from existence into death, not in sustaining their life for never-ending torturous suffering.

As we have seen, there is nothing biblical about it; certainly nothing that is in keeping with the Gospel message. After death and the wicked are destroyed, then God may be “all in all” as all things are restored and reconciled to Him (Col. 1:20). It is the only way in which I see that we can take serious the urgent call to presently follow the Lord in all things and heed His words to “repent or perish” (Lk. 13:3,5).

In this way, His justice is served, his mercy extended, and his love triumphs over evil.

The Word is true: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)! And that love has the final say; the cross overcomes; evil is no more; the final victory won!

“For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

If we were to stop and rethink all that we have been told about the traditional hell, I believe we would find that God’s character does not allow for such a place (1 Ch. 21:13; 2 Ch. 20:21; Neh. 9:31; Ps. 30:5; 103:9; 145:8; Is. 54:8; Ez. 33:11; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 7:18; Matt. 5:38-48; Jn. 3:16-21; 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:8; 1 John).

It is not the Scriptures or Christ that has given us the traditional view of hell. Instead, if we look to Christ, we see a God that is reconciling the world to Himself and remaking the world in love. He has chosen to do this work through His church. And the gates of Hades (death) shall not overcome it (Matt. 16:18).

After the great war of the Lamb and the wicked are no more, John writes:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Rev. 21:1-5


D.D. Flowers, 2010.

Suggested Reading:

“The Bible and the Future” by Anthony Hoekema; “Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation” by Bruce  Metzger; “Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian  Living” by Stanley Grenz; “The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology” by Adrio Koenig; “An Evening in Ephesus: A Dramatic Commentary on Revelation” by  Bob Emery; “What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?” by Randy Klassen; “Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God” by George Ladd; “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?” by Oscar Cullmann; “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the  Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright; “The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the  Doctrine of Final Punishment” by Edward Fudge; “Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue” by Edward  Fudge & Robert Peterson; “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” by Rob Bell


Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part III

It has grown increasingly apparent to me that pop-culture Christianity was birthed, and is being maintained, by a steady diet of sloppy hermeneutics and a distorted view of Jesus. It has opened the church up to demonic deceptions and has made her susceptible to the pagan powers seeking to undermine our hope in the finished work of Christ.

Because of this onslaught upon Christian orthodoxy and years of propagating a view of God that more closely resembles Greco-Roman mythology than the Abba of Jesus, it is necessary that we adopt the Berean spirit and be reconciled to an apostolic view of God that looks like Christ and is consistent with the eternal purpose (Eph. 1-3; Col. 1:15-23).

Let’s stop and reconsider what the Scripture teaches concerning heaven, hell, and the resurrection of the dead. For what we believe about the future has a profound effect on how we live in this present evil age.

Heaven: Our Final Home?

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Isaiah 65:17

The creation of a “new heavens and a new earth” is a transformation of the former things. It is a world transfigured like unto the physical body of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9). The resurrected body of Christ was of its own kind. There is continuity with the old body and there is discontinuity as well (Lk. 24: 13-35, 36-49; Jn. 20:1-18, 24-31; 21:1-14).

In Rev. 21-22 we do not see believers flying off to a disembodied spiritual existence on the other side of the cosmos. No, we see heaven coming to earth. We see heaven, God’s realm, breaking through and fully consummating with the physical realm we call earth. We can see this in the resurrected body of Christ: heaven intersecting with earth.

We must rid ourselves of this mantra that speaks of going to heaven when we die, as if we will have come to the end of our journey. Heaven is indeed where the Lord is presently, but it is not our final home (Ps. 14:2; 20:6; 33:13; Ecc. 5:2; Is. 66:1; Dan. 2:44; 7:27; Rev. 11:15). The finished work of Christ is not fully realized until God makes his home on this earth.

If anything, heaven is only a temporal dwelling for those awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house (Jn 14:2). The Greek word for “dwelling places” used here, monai, has regularly been used to refer to a temporary stop on an extended journey.

Even when Christ was on the cross, he told the thief on his left that “today” he would be with him in “paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This too doesn’t speak of a final destination, but of a temporal garden of rest. All of the saints, past and present, still await the return of the King and the establishment of heaven on earth (Heb. 11:13-16; Rev. 6:10-11).

God’s desire has always been to complete his good work in the created world upon which every human being has ever lived. For the Jew, there was a firm belief that God would restore creation and fulfill his covenant with his people. The Lord of heaven and earth would finally merge the two into one unified reality.

This resurrected world is called the “New Jerusalem” and the “Holy City” (Rev. 21:2). This newly remade world is our final destination. It is the Kingdom of God fully realized. In Revelation 21:5, Christ says:

“Behold, I am making all things new!”

And it is Christ that has the authority to say such things, for he was the first to be resurrected and be clothed with the imperishable.

Our hope is in a future resurrected existence in the “new heavens and earth.” It is on this earth that Jesus prayed, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Heaven is indeed coming to earth. Jesus has called for its renewal and resurrection!

“Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 19

NOTE: The original section Hell: Eternal Torture? was removed and expanded into a single article.

Resurrection Future

“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… for the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.Paul, 1 Cor. 15:50, 53

Some folks would have you believe that the resurrection has already taken place in the spiritual sense and there is therefore no need for a physical resurrection of our bodies. This view highlights the work of the cross but overlooks the importance and power of a physical resurrection in order to maintain its toxic eschatology.

We can’t afford to ignore the earliest Jewish meaning of the word resurrection. Resurrection always refers to a new bodily existence. Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s bodily resurrection in 1 Cor. 15:12-58 is to assure the saints that we too shall receive the same.

It should be equally accepted as his purpose for addressing those believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The believers there were dealing with the deaths of loved ones around them. They had “fallen asleep” before the coming of Christ.

Concerning the Christian hope at death, Stanley Grenz writes:

“As Christians, however, our hope does not focus on any conception of life after death. On the contrary, our hope is directed toward the promise of resurrection. Therefore, anything we say about the status of the dead must arise out of our hope for resurrection.” Created for Community, p.271

It is by Christ’s death on the cross that we died. But it is through Christ’s resurrection that we may live. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Paul continues, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom. 6:4-5).

Without the physical resurrection of our bodies, we may not enter into the fullness of the new creation. When heaven comes to earth and “the dwelling of God is with men,” we shall receive a body that is clothed imperishable and raised in immortality; a resurrected body for a resurrected world.

It is in the physical resurrection of the dead and the judgment that the “last enemy” is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). Death shall be no more!

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus, John 11:25-26

Resurrection Now

Does the resurrection of Christ on the third day have any effect on us in the present? Paul believed we could know the power of Christ’s resurrection even now.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Paul, Philippians 3:10-11

Paul wrote, “outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). How is it that resurrection has already begun in an inward way? It has happened by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. As N.T. Wright has written, it is in the resurrection of Christ that the world is already now “being born with Jesus” (SH, 73).

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life…” and receiving his indwelling Spirit is receiving resurrection life (Jn. 12:24; 14:15-31; 16:5-16; Acts 1:8). The Kingdom of God has broken through into the old order of things and has already begun the work of resurrection in the here and now. It is doing a work within the hearts of men.

“The Kingdom of God belongs to the future, and yet the blessings of the Kingdom of God have entered into the present Age to deliver men from bondage to Satan and sin. Eternal life belongs to the Kingdom of God, to The Age to Come; but it, too, has entered into the present evil Age that men may experience eternal life in the midst of death and decay. We may enter into this experience of life by the new birth, by being born again.” George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 71

We are able to stand firm and give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord because of our hope that soon Christ’s victory over death will become a reality for all of creation (1 Cor. 15:54-58). Resurrection is now working in the spiritual order of things.

The Kingdom of God is already here now and it is yet to come (Matt. 12:28; Mk. 1:15). It is working behind the scenes to destroy the sovereignty of Satan and is restoring the creation in every act of Christian love.

The Kingdom of God is breaking though into this present evil age because of Christ’s resurrection and it is testifying of the age to come when God will bring heaven to earth. The two-stage coming of the Kingdom should not be overlooked any longer (Lk. 19:11). The Lord is advancing his Kingdom even as I write this article. Heaven is invading earth in a covert operation of love.

How is the resurrection impacting our world today? What does the Kingdom look like in action? I believe Gregory Boyd very simply describes its nature and power.

He says, the Kingdom of God “always looks like Jesus—loving, serving, and sacrificing himself for all people, including his enemies. To the extent that an individual, church, or movement looks like that, it manifests the Kingdom of God. To the extent that it doesn’t look like that, it doesn’t.” The Myth of a Christian Religion, p. 14

If we are not willing to bleed like Jesus, we shall not know the power of his resurrection life. There is always a cross before there is a burst of light coming from the empty tomb. We must return to Christ and the foolishness of his cross if we wish to exhibit resurrection. For his Kingdom is not a matter of talk, but of power (1 Cor. 4:20).

This power does not come through utilizing the power-over structures of man to baptize the culture into the Christian religion. It is a spiritual authority that is earned by sharing the suffering of mankind. It happens when we see our neighbors as objects of God’s love instead of souls to conquer for our work-centered faith.

Resurrection happens in the here and now when the church is reflecting life as it will be in the new heavens and earth.

And that life always looks like Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians3:1821

Suggested Reading:

The Bible & the Future by Anthony Hoekema Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation by Bruce Metzger Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living by S. Grenz The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology: Toward a Christ-Centered Approach by Adrio Koenig An Evening in Ephesus: A Dramatic Commentary on Revelation by Bob Emery Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL OR RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD? by Oscar Cullmann The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution by Gregory Boyd Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright Dispensationalism: An Inquiry Into Its Leading Figures & Features by Jon Zens


Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part II of III

“For if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:16-18

It is quite clear that the resurrection of Christ is the one event upon which our entire faith rises or falls. Paul, quoting from an early creedal statement, says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). “According to the Scriptures,” would of course be referring to the Old Testament Prophets.

The Pharisees often debated with the Sadducees whether or not resurrection could be a reality. Many Jews confidently believed that God would renew his creation and restore what was lost. But not even the Pharisees expected the resurrection to happen until the final Day of the Lord.

The resurrection of Christ even took his closest disciples by surprise. Jesus goes before us all by being the “firstborn among the dead” (Col. 1:18). The apostle Paul believed in this resurrection, not only in the possibility of it, but in the reality that he had indeed seen the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus (Acts. 9).

“It’s one thing to believe it. It’s another thing to see it.”  ~Benjamin Linus, LOST, “Dead is Dead” season 5, episode 12 (Ben’s response to seeing John Locke alive again.)

For a person to believe in the resurrection of Christ is to accept that they too will pass from death to a new bodily existence at the second parousia (i.e. “coming”) of Christ. Jesus himself passes from an earthly body to a real “spiritual body” and promises that those who follow him shall do the same (Jn. 11:25).

Jesus not only spoke of this new existence, but he allowed his closest followers to witness the glorious transfiguration, and later his visible presence in his resurrected body (Matt. 17; Lk. 24:36-49).

According to Paul, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred” people in this new body. And at the time of Paul’s writing, these folks were “still living” and you could go talk to them yourself (1 Cor. 15:6).

Life After Death

Contemporary visions of the “afterlife” stand in stark contrast to the uniquely Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead. Let’s take a moment to briefly examine what others believe about the divine destiny of man.

We have already seen the Platonic or Gnostic vision of the immortality of the soul. This view seeks to emphasize the individual. In this vision, our lives culminate at death when the soul is released from the body and we are freed from the imperfections of the material world.

According to this view, discarding the body is necessary to reach the world of eternal ideas and touch the divine.

Another prominent view teaches that we all are destined for a blended union with the divine. Proponents of this idea, often known as monism, believe that God is impersonal and lacks personal distinctions. To become “one” with the divine is actually to lose all of your own personality and be absorbed in with the “great spirit” in the sky.

This view undermines the personhood and character of God as well as the personal nature of human beings.

Reincarnation goes a step further in this idea of union with the divine. According to this view, we do not blend with the divine immediately, but after a series of “rebirths” that continue until the soul has reached perfection. Since this cycle of rebirths is actually never-ending, life is ultimately meaningless. It believes the real person to be only the soul that moves from body to body.

Reincarnation denies the perfect God-created union of spirit, soul, and body.

Finally, we can’t leave out those who believe that a person simply ceases to exist upon death. This belief may just be the saddest of all things a person chooses to embrace. Believing that everything ceases at death rejects the created order left by God to lead us to knowledge of himself (Rom. 1:20). And it denies that internal longing for life beyond the grave.

This person should stop to observe the seasons. Winter can be dreadful, but Spring is forthcoming.

Pop-Culture Christianity

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:51-52

Somehow believers have failed to recognize that Scripture teaches that the culmination of our earthly life is found in the future resurrection of the dead when the Lord will break through from heaven and establish his Kingdom upon the earth. They have missed John’s revelation of the Holy City “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

Instead, many have embraced an eschatological view that propagates some of the tenants of the pagan ideas already discussed. We see this most clearly in Christian funerals and popular teachings on the eschaton (i.e. “last things”) from the pulpit and the pen of preachers everywhere.

Pop-culture Christianity teaches a distorted view of death and the last days. And I believe it is partially born from a resistance to suffering in the New Testament fashion. We say we have the Kingdom in mind through “winning the culture” by legislating sin, when in reality we don’t wish to rely on the foolishness of the cross and suffer as Christ in patient love. We, like the world, are fighting against death instead of embracing it with hope in the resurrection.

American Christianity has made it possible for us to look past Paul’s words, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12) and “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). We have built for us a faith that wants nothing but comfort in this world, only to turn and grieve in sorrow as the world grieves.

We have failed to know the true hope that comes by first confronting the ugliness and reality of death. To cope with the “sting” of death we resort to absurd beliefs that are more reflective of pagan teachings than they are of our distinctly Christian hope in the resurrection.

How can we know the victory until we have felt the defeat? Death has “lost its sting” because of the finished work of Christ (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:55). Why would we ever use language that takes away from that work?

Evangelical Christianity has largely adopted pagan ideas of the “afterlife” that allows us to continue propagating the “no suffering for me” theology.

The Left Behind Series has done much to further the idea that what we all need is to escape or be “raptured” from this evil world and our lowly, decrepit bodies for a future “spiritual” existence on the other side of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, we are learning to care less and less about the soul of a terrorist, genocide, and the many ways we are destroying the planet.

What does it matter when the Christian life can be summed up in “going to heaven when you die”… which translates: this world isn’t so important after all. We can hardly see the urgency and the importance of it because the Gospel has been mixed with worldly political agendas.

You have heard it many times at funerals before and probably have said it yourself at some point: “they are in a better place… they have gone home.” Our hymns even reflect this Platonic idea of the soul’s escape from the body. “I’ll fly away O glory… when I die hallelujah by and by… I’ll fly way!”

Really? Are we flying away or are we awaiting the resurrection of the dead for a new existence when heaven comes to earth? If we are flying away, where are we going? Cause I’m not too sure I want to go there anymore.

Does this sound like a teaching that reflects our hope in the resurrection of the dead? Is it a development or a deviation from the Gospel that testifies that someday soon heaven will break through to this groaning earth and God’s reign will be known among the nations? According to the New Testament, it’s a clear deviation from the Gospel of “peace on earth.”

Why do we insist on furthering a dim view of the Christian hope?

We should stop and reconsider our anticipation in the resurrection of the dead when a believer is struck by the awfulness of death. In a better place, I’m sure, but “home,” I should think not. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, sure.  (Lk. 23:42-43; Rom. 8:38-39; Phil. 1:23). But who can be home when they are separated from their body?

It is in the climatic event of resurrection that we shall enter our rest.

“The doctrine of the resurrection affirms that we do not enter into the fullness of eternity apart from the body, but only in the body.”  Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, pg. 588

When we reduce the Gospel to a few clichés and water it down with pagan ideas of life after death, all that is left is to convince our neighbors that hell is hot and that they better hop aboard the J-train before it shoves off headed past a few stars to the right and on till morning. Are we followers of Christ or members of the Heaven’s Gate cult?

If we believe there is life after death without the body, then we have greatly misunderstood our hope in the resurrection of the dead. All the saints past and present await the coming judgment and resurrection of the dead. It is as if all of creation is on the edge of its seat crying out for that passing from death to life (Rom. 8:22; Rev. 6:9-11).

Heaven and earth cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”

“Now, at the climax of God’s salvation in the bodily resurrection of believers, the final enemy is defeated, the final victory won.” Michael S. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg. 281

Until heaven comes to earth and God remakes the world for our new resurrected existence, we live in that hope. We live to testify of the coming Kingdom of God that is already, but not yet. Winter is here and the times are dreadful, but Spring is coming!

Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part III


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