Tag Archives: brian mclaren

Support Us or You’re a Bigot?

If you read my blog much you know that I’m far from a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, but I also don’t espouse Liberal theology, nor am I a card-carrying member of the increasingly “progressive” branch of Christianity. I never liked cards anyway.

I see the whole of fundamentalism and “progressive” Christianity as two extremes—both missing the mark. Let me explain.

I grew up within a mild form of Fundamentalist Christianity, and I’m still surrounded by it here in Texas. It is known for being dogmatic, legalistic, obsessed with biblical inerrancy, militant in defending creationism, escapist in eschatology, and committed to nationalism and the Republican party.

For all its flaws, I do think that fundamentalism has been very forthright about the person and saving work of Jesus, even if that message is often a bit muddled with poor atonement theories and hell-fire, pulpit-pounding.

Nevertheless, a clarity about the person and work of Jesus is refreshing after you’ve been bombarded by many competing voices in the culture that wish to turn Jesus into a gnostic guru, a civil rights leader, or reduce him down to a social revolutionary, and nothing more. Liberalism at its finest.

Liberal Christianity today is really just a post-enlightenment version of Thomas Jefferson’s sanitized Jesus—a Jesus stripped of his divinity, his miracle-making, and muzzled from making exclusive truth claims.

If a person comes to believe in such things, they shouldn’t even call themselves a “Christian” anymore. If you can’t affirm Christ’s divinity, his saving power by the cross, and his literal resurrection… you’re not a Christian in any historical sense of the term. If you want to start the Church of Jefferson, fine. But please leave historic Christianity to us Christians.

Progressive Christianity has much to say in response to pop-culture evangelicalism. Progressives like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, and many others need to be heard.

I can see and hear Jesus in these guys. I’ve benefited from them.

For example, I agree that the teachings of Jesus have been neglected and that doctrine (orthodoxy) has been emphasized over Christ-like living (orthopraxy). I believe that salvation begins in the here and now, that social justice is integral to discipleship, and that evangelicalism needs a more responsible biblical interpretive method.

I’m passionate about those things!

But I must say that I particularly take issue with how “progressives” have created a synthetic fog over a handful of biblical passages dealing with homosexuality, and seem to be using a “join-us-or-you’re-a-bigot” approach to responding to evangelicalism’s overall failure to love our gay neighbors.

Progressives appear to want nothing less than full support of the LGBT community, meaning that you agree that homosexuality is an acceptable way of being human, and that Jesus would approve of gay “marriage” (going beyond civil unions to the church blessing the relationship), or you’re “homophobic” and an enemy of all that’s good.

Let’s be honest. If this is the way progressives are going to frame the issue, reflecting the typical polarities of hot-button issues within politics, they are only going to perpetuate the vitriolic climate in society—a climate they say that they lament. But I do wonder if they’re not being just as divisive and dishonest as the folks over at Westboro Baptist.

Is it “bigotry” to disagree with someone on a moral/religious issue? Is it “hate” to believe another person’s life choices are destructive to that person and to society? Is it “homophobic” to believe that homosexuality is a sin like adultery, greed, or idolatry, and oppose elevating it to normal human behavior, as if it were an obvious evolution of mankind? Is it “intolerant” to want to maintain laws (church & state) that support a historical, time-tested institution (heterosexual monogamous marriage) for the good of society?

As many of you know, all of this has been leveled at those who disagree in any way with the LGBT community and her “progressive” supporters. I see a constant stream of this stuff on social networking and online magazines, especially in light of Rob Bell’s recent affirmation of gay marriage.

This is the message I’m getting: You’re either a supporter of LGBT or you’re likely an intolerant bigot who hates gay people.

I think this is unfair and dishonest. It leaves no room for a third way of responding to the LGBT community and those in our local communities that have embraced a gay identity. It claims that in order to love your gay neighbor you must accept their lifestyle.

Why must this be the case? Do I have to accept the violence, greed, and idolatry of my neighbor and enemies in order to love them? Of course not. So why should it be any different with gay folks in our communities? One extreme (fundamentalism) doesn’t justify another (liberalism).

If you consider yourself a “progressive” Christian, I want to encourage you to consider how LGBT supporters can be more honest and fair in their treatment toward those of us who disagree with you, but at the same time want to love their gay neighbor and accept them as created in God’s image.

Listen to Tim Keller represent a third way with grace and truth.

What do you think? Do you believe there is a third way that’s being overlooked? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.

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Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Part I

Many evangelicals are drunk on the spirit of the political age. We are often guilty of joining with the crowd that is fear mongering, demonizing people that disagree with us, and misrepresenting the positions of others in the process. We jump to conclusions and often assume the very worst about people, even those in the church.

This is hardly reflective of the suffering servant from Nazareth.

Unfortunately, many evangelical pastors and teachers have become spiritual demagogues for their own ministries, denominations, and causes. Just how bad is it? Well, some believe that ecumenicism is the work of devil worshipping liberals, yet legalism and spiritual narcissism is accepted as the true work of God. I think it’s satanic at the core.

I don’t know how else to put it. It’s evil masked as piety. It’s Pharisaism posing as God’s righteousness.

Ironically, mis-information is rampant in this great age of mass-information. While we have more access to learning than ever before in the history of the world, we’re actually getting dumber it seems.

What is happening? I think it has something to do with our inability to think critically and discern truth from error in a flood of ideas that challenge us, even causing us to doubt our faith.

We feel the world is threatening us so we retreat into an anti-intellectual spirituality, dig our heels into what we believe to be true, and speak loudly to all those who challenge our worldview.

This prompts some folks to believe everything coming from sensationalist media, and from their leaders who they have allowed to think for them. Can we do anything to correct this problem?

I think so. But first we’re going to have to address this judgmental spirit at work among us.

You Godless Liberal!

Let’s start with a verse that’s often proof-texted as “biblical” support for furthering your own personal agenda and pet doctrines. There are many others, but I’ll just address this one.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.  Romans 16:17 (NIV)

I don’t agree with the way this verse and several others from Paul have been used by many evangelical pastors and teachers to condemn others in the Body of Christ as false teachers and heretics (e.g. 1 Tim 1:3; 2 Tim 2:14-16, 2 Pet 2:1-3, etc). Let me tell you why.

The fact of the matter is that Rom 16:17 can be used and has been used to oppose anyone who believes or teaches anything we’ve never heard of or don’t agree with—which is often called “liberal” by those who feel it threatens the foundations of their faith.

What I have found is that most of these folks simply haven’t been exposed to anything other than what their denomination or tradition has taught them to believe, or they have been taught to shun everything that the “gatekeepers” of orthodoxy have told them to shun.

Of course they may just haven’t learned to think for themselves. If that’s not it, they may have the spirit of the heresy hunter.

What kind of person qualifies as a heresy hunter?

If you have a heightened sensitivity to anything that makes you theologically uncomfortable and compels you to hunt down and destroy all who you perceive to be theological terrorists, then you might be a heresy hunter.

I have done it. And I’ve had it done to me. It’s no fun.

It’s this sort of reaction by fundamentalist thinkers who are perpetuating division and causing quarrels in the church today. It’s not people like Rob Bell, Peter Enns, or the “open” scary-theist Greg Boyd that are the real source of division. It’s those who have verbally lynched them.

And while I don’t always agree with the seemingly forever-emerging Brian McLaren, I don’t even see him as a “threat” to our faith. No matter how much your pulpit-pounding preacher says these things with conviction, as we say in Texas, they just ain’t so.

The Gallows of Social Networking

The time it once took for papal bulls, church edicts, and the Baptist Standard to be sent out and circulated, in order to condemn so-called heretics, has now been expedited to the speed of Twitter and Facebook.

Exhibit A: John Piper’s tweet “Farewell, Rob Bell” in response to Bell’s book Love Wins—which sparked debate and an outcry by many evangelicals against our brother, Rob.

In the end, Piper’s tweet only helped Rob publish more books. It was quite the marketing strategy. But it also proved just how unloving and reactionary some have become in the church.

I know something similar has happened to my good friend, Frank Viola. His book, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (co-authored with George Barna), was the most despised book never read.

And just recently we have seen a backlash against missional church leader Alan Hirsch because of his book, The Permanent Revolution.

We don’t need to burn folks at the stake anymore… we have social networking.

What in tarnation is going on? Is this the Body of Christ? It’s time we rethink our use of social networking, and think about the serious consequences of posting everything we think or feel before having time to process things and respond in a way that honors the Lord.

I know that my record is not flawless in this area, but I’m determined to be more responsible with how I challenge others to think and respond to our neighbors and our enemies. I believe in being intentionally provocative, but there’s no excuse for ugliness in Jesus’ name.

Misjudging People as Heretics

Before we look at what the NT actually says about how to spot false teachers and heretics, let’s first look at a few faulty assumptions made about them in the church today.

Assumption #1: Anyone causing division might be a heretic.

Many Christians think that anyone bringing a teaching that causes division in the church is a sign of heresy or a false teacher at work. That could be the case, but usually it isn’t. It’s important to remember that all of the prophets, including Jesus and the apostles, caused division with their teachings.

Jesus was almost thrown off a cliff in his hometown! Religious folks were always plotting to kill him. In fact, Jesus’ own family thought he had lost his mind and was only stirring up trouble (Mk 3:20-21).

Look at the apostle Paul. Paul brought division in the Jerusalem church over the requirements (or lack thereof) for Gentiles becoming Christians. And some Jewish “super apostles” never gave up trying to undermine his Gentile ministry while he was alive (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11).

It seems clear to me that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was the heresy hunters who opposed him at every turn (2 Cor 12:7). Notice that he mentions the thorn in the context of these zealous Judaizers. So, division isn’t always a sign of a false teacher. Take it from Jesus and Paul.

Instead, the problem of division that we have today is mainly caused by heresy hunters and those screaming “witch” or “liberal” at every book published that doesn’t line up with their own theological opinions.

Assumption #2: Anyone who doesn’t agree with my favorite Bible teacher is probably a heretic.

“Well, you can believe what you want, but John MacArthur thinks you’re a heretic.” While I haven’t actually had someone say these exact words to my face, it has been insinuated many times over.

Just plug in the name of your favorite teacher and you get the gist of what I’m saying. “John Piper says…” or “Matt Chandler says…” or “My mamma says…” We should never think that any pastor, teacher, or family member has the cutting edge on truth. Never ever.

Of course there is rarely any consistency with those who herald one man, or a group of like-minded men, as the dispenser(s) of truth—which creates an unhealthy commitment to them, and causes us to look suspiciously at others who don’t fit in our group.

I once reminded someone that John MacArthur, whom they believed was a defender of orthodoxy, didn’t believe in telling people to “tithe” the OT temple tax. Needless to say, they didn’t take that too well since they adamantly believed that God would not bless you unless you gave 10% to the church—a teaching not found anywhere in the NT or practiced in the early church. (See 2 Corinthians 9 for NT-styled giving.)

And I’ll never forget hearing Ravi Zacharias bash Brian McLaren’s book The Secret Message of Jesus on a panel of conservative preachers (including Al Mohler) expressing their disdain for the emerging/emergent church. Zacharias admitted that he had not read the book personally. He merely criticized the book because of its title.

John Piper has done this sort of thing too.

Since I had read the book, I knew that McLaren was referring to what is known as the “Messianic Secret” among scholars. I have heard the same message in McLaren’s book preached in pulpits everywhere.

Clearly we are guilty of throwing people under the bus before giving them a fair trial. Who does that sound like? Ever heard of the Sanhedrin?

So, just because your favorite Bible teacher or someone you greatly admire believes something doesn’t necessarily make it so. Go to the source, consider the word of other Christian leaders, and think for yourself. Nobody has all perfect wisdom and knowledge except for the Lord Jesus.

Assumption #3: Those who disagree with the majority of pastors, scholars, and teachers are heretics of the worst kind.

This last assumption I would like to address may be the most common. On the surface this charge appears reasonable. However, we need to seriously consider whether or not judging truth based on the “majority” is more American and democratic than it is biblical.

When I was in college I remember regularly listening to a Christian radio program on the way to school. One day I heard them say that Hank Hanegraaff would no longer be played on their radio station because he disagreed with pre-tribulation rapture theology. The host said, “We just refuse to believe that Hank is right and everyone else (conservative preachers) is wrong.”

You guessed it. I never listened to that radio station again.

That’s terrible reasoning. Mainstream biblical scholarship rejects Left Behind eschatology, but who really cares when the majority of our favorite teachers say something different. Seriously?

There are tons of biblical examples that overturn this sort of reasoning. In Noah’s day the majority would soon take their chances with sin and rebellion than listen to news of a great coming flood.

The majority at Sodom and Gomorrah chose to ignore the outstretched arm of Yahweh to save them from their sins of greed, idolatry, and sexual immorality (Gen 19). Want to join the Sodom majority?

I’d say a lot of American Christians are committing the real sins of Sodom (see Ezek 16:47-49). So much for singling out homosexuality as the most detestable sin on the planet.

Jeremiah preached for 40 years without a single convert! All of the people believed the rest of the king’s prophets, not Jeremiah. They threw the lone voice in a dungeon, saying that he was a false prophet and a heretic.

In fact, most of the prophets were eccentric loners who were perceived as rabble-rousers and disturbers of the peace. They rattled the cages of the religious elite, and it ticked them off.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Jesus, Matt 23:37

Do you really want to believe the majority? The majority killed Christ. They distorted his message, they trapped him, and they brutally murdered him. Jesus challenged their safe, traditional interpretations of Scripture and their way of life, and they crucified him for it.

Follow the Lord, not the majority. The majority is not always right.

Who are the real heretics and who are true teachers of the Lord? In the next post (Part II) I will outline what I believe to be the criteria for discerning false teachers from faithful followers of Christ.

Can you think of other faulty assumptions people make when discerning truth from error? What do you make of the name-calling and finger pointing in the church today? What can we do to reverse this satanic practice of judging others in the Body of Christ?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


Q&A with Becky Garrison

Christian Satirist Tired of Fast Food Faith

Becky Garrison is fed up with pop-culture Christianity.  She contends that humor enables her to trek on through the circus of sycophantic religion that is so prevelant today.

Becky invites us all to laugh at some of the Christian lifestyles and traditions she observed on her travels from the US to the Holy Land in her most recent book, Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ (Zondervan, 2010).

I caught up with Becky and asked her to share a little bit about herself and her perspective on Christian faith and culture.

So what’s the life of a full-time satirist like anyway?

Since the demise of The Wittenburg Door at the end of 2006, I’ve been moving away from jokey type humor. Let’s face it, how many times can one pen goofy bits like “top signs you aren’t going to be ordained” or “The Bible According to [Insert name of the latest politician or pastor who got caught with his pants down]” before one goes on autopilot and starts to dial it in?

I still conduct interviews both for a podcast I did for Jesus Died For This? and interested media outlets, as well as writing non-satirical pieces as requested. Recently, I’ve been exploring the role of the writer as storyteller and different ways one can use technology (e.g., print, web, podcast, You Tube) to convey stories.

I talk about this transition in a bit more detail in an Iconocast podcast that I did with co-hosts Mark and Sarah.

Also, like every other creative, I’m still reeling post-financial crisis regarding how to proceed in the rapidly changing publishing world. I’ve been chatting with a range of creative types including Nicholas Fielder, Ed Cyzewski, Joan Ball, Caleb Seeling, and Spencer Burke, as well as exploring via workshops how we can all communicate theological change without becoming a crass marketing machine.

Currently, I’m embarking on a long-term listening tour where I’m trying to explore other ways of communicating about my work without falling into the Christian branding BS that I deconstruct in Jesus Died For This?. In 2008, Andrew Jones declared the Christian carnival over and it’s crystal clear that  author/speaker model is no longer sustainable especially given this current financial climate.

I reflect in a video I did with Travis Reed for Alter Video Magazine how it breaks my heart when Christian leaders won’t say what’s on their heart out of fear for losing street cred and book sales. Once the focus shifts to crafting a message that’s memorable and marketable, a writer may be rich (see Joel Osteen) but in the process, they lost whatever original voice they had that drew people to them in the first place.

In addition to talking up the themes I raise in Jesus Died for This?, I’m connecting with Episcopal folks about my book Starting from Zero with O$ (Seabury Books, 2010), researching another book for Church Publishing and some other projects. Also, I’m gleaning ideas regarding where the global spirit is heading moving forward so my work can accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground.

Why did you write this book? What is different about your critique of Christianity in today’s society?

I explore this over at Religion Dispatches for those looking for more detail on this topic. In a nutshell, over the past few years, I’ve had a rather unique window into what religion scholar Phyllis Tickle terms the Great Emergence, a period of massive societal upheaval impacting technology, science, politics, religion, and the global culture at large. So decided to chronicle my travels to help others navigate this sea change so that we all don’t become seasick, spiritually speaking.

The unique lens I take to all my work is that I have a satirical world view – humor became my saving grace that helped me to survive as my nuclear family slowly deteriorated and then detonated. I view life as a tragic comedy but in the end, I see the glass as half-filled with hope instead of half-empty dripped in despair.

What have you learned most from emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Andrew Jones, etc.?

I chose Andrew Jones and Jonny Baker as the two expert guides during those times in the book when I’m exploring new forms of church. In reading their blogs and then traveling with them to places like Greenbelt and Slot, I’ve observed how they both have a global perspective that far transcends the commercialized US evangelical/emergent model that dominates the discussion here in the States.

Jonny and Andrew like most of the practitioners I meet don’t pimp themselves on the unbiblically branded author/speaker circuit claiming to be experts. Instead, they look for more horizontal approaches that enable all to have a voice in this ongoing global conversation. Take for example, Proost UK, an artists collective co-founded by Jonny Baker, Jon Birch and Aad Vermeyden that highlights the works of a range of artistic communities instead of elevating a few misisonal males as religious rock stars.

In your book, you say N.T. Wright should be “savored and sipped.” Can you explain? Why should the church listen to this preeminent New Testament scholar?

When I was at Soularize 2007 listening to N.T. Wright deliver some lectures, I found it amusing how this bevy of bloggers had their eyes glued to their laptop screens and their fingers going so fast that  they seemed to be on autopilot. They were so busy trying to blog about what NT Wright was saying that they didn’t seem to have any time to contemplate his message and how they could apply his teachings to their ministries. I’m a writer, so I get the need to record what’s happening. But when I get too narrowly focused on note taking, I tend miss the larger story that’s happening around me.

In NT. Wright, the church has an international treasure. Like C.S.. Lewis, he’s one of those rare academics who can write both for the academy and the person in the pew. Unlike most Christian author/speakers, he doesn’t dial it in by continuing to repackage the same idea ad infinitum (or until people catch wind of this ungodly game and quit buying their product).  While one will find the threads of Anglican theology woven through his work, each book either presents new ideas or revised spins on his earlier works.

Check out Wright’s ongoing debates with fellow theologian Marcus Borg for an excellent example of how two scholars with an Anglican backgrounds can engage in rigorous scholarly debates without resorting to the mean spiritedness that all too often dominates today’s blog battles. Even when Wright takes on taking on the far more crankier John Piper in his book Justification, he rises above this Reformed rancor and presents the most compelling refutation of Piper that I’ve seen to date.

You shared a few personal things about your dad in this book. What would you say to others who have been let down by spiritual leaders?

I tell bits of my story and will continue to share as appropriate so that others can realize they are not alone when they find themselves emerging from faith fights feeling more bloodied than biblical. I had done a lot of recovery work relating to growing up as an adult child of an alcoholic but Jesus Died for This? marked the first time I really explored the dark side of my father’s ministry as an Episcopal priest and sociology professor.

In the beginning, his charismatic personality drew others to him as he championed for civil rights in the Deep South circa 1950s. His ministry with young adults dovetailed with his sociological research exploring why students were drawn to fringe groups like the Jesus People or Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Unfortunately, his narcissism natures coupled with his alcoholism created a cult of personality that ran roughshod over the Gospel. Armed with this self-awareness, I can see a pattern in my life where I’ve been drawn to helping narcissistic geniuses who are filled with potential and promise.

I share in my book how I need to learn to walk away when their talk of “community” sounds more self-centered than Christlike. My hope is that others will learn to do likewise and like me discover find healthier spiritual places to play.

What signs of the “Risen Christ” do you believe are most evident today? What encourages you to press on in Christ through the church?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt connected to the divine whenever I’m exploring nature albeit hiking, fly-fishing, sailing, or kayaking. However, it wasn’t until I actually set foot on Irish soil I found my spiritual home in Celtic Christianity. Towards the end of the book, I describe how I went out west and finally connected with Kurt Neilson, my pilgrim guide for my ongoing pilgrimage and his partner in Celtic crime Karen Ward. In the Pacific Northwest, I discovered the same thin line imagery that connects this world to the next that I encountered in Ireland.

As I continue my travels, I keep meeting other souls from around the world, many of whom might not call themselves Christian for a host of very legitimate reasons. But we can still meet in this thin space as we all seek to make some kind of a spiritual connection outside of ourselves.

As I document throughout the book, once one steps away from Americana Branded™ Christianity, one can find ample signs that the spirit is alive and kicking.

“So I’d encourage folks to stop consuming fast food faith and embark on their own pilgrimage to see where the spirit might be speaking to them.”

What’s next for Becky Garrison? Any upcoming projects? What’s on your mind?

I share some of my reflections regarding possible future projects on Religion Dispatches. Jesus Died for This? marks the end of my critique of the US evangelicalism/emergent scene. I’ve said all I care to say about a form of a historical Christianity that keeps chasing after the next new shiny theological toy. All signs indicate that publishers latest quests to rebrand emergent as organic, missional, outlaw preacher, holy hipster and the like are repelling far more folks than they’re attracting.

Over the past few years I’ve been writing for more secular markets such as Killing the Buddha, The Revealer, Religion Dispatches and On Faith. These ventures broaden my perspective considerably as I continue to explore ways to critique Christian Reconstructionism and other bastardizations of the faith without resorting to the Nazi-name calling between religious progressives and conservatives that has come to define faith-based politics.

And speaking from my own faith tradition, how can the teachings of Christ offer hope in a world dominated by religious leaders spouting forth a fear based rhetoric? Along those lines, I’m interested in connecting with this growing number of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as we seek out ways to create spaces where religious progressives and humanists can come together to explore what we have in common with our shared humanity.

Becky Garrison is a Contributing Editor for Sojourners. Her books include The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church. Her additional writing credits include work for The Wittenburg Door, Geez, Killing the Buddha, and Religion Dispatches, as well as various other odd and sundry publications.

Learn more about Becky @ www.beckygarrison.com


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


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