Monday, August 29, 2016

Thinking About Hell

Hi L----! It's so good to hear from you.

That's a really good question. And I really appreciate your struggle. I can honestly only imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to move away from the religion you were raised in and which means so much to you and your family. That's not easy at all. There is much about Mormonism that I respect, and I hope you understand that by believing that Mormonism is a false religion I do not mean that everything it teaches is wrong. But I do think that is precisely what makes false religions like Mormonism so... treacherous. It's the mixture, and that mixture is calculated by Satan to deceive people. But when a person leaves Mormonism (or any false religion) they don't have to leave behind their beliefs and practices that are actually true and good. They need to learn how to think about those things in a new way--in accordance with reality and truth.

The question about hell is undoubtedly a hard one. Really hard. But for me what's hard about it isn't in trying to see what the Bible teaches regarding hell. What can be hard is understanding why it teaches it. Hell can seem a harsh, over-the-top punishment without the promise of rehabilitation. It can seem below the God of love to send someone there. It's hard to see how the concept of hell fits with other beautiful concepts given in Scripture. But, there it is in Scripture. If I'm to maintain with myself any intellectual integrity, I can see no other way to look at Scripture than to acknowledge the doctrine of hell. Attempts to see Scripture otherwise always seem to me to mishandle Scripture, cutting corners and evading the straightforward. I know why people do that. One way to look at it is that they are trying to be intellectually coherent regarding everything else the Scriptures teach. The Scriptures teach God is a God of love. It follows, they argue, that a God of love wouldn't send anyone to hell. Therefore it follows that the Scriptures do not teach that God sends anyone to hell. How else can we make sense of Scripture? Yet by arguing this way they must evade clear Scriptural teaching, and say: "I don't know what those Scriptures mean... or, I shall here suspend my judgment on what they mean... or perhaps they mean this far-fetched meaning... I only know they don't teach the traditional doctrine of hell." So a mystery is embraced: we understand a loving God wouldn't send someone to hell, therefore we don't really understand those verses.

I've learned that in whatever system of belief there is, one will always run up against mystery somewhere. There will always be something you don't understand, or at least have great difficulty in understanding. The question is, where do I run into it? Where do I feel comfortable running into mystery? That is, where is it most reasonable to run into mystery?

There is a different way of approaching those verses about hell. This way says: "I know the Bible clearly teaches that God is a God of love. I also know the Bible clearly teaches that God sends unbelievers to hell. I don't understand how that can be, but I trust in the greater wisdom of God who knows all things. In other words, I don't know exactly how God sending people to hell fits with His love, but I do know the Scriptures teach both things, therefore I know the answer cannot be that He doesn't send people to hell." Like the other approach, this approach also acknowledges mystery, but the mystery is not located in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are clear. The mystery is located in the divine nature, in the nature of love and in the nature of sending someone to hell. Which is right? To find the mystery/difficulty in God and in the nature of how love works, or to find the mystery/difficulty in Scripture?

I believe the right thing to do is to accept that the mystery/difficulty is in God and in the nature of love, rather than in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were given to humans by God, in human language, in order to teach and instruct. God hasn't communicated to us in a way that is impossible, or is even that difficult to decipher.  The words and manner of speech in the Bible are decipherable, and are intended by God to be believed. It is much more credible to locate the mystery in the nature of God and in love and to confess that our human understanding of these things fall short. It seems right to me (doesn't it seem to you?) to accept whatever God has revealed plainly, even if it is hard to understand, and to submit our finite human wisdom to God's infinite wisdom, rather than to say that what God has plainly revealed is undecipherable because it isn't easily understandable to human finite minds.

Now I'm not saying that there is no way for us to understand these things. I'm only recognizing that they are difficult to understand. This difficultly arises because we don't think like God does. We humans tend to think very differently than God about God, ourselves, the nature of sin, the nature of justice, concepts of love, questions of value, chief ends, good and evil, and so forth. I think if we are honest, we humans are terrible judges of sin. We do not see sin the way God does. We downplay it, or are numb to it, or are enraged about its presence in others but not its presence in ourselves, or are selectively enraged, or are partial to people we like, or all of the above. Likewise we humans are terrible worshipers of God. We are idolaters, experts at ignoring truth, numb or apathetic to the existence of our Creator, clueless about the worth of His glory, and are self-centered rather than God-centered. In other words, we neither "get" God nor do we "get" ourselves. Is it any wonder, then, that we hardly "get" hell? Couldn't our failure to come to terms with the concept of hell lie, not in hell per se, but in our failure to come to terms with the very concepts--the other concepts, of God and man and sin--that make hell intelligible?

L----, I know in my own life that I often fail to grasp the reality and worth of God. I also often fail to grasp the evil of my sin--the sin which sent Christ the Son of God to that horrific death which was required to make atonement for my sins. That tells me something. I am, as a human, generally clueless. It should not therefore surprise me that I find hell so difficult. My view of God, humanity, and sin is skewed.

It's when I'm allowing my mind to be instructed by the Word of God concerning God, humanity, and sin that hell makes perfect sense to me. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6), he cried out "Woe is me!" Grasping God enabled Isaiah to grasp himself, and in light of these two things he grasped his woe. I find the same thing in my own life. And when I'm struggling with hell, I remind myself... "Eli, you're struggling to see God and man, too. You aren't seeing things as God sees them." So I accept hell as a Christian, not because it always makes sense to me, but because I know that God has revealed it, and I know that God knows better than I do, and I know that I'm usually not the best judge of these matters. Therefore I accept the Scriptural teaching about hell.

While this is not always easy, it does, however, bring with it further important outcomes. Accepting the doctrine of hell means accepting the unspeakable and enormous evil of sin, which in turn means accepting the even more incomprehensible and astounding love of God for sinners (Eph. 3:19). If you think sin is little, then the love of God for sinners is little. If you see sin for what it is (enormous, hell-deserving), you see the love of God for what is (prodigiously gracious, altogether surprising). This has been the experience of Christians throughout the centuries: the love of God is felt to be extraordinary when you realize He has saved you from His real and dreadful eternal wrath (Rom. 5:5-11). It leaves you speechless. Thus, curiously, to get rid of hell in our thinking is in the end to get rid of the unspeakable love of God in our thinking.

Does one have to believe in hell in order to be a Christian?

I believe the answer is yes. I don't mean that a person has to understand all the ins and outs of it, or that they have to have a perfect conception of what hell is (does anyone?). But I do believe that a person--in order to even understand the saving work of Jesus--must understand something about what God is, what man is, what sin is, what the problem is, what Jesus did to solve the problem, and that He is the only way for the problem to be solved. A person puts his faith in Christ for salvation because he know that without faith in Christ he is damned. Because he understands something of the issues, he also knows that Christ is the only way, and that whoever does not believe in Him will--as Jesus taught--perish. If you don't see that God is a God of wrath against sin, how can you understand your sin, and your need for Christ's atoning sacrifice, and your need to put your faith in Him? Being a Christian is not something a Christian sees as optional.

The things we believe reveal more things we believe. Being a Christian means believing in the truth about Christ, as God has revealed it.

Thanks for asking me, L----. I'm humbled that you'd do so. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Your friend, Eli

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2 Peter 3:10-14 - Two Exhortations in Light of the Day of the Lord

Hello brother B-----, greetings to you from Logan, Utah!

As you probably know from reading my story, I grew up in New Brunswick, not too far from you. It's nice getting to know another brother from those parts. As I understand it, Christianity (true Christianity) is quite a minority in Quebec... but you should be encouraged; it's a minority everywhere. It always has been, and always will be until Jesus returns.

I'm so blessed to hear that those articles have been an encouragement to you. And thank you, brother, for your question on 2 Peter. I'm truly honored that you'd ask me.

Here is how I understand this passage (2 Peter 3:10-14):

The passage is clearly referring to the day when the Lord returns and judges the wicked as well as delivers His people, and in light of the fact of this coming day, Peter has two exhortations: 1) the reality of this day should influence how we practically live our lives, and, 2) we should be diligent to be found in Christ on that day so as to obtain salvation and not experience God's judgment. So I separate those two exhortations, seeing them as distinct.

The first exhortation in verse 11 is like Paul's similar exhortations in Ephesians 5:3-12 and Colossians 3:5-11. In those passages, Paul exhorts believers to live their lives in light of truth and reality: all sin, evil, immortality, etc. is unbecoming of Christians, since as Christians we understand that these deeds incur the wrath of God: Christ suffered the wrath of God because of them, and unbelievers will be punished eternally for them on the day of judgment. I don't believe in either of these passages Paul is threatening Christians with damnation if they don't live rightly, nor do I believe he is saying that the way of salvation is by living rightly (that would contradict everything Paul has taught about salvation elsewhere, and in Ephesians and Colossians). Rather, he is only pointing to the fact that sinners will be punished for their sin on the day of judgment, and since we Christians understand this we should also recognize that such behavior is unbecoming for us. We shouldn't participate with ignorant Gentiles in them, since we know better. It is not, "cease from sin and be saved", but "cease from sin, since you know better: Christ died because of these, and non-believers will be damned for these things." By faith alone we are delivered from the wrath we deserve. Even though we as Christians still do these things we will not be damned, for we are righteous in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, what we now understand tells us to avoid these things.

That is also what I see Peter saying in verse 11. Since Christ will return and punish all those who are outside of Christ for their sins, in light of this fact how ought we to live our lives? We ought to live our lives differently than the ignorant Gentile world, in reverence toward God who has saved us and who will punish the unrighteous for their sins. I don't believe there is a threat here for Christians. It is not that Christians must live holy and reverent lives in order to be saved (for we are saved by grace through faith, and not of works), but Peter is simply exhorting Christians to live the way we "ought" to in light of reality.

The second exhortation in v. 14 I see as more threatening. Peter is here warning us to be found in Christ on the day of judgment so that we do not perish with the rest of the world. In order for any person to survive the judgment of God he must be "spotless and blameless"; only then will he find peace with God. But if he is found unrighteous and blamable, then there will not be peace for him, but " wrath and indignation... tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek" (Romans 2:8-9).

As Christians, the Holy Spirit has taught us that there is no one who is righteous in and of themselves, and that no one can be righteous by the works of the law (their own works/efforts at being righteous). The only possible way for anyone to be righteous before God is by faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. When a person believes in Jesus they are united to Him in His death and His resurrection, so that the believer is likewise counted as dead and as risen, and is now alive unto God through Jesus Christ. The believer is no longer counted a sinner; his sins are no longer counted against him, for he is dead and he is a new creation in Christ, the righteousness of God in Him, totally blameless in the estimation of God--utterly and solely because of the finished work of Christ. "Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (Colossians 1:22). "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). Hallelujah, that is good news!

Peter himself points us to Paul's writings on the topic of salvation in the verses which immediately follow (v. 15-16). Being found "in peace, spotless and blameless" is only accomplished through faith in Christ. A believer in Christ will be found just so. Therefore what Peter is exhorting his readers to do in this verse is to believe.

But a follow-up question is: why does he need to exhort them to believe? Aren't his readers already Christians? The answer is found all over the Bible: because we inherit the promises "through faith and patience" (Hebrews 6:12). Until the coming the Lord, as long as we live in this body, there are constant forces seeking to destroy our faith and devour our hope. Trials, tribulations, persecutions, lies, deceptions, false prophets, etc. Peter warns us about them in both 1 and 2 Peter. There's a tension in the Bible between us resting and us racing, between us having been saved and us looking ahead to the coming of our salvation. From one perspective, our salvation is yet to come, and until it comes we are in need of patient endurance against the threat of these forces. Yet the Bible encourages us that "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6), and "whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith" (1 John 5:4). That is, our faith is in reality the work of God (Jeremiah 32:39-40), and what God began He will certainly complete. So as Christians we can have assurance and confidence that we will endure to the end because we are born of God, belong to God, are in His hands, and no one can snatch us out of His hands. That's the tension: there's a race to be run, but God will make sure that we run it. Furthermore, God uses such exhortations as 2 Peter 3:14 to ensure that we run it. Those who are born of God heed the warning and persevere. Those who are not born of God don't heed it.

On the other hand, it's important to understand that if we truly believe in Jesus and are born of God, then we are right now justified before the Father. Our finishing the race does not make us God's children, nor does it make us justified, but it reveals that we were His children all along. This is what I believe Colossians 1:22-23 means: "He has now reconciled you... if indeed you continue in the faith" (see also Hebrews 3:14). So if you believe in Jesus Christ--understanding and hoping in the righteousness that comes through faith alone in the death and resurrection of Jesus (something, by the way, that no unregenerate person can do: 1 Corinthians 2:14, 12:3, etc.)--then you can assure yourself that you are born of God, now and forever justified, and that you will make it to the end.

So I see 2 Peter 3:14 as an exhortation to continue in the faith so that on the day of the Lord we will be found in Christ, righteousness and blameless through faith alone in Him. This exhortation is necessary because until that day we must run the race of faith with perseverance. God uses many means to keep us running, such as exhortations like these. Running is solely about faith in Christ; we must continue to believe with patience until the end. But the other side of the coin is the promise, that if we are born of God, we will continue to believe until the end.

B-----, I hope that answers your question about this passage. Neither verse 11 nor verse 14 takes anything away from the grace of God and the gospel of righteousness through faith alone. Verse 11 is simply an exhortation to live our lives in a fitting manner (no threat), and verse 15 is an exhortation to believe (in light of the race/rest tension).

If this raises other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.

For a helpful book on the tension between running and resting, I'd recommend Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday's "The Race Set Before Us" (scholarly), or for an easier read, Thomas Schreiner's "Run to Win the Prize".

May God bless you, brother, and multiply His peace in your heart.
Yours in Christ Jesus,