How you conceive of the far future will control what happens in the near future. Now people talk about threats to humanity today: global warming, resource exhaustion, asteroid impact, overpopulation, whatever. I don’t think any of those things are the real threat to humanity today. Some of them are issues that need to be dealt with, some are overdrawn, but the real threat to humanity comes from bad ideas.
Humanity did not have catastrophes in the 20th century because of resource depletion, global warming, overpopulation, or asteroids. It had it because of bad ideas and in particular, one bad idea—with a number of variants to it. And that bad idea is that there isn’t enough to go around.
He explains how World War I and World War II are examples of nations acting on this bad idea—the former being “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century that sets in motion most of the rest.” We pretty much created hell on earth.
It is simply not true that humanity is composed of nations or races in a struggle for existence over scarce resources—that is a false point of view but nevertheless, if it is embraced it has the capability of causing absolute catastrophe.
In recent years, he has heard scarcity again being given as a reason for an “inevitable” war—this time between China and America. To my relief and delight, he powerfully and succinctly refutes that logic:
Now, this is a false point of view. I mean the fundamental point of view is Malthusian, “There’s only so much resources… population increases, standards of living go down…” In fact, history shows the exact opposite—as the world’s population has gone up, the standard of living has gone up! Why? Because consumption depends upon production. Production is people times technology.
The more people there are, the more inventors there are, and inventions are accumulative—that is why people create resources. There’s no such thing as a “natural resource”, there’s only natural raw materials. They are turned into resources by resourceful people.
It’s not that we’re gonna get oil from Mars, it’s that we’re gonna disprove a fallacy. We’re gonna disprove this fallacy that there’s only so much to go around—that there’s a roof on the Earth. There’s not a roof on the Earth—Earth comes with an infinite sky and it’s wide open. And that’s The Case for Space.
While this was God’s intention, they acknowledge it’s often not how people think and act.
The story of the Hebrew scriptures [claim] that our “scarcity” problem isn’t caused by a lack of resources. Rather, the problem is our mindset that God cannot be trusted.
Once we are deceived into that mindset of scarcity, we can justify the impulse to take care of me and mine before anyone else. That leads to envy, anger, violence and a world where it seems like there is not enough.
Now, I’m excited that Zubrin encourages going to Space to “disprove this fallacy that there’s only so much to go around” but I’m even more excited that for thousands of years God has been working on proving that there is more than enough for everyone, as Mackie goes on to explain. Unfortunately, the the nation God initially engages doesn’t get it and become another example of war resulting from the idea of scarcity.
[The Israelites] act like [the land of abundance] is all theirs and like there is not enough. It leads to war and Israel’s self-destruction.
Thankfully, God is more persistent than us and made his surprising next move—poetically, giving us the most generous gift of all, himself, in Jesus.
Jesus lives with the conviction that there is enough. And that our generous host can be trusted. His mindset of abundance allowed him to live sacrificially and generously even towards his enemies.
Despite personally experiencing poverty, Jesus viewed the world differently:
[Jesus] would say things like this: Look at the birds. They do not store up food for themselves, yet they have enough. Or, consider the wildflowers. They are beautiful and abundant. And they do not stress about their existence. And you all should live that way, too.
Jesus encouraged us to follow him in trusting in God’s abundance.
That is why he said things like, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Or, “Do not worry about your life.” He is inviting us to live by a different story. One that is built on trust in God’s goodness and love.
However, change takes time.
Jesus knows we are all hopelessly deceived by this lie that there is not enough.
We need to expose that lie, reforming our thinking to make this world less hellish and more harmonious for all.
So, that is what Jesus was doing when he gave us the gift of his life. Jesus’ death was the ultimate expression of God’s generous love.
We are all called to live in the light of this, whether that be building rockets to Mars or simply through our hospitality to those around us.
Yeah, and when you believe there is enough, you start seeing opportunities for generosity everywhere. With our time, money, and our attention.
Jordan B Peterson is the most thought-provoking person I’ve come across in a long time so it’s apt that my 100th blog post is about him. There are already more than a million videos of him. People on both the Left and the Right regularly get offended by him. To some, he is a bigoted extremist; propagating harmful lies—to others he’s a profane heretic; undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet to others, he is a brave hero; a prophetic genius daring to speak the truth. One thing is clear, he’s gaining followers and enemies at an exponential rate!
I keep discovering that people I respect are following him e.g. the editor of Four Views on Hell:
I’ve been listening to this guy… his name’s Jordan B Peterson and he’s not like an orthodox Christian guy but … he has these lectures where he’s talking about Genesis one through four. And he loves the story of Cain and Abel, and one of the things that he said that’s really stuck with me is … he goes, “I don’t get it, this story of Cain and Abel is so densely packed with wisdom … it’s only like two paragraphs long and this story does so much and explains so much about reality!”
One of the reasons he’s generating so much interest is that it’s remarkably hard to put him into a box. I’ll admit that the first time I came across him I thought, “Who is this crazy man?”! While he definitely is unconventional and controversial (not your classic conservative or liberal), it’s obvious that he is highly intelligent, well-read, and educated. So who is he and what exactly is he saying?
His areas of study and research are in the fields of psychopharmacology, abnormal, neuro, clinical, personality, social, industrial and organizational, religious, ideological, political, and creativity psychology. Peterson has authored or co-authored more than a hundred academic papers.
The list above gives an indication of the topics he formally covers—although, given he does many informal Q&As and interviews, he actually discusses an even greater range! So it’s difficult to know where to start… He has fascinating and practical insights into personality traits, emotions, goal-setting, education, addiction, mental illnesses, relationships, racism, politics, why people behave the way they do, etc. (e.g. Jordan B Peterson Clips, 20 Minutes on UnderstandMyself.com, and Self Authoring), but today I’m only going to briefly introduce a few of his philosophical and theological ideas.
He honestly values all sorts of people, no matter where they are on the Left/Right spectrum. He explains the essential contributions of different views in our ever-changing social, political, and physical environment (e.g. Why It’s Useful to Talk to People You Don’t Agree With).
He emphatically promotes the need for articulate, truthful, and free speech—Logos. To survive we need ongoing conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and open communication, especially between people who see the world so very differently from each other. Truth is also the antidote to suffering, it’s the means by which we can overcome chaos, create good, and discover meaning (e.g. The Articulated Truth).
He has an interesting argument about how we can know what is real. Logically, given we are finite beings, we have limitations that cause suffering. The resulting pain is self-evidently real. But we can go further, we know that we can do things that make the pain worse. Therefore, we have some idea of what we can do to reduce or mitigate the pain, and indeed it’s then conceivable that there is an opposite to the pain—namely, something that is good (e.g. Is Your Pain Real?).
We should try to aim for the highest and greatest good—good for you, your family, your community, and the world, not just for today but for tomorrow, and the foreseeable future. If we don’t, we risk going around in circles, or worse, descending into chaos and hell (e.g. Dare To Aim For The Highest Good).
In order to have any chance of making the world a better place, we must first sort out our lives rather than assuming we can go around “fixing” others (e.g. How to Change the World—Properly).
We need to voluntarily face and defeat our “dragons” before they get too big and eat us. All sorts of problems can become “dragons”—from small things, like not cleaning your room or paying a bill, to large things, like abuse that you’ve suffered (e.g. Slaying the Dragon Within us).
We want to try to walk with one foot in chaos and the other in order. If we go too far into chaos we will drown, if we go too far into order we will become frozen (e.g. Living a Proper Life between Chaos & Order).
He soberingly articulates the many ways we can make life hell for ourselves and those around us, frequently citing frightening examples from the past 100 years. But he doesn’t leave it there, he encourages us forward.
He appreciates a wide range of art, music, culture, beauty, and wisdom—which, combined with his authentic, conversational style and everyday topics, make him accessible to a broad audience I think, although some people might think he’s too coarse or intellectual at times.
He is great at showing how religions, mythology, archetypes, and psychology are interrelated—which actually gives me a greater appreciation for all of them. Out of this, he explains why Postmodernism is self-defeating and an inadequate philosophy for life. While there are numerous ways to interpret things, many interpretations can be demonstrated as false.
Religion shouldn’t be written off as mere superstition as it’s the distillation of countless generations of profound wisdom and the acting out of deep psychological truths. He sees Christianity as the most thoroughly developed example.
I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of Universal redemption and the defeat of evil. Now I know perfectly well that all those things can be well conceptualized metaphorically… but I’m not willing to make the claim that those ideas exhaust themselves in the metaphor.
Below is the second post in a mini-series unpacking my talk above.
Before I get to how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, I’ll share a few more possible parallels to the account in 1 Peter. First, Jesus pointed back to Jonah:
From the belly of the underworld [literally Hades in the Greek] I cried out for help… You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me… I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.
But you brought me out of the pit.
Jonah 2:2b,3,6b, CEB
Here we have a descent to Hades intertwined with the image of a flood, similar to 1 Peter. There’s also the parallel of the “bars” and being imprisoned, and that both Jonah and Jesus were in Hades for 3 days before being raised (Von Balthasar and Parry suggest Lamentations is another OT parallel 1).
But there’s more, while Jesus was going through Hades he preached the good news so that the dead prisoners could be saved (v6b “live with God”):
I think that’s reinforced by Ephesians 4:8 (above), John 12:32, and Philippians 2:8-11 (see table below for all the similarities).
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”
God highly exalted Jesus & gave him the name that is above every name (v9)
angels, authorities, & powers subject to Jesus (v22)
every knee will bow to Jesus—in heaven & on earth & under the earth (v10)
that God may be glorified (v11)
to the glory of God (v11)
And maybe these two verses are also alluding to the idea:
And they [the kings of the earth] shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited [episkopḗ: “oversight that naturally goes on to provide the care and attention appropriate to the “personal visitation.””].
Isaiah 24:22, KJV
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Zechariah 9:11, ESV
First, most people see death as a very significant problem that humans face. Therefore, believing God has defeated death should inspire hope. I think this was particularly the case for Peter’s audience in their non-Christian society. Think about it, whenever someone became a Christian, surely one of the questions would be:
What about most of my friends and relatives who don’t believe—especially all those who have died without even hearing the Good News?
Well, I think Peter’s answer is, “Jesus has told them the Good News so they could turn to Him for salvation.”
Second, “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too.” (v1) Jesus proclaimed the Good News so we proclaim the Good News. Jesus did good so we try to do good. Some people will think we’re strange and will slander us—or worse. Depending on how severely they do that, it can certainly feel like hell, especially if it involves being betrayed by someone you love.
How do we respond to the suffering? We, “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of our life.” (v15a) That involves continuing to do what Jesus did: Even in the depths of hell, He proclaimed the Good News so we should try to proclaim the Good News wherever we are. Jesus did good even when He physically suffered for it, so we try to continue to do good—particularly to those who are trapped in the hellish existence with us.
I think it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t just pretend He wasn’t suffering, He acknowledged it and chose to persevere through it (the night before He was betrayed comes to mind). Likewise, we should acknowledge the suffering and try to imitate Jesus’ brave attitude. And God may even use this to rescue and draw others to Him. Regardless, we are guaranteed to be lifted up again—if not in this life, in the next.
So, “can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds?” (v13) The answer is no, they can’t permanently harm you. “Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you.” (v14a) He promises to heal everything in the long run. “So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.” (v14b) No matter what hell someone drags you into, Jesus will rescue you from it in due course.
1. “[M]y work on Lamentations started me thinking more about “the descent into hell.” I argued that Lamentations was Israel’s Holy Saturday literature, located midway between the death and resurrection of Jerusalem. It was Israel’s theological equivalent of Christ in the tomb. Thus I was led to connect Lamentations to the issue of hell and universalism and, via Von Balthasar, to the descent to the dead (Parry, Lamentations, 197–201).” Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 219 2. A common objection is that some people will only confess under duress, however, there are lots of reasons for thinking that’s not the case:
Andrew West: Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were two Australian drug traffickers. But by all accounts they were totally reformed—committed to spending their lives in Indonesian jails trying to reform other criminals. Myuran became an acclaimed artist; Andrew an ordained minister. But two years ago, this weekend, they were executed by firing squad. Pastors Christie and Rob Buckingham of Melbourne’s Bayside Church walked with Andrew and Myuran as they prepared to die.
Christie Buckingham is back in Bali this week, determined to end the death penalty everywhere, this time with the help of young filmmakers.
Christie Buckingham: Thank you Andrew, lovely to be with you.
Andrew: Christie, two years after the executions of Andrew and Myuran, can I ask what the feeling is inside Kerobokan prison?
Christie: Yes, well, as a matter of fact, yesterday being ANZAC Day was the day that they were given their 72-hour notice and that was such an unbelievable day. Obviously, the prisoners are still not recovered or even been able to fully grieve the loss of these two men, simply because life inside prison is about living each day. The legacy that Andrew and Myu have left—in terms of leadership—has been fantastic but these guys were friends of many people inside the prison including the guards. So the loss is very felt—very felt this week.
Andrew: Yeah. Can I ask you personally—because you and your husband Rob became great spiritual partners to both Andrew and Myuran—can I ask how you are both feeling on this second anniversary?
Christie: Firstly, Andrew, thank you for that compliment but I would like to say that there have been many people—there were many people—that were part of Andrew and Myu’s journey. I just feel this incredible sense of loss, an unbelievable sense of waste, and—I will admit—some anger because President Jokowi talked about (and does talk about) his war against drugs and he killed two of his greatest weapons! Had there been courage there to allow the boys to go into different prisons and start up other programs so that it would have stopped others (who were going to be released) turning to crime.
Had there been courage there to allow the boys to go into different prisons and start up other programs so that it would have stopped others (who were going to be released) turning to crime.
Again, that would have been the way to go. So there’s this great sense of still being confused, confounded by the total lack of any consideration for what is happening worldwide in relation to the death penalty, and any recognition that the fact is, that it is not a deterrent against drugs.
Andrew: Yeah. Can I just ask you, Christie, if you could recall just those last couple of hours that you spent with the boys?
Christie: Yes, I will never forget them, personally. I have never seen… Obviously as a pastor and as a minister, and as a person growing up in Northern Ireland and seeing many fatalities as the course of life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so profound. I’ve never seen, or ever walked, people to their certain death, singing the praises of God. I’ve never seen people express such courage, such forgiveness, and such kindness in such a powerful and tangible way in the midst of such horror.
I’ve never seen, or ever walked, people to their certain death, singing the praises of God. I’ve never seen people express such courage, such forgiveness, and such kindness in such a powerful and tangible way in the midst of such horror.
And I would like to take this opportunity, Andrew, of thanking people around the world for their prayers because they were certainly felt—by the boys and by myself and the other spiritual directors. There is absolutely no question that in the midst of that horror and that horrendous act, that God was very close.
There is absolutely no question that in the midst of that horror and that horrendous act, that God was very close.
Andrew: And we should remember, of course, that Andrew Chan became an ordained minister, which was, I guess, something [that] added to the impact of what happened to him, in a way, don’t you think?
Christie: Absolutely, and even on the night of his execution, I remember with great distinction hearing the chains of the men walking in the pitch darkness and for the first moment my heart sank because I heard them as the world saw them—as condemned men. And out of the darkness, Andrew sang a song, “Savior, you can move the mountains”. And Andrew was just an incredible individual. I remember saying to him one day, “Andrew, this must get on top of you” and he said, “Well, when it gets on top of me, instead of me telling God how big my problems are, I tell my problems how big my God is!”
“Well, when it gets on top of me, instead of me telling God how big my problems are, I tell my problems how big my God is!”
And that’s Andrew in a nutshell.
Andrew: One way, of course, to keep alive, not just the memory of Andrew and Myuran but the cause (the cause that you and Rob have dedicated yourselves to) of fighting the death penalty, is through a movie that’s being produced, Execution Island. The producers are looking to crowdfund this movie [I’ve made a donation as I think it’s a powerful and important story to share]. What are you trying to do with that movie Christie?
Christie: Well, there’s a couple of things. It’s a very real fact… I mean there’s two movies being produced at the moment:
—A documentary that is really based on Myuran’s art and his legacy (and that as an argument against the death penalty), linked with a hybrid documentary, and that is called Guilty. And that’s talking about the actual area of rehabilitation.
—The other one is the film called Execution Island, which is being produced by Three Kings Pictures. It’s talking about basically how faith, not only faith but your values, can see you to the end. And I think it’s a real encouragement to know that Myuran’s family was a Christian family and Myuran, in particular, I remember he said, “Everything’s coming back! All the songs I learnt, all the things, it’s all coming back!” and he said it was like having a box of things put aside, that you didn’t use for a while, and then you brought out—then you remembered them dearly. And Myu was a deep thinker and he was into philosophy and also just really engaged in deep conversations about faith. And so the movie will talk about how their faith kept them—kept them and their family strong. And like I say, there were many people involved in that faith journey and they were model prisoners as the guards described them and they certainly have got a lot to say in relation to: “You have control over yourself, even though you don’t have control over your environment.”
[Andrew and Myu] certainly have got a lot to say in relation to: “You have control over yourself, even though you don’t have control over your environment.”
Andrew: And just finally, have you kept in touch with the families?
Christie: Yes, absolutely! In fact, I was speaking to Myu’s mother just yesterday. She, in particular, is getting strength out of the fact that knowing that we are all doing what we can to speak up against the death penalty. In 2017, killing people on purpose—instead of reasonable prison sentences—is just no longer something we even need to consider.
In 2017, killing people on purpose—instead of reasonable prison sentences—is just no longer something we even need to consider.
Andrew: The Reverend Christie Buckingham. She and her husband the Reverend Rob Buckingham of Melbourne’s Bayside Church, walked with Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in their last years, before they were executed two years ago in Bali. Christie, thank you for being with us on the Religion and Ethics Report.
Christie: Thank you so much Andrew, wonderful to speak with you.
Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:
In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
I go on to look at:
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Imitating God in all our actions?
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternalaiónios fire.
Jude 1:7, NIV
I agree with what Burk wrote about this passage up until the end of this quote:
the fire that rained down on the infamous cites was an example of “eternal fire,” or “fire of the age to come,” invading the present age.
Denny Burk, page 37
However, after admitting here that word aiónios can (I’d say probablyshould, see Is Aionios Eternal?) mean “of the age to come”, he frustratingly suggests that the fire is everlasting because life “of the age to come” is everlasting. If I said:
The highlight of the year to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the year to come will be my sick leave.
Does that mean my long service leave will be the same duration as my sick leave? I see no necessity to interpret it that way… Indeed it seems the probability of any two future events having identical durations is low.
As I tried to show in Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of God’s fire achieving things. It doesn’t have to be interpreted as an end in-and-of-itself. For example, fire is described as refining and purifying. Sometimes the fire’s purpose, the good that it brings about, is not explicitly stated when the fire is used. For example, with Sodom and Gomorrah, we only discover this much later, in Ezekiel.
I [God] will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.
Ezekiel 16:53-55, HCSB
It’s also pertinent to consider how long Sodom and Gomorrah physically burned? Was it days? Weeks? If we traveled to the site today it’s certainly no longer burning! I think this should inform our interpretation of “eternal” fire.
The next passage Burk looks at is Jude 1:13. I find most English translations very irritating in how they “translate” eis ton aión as “forever”. For example:
wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom-of-utterzophos darkness has been reserved forevereistonaión.
Jude 1:13, ESV
1Samuel 27:12 and Malachi 3:4 are examples in the LXX where the words can’t literally mean forever, and indeed some translations realise this:
Achish trusted David and said to himself, “He has become so obnoxious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant for lifeeistonaión.”
1Samuel 27:12, NIV
And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of oldtonaión and years gone by.
Malachi 3:4, HCSB
If we look at each word in word, here’s what we find:
eis: to or into (indicating the point reached or entered, of place, time, fig. purpose, result)
Although Burk mentions that the darkness is “forever”, I’m glad doesn’t base his argument on eis ton aión. Instead he notes that verse 6 also talks about darkness:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternalaidios chains under gloomy-darknesszophos until the judgment of the great day
Jude 1:6, ESV
Burk comment on this is that:
The black darkness suggests the same fate [for the false teachers] as that of the fallen angels who were being “kept in eternal bonds under darkness” (v. 6) until the final judgment.
Denny Burk, page 38
However, this is puzzling because doesn’t it say the fallen angels are only in darkness temporarily, until judgment? Does that mean the false teachers are only in the darkness temporarily too?
Anyway, Burk goes on to look at the image of “darkness” in Matthew, and how it’s connected to the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and gnashing” images:
I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:11-12, HCSB
So he [the king in the parable] said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 22:12-13, HCSB (cf 25:28-30)
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the ageaión. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fieryfurnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 13:40-42, ESV (cf v48-50)
Sobering stuff. It’s not surprising that the Pharisees were very offended (Matt 22:15, 26:3) that Jesus’ parables implied they weren’t entitled to be at the feast, that their complacency and negligence was going to result in their blessing/invite/talent being taken away from them and given to those they disdained, even evil people off the streets (Matt 22:10) and Roman centurions (Matt 8:10)! As we now know, Israel was indeed thrown into the “fiery furnace”―God allowed the Romans to burn Jerusalem to the ground in 70AD. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, the natural consequences of rejecting God’s ways―becoming smug, violent, and unloving―was severe and left them weeping and gnashing in the dark.
While I believe the impending earthly “hell” was Jesus’ primary concern for His immediate audience, I think the parables can be applied further. At times, each and every person is unloving in all manner of ways―from subtle disregard of those in need, to blatant smugness, lust for power, and violence. Jesus even warned His 12 disciples about these things so none of us should be complacent and reliant on our righteousness.
However, for those who are trying to heed Jesus, particularly those who are already weeping in the dark, I believe that thankfully the Bible promises that one day there will be no more tears or darkness anywhere, and that those who have been cut off will be grafted back on.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.
Revelation 21:4, HCSB
On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light.
On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea [the Lake of Fire 1] and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter.
And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.
Zechariah 14:6-9, NLT
Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves… And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree.
Good morning! I’m Alex and I’m going to give a 20 minute talk on the topic of, “Hope in the face of suffering and doubt”. I’ll look at three true accounts of amazing hope and resilience in awful situations. They are quite heavy but I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll then look at two contrasting approaches to dealing with doubt.
The first account is of Jim Stockdale.
Jim Stockdale was an Admiral for the United States military. He was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale and his prisonmates were regularly and severely tortured, and never had much reason to believe they would survive the prison camp. While he was there he noticed something very surprising about the prisonmates who succumbed and died. Counterintuitively, it was always the most optimistic.
They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
Being in a prison camp would be a desperate situation, making it much harder to be rational so I don’t want to be disrespectful of them. But in hindsight, they held an unhealthy type of optimism that fails to confront the reality of the situation. The expectation of immediate release probably made it easier to begin with, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it. While Stockdale didn’t talk about the pessimists in the prison camp, I’m assuming they would’ve also struggled to survive.
Stockdale approached the incarceration and torture with a different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in a hellish place, but, rather than give up, he did everything he could to lift the morale, and prolong the lives of, his fellow prisoners. Despite prisoners often being in solitary confinement, he created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other, creating a vital lifeline. He also developed a mental strategy that helped them deal with torture. He described his ordeal:
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins
I don’t know if Stockdale was a Christian but I think his approach was like Jesus’. When Jesus was tortured and executed, He was very aware of what was going on, He wasn’t in denial, He accepted His situation without any delusions. Yet – He never gave up trusting God!
And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit.” Saying this, He breathed His last.Luke 23:46 HCSB
Not only is Jesus demonstrating His trust in His Father, He’s also quoting Psalm 31, part of the Bible that His hearers would have been familiar with. The Psalm is all about trusting in God when you’re in awful circumstances. When there’s terror all around us, God is our rock, our foundation. God never fails, He is always faithful, His love is eternal and infinite. The Psalm ends with:
Be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord.Psalm 31:24 HCSB
Like Stockdale and Jesus, our hope can empower us now, in the hardships we go through. Because we are assured that God will make everything right in the end.
Jesus was also the ultimate example of resilience in that He even “bounced back” from death. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection means we no longer have to fear death. The resurrected Jesus also gives us a glimpse of what the New Creation will be like. We have the hope of life with Him in it. Again this hope doesn’t mean we are disconnected from reality now. Paul was aware that he was constantly in danger and was very familiar with the reality of suffering.
Five times I received 39 lashes from [the] Jews.
Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans.
Once I was stoned by my enemies.
Three times I was shipwrecked.
I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing.2 Corinthians 11:24-27 HCSB
And yet Paul can still write one of the most reassuring statements in the entire Bible:
… in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!Romans 8:37-39 HCSB
So far I’ve only looked at the hope and resilience of three men but obviously these qualities aren’t limited to men! Two whole books of the Bible are dedicated to women who had remarkable perseverance and trust in God, Ruth and Esther, and there are examples in the NT too, such as Mary, Jesus’ mother (more examples).
We’ve looked at examples of impressive hope and suffering but before I move on the next section, I think it’s really important to point out that hope isn’t just a quality restricted to these heroes, nor is it something only for full-on situations. Anyone can put their hope in God and what He has promised. And doing so should be beneficial when we go through any challenge of life. It could be something smaller, like school holidays with energetic kids, or something larger like exams, illness, injury, or loss of employment or loved ones. In my personal experience, when I’m going through a rough patch, thinking about who Jesus is, what He’s already done and what He promised to do, really does help me put one foot in front of the other.
Now I’m going to look at another possible threat to hope, which is doubt.
Often the more important something is to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it. Our hope in Jesus is certainly very important to most of us here. So it’s not surprising we sometimes have doubts about it. There are lots of examples in the Bible of people doubting but I’ll just look at the most famous one. One of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, doesn’t believe the others have really seen the resurrected Jesus. But Jesus appears to them all and says,
… Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”John 20:27-29 NLT
In this case Jesus relieved Thomas’ doubt but He does seem to imply that immediate relief isn’t always the best thing for us. I find that very challenging.
So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?
Last year I got to go to two talks. One was by Peter Rollins. He is a very provocative and controversial Irish philosopher, writer, storyteller and public speaker. He is also a prominent figure in Radical Theology. The other talk was by John Dickson. He is an Australian writer, historian, minister, lecturer and public speaker. He is also a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.
Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections.
Coincidentally they both talked a lot about doubt. They spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. And that God hasn’t revealed everything yet:
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Cor 13:12 NIV
At times we all have doubts about big questions―be that the existence God or His character, the correct interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. It was refreshing to hear them acknowledge this because sometimes there can be pressure to “have it all worked out”, or stigma that doubt implies we don’t have enough faith to be saved.
But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can (which may include talking to a GP). However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two contrasting approaches.
My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to instantly satisfy every desire. He goes as far as saying:
… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret. Peter Rollins
I think Rollins is wrong about what the Good News is (it actually sounds like Bad News to me!) and I think Jesus is “the secret”. But I think Rollins’ is right that life is difficult and we don’t have all the answers concerning our present circumstances. Indeed, often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―things are more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.
In contrast to Rollins, Dickson recommended reading and researching more, as most questions have been pondered and discussed extensively by someone before. I think this is good, biblical advice.
“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”Proverbs 18:15 ESV
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity [the New Creation].2 Peter 3:18 HCSB
It’s important to note that acquiring knowledge should be done to God’s glory, in humility and in conjunction with growing in grace.
Dickson suggests that God, primarily through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now, and it promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all suffering and doubts. This means we can have hope now.
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven [the New Creation]… he says, “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found [now] on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 214
The Bible tells us to expect suffering, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when our lives become difficult but I do think it is easier to endure suffering and doubts, if we believe that, ultimately, we are promised a good outcome. I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now if we are focussed on desiring the future.
… [we should set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins
I think Rollins is half right. There is the stereotype of religious people being, “So heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use”. That is to say, people can be so caught up debating religion and doing religious rituals, that they neglect to practically care for people! We do need to heed Rollins concern, and even more importantly Jesus’ warnings, about falling into this trap.
However, unlike Rollins, Jesus doesn’t say the solution is to abandon talking and thinking about the future, about God’s Kingdom, about His New Creation. Rather we should be “heavenly minded” in the way God wants us to be―being inspired by His grace, His love, His promises, rather than our works.
Regarding “the possibility of a life before death”, I think the Bible does encourage us to live meaningful lives now, in this non-ideal world but I don’t think needs to be at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised after death. For example, after I’ve grieved the loss of a loved one, I can be at peace and continue “exploring” life but surely that doesn’t mean I have to give up my hope of being reunited in the New Creation.
The fact that humanity has longings [for God and an afterlife] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water… perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst… in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are [or will be] satisfied…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 215-217
So to summarise, reality is extremely difficult sometimes. We will have doubts, some of which we can’t resolve yet.
So what do you hope for?
As Stockdale discovered, we need to be wise about what we hope for. Stockdale’s hope, or his “end of the story”, was, understandably, surviving the prison camp.
However, God’s “end of the story” is even better, when “the time comes for [Him] to restore everything [in the New Creation], as he promised” (Acts 3:21 NIV).
This can give us great hope and inspire us to persevere now.
I think this is a fitting conclusion.
May the God of hope fill you [now] with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NIV
God's justice is reforming all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!