The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle (below)

Justine: Amy is not only a prolific speaker, she’s a writer as well. One of her recent books is called, Why trust the Bible?

Image result for amy orr-ewing why trust the bible

Amy: The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth, this is not a sort of religious mythical bubble that we need to jump into, that only makes sense internally if we just close our minds to the real world that we experience. The Bible is trustworthy because it diagnoses the human condition that you and I experience. It speaks of it in real terms—with empathy about the darkness and violence of this world—and it introduces us to the God who’s entered this real world in the person of Jesus. So I think we can trust the Bible in those kind of existential terms.

The Bible describes the real world as we know it. It has the ring of truth…

But secondly, historically it is my experience through studying the manuscript tradition—through studying the historical process of the transmission of the Bible—that this stands up to rigorous scrutiny. That the source material for the Bible is vast. That where there are differences between manuscripts, those differences are not covered over in English or other language translations. There’s an openness about the process of transmission and I think that makes it trustworthy.

Justine: It’s also a book that you’ve seen has had an impact in some quite surprising places. I read that you went to Afghanistan when you were 19—you have all these wonderful stories in your biography—and you presented the Bible to someone in that circumstance didn’t you?

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Amy: Yes, while I was a theology student at Oxford I was also not just studying Christian theology but studying Islamic thought as well and a small team of us went to Afghanistan. We ended up going the weekend after the BBC had been in town doing their groundbreaking documentary on the Taliban. We got the opportunity as theological students to interview the Education Minister, the Religion Minister, and the Foreign Minister and the Keeper of the Holy Quran (the Religion Minister). And in the process of that interview in their military headquarters we also gave them Bibles, saying, “We think this is the most precious gift one human being can give another.” And they were all heavily armed, we did wonder what was going to happen next, let’s put it like that, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. But the Keeper of the Holy Quran took hold of the Bible and looked at it and he said, “I know exactly what this book is, I’ve been praying to God for years that I could read this book. Thank you for bringing me this book, I’ll read it every day.” And that just struck me as amazing, that at the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.

At the heart of one of the most violent regimes the world has known, there was someone who was wanting to read the Bible but had never had the opportunity.

Simon: That is very surprising! Now Amy, while we might come to accept that the Bible is trustworthy in the way that you’ve described it, is it relevant? I mean, what does the Bible have to say to a complex modern society or even my own life in that place?

Amy: My experience is that the Bible has relevance today because it introduces us to the person of Jesus, who came in history, was God incarnate—God making himself known to us in human form—and that truth connects with our reality, the reality of our brokenness, of our anxiety, of our pain, of our sin, of our shame, because in Jesus, God deals with the human condition by going to the cross and offering us forgiveness, offering us new life.

It’s interesting to me that the primary image that Jesus used for what it means to come to know God is the image of birth. Now, as a mother of twins and another little boy, it strikes me as odd that a single, 30 something year old, ancient near-eastern male would invoke the image of birth. Birth is overwhelmingly, excruciatingly painful. It’s a visceral struggle for life over death. There’s blood, there’s guts, there’s gore in the process of birth, and Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born. There was no life and now there is undeniably this screaming baby, there’s life! How much more relevant could things get? God is saying that coming to know him is like being born all over again. This is ontological, this is real, this is visceral, it’s undeniable when this has happened.

Jesus says coming to know God is so real that the image I’m going to use to describe this is: it’s like being born.

Justine: From the Center for Public Christianity, you’ve been listening to Life & Faith with Justine Toh and Simon Smart. Amy Orr-Ewing joins us again next week to talk about Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford and a force to be reckoned with.

Amy: She disliked the idea of arguing for women’s equality on the basis of calling women a class. So she’s saying we’re not a special class of human we’re actually human.

Justine: You won’t want to miss the conversation. Sign up for our newsletter at PublicChristianity.org or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes—just type “Life & Faith” in the search box to find us. While you’re there, please leave us a rating or a review, we want to know what you think of the show and it helps other people find it as well.

Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology.
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account? (below)
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography
Amy Orr-Ewing by Alex Baker Photography

Justine: You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. As an apologist, Amy often finds herself defending the Christian faith. She comes across all sorts of pat dismissals of faith: “Science disproves God”, “All religions are the same”, “How can God be good if there is so much suffering in the world?” But as soon as I asked her about the objections to faith that she must come across daily, she was quick to call me out on describing them as “pat”. She actually takes each objection seriously, she listens, she takes the time and care to engage with every question that comes her way.

Amy: I would try and be careful not to ever minimize someone’s objection to faith as something “pat”. I think that most of the articulations against God are actually pretty heartfelt. We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to. Another question that we find a lot in the West is that whole search for meaning in significance and purpose, “Why am I here?” and “Is this enough, is the material, sort of materialistic life that I’m living is that all there is to life?”

We live in a culture that’s very apathetic about religious things so when people do articulate, “How could there be a God of love and this horrendous abuse has happened to me or my child or my friend?”, I think that’s a real objection that is both intellectual and personal, and that deserves the time for us to at least try and respond to.

Simon: Let’s talk about one of those, some people want to talk about the character of God, and they often draw the distinction between this God of the Old Testament who—in some people’s minds—appears sort of violent and angry and a fearful kind of presence, and then the New Testament where they say it’s all lovely and kind and merciful. What’s the challenge there, of course, is trying to match up those two. Now, of course, the people who wrote about that God of the Old Testament thought he was good but how do you address that quite complex problem?

Amy: I think that lots of people have this idea that in order to be loving God couldn’t also hold people accountable or judge evil. But actually when we dig into that preconception, I think we discover that most of us don’t really believe that. Let me give you an example: A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly. One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her when I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.

See love and justice go together, and when we read the Old Testament we see a loving God who is also a God who judges evil—that’s actually the same as the God we read about in the New Testament. Now in the Old Testament one of the means of his judgment, within a very limited time period, is war. Now, we can say, “Well, we don’t like that idea.” We read it today through our sort of Western eyes and think that doesn’t make sense to us. But I think if we understand it within a framework of a loving God who judges evil perpetrators on behalf of the victim, it begins to make a bit more sense.


Amy Orr-Ewing gives a longer response to this important question in an article that I engaged with: Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell? I’ve also engaged her pertinent question, “What does love cause us to feel about perpetrators?”.

A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology—Orr-Ewing interview

The Ring of Truth is the first part of a two part interview of Amy Orr-Ewing by the Centre for Public ChristianityI’ve transcribed it and posted it in three posts:

  1. A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology (below).
  2. Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?
  3. The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle.
Amy Orr-Ewing at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
Amy Orr-Ewing at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics

Justine: From the Centre for Public Christianity, you’re listening to Life & Faith. I’m Justine Toh.

Amy Orr-Ewing is the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. She’s addressed audiences from Westminster, to the White House, speaking about the truth and beauty of the Christian faith. But her story starts right here, in Australia.

Simon: You were born here we understand?

Amy: That’s right.

Simon: But you did leave when you’re two years old so I’m going to say, “Welcome home!”

Amy: Thank you!

Simon: Great to have you here. So tell us about…

Justine: Amy was back in Australia as a speaker for our annual Richard Johnson Lecture and while she was in town, Simon and I couldn’t miss the chance to have her on the show. Next week Amy will be back this time telling us about her doctoral studies on a remarkable woman—who was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and deserves to be much better known than she is—Dorothy L. Sayers. But this week we’re focusing on Amy’s story and it turns out in the years that Amy’s parents were in Australia they experienced a couple of life-changing events. Yes, one of them was the birth of their daughter but they also experienced an unexpected challenge to their faith, or rather their atheism.

Amy: My dad had grown up in a very strongly atheistic home. My grandfather was an East German scientist and absolutely committed atheist who forbade any talk of God in the home and forbade anyone reading the Bible even. So my father had grown up in a strongly atheistic context with no sort of churchy conditioning and whilst here (in his thirties, happily married to my mum, two fantastic children, great lifestyle, loved the life here) he began to just ask questions (“When I get to the end of my life, when I’m retired and I look back what will it all have been for? Is this enough?”), and that sort of question worried him. A colleague at the University took him along to hear a Christian speaking—an apologist actually—speaking about the resurrection of Jesus. He said that it sort of struck him as quite odd frankly but that there was one thing that this guy said that sort of was like a bit of a dagger to the heart, which was, “The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true.” My dad thought religion is about superstition, it’s about wish-fulfilment. Truth and God are opposite categories—it’s a category mistake. But that worried him and then a few weeks later he had an extraordinary personal encounter with Jesus Christ and ended up kneeling on the floor thinking, “I need to say something to respond to Christ, to his offer of forgiveness to me” and thought, “I don’t know what to say I have no religious upbringing”, and he found himself just saying, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Later he bought a New Testament and found himself reading that in Mark’s Gospel, which was slightly surprising.

The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true

Simon: Wow! Coming to Australia for spiritual enlightenment—that’s the path that people come on in the tourist brochures. Now you are also a believer these days, you just believe it because your parents were?

Amy: That is a great question. I think because my mom and dad were intellectuals—and none neither of them were kind of conditioned by the Church—I had a slightly unusual upbringing in terms of a Christian family, in that they encouraged us to question, to read, and to come to conclusions ourselves—both my sister and I. Growing up in Britain as a Christian I was always the only churchgoer in my class at school, there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to disbelieve. So I think that that encouragement from them to own this yourself, or not, was incredibly important. And for me that journey of questioning took me to Oxford—to university to study theology—where every presupposition about the Bible, about God, about faith was challenged.

Simon: Daily!

Amy: And to the nth degree! And it was my experience that the Christian claims and the Bible stood up to that scrutiny. I remember sitting with the Dean of my college—I was at Christ Church towards the end of my degree—and him saying, “We haven’t cured you of your religion have we Amy? We’ve tried everything but it hasn’t worked!”

But seriously, for me it has been my experience that if something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared—that the pursuit of of truth ultimately, for me, has led me to Jesus Christ.

If something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared

Justine: Before we get more into that question, can I just rewind you a little bit? I read that when you were 15 you actually had cancer. You’ve talked about how you were the only believer in your disbelieving class so when you’re 15 and get this diagnosis, all the other girls your age are mooning over rock stars or something like that but you’re grappling with the experience of disease and thinking about God in the midst of all that. What was that like?

Amy: I think the strongest memory I have from that time is the contrast from the fear and anxiety that was absolutely overwhelming. When the consultants sort of blurted out this diagnosis I was with my mom in the hospital and it was not done kindly at all—I mean she was horrified, and the shock of that and the sort of sense of just waves of blackness overwhelming me. And then over the next few days processing that and actually reading the Psalms, I found to be an extraordinary experience because here was an opportunity to vocalize what I was feeling: frustration with God, questions, fear. And then to experience actually meeting God, or God meeting me, in that place.

I think today, certainly in the context where I am, there’s an epidemic of anxiety related experiences, particularly for young people. In my life it was through that that the God that I was questioning and had kind of an intellectual path to come to know about him (“Was this really real?”, “Was this substantial?”), that that actually then overlapped and intersected in my own experience, and God met me in the pain and suffering of this world.

Justine: And so these days you must draw upon that union of that intellect but also that life experience, in order to do your work as an apologist? Now, can you take us through that because it sounds like you go around apologizing for things but it’s not quite like that is it?

Amy: No. Yeah, it’s a slightly unfortunate word, I think, “apologist”. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which really means to give a reasoned defense. It’s what a defense lawyer would stand up and do when you’re in court in order to persuade people of your case. So yeah, apologetics is really about grappling with the intellectual dimensions of the deepest questions: about whether God exists, about whether this is fair and just, does the way the world is cohere with the Christian worldview? But it’s not only intellectual because we as human beings are more than just brains on legs—we think (and obviously that’s really important) but life has other dimensions. How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them. So for me, any apologetic—any reasonable defense of the Christian faith—needs to engage at those different levels.

How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them.

Simon: Now despite that clarification of the definition, there are nonetheless plenty of things that Christians ought to feel sorry for or be apologizing for. What do you say to people who say, “Well, yeah, I’m okay with Jesus but gee, Christians have been rubbish!”

Amy: I’m right there with you. My friend is a brilliant Christian writer in the UK—called Dr. Elaine Storkey. She says, “The Church recruits from the human race.” There’s no expectation in the Bible that there’s a sort of moral bar that we have to have reached in order to own the name Christian. A Christian is simply someone who’s recognised our own brokenness and sinfulness and need for forgiveness. And therefore it ought not to surprise us that a lot of the brokenness that is in the world is also in the Church. So I think as the Church we do have a lot of apologizing to do for things that have been done in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church that do not legitimately represent Him.

Christianity—Motivating Violence & Non-violence?

The Centre for Public Christianity‘s latest Life & Faith episode seems particularly pertinent to recent events so I transcribed the first half here and the rest below.


Simon: Maria Stefan [is] an expert in nonviolent civil resistance from the US Institute of Peace. I caught up with her, and also her colleague, Susan Hayward, while in Washington DC filming for CPX’s forthcoming documentary on how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. We filmed a segment on Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, just down the road at the Lincoln Memorial, and then headed over to talk to Maria and Susan together. They’re good friends and bounced off each other as we quizzed them on their respective areas of expertise.

Source: A History of Non-violence

Susan Hayward: I don’t think that people who are driven by their faith, or who are religious, are particularly better at peace than anybody else, but I do think they bring particular skills, or experiences, or techniques to their peacebuilding that might set them apart and make them more effective in particular situations.

Simon: Susan Hayward is an interfaith activist and a just peacebuilder. What she’s saying here is interesting because in our culture we’re more likely to connect religion with violence rather than peace, and there are reasons for this.

Susan: Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war. And we can see that throughout the history of any religious tradition. I work a lot with the Buddhist community, and there’s similar examples as other traditions in Buddhist history, and what is contemporary life, of Buddhism being drawn on to support violence. But Christianity in particular I think has a long and difficult history of Christian ideas and Christian communities mobilizing in support of war. Scott Appleby sometimes refers to what’s called the “ambivalence of the sacred”—this idea that religion motivates these deep impulses and these deep motivations that can lead people to extraordinary acts and that sometimes that deep impulse can drive people to violence but, just as much, that same impulse can drive people to very selfless and courageous acts of peace.

Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war.

Natasha: When it comes to peacebuilding, religious faith can offer something unique and potentially transformative.

Susan: Those who come to the work of peacebuilding with a religious motivation and a religious understanding of peace, may be bringing a sense of peace that goes beyond the technical. And it goes beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish. Or they may be able to bring particular rituals, particular values, particular practices to their peacebuilding work that can trigger some of the deep reservoirs of people’s being and that can trigger kinds of personal transformations that can be very powerful, and it can then lead to social or institutional transformations.

peace that goes … beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish.

Natasha: Haywood says that because religious communities have had to deal with conflict and have been working for peace in different contexts for millennia, they have this wealth of resources, this history of developing ways to respond to injustice, of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding.

Susan: In the Christian tradition many people draw from the rich history of the Christian Just War theory. So beginning with Augustine in the 3rd century, up to Aquinas, to people like de las Casas in South America (who is arguing against the conquistadors), to Martin Luther King, and others in the modern era. There has also, in the contemporary era, been this movement called “Just Peace”, which has sought—particularly by Christian theologians and activists—to recognize what kinds of practices can help build up sustainable peace, so that situations of injustice can be best addressed non-violently. So you can have environments in which people’s human needs are met, so that international organizations are strong enough to be able to resist the pull to war by various countries, as a means to try to mitigate the war.

Simon: Of course, in the Christian tradition the example of Jesus Christ as a peacemaker is what many peacebuilding movements and practices are built on.

Susan: The teaching of Jesus and the practice of Jesus, and the ways in which Jesus was very consistent in arguing against violence throughout his ministry. And also the ways in which Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization, as issues that should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.

Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization … [that] should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.

I think it can be a really powerful rhetorical exercise to ask people in situations of violence, and to ask Christians in particular, to think of the model of Jesus and how Jesus acted—what his ministry looked like and what he said as a part of his ministry—and then to apply that to their current situation, in order to make the case against violence and to hold them to that moral standard.

Now the challenge is that in Christian history people have often—especially as soon as the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and they had political power—they’ve always been able to make the case that violence is legitimate in order to achieve a legitimate goal, in order to achieve peace sometimes. So here’s where I think the arguments of nonviolent resistance can be most powerful because if you can say back to them but has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking? Or are their nonviolent ways in which you can address this injustice and try to achieve peace that might be just as effective in reaching that goal but also allowing us to continue to act as Jesus called us to act as nonviolent resistors in the process?

has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking?

Simon: But it’s not always straightforward.

Susan: There are times in Christian history where people of good faith have determined that an act of violence was necessary because the situation was so egregious. So an example here would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the midst of World War Two where in Germany he, along with other members of the confessing Church, organized and designed an initiative to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Saying that this was a legitimate targeted use of force in order to address an injustice. Ultimately he failed in that attempt and it’s contested by Christians on whether at the end of the day that use of violence was legitimate from a Christian perspective, on what Jesus would say in response to that. But certainly as a person of morality and a person of faith you can understand that impulse.

Natasha: Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict. And one of the best examples of this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice tribunal that was set up in 1994 in post-apartheid South Africa. It was a court like set up that allowed victims to give statements about their experiences of gross human rights violations and also allowed perpetrators of violence to give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.

Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict

Susan: The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian, a very religious, notion. It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption, which are very Christian concepts. And moreover, the needs—in terms of bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal and experienced a great deal of loss—are things that spiritual resources, spiritual ideas and processes, can lend a lot to. The very notion of a transitional justice and a reconciliation process that is based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness and of reconciliation, are based in part on Christian ideas of what’s required in the aftermath of violence, or in the aftermath of conflict, or in the aftermath of some sort of a brokenness or wrong. And because both sides of the conflict there were primarily Christian, and were deeply religious, there was a shared narrative and a shared theological frame that could be used to bring people together and to drive this movement. And so what Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders were able to bring in terms of theological language and framework and spiritual rhetoric and spiritual practices—including song, including prayer—in the midst of the truth and reconciliation process was incredibly transformative and powerful and relevant for that context in which both sides of the conflict were Christian.

The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian … It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption … bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal … based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness

Simon: If you want to learn more about the history of non-violence Maria Stephan has written a book with Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works. The interviews with Maria Stephan and Susan Hayward will be featured in our documentary coming out later this year, For the Love of God: How the Church is better and worse than you ever imagined. You can visit our documentary website for more information and to sign up for our newsletter. If you liked this discussion, please do let us know, leave a rating and review on iTunes, just type “Life and Faith” in the search box to find us, and it helps other people find our podcast too.

Non-violence—Twice As Effective As Violence?

The Centre for Public Christianity‘s latest Life & Faith episode seems particularly pertinent to recent events so I’ve transcribed the first half below (second half here).


Simon Smart: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Actually, the passage in the Bible where this saying comes from goes a little further than that, “life for life, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This principle of retaliation—that a person who has injured someone else should be penalized in a similar way, to a similar degree—is the basis for many codes of justice around the world. Now it might sound harsh. It was originally meant as a way of containing violence—not letting it escalate into feuds that would go on and on, and back and forth.

Jesus, though, suggested a radically different approach. From his teachings we now have sayings like, “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile”. But he wasn’t advocating a passive response to a wrong. Rather it was an active response, it just refused to repay like-for-like.

Natasha Moore: The tradition of non-violence, of civil disobedience, stretches a long way back and turns up in some unexpected places. In fact, the first recorded instance we have of a person protesting an injustice, using nonviolent methods, turns up in a play written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, called “Antigone”.

Here’s how it goes: the title character, Antigone, refuses to obey an edict from the king— who is a ruthless authoritarian and who also happens to be her uncle. The edict forbids her, or anyone for that matter, from burying her brother, Polyneices, who has been killed in battle.

Maria Stephan: Antigone so believed in the morality of burying her brother that she disobeyed the law and buried her brother. And she faced death but that act of disobedience was the first recorded case where an individual challenged an unjust law.

Natasha: That’s Dr. Maria J Stephan, an expert in civil resistance movements. She’s just completed a major study into whether nonviolent resistance actually works (we’ll get to that in a bit) and she’s a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

Why Civil Resistance Works
Source: Why Civil Resistance Works

From Antigone, let’s fast forward to the 19th century, and you have Henry David Thoreau (an American poet and philosopher) who refused to pay taxes in protest against slavery and the US war in Mexico.

Maria: Thoreau was arrested and he was put into jail and he later wrote his famous essay on civil disobedience and the main thesis of the essay on civil disobedience is that it is the moral duty of every citizen to disobey immoral and unjust laws.

Natasha: Then, a century or so later, Mahatma Gandhi reads Thoreau in India and is fascinated by this idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.

Maria: He took Thoreau’s idea of individual civil disobedience and applied it on a mass level. So Mahatma Gandhi was the first one to develop an actual methodology of mass civil resistance and non-cooperation, which he used very, very effectively to challenge the British colonial regime, from about nineteen sixteen to nineteen forty seven.

Natasha: An example of this was the nineteen thirty “Salt March”. Gandhi and a handful of followers embarked on a 387 kilometre trek across western India, picking up fellow activists along the way. They were protesting the fact that the British had essentially banned Indians from making their own salt.

Maria: So Mahatma Gandhi by then had tens of thousands of followers. [He] arrived at Dande Beach, picked up water, which evaporated to make salt, and by doing that he was engaging in mass defiance against the laws of the British colonial regime. Indians saw what he had done and there were shock waves sent across the subcontinent, that this mass civil disobedience was possible and it was powerful.

Natasha: Then there’s the leader of the great civil rights movement of our time, Martin Luther King Jr, who considered himself a student of Gandhi and Thoreau, and Jesus.

Maria: Martin Luther King was able to apply the Christian notion of love and connect it to the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance in a very powerful way. The idea that you can resist evil without violence, first and foremost. The idea that you can resist a system but still love individuals and treat them with respect and honor. The idea that evil must be resisted, it should never be normalized. The idea that mass nonviolent action can be a force for powerful change, is a set of principles and a message that I think will endure the test of time.

you can resist a system but still love individuals

Simon: These ideas are enduring and extremely powerful, and we’ll pick up on the connection between religion and peacebuilding a little later, but first there’s a couple of niggling questions that often come up in discussions around the concept of non-violence. For example, does it actually work or is it just a nice idea? How does it stack up against violent action? A few years ago, these were the questions that Maria Stefan and fellow political scientist, Erica Chenoweth, were grappling with.

Maria: We decided to study a basic fundamental question: Which form of resistance, violent or nonviolent, has been more effective historically against the most formidable of opponents? Because we had been hearing often, “Oh, non-violence can work in democracies or against benign opponents but against the tough brutal dictators it doesn’t stand a chance!” or “Violence must be more effective than nonviolent action in these particular environments.” So we fundamentally tested that proposition.

Simon: This study involved gathering data on 330 campaigns between 1900 and 2006—some violent, some nonviolent—and these were campaigns against formidable opponents, like an authoritarian regime or foreign military occupiers.

Maria: We came up with the very surprising finding, to many, that the nonviolent campaigns had been twice as effective as their violent counterparts in challenging these formidable opponents. So the nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns, which was a shocking, counter-intuitive finding for many people.

nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns

Simon: Success in this study meant achieving their objectives—that the authoritarian regime was removed or foreign military occupiers withdrew as a result of the campaign.

Maria: A lot of people were skeptical, dubious—how is it possible that the nonviolent resistance was more effective? Others were like, well, of course, it’s got to be that case, it’s got to be that way. So there have been varying reactions. At least this research provided solid evidence that you can do it non-violently and win.

Natasha: There are a few reasons why this result seemed counterintuitive. For one it feels unnatural. When a person or a group of people are oppressed and mistreated, it feels like the normal response would be to fight back.

Maria: I mean the natural instinct is to respond to violence with violence. When I’m talking with activists from difficult, repressive environments around the world, I completely empathize with them and understand why they want to respond in kind. It’s a natural instinct, it’s often therapeutic but it’s not strategic and if you want to be victorious and you want to win as a resistor, you have to do what your challenger, your opponent, does not want you to do. And authorities and regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence in a return, and it delegitimises the movement.

regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence

Natasha: Then there are people, like the philosopher Nietzsche, who think non-violence is weak. He describes the idea of turning the other cheek as illogical and pathetic.

Maria: Illogical and pathetic, maybe, but pretty darn effective too, I would say. The stereotype, or the connotation, is that nonviolent action means pacifism but in fact, nonviolent resistance is an active form of struggle that just involves different weapons. But I think what needs to be understood is where the power of this method of struggle comes from. And the power of nonviolent resistance is grounded in people, in the consent of people, so when large numbers of people refuse to obey, refuse to cooperate with evil systems or institutions that are unjust, this translates into significant social, political, economic pressure being applied against the opponent. So I would say it’s anything but passive, it’s anything but weak, and it’s anything but ineffective.

Natasha: Also the goal of nonviolent resistance, in and of itself, is counterintuitive because it is about challenging injustice but it’s also about engaging your enemy and trying to get them to effectively, switch teams.

Maria: Your goal is not to kill, harm, or humiliate the opponent. Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side, which is very different, of course, from armed struggle or insurgency. So you recognize the humanity in the other and you want to bring them on board to fight what is an unjust system.

Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side

Simon: But that isn’t to say that nonviolent resistance always works.

Maria: So the key ingredient of successful civil resistance is mass and diverse participation. So, for example, we found in the study that the average nonviolent campaign in our data set attracted 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign, and the greater the number of people, and the greater the diversity of participants, the more likely the campaigns were to succeed. So when campaigns are not able to attract mass participation, when there’s significant disunity—so when there’s no unity around goals, leaders, and tactics—that’s usually going to be a sign that a movement won’t succeed. If the campaign or movement is unable to maintain nonviolent discipline when faced with violence, that usually is a sign that it will not succeed. So nonviolent discipline—the ability to maintain a nonviolent posture when provoked or when violence is used against you—is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance. And you can bolster nonviolent discipline through training, through preparation, through anticipation of the violence that’s coming, and knowing how to respond and what to do and what not to do.

nonviolent discipline is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance

Simon: So take the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s in the US, this was a hugely significant nonviolent campaign. First, they had mass participation.

Maria: It was a campaign that was led by black leadership, that involved the churches, that involved white allies, and that involved a significant number of amazing nonviolent campaigns and tactics. So the Montgomery bus boycott was a classic example of African-Americans refusing to ride the bus and pay the fees to the driver, which caused a significant economic effect on the owners of the bus system. The lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. So it was a very methodical, strategic movement of movements that brought lots of different people, groups, organizations, sectors of society together and achieved remarkable gains and ended the system of apartheid in this country.

Simon: And there was also that commitment to non-violence, even in the face of violent opposition. Take for example, the Selma March where protesters faced off against police wielding water cannons, hoses and batons.

Maria: People often ask, how did you maintain nonviolent discipline in this moment? A lot of that can be explained by, yes, the spiritual resources, the commitment to non-violence, which was articulated by leaders like King and others, and the participants had been trained in how to maintain nonviolent discipline in these difficult situations. So in the basements of churches there were trainings and how to do civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and how not to respond to violence with violence when provoked. And so these combinations of the spiritual and the practical strategic really came to bear in the in the Selma March.

Natasha: From all of the data and analysis there was a picture of human nature and human society that emerged for Dr. Stephan.

Maria: I think what it tells you is that humans—when faced with the most formidable obstacles, oppression, injustices—are capable of finding courage and taking action to resist and that they can be effective using nonviolent means. And it also suggests that people have different motivations, some people are very inspired by religious conviction and that can be a powerful mooring for their activism and for their use of non-violent action. And that it’s possible again to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other. And so it’s possible to organize, it’s possible to use nonviolent means, it’s possible to win over opponents even in the most difficult of circumstances. And it’s possible, most importantly, even when it seems impossible to be effective using nonviolent resistance.

it’s possible to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other

Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Simon Smart introduces the second half of the Life & Faith hell series and asks John Dickson what he thinks.

Image result for john dickson and simon smart
John Dickson & Simon Smart (filming For the Love of God documentary)

John starts by acknowledging that there’s a lot of unhelpful non-biblical baggage around the topic of hell, and that’s partly the reason it’s now often mocked by pop culture. It’s a shame because it means Jesus’ serious warnings about the consequences of evil, particularly violence, are often totally ignored.

John: … the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

I explained in my first post why I find the Justice Commissioner metaphor helpful but I guess the big question is, what does “right the wrongs” mean and involve?

John: … it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time.

Loving victims involves the perpetrator being judged—accountability and reparation are important. But justice and love don’t stop there. For a victim to be healed, they need an opportunity to forgive (see Michael Jensen’s, When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse), they need to see the perpetrator genuinely transformed, so that there can be authentic reconciliation of the relationship (see Engaging Shumack). This has a positive, flow-on effect, rippling out. First to their immediate loved ones, then the surrounding community, and eventually all humanity. I love the way Keller puts it:

God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. … Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. … God made the world with billions of entities … He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Another implication of God’s love and justice for victims is that it extends to everyone because, in our fallen world, everyone’s a victim at some stage. But hasn’t everyone also mistreated others at some stage, and therefore needs to be judged? How does God respond when everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Thankfully, Jesus showed us (particularly on the Cross) that God even loves perpetrators. Indeed I’d go as far as saying that God judges perpetrators for both the sake of the victims and the ultimate good of the perpetrators. Through this He will bring shalom, a concept explained here by Keller:

Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, [all] humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Moving on.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

Before I look at John’s answer to Simon, I’ll give my two cents:

I don’t think anyone can earn salvation, which is a free gift from God, received by the gift of faith. So without Jesus, everyone would be judged and face their sentence, no matter what kind of life they had lived. However, the Bible says Jesus has acted, has atoned, and therefore:

… will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4, KJV

If God can’t save everyone, and instead they continue rejecting Him (which is evil), there would be no end of evil—no complete victory, which seems to imply some sort of disturbing eternal dualism.

John takes a different angle to Simon’s question:

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds.

I’ve never come across the phrase “eternal judgment” in the Bible but I’m guessing Matthew 25:46 is in mind? If so, Is Aionios Eternal? explains why J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and other scholars, think aionios should be translated “pertaining-to/belonging-to/of/in the age to come”, and Pruning the Flock? explains why I think that translation is reinforced by the verse’s use of kolasis (the word aionios, an adjective, is describing). Put together, I think “correction (or pruning) from God in the age to come” is more accurate. But even if that isn’t the case, parables are known for hyperbole, which makes basing a doctrine on a detail unwise.

I think God’s correction will be proportional both in severity and time.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

Luke 12:47-48a, NIV

However, maths shows us that “eternal proportionality” would be problematic because infinity times anything is infinity. For example, if I received a dollar every day for an infinite number of days then I’d end up with an infinite amount of money. But even if I only received a cent every day for an infinite number of days I’d still end up with an infinite amount of money. Likewise, if I received ten blows every day for an infinite (eternal) number of days then I’d end up with an infinite number of blows. But even if I only received one blow every day for an infinite number of days, I’d still end up with an infinite number of blows—which certainly isn’t the few blows we find in the parable. John says he doesn’t know how “eternal proportionality” works—neither do I—but I think the apparent oddness of it should prompt him reexamine his previous steps (e.g. translating aionios as “eternal”).


(Note: this post was originally titled, “Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 2”. Full transcripts of the episodes: CPX Interview the Director of Hellbound and John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell)

John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell

Below is my transcript of the second half of the Life & Faith hell series.


Simon: Hi, it’s great to have your company. You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. My name’s Simon Smart. In recent weeks we’ve been talking about a rather unpopular subject—I have to say—the judgment of God and particularly the notion of hell. We discussed a documentary out of North America called Hellbound?, which has been getting a lot of attention. The film picks up this question of hell and discusses the fact that this is not only a topic that people avoid thinking about and talking about these days but there’s a growth within the Christian Church of a view that would question the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment.

Now the documentary Hellbound? really comes down at the end on this idea of the victory of God’s love that will overcome whatever sin and hardness of heart that exists towards God and that because this, eventually, all people will find their way towards a loving relationship with God in eternity. This is a very big, a very serious, and it seems to us, an important question. So we want to spend some more time thinking about that and to do that we’re joined by my colleague—who hasn’t been in the Life & Faith chair for a while—Dr. John Dickson, biblical historian, ancient historian. Good to have you in, John.

John: Thanks but I’m not sure this is the best topic to get me in on but thanks for the favor.

Simon: It’s a hospital pass possibly. Now let’s get straight into it John. Do you believe there is a hell and if so why?

John: Well, yes and no. I don’t believe in the hell most people think of when they use the word “hell” but I do believe in the hell that I’m pretty sure Jesus himself believed in and taught about. So it’s a mixed situation and part of the problem is that people have picked up their ideas of hell, not from Jesus and that tradition but from pop culture—from Simpsons cartoons where the Simpsons go to hell—and criticisms. You know critics caricature the idea of hell and we go, “Oh man, I’m not sure I believe in this anymore”, and we sort of diminish the whole word.

Simon: Yeah, there’s been a tradition of this from Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a big painting in Rome—and these are the sorts of images you’re talking about in a sense—that have educated the culture in their ideas of hell?

Last Judgement (Michelangelo).jpg

John: Yeah, the difference is when Dante wrote about hell and the classical painters depicted it, they were actually trying to make serious points in metaphorical language and in the imagery of painting but they were trying to convince us how serious it was. The difference now is hell is mocked and joked about so that, you know, the Simpsons can find the devil in hell and all this. And there can be skits about it and and it’s laughable. So both images are helpful actually but now we face the problem that hell is a thing to be mocked, not a thing to be terrified of.

Simon: The concept of God’s judgment and hell are increasingly unpopular these days it would seem. Do you think this is true among Christians, as well as those outside of the Church?

John: I think so, and for similar reasons. When people criticize the judging God, I think Christians feel really bad and so question whether they believe in the judging God. So they’re definitely Christians who are upset about this or nervous about the notion of God’s judgment but the problem is, if you keep reading your Bible, Old or New Testament, you’re confronted with the God of judgment. There’s no getting around it. And the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

Simon: Let’s hear what people on the street are talking about when they’re asked about the notion of hell.

Vox pop: I agree, I think, with the highest post of England of the church that recognizes that hell exists within you—throughout your life—and that’s something you struggle with.

Vox pop: I think hell is a man-made concept so I think it plays on the fears that everyone has—it’s part of being human really. And certain religious groups like to play on the fact too because it suits their purposes—they get more followers, it gets them more money, gets them more power.

Vox pop: I think we create that because we need it for our own self belief. Both heaven and hell, to be honest, I think is what we aspire to. I do think there is a higher being out there that looks after us and created us but I reckon once were gone were gone. If we come back maybe our souls come back and are sort of around—one likes to believe that.

Vox pop: I think it’s the man-made thing to create a supernatural kind of police force to bring people in line. I mean it has its place in society. I do believe that’s the social benefit. Whether or not it exists, I can’t prove either way.

Simon: We’re talking today about judgment and the notion of hell on the back of this documentary we’ve been talking about called Hellbound?. John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on. So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania, that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news. The other part of the equation is…

Simon: You know, when we’re included in that judgment, that’s when we have a slightly different interpretation, right?

John: It is but you’ve gotta start where the Bible starts with this and rather than avoid it because you don’t want to be included in those who are judged. You better just start with what the Bible literally says, that God is coming to overthrow the evildoer, those who trod down others and so on. And go, “Yeah that’s right!” and then start to feel the creeping awkwardness that maybe I’m included. But I was going to say is, the good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.

Simon: Now this film doco, Hellbound?, comes down pretty clearly—especially the latter half of it—with this sense that, you know, the God of the Bible is not a God who requires sacrifice but was a God of love and mercy but those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical are they?

John: That’s precisely the problem with this way of thinking. It sets two ideas against each other and just counts on us going, “Oh wow, so it’s either love or judgment. Yeah, I’m going with love!”—who wouldn’t! The problem is the Bible never plays that kind of game. Like I was saying before, it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time. Buying just one and not the other, is a terrible mistake.

Simon: So John, where does the concept of hell come from?

John: Well, it comes from the Bible, and in particular Jeremiah. There are two long passages in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 19 stands a good example, where there is this valley called the Valley of Hinnom, where some terrible things were done by Israel—burning their sons and daughters to false gods as sacrifices—and Jeremiah says, “In this valley—the Valley of Hinnom—God will bring his own fiery judgment to match the evil that Israel has done.” And the word for the Valley of Hinnom is Gehenna. This is the word for hell and by a couple of centuries before Jesus, we have Jewish literature that’s using this Gehenna word as the stock phrase, expression, for the judgment of God coming on the world. And some of those passages are extraordinary in the gruesome detail that they give. Jesus uses this word Gehenna, wherever you see the word hell it’s actually the word Gehenna, a reference to this park (well it’s a park now) in south Jerusalem (we’ve been there). But it was this metaphor for final judgment.

Now Jesus doesn’t go into gruesome details like some of the literature before him but he does use it as a place of serious judgment. It is metaphorical because on the one hand he talks about it being a fire, on the other he talks about it being outer darkness, and you can’t have fire and darkness unless it’s a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for something real. God’s judgment is coming on the world and it will match the evil that the world has done.

Vox pox: Yeah, I don’t believe in hell either and I think maybe in the past, you know, priests of religion used it as a way to control people but at the moment, I don’t think it has… I don’t think it’s true.

Vox pox: Yeah, I think there has to be something, you know, better then the conditions we have now and I am religious so, you know, there are passages in the Bible that talk about an afterlife, not necessarily heaven but like a new earth and a new kingdom and therefore things would be better than what they are now.

Vox pox: Is there a sense of an afterlife? Look, there is a sense of one but once again I have to take it with a grain of salt. Is that real or not? I don’t know. I want to be willing and open to the fact that they could be, yes.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds. The thing that troubles me is people who say, “Actually, people are annihilated in hell—that is they don’t actually have any consciousness going on—if that’s true, that means that God’s judgment is not proportional because it means the semi good atheist—who finds himself under the judgment of God—is getting exactly the same judgment as the Hitler figure who never repented. That cannot be true. That defies what the Bible teaches about God’s proportional judgment.

Simon: So the nature of hell and judgment seems to be hard to define but from the Bible’s perspective it’s real and it’s very serious. What then, John, is the message of Jesus in the face of this?

John: Well, he did ask us to be hopeful that God would right the wrongs of the world, which is what the main idea of hell is but then he said that he had come in order to bear the judgment human beings deserve. He announced the great amnesty and—at the end of Luke’s Gospel—he said the thing that was to be announced in his name to all nations, was the forgiveness of sins. So his death on the cross actually takes into himself the hell that I deserve. John Dickson’s deeds have been borne by Him. John Dickson’s judgment borne by Jesus so that forgiveness can be freely offered to others—that is the heart of the Gospel.


Update: I engage with the above in Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1

Before I post the second part of Life & Faith‘s series on hell, I’d like to engage with some of the points they raised in the first part.

Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.

Currently in Australia we’re having a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It gives us mixed feelings. On the one hand, we lament the many awful things that are being exposed. On the other hand we rejoice because:

  • Victims are beginning to receive some justice, closure, and healing.
  • Perpetrators are, ideally, genuinely comprehending the damage they’ve done, sincerely apologising, turning their lives around and seeking to make amends (see ideal justice flowchart).
  • As a result of the commission, changes are being made to our institutions to make it much harder for abuse to occur in the future.

In many ways, Judgment Day is like a Royal Commision or War Crimes tribunal, but on a far greater scale, covering every injustice ever committed throughout all time and space—something only possible because the Justice Commissioner is God Himself. In Jesus, God is the only Justice Commissioner who has personally undergone execution as a result of gross injustices. Again, it will be a time of lamenting and rejoicing:

  • Our own sins will be exposed. The hurt we caused others will be revisited—possibly revealed to us for the first time—and that will be very unpleasant, to say the least. Then, I believe each and every sin will need to be corrected. Again, that will be painful, but the sooner that “cancer” within me is purged, the better!
  • In the same fashion, the sins of each and every other person will the exposed and corrected. That will be unpleasant for them and for those watching on. It’s heartbreaking to see others in pain, even when you know it’s for their own good.

Like the Royal Commision, the good that Judgment Day brings—not least the cessation of evil—outweighs the period of lament, pain, suffering, and correction, and therefore, overall. I appreciate how John Dickson unpacks it below:

Simon: What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: … God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry for someone to make things right, and he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.

So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.

Simon:  … ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship [with God] or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes.

The idea that God will allow some people to eternally reject Him was popularised by C. S. Lewis, but interestingly Lewis’ own conversation gives us good reason to believe God will eventually win over even the most ardent atheists (Talbott explains in Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist).

Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea [that Jesus’ death and resurrection—His victory over sin and death—will mean that eventually all people will be saved]. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?

Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.

Although some people do “want us to leech-out aspects of God”, in my experience, most Christian Universalists do not. For example, Robin Parry, doesn’t dodge God’s holiness and judgment, and our sinfulness, but spends a significant amount of his book (The Evangelical Universalist) engaging with these aspects.

I’d also point out to Packer that there’s an “avalanche” of biblical material saying God’s primary characteristic is love and mercy, and that the tension Simon mentions, will be resolved through God’s restorative justice—everyone (indeed everything) will reconciled to God—the Shalom resulting from the crucifixion.

Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?

Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.

Properly addressing the “nature of judgment” would require writing a whole book but I think it’s fair to say that refining is one metaphor repeatedly used in the bible (e.g. refining fire: Zec 13:9; Job 23:10; Ps 66:10; 1Cor 3:11-15; Mal 3:2-3; 1Pet 1:7). So the nature of judgement they describe is certainly biblical.

I agree that “I never knew you” is sobering. At the same time, I’d suggest it shouldn’t be interpreted as an absolute statement because:

  1. It’s impossible for an all-knowing God to not know someone.
  2. God created and sustains everything, which implies knowledge of everything.
  3. It’s a statement within a parable, a genre known for hyperbole.

Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?

Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.

Amen, and I can’t imagine our Father failing to find a way to bring us back to Him. After all, when the disciples were worried about God’s ability to save anyone, Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matt 19:26, NLT) Jesus says, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all found in the end.

Life & Faith by the Centre for Public Christianity
Source: cpx.podbean.com

CPX Interview the Director of Hellbound

My favourite podcast is Life & Faith, produced by the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). Below I’ve transcribed the first of the two part series they did on the provocative documentary film Hellbound?.



Justine: Welcome to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. I’m Justine Toh.

Simon: And I’m Simon Smart.

Justine: Well this week we’re taking on a very unpopular topic—the kind that might even stop a dinner party rather than start one but one, of course, that we think is worth tackling.

Paul-Young

William P. Young: If you have a paradigm that doesn’t allow you to ask questions, there’s something wrong with the paradigm. And inside the traditional paradigm of Dante’s hell Inferno, you’re not allowed to ask all kinds of questions.

Mark-Driscoll

Mark Driscoll (voice of Rob Bell in background): It’s not a problem to ask questions but sometimes when certain questions are asked its by someone who’s a coward and doesn’t have the conviction to declare their answer.

Robert-McKee

Robert McKee: The notion that there really isn’t a hell is simply a wussy effort to make God a nice guy.

Bob-Larson

Bob Larson: Can anyone really believe that Hitler’s had a second chance?? Ha. I don’t think so.

Hellbound? trailer (photos from Hellbound? website)

Justine: Now that grab was from the documentary Hellbound? that has recently been shown all over North America and is causing quite a stir. So we’re gonna be talking hell and judgment over these next two episodes of Life & Faith. We’re going to be thinking about the Christian understanding of judgment and specifically of hell. Maybe… is hell a place or is it a state of mind, and who’s going there: Most people? Some people? No one?? And where do the life and death and resurrection of Jesus come into this? And these are all the sorts of questions that Hellbound? addresses. Now Simon, do you think it’s surprising that this topic is getting so much attention these days?

Simon: No, I don’t actually. It surprises me, actually, that it doesn’t get more attention because it’s a vital question to examine. There can’t be many more serious, important questions to consider than where we’ll spend eternity! And Christian theology and tradition teach some very definite things about that. So, no, the question of death and what’s beyond it remains a crucial one for humans everywhere.

Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.

Simon: No, we don’t. I don’t. And you know it’s really offensive to too many people these days, increasingly so. When we’re so attached to the notion of freedom being endless choice—which I happen to think is the way we tend to go these days—anything that gets in the way of that choice, people tend to find a way to reject it and I think that’s why this discussion is largely off the table. It’s just too offensive. But it’s really important discussion to have because if you believe the Bible has something to say about who God is and who we are and the nature of our reality, it’s important to get as close as we can to the correct answers about those things. So the question of judgment is important.

Justine: I spoke with Kevin Miller, the director of Hellbound?, from his home in Canada.

Justine: So Kevin thanks for joining us on the program.

Image result for Kevin Miller hell

Kevin: Great to be here.

Justine: So what first got you interested in this topic.

Kevin: Well, I come from a Christian background myself and and you’re right, I mean hell is one of those issues within Christianity that typically you don’t question. It’s just part of the package. So you become a Christian. You sort of accept this idea that some people are gonna go to heaven—of course that’s going to be you—and some people are going to go to hell and that’s, you know, the other people. But as a Christian it’s something that I think everyone, on some level, wrestles with because how do you reconcile this idea of eternal torment with a God who is supposedly loving? And so this has definitely been, personally, a huge issue for me and so Hellbound became really my way of trying to grapple with it.

I’ve been investigating that topic and related issues for several years and it was finally in January 2011 that I had the opportunity to begin production on this film. And it was just an attempt to really go deep on this topic because, you know, Christianity is often presented as this cut-and-dried thing to the outside world and I think that’s a mistake. That within the faith itself, just as you’ll find within Islam and Buddhism and all sorts of other religions, there’s all sorts of different factions—some progressive, some conservative, some liberals—all trying to work out different aspects of the faith. And so, definitely, with the topic of hell you see that sort of thing playing itself out.

Justine: We see a lot of interviews with popular writers in the documentary but we don’t really see a lot of theologians. Can you give us a sense of why you’ve chosen that tack?

Kevin: Actually there are quite a few theologians. Somebody asked me that recently and I think we’ve got at least a dozen people with PhDs in theology or biblical studies or philosophy of religion, and related fields. So we actually do have quite a few academics in the film. And we have a blend. As well as some people who write at a popular level, we have atheists in the film, we have death metal musicians in the film, we have a broad spectrum of people. What we really try to do in the film is to say, okay, within Christianity there is a broad spectrum of belief. I mean, if you just look at Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and then the various types of Protestantism…. So really trying to span the gamut. But then looking outside of Christianity, particularly at people who are reacting against Christianity, largely because of this idea of hell, and the image of God that comes with it. So we really sought to be as inclusive as possible with a variety of voices.

Justine: What’s the reaction to your film been like?

Kevin: It’s actually quite positive. I mean, we probably received the harshest response to the film from the bastion of the conservative Christian establishment in America, which is Christianity Today. But by and large, I mean, we’ve gotten surprisingly positive reviews from a variety of [places]—the New York Times horror film movie sites of all places—but from the mainstream press, the Huffington Post, all these places we’ve got very strong positive reactions to the film.

I actually toured the film. We screened, I think, in 40 something cities across North America and I probably did Q&A screenings in maybe 30 of those cities. And, you know, the experience in every city was almost exactly the same: where I go in kind of expecting, you know, it to be highly combative. But, instead, what the overwhelming response is, is “Thanks for making a film that opens up this conversation”. And that’s really what we’re trying to do in Hellbound?, is to provoke informed discussion—it’s not supposed to be the last word on hell. I mean, hopefully for a lot of people it’s going to be the first word, and it will just really challenge people to rethink a lot of these issues that they’ve taken for granted over the years.

Justine: That was Hellbound? director, Kevin Miller. It seems that he wanted to at least have a good discussion around the issue of hell. What do you reckon Simon?

Simon: Yeah, and there’s no doubt he’d get a reaction to this. Now that’s a good thing, it’s a topic that brings up strong emotions, that’s for sure! And you see that in the film. And there are definitely some unhelpful images and misleading ideas on what God’s judgment is about, that have come into our culture. And we get some of the great works of art over the centuries that I think have had a really big influence in this way. You might think of something like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which is on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Last Judgement (Michelangelo).jpg
You get horrifying images there, or even Dante’s Inferno—the great 14th century allegory of a journey through hell—and you get these lurid images of suffering and torment. That’s had a big influence, for sure. But this subject’s really a heavy one and it’s just that it’s worth reminding ourselves that the language that Jesus—who talks the most actually about hell—is using a language that was drawing on really symbolic material, to stress a real thing. So he’s stressing the serious nature of judgment. We have to remember the symbolic nature of the language as well, and be careful about getting too specific about the nature of that judgment and what we’re talking about.

Justine: You sometimes hear people say that if God wants to send people to hell, especially those who don’t follow him, then he can’t be a God worth following.

Simon: Yeah, you do hear that a bit and I think it’s a terrible misunderstanding about who the God of the Bible is. The picture in the Bible is one of God’s constantly reaching out to His people, in mercy and forgiveness. And I guess that the other big sweep of the Bible is one of people constantly rebelling from that love but still God finds a way for people to come back to Him. It’s just that ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes. I think when we talk about God’s judgment we have to keep that in mind.

Hank-

Hank Hanegraaff: So ultimately the panoply of Scripture is pointing to one thing and that is either reconciliation with God or separation from God.

Gregory-A.-Boyd

Gregory A. Boyd: You often find folks whose map is the territory. If you disagree with them, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re disagreeing with God!

Mark-Driscoll

Mark Driscoll: I use the language of national and state borders or boundaries. I can work with anybody in the state borders but I can’t partner with anyone who’s crossed a national border.

David-Bruce

David Bruce: I gotta tell you, that’s not a good way to be.

Gregory-A.-Boyd

Gregory A. Boyd: If someone’s got a position or argument, and you think it’s wrong, then why do you fear looking at it? The truth shouldn’t have any fear.

Hellbound? trailer (photos from Hellbound? website)

Justine: That idea that truth shouldn’t have anything to fear—that’s from Hellbound?. But plenty of people have also reacted to this film, saying that it’s not an accurate biblical portrayal.

Simon: Yes and you get this debate going on in the film between those who believe in hell as an eternal state for those who are outside of relationship with God and those who think that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, that in the end the victory of the Cross will mean that all people, one way or another, will be saved. And there’s no doubt that the film comes down on the side of that universalist idea.

Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?

Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.

Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?

Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.

Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?

Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.

Justine: So in terms of the movie Hellbound?, if you want to watch it, you can order the DVD from hellboundthemovie.com or you can stream or download it from Vimeo on demand.

So next time on Life & Faith we will keep talking about this issue of hell and judgment and we’re going to hear from people on the street, you know, what do they think about Hell. And we’re also going to hear the thoughts of John Dickson, ancient historian, biblical scholar and director of the Centre for Public Christianity. Here’s a taste of what he had to say on this topic:

Simon: John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.

So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.

The good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.

Update: See Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1 for my thoughts on the above.

Hellbound?