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?

Why Everyone is a Child of God

I often ponder just how much more of a jerk I would be if I didn't happen to believe that all men and women, regardless of their capacity or usefulness, are inestimably precious children of the Creator―John Dickson
John Dickson’s post

I particularly like his point that “all men and women … are inestimably precious children of the Creator”. It is something I’ve been pondering for ages so I thought I’d explore the idea in four posts (drawing a lot from Spencer Boersma’s article):

  1. Why Everyone is a Child of God
  2. Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God
  3. What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
  4. Doesn’t the NT also talk about becoming children of God??

I’ll start by looking at where I think the Bible implies everyone is a child of God.

The “image of God” means the child of God

The first place we find God described as a parent is:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27, NIV

The same image and likeness language is used to describe the relationship between Adam and his son:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.

Genesis 5:3, NIV

Boersma explains that it’s “an ancient way of saying “These are my children”” and we still have a sense of that in the common, “Wow, your baby looks just like you”, compliment. We also find this connection in the NT:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Colossians 1:15, NIV

His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance

Hebrews 1:3, WEB

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

James 3:9-10, NIV

Everyone is a child of Adam and thus a child of God

Another place we find God described as a parent is at the end of the genealogy in Luke:

the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

Luke 3:38, WEB

As all humanity comes from Adam, we all inherit his curses (Rom 5:12-21) and blessings―including being a child of God.

God is the Father of everything

I think it’s worth considering Ephesians 4:6:

One God and Father of pás, who is over pás, and through pás, and in pás.

The question is, what is the scope of the Greek pás here? pás is usually translated “all” but when the context is people, it’s appropriate to translate it “everyone” or “all people”; or when the context is creation, it can be “all things”, “everything”, or “everywhere”.

Given verses 4-8 have many people related words―God, Father, body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, “each one of us”, prisoners, and people―it’s possible that pás could be translated “all-people/everyone”, and indeed some translations translate it that way (e.g. CEV, GNT, and ERV).

However, given almost every English translation translates pás as “all-things/everything” in verse 10, it seems most likely that is the scope of verse 6 too (e.g. EXB, ICB, NIRV, NCV, and GW). I think linking parenthood and creator isn’t unique to Ephesians. For example, God’s challenge to Job:

Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens

Job 38:28-9, NIV

And in other OT passages the concepts appear overlapping:

Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people?
Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?

Deuteronomy 32:6, NIV

Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?

Malachi 2:10, NASB

God is the head of all families

While parental headship isn’t as significant in our culture, hopefully we can still see how this supports God’s universal parenthood:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

Ephesians 3:14-15, NIV

Even non-believers are God’s children

In part 4 I will look at the question of why the NT seems to talk about people becoming children of God when they believe but for now I’ll just point out that Paul associates God being Creator, with God being a parent of even non-believers (his audience):

and he [God] gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said. Since we are God’s children

Acts 17:28-29, CEV

Conclusion

I find it encouraging that Christians across the spectrum, including conservative evangelicals, are acknowledging this life changing (for reasons I’ll explore in my next post) teaching.

In recent years a number of scholars have taken the view that “the image and likeness of God” is the language of family relationship. For example, Graeme Goldsworthy argues that “image and likeness are terms of sonship.” John Dickson writes that “the image of God means that men and women stand in a filial relationship to God; they are his offspring, as it were. They bear the family resemblance.” And Greg Beale holds that “Adam was conceived of as a ‘son of God,’” appealing to Genesis 5:1-3.

… “In the garden, Adam is portrayed by Calvin as the loving son, surrounded with signs of the ‘paternal goodness’ (Institutes I. 14.2) of God. … Adam has no fear at the sight of God, whom he is able to identify as Father.”

Brian Rosner, Image of God as Son of God

Hope In The Face Of Suffering And Doubt

The following is a talk I recently gave at my church (video). The first few paragraphs are based primarily upon Niall Doherty’s excellent article on The Stockdale Paradox.


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
U.S. Navy File Photo of Vice Admiral James “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

Again this is surprising. However, he did survive and lifelong friendships came out of it. He also went on to become “one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy”. The paradox of the tension between hope and suffering is named after him. This quote summarises it well.

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.

But is this all just wishful thinking? In Dickson’s book, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, he writes:

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] satisfiedJohn 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

Doubt & Desire: Peter Rollins vs John Dickson

  • The greater the importance of something to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it.
  • The greater the doubt, the more you desire to have certainty.

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?

I recently got to go to a talk by John Dickson, and in the following week two events by Peter Rollins. Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections. As I’ve been mulling over what they said, I’ve realised there are both similarities and contrasts between the two that are worth sharing.

Peter Rollins and John Dickson
Peter Rollins and John Dickson

While they both had helpful insights on a range of things, topics they both focused on were doubt and desire. They both spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. We all have doubts, at least at times, about big questions―be that the existence or character of God, the interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. This was refreshing because sometimes there is pressure to “have it all worked out”, or that any doubt implies we don’t have enough faith1.

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 anxious or depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can2. However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two different approaches.

My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards3, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery4. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to satisfy every desire.

… 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’ caution should be heeded. Often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―that things are often 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.

For those with intellectual doubts, Dickson recommended reading and researching more because most quandaries have been pondered and addressed extensively by someone before. I’m naturally attracted to Dickson’s approach. My Dad is a science teacher and my Mum is teacher librarian, so questioning and reading were ingrained in me from an early age. Dickson also suggests that God, largely through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now and promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all doubts and suffering. We can have hope now. In the book that his talk summarized, Dickson writes:

But Is It All Wishful Thinking?
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. “Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice,” he says; “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found 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 (Zondervan, 2014), 214

I do think it is easier to endure suffering and live with the questions and doubts it raises, if we believe we are promised a good outcome.

If I knew there was a resolution [to suffering], I could walk through life without precisely knowing why I’m experiencing ugliness [suffering].John Dickson, Doubting the Bible, Hobart talk 2015

I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now5 if we are desiring the future.

… [set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins

While I think the Bible does encourage peace and contentment with the current, non-ideal situation, I don’t think that it’s suggesting this at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised. For example, I can be at peace with the death of a loved one, while still looking forward to the day when we’ll be reunited in the New Creation.

The fact that humanity has longings [for God, the afterlife, and ethics] 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 satisfied. … [in] the final lines of the Bible itself, we are all invited for a drink…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 215-217

“Come!” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink [receive] freely from the water of life.Revelation 22:17b (NLT)

I think this verse goes even further than Dickson realises, and suggests universal salvation. For the water of life flows out (Zechariah 14:8) the open gates (Rev 21:25) of the New Jerusalem to the not-yet-saved outside (Rev 22:15) and it is God and the quenched (John 4:14) who are calling the thirsty to drink. In a future post I’ll look at the objection that some people will refuse to drink. For now, I think it’s worth considering how parched one becomes near fire6, and how irrational it would be not to accept a free drink. Anyway, for Calvinists, like Dickson, I hope they wouldn’t have this objection as they believe all whom God calls will come7.

“Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! … My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:1,11 (NLT)

Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)
Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)

1. Which could be interpreted as meaning one’s salvation is at stake.
2. This may include encouraging them to seek professional help via a GP.
3. I’ve watched some of his YouTube videos too but unfortunately I haven’t read any of his books yet.
4. This reminds me of the Eastern approach to theology.
5. He made some excellent points about making sure we give priority to loving people over philosophising about things.
6. Also located outside the gates in Revelation imagery.
7. The “I” in TULIP is for Irresistable Grace.