17 May 2018

Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem

Visiting Ivan the Terrible's offices at Alexandrova Sloboda. Andrew Graham-Dixon explains some of the features of the hell fresco: (top) sinners boiling in oil; (middle) Judas  in Satan's  lap. (BBC's Art of  Russia, episode 1.)
Hell is endlessly fascinating.

About six years ago, I commented on Wayne Cordeiro's claim that, in eternity, "we will never see another non-Christian." Then, a couple of months ago, in my usual list of interesting links, I referred to Roger E. Olson's intriguing article, Would You Be Mad at God if He Saved Everyone? He was not arguing against the existence of hell, just against hell and its avoidance being the basis of evangelism or Christian commitment.

Another day, another defense of hell ... this time from Ben Witherington: The Problems with Universalism and the Denial of Hell. Witherington does not insist on eternal torment as the only possible description of hell, but ... well, read for yourself:
If God is a lover of humankind, what if they say ‘no thank you! I don’t want to love you! I don’t even want to believe in you! Go away!’ Hell is the place where God says ‘if you insist on having it your way, then your will be done’. ‘If you insist on being bad to the bone despite my love for you, and refuse to repent, refuse to believe the Gospel refuse to accept my Son, refuse to live a godly life— then there is a place in the afterlife where you can carry on in that direction’. In other words, precisely because God is love, and the required response is that we freely love him back, it is not inevitable that all will be saved. It just isn’t. Sometimes, love doesn’t win. Sometimes love is unrequited and tragically, this is even the case with God’s love.
The problem is, as with most defenders of eternal damnation on the basis of a binary choice, this isn't any sort of 3-D reality. It only deals with the theoretical rebel who's personally experienced God as lover of humankind, is fully aware of God's healing grace, and has rejected it.

This isn't a trivial exercise in theology. Just three days ago, the USA's government arranged a global microphone for two Christian leaders to express a supposedly Christian blessing and benediction on a terminally stupid event: the opening of the new site for the U.S. embassy in Israel. How many people in Palestine, in Gaza, and around the world, watching the spectacle of death and agony on the boundaries, truly believed that the involvement of Jeffress and Hagee was consistent with God's love for all? How many heard an invitation to "believe the Gospel" (aka the Good News)? On the other hand, for how many was Christianity's credibility as an expression of God's grace and love reduced?

And what do you think: was God gratified by the praise at the place where divine approval was being asserted with imperial confidence, or was God with the bleeding and dying? How do we know?

Let's be fair. Maybe this highly politicized event was an extreme example. Here's my life and death question: Exactly how much exposure to God's love meets the threshold requirement that, when not accepted, merits damnation? Is there a compensating calibration that takes into account the hateful messages poured out by Christian celebrities and their faithful zombies? Does God sometimes wink at the unchurched who are trying to make sense of such mixed messages and say, in effect, "Don't worry, honest seekers and jaded observers, those guys have forgotten how to do real evangelism -- they're just playing to a domestic audience"? (OK, maybe I'm fantasizing, ... or maybe that wink is sometimes our job!)

Many defenders of eternal damnation argue that God's holiness cannot tolerate sin. I agree! This means that God could never impose coercion or cruelty on sinners, because God cannot be exempt from God's own standards of holiness. Instead, through Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the testimony and good company of God's people, God is persistently drawing us away from every sin and imperfection ... not limited by our inability to imagine the perfection to which the Bible calls us, nor by our pathetic impatience.

I cannot go completely universalistic. I agree with Ben Witherington that, at least theoretically, it's logically possible for someone to be exposed to the full scale of God's goodness and deliberately reject it. But how often does that really happen, in contrast with the cartoonish scare tactics of some representatives of the religion industry? I just don't believe that any theologian, no matter how white and male and well-connected, and full of righteous anger, can define that rebellion on God's behalf. And woe be unto that one whose corrupt confidence pushes the sinner away from God.

Seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay begins his exploration of salvation and damnation here. Read and be refreshed!

Times of Israel interviews John Hagee.

Chemi Shalev in Haaretz: "Israel has only one king, and his name is Donald Trump."

The first Palestinian museum in the USA opens quietly in Connecticut.

Gracy Olmstead: What the early church knew -- women make great leaders.

Fascinating and important: Keith Gessen on the USA's "old Russia hands" in today's context.

Now is the needed time.

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