09 November 2023

One final post about hell

Concerning my latest survey on the terms "Quakers" and "Friends"I'm doing a bit of a cheat.

One respondent wondered why there was no category for "Hicksites" and another wondered why there was no category for "Orthodox." (Brief explanation of these terms.) Fair enough! I've added those two categories. If you've already responded and would have preferred one of those new categories to the "liberal" or "evangelical" categories already provided, let me know and I will (ahem) adjust the results. I'm glad I labeled this an "informal" survey.

Once again: the survey is here:  blog.canyoubelieve.me/p/survey.html. Please share it widely. Many thanks to everyone who has already responded.

"People leaving the northern Gaza Strip amid hostilities, following repeated calls by Israeli forces and the opening of a 'corridor.' Photo by UNRWA, 8 November 2023." (Source.)

Voiceover: "For the Palestinians displaced from
the north, this is what awaits them in the south of
the [Gaza] Strip." (Screenshot from source.)

This morning, on SE 52nd Avenue here in Portland, Oregon, I saw a billboard asking "Where are you going? Heaven or HELL."

Mark Schaefer's blog post about this series of billboards pretty well sums up my own thoughts on this message. But the words "Where are you going?" and the two blunt destinations made me think about the images we're seeing from Gaza. Those people walking along Gaza's main north-south road, with children in their arms, or a few possessions, some with white flags—where are they going? What awaits them there? Something like heaven, or something more like hell?

On the Deutsche Welle video from which I drew one of the photos, aid organizations are quoted as saying "Nowhere in Gaza is safe."

As I assembled these images, I remembered a passionate sermon from Munther Isaac,  "God Is Under the Rubble in Gaza," which Isaac gave on Oct. 22 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour and again at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, following the bombing of Gaza's oldest Christian church.

Here again that question—"Where are you going?"—echoes in the sermon...

We are broken. The people of Gaza are suffering. They have lost everything except their dignity. Many attained glory—they attained martyrdom—even if they did not ask for it. Now, again in our history, they find themselves facing the same choice: death or displacement. Our Nakba continues!

Where are they to go? There is no place for them in this world!

You and I are praying for them, and we know that the people at the center of the storm are in constant prayer:

We prayed. We prayed for their protection … and God did not answer us, not even in the “house of God” were church buildings able to protect them. Our children die before the silence of the world, and before the silence of God. How difficult is God’s silence!

Job's words seem to ring out from somewhere in the background, from Job 13:15 ..."though God slay me, yet shall I hope in God...." Indeed, Munther Isaac calls on the faithful to remember that "Jesus is no stranger to pain, arrest, torture, and death." Furthermore,

We have another comfort, which is the resurrection. In our brokenness, pain, and death, let us repeat the gospel of the resurrection: “Christ is risen.” He became the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. When I saw the pictures of the bodies of these saints in the white bags in front of the church, during their funeral, Christ’s call came to my mind: “Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

But along the way, Isaac does not dodge the agonizing question of prayers that seem to go nowhere: "We search for God on this land. Theologically, philosophically, we ask: Where is God when we suffer? How do we explain his silence?"

I find that, in the tragic midst of this hellish reality (a reality also experienced by the innocent victims and hostages of Hamas!), I've run out of patience on the threat of hell as an evangelistic tool. I've outlined my indictment before:

Perhaps only a cultural context of individualism, safety, and affluence could explain how a prominent evangelical writer could pose the problem as glibly as Erik Strandness did in the quotation I cited in God's sweet revenge, part two:

I agree with [Rob] Bell that love does win, but his conception of love is incomplete because he forgets that it takes two-to-tango. God has extended a dance invitation to all of us so when we tell Him that our dance card is full we miss the opportunity to trip the light fantastic with the lover of our souls. Sadly, many humans are afraid of the commitments inherent in divine intimacy so they opt for being wallflowers at the salvation dance rather than stepping out and cutting a rug with the Groom at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

God’s love wins! However, when it is not reciprocated, those who reject it lose. Hell isn’t about sins committed but about God’s redemptive love going unrequited.

I'm serious. Where in Gaza or, for that matter, where in the real world of suffering, or shattering disillusionment, whatever the location, is God's "dance invitation" decisively evident? And through whom? Thank God, the invitation to faith is still present even in Palestine, through the honesty of people like Munther Isaac. I can't speak for these Gospel voices, but I doubt they use the threat of hell to sharpen their arguments among people who are already living in constant fear, people who surely must sometimes be asking themselves, "How do we explain God's silence?"

If some of them sadly conclude, "Maybe there is no God," can we truly say that an invitation was knowingly, obstinately, and fatally rejected? Turning the question around: How can we contribute to effective expressions of God's love among a people whose experience is that, in Isaac's words, "Hell is a reality in Gaza today"?

Updates page for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Friends Committee on National Legislation (its annual meeting and Quaker Public Policy Institute) meets in person and online November 15-19.

Mark Russ gives us a peak at the 2023 online gathering of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group and previews his own paper. More details on the two-day event (December 1 and 2) here.

Matt Vlaardingerbroek gives us three reasons why Bible-believing Christians don't really exist. And David Williams says, yes, you can have a biblical worldview without, you know ....

Bill Jolliff reviews Derek Lamson's "A Month of Sundays." You may remember that Derek Lamson is also the author of Mark V: The Opera, which I reviewed here; and Judy Maurer's interview with Derek is here.

Here's a "needed" song. As Eric Bibb says, "Just what my soul needed." (As they get ready to play, the musicians refer to the Lightnin' Hopkins version in the movie Sounder.)

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