Towards the end of my last post, part I in this little series, I said I often come back to something Bart Campolo said once in 1995 as he addressed a group of idealistic young college students doing Kingdomworks (KW), including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. I wrote in that post that I know that this was probably something he was struggling with (why or if one should keep following Jesus) even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. I said that this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? As I wrote in the last post:
How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me?
I should start by acknowledging the many “hard sayings” (teachings, stories) in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. An atheist site has helpfully compiled some of them, which I’ve included below:
1. God drowns the whole earth.
In Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, fetuses, and perhaps unicorns. Only a single family survives.
2. God kills half a million people.
In 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
3. God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn.
In Exodus 12:29, God the baby-killer slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
4. God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
5. Genocide after genocide after genocide.
In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
6. God kills 50,000 people for curiosity.
In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
7. 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a god.
In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” About 3,000 people died.
8. The Amorites destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks.
In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
9. God burns two cities to death.
In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
10. God has 42 children mauled by bears.
In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
11. A tribe slaughtered and their virgins raped for not showing up at roll call.
In Judges 21:1-23, a tribe of Israelites misses roll call, so the other Israelites kill them all except for the virgins, which they take for themselves. Still not happy, they hide in vineyards and pounce on dancing women from Shiloh to take them for themselves.
12. 3,000 crushed to death.
In Judges 16:27-30, God gives Samson strength to bring down a building to crush 3,000 members of a rival tribe.
13. A concubine raped and dismembered.
In Judges 19:22-29, a mob demands to rape a godly master’s guest. The master offers his daughter and a concubine to them instead. They take the concubine and gang-rape her all night. The master finds her on his doorstep in the morning, cuts her into 12 pieces, and ships the pieces around the country.
14. Child sacrifice.
In Judges 11:30-39, Jephthah burns his daughter alive as a sacrificial offering for God’s favor in killing the Ammonites.
15. God helps Samson kill 30 men because he lost a bet.
In Judges 14:11-19, Samson loses a bet for 30 sets of clothes. The spirit of God comes upon him and he kills 30 men to steal their clothes and pay off the debt.
16. God demands you kill your wife and children for worshiping other gods.
In Deuteronomy 13:6-10, God commands that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they worship other gods.
17. God incinerates 51 men to make a point.
In 2 Kings 1:9-10, Elijah gets God to burn 51 men with fire from heaven to prove he is God.
18. God kills a man for not impregnating his brother’s widow.
In Genesis 38:9-10, God kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow.
20. The coming slaughter.
According to Revelation 9:7-19, God’s got more evil coming. God will make horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails, who torture people for 5 months. Then some angels will kill a third of the earth’s population. If he came today, that would be 2 billion people.
The post on the site the list above comes from concludes by adding that “Christians have spent thousands of years coming up with excuses for a loving god that would allow or create such evil. In fact, they’ve come up with 12 basic responses, which are the subject of The Tale of the Twelve Officers.” The first link (“excuses”) in this last quote takes you to the Wikipedia page for Theodicy, which is an entire line of thought that “attempts to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” The second link, to “The Tale of the Twelve Officers,” takes you to a hyperbolic story about a terrible crime committed in full view of 12 police officers who did nothing to stop it. The bulk of the story is the 12 officers accounting for why they did nothing. Each of their justifications represent ones the author of that page finds Christians commonly using to explain evil and justify how God might allow it to go on. That author concludes by adding:
Religious readers, do not take offense. I have made this parable as brazen as I could, but my purpose is not to insult or blaspheme. I have found that religious believers are often conditioned to accept trite solutions to the problem of suffering, and that it is all but impossible to shake that conditioning through dry analysis. The temptation to offer to an entity a moral blank check simply because it sports a name tag with “God” written on it, is overwhelming in our theistic culture. Hence, this attempt to make the point through a medium as far removed from dry analysis as possible. But again, it is all to make a point, not to cause anyone harm. I have not written anything that I would not have wanted directed at me when I myself was a believer.
Were I to choose not to follow Jesus as some that I know have, including Bart, this would be one of the reasons why. Another reason has to do with the nature of truth as it relates to the Bible. In a postmodern age, this boils down to a simple question: why should we trust the Bible? How can we, really, when you know as I do that the written Bible we Protestants rely on is different from the Catholic version, for starters, and more importantly (leaving divine inspiration aside for a moment) is not a single book written at one time by one person in one language but is rather many, many books (at least 66; some would argue more) that at first weren’t written at all but were instead passed on as oral traditions and then were written down by many different people in a number of different languages over the course literally of thousands of years. Some of these original writings were lost in the dust of time, but fragments of copies of them were unearthed sometimes much later and eventually compiled, and then men (usually) sat in councils to decide which of these compilations to canonize (make official) as the “Bible” we can buy in a bookstore today. Surely this must be a matter for faith because it seems to me it takes a lot of faith to believe that a holy book with such an origin story could be, well, holy.
Problems with the Bible don’t end there, though. Not only is it of dubious origin. Not only does it recount horrific tales of murder and genocide seemingly ordered by God, but for quite some time Protestants have insisted that the Bible is inerrant. Usually there’s some qualification to go along with this like “in its original writings” or something of that sort, but the basic gist is as it sounds, I would suggest. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes. There’s no error in it. As someone who’s done just a little study of Christian history, I like to point out that it’s perhaps not coincidental that this insistence on the part of Protestants seems strangely (or not) to have arisen around the same time that Catholics began insisting that the Pope was infallible. It’s as if one team needed an answer for the problem posed by the best player on the other team. Perhaps I digress, however. What’s troublesome about this and truly challenging if one is to continue to have faith is that the Bible seems to, well, have some errors. Depending on how one interprets it, one could make a case for all kinds of things the Bible seems to support which just don’t stand up under modern scientific, literary, or historical critical analysis. Questions like how old the earth is and whether dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time are ones that some find answers to in the Bible, but those answers sometimes directly contradict all other evidence that can be found outside the Bible using all the tools God has otherwise given us.
One more point should be made, again reflecting as we are in a postmodern (and, in the wake of the recent election, truly “post-truth”) age. Its worth noting as others much smarter than I have said, but which I keep echoing, that all reading is interpretation. I’ve posted and talked about this before, but a clip from the amazing film Waking Life deals with this most helpfully:
The dialogue in that scene goes:
Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like frustration? Or what is anger? Or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.
It’s terribly useful to remember that words are indeed symbols. They’re vehicles for conveying meaning. But the meaning in the mind of a speaker or writer that a word is meant to bear may or may not be the meaning that is made in the mind of the hearer or reader when that word is received. Certainly, some meanings are more easily transferred from the mind of the speaker/writer to that of the hearer/reader than others. Some symbols/words are so ubiquitous in a culture that the chances of effective communication are very high. But what if the writer and reader speak very different languages and come from very different cultures and lived thousands of years apart? So I’ll say it again, all reading is interpretation, and this is a useful concept when thinking especially about reading the Bible. Some Christians would like to say that their reading of the text is somehow “plain” or so evident as to be beyond dispute, but such a claim does not hold up. Every act of reading involves many, many decisions by the reader about what the symbols they’re presented with are meant to convey. Most of these decisions are made subconsciously or they’ve effectively been made for us by virtue of the time we’re born into, the language we speak and the abundance of words it has or doesn’t have to represent one thing or another; our socioeconomic status, who and how present our parents are, and on and on and on. For example, and I’ve talked about this before, in English “you” can be plural or singular. Many, many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to follow Jesus are plural. They’re addressed to you all, the church, because following Jesus is so wonderful and so hard that you can’t just do it alone. Yet how many of us grew up reading them as if they were addressed to me, just me, the individual? How many sermons did we who grew up “going to church” hear that reinforced this way of being a “Christian” that in its individualism was probably more “American” than “Christian?”
So then, what are we to make of all this?
Usually in discussions like this I’ll talk about my Luther Seminary days and how one professor in one class was so very helpful. Of course, at first he was decidedly un-helpful as the faith of my youth was torn down time and again by questions like “Jonah- a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” Incidentally, the Jonah story never mentions a whale; it was “a big fish,” but I digress again. In any case, after serving to deeply challenge and even deconstruct quite a bit the faith I grew up with, this prof. very helpfully provided some building blocks for constructing a very different, but hopefully more mature, faith. He suggested that when it comes to the Bible what’s most important are the questions we ask of it. So instead of asking about the Bible questions like “Is it true?” as in “was it factually observable?” or “could I have taken a video of it?” it’s far better to ask about the Bible “what is it for?” The authors of the Bible and especially the Hebrew Scriptures- with their ancient neareastern understanding and cosmology- did not set out, for example, to write a 21st century science textbook. So if some of the stories in the Bible don’t exactly jive with our modern scientific understanding, it’s because they weren’t meant to. That’s not what they’re for. No, what the Bible is for, taken as a whole, is to tell the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, culminating and centered in the person and life of Jesus. Everything in the “big God story” that comes before Christmas is best seen as somehow pointing toward him, and everything that comes after the resurrection can only be understood in light of it. Thus, as Circle of Hope says, “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible” and “the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
The notion of knowing and following the Bible being a group project is integral too. Because all reading is interpretation and language is fraught with so many ontological challenges, we best understand and receive guidance from Scripture when we do it together. One of my pastors, Michael Binder of Mill City Church, talks about this a bit when he discusses whether or not the Bible is trustworthy. He says: “I think the Bible can be trusted because it’s always being translated. In fact, I trust the Bible more because it’s always being translated.” Later, he says: “We have to do the hard work as a community to ask ‘What’s the most faithful interpretation and action based on what we know of God’s story and character and what’s said in the Bible in the midst of a constantly changing cultural setting?’ ” He goes on:
“Our engagement with the Bible becomes more important right now, not less important. One of the reactions to the question of ‘Can I trust the Bible?’ is to say, ‘Well I don’t know if I can so I’m just going to put it on the shelf.’ That’s the opposite reaction we need. We need a whole group of people who are digging into it more and asking better questions about how we faithfully translate that Scripture today. And we all have to do that together. You can’t just pick some experts and have them do it for you.”
“Community then becomes more important, not less important, because we need each other to interpret the Bible well. We have to decide what it is God is calling us to do. I can’t decide that for you. You can’t sit in a room by yourself and read the Bible and decide what you think it means. You can’t. You have to do it with other people because you need their perspective. You need to hear God through them. You have to build trust with people in community. That’s one of the reasons why we need more community in church, not less. We need to fight against the individualistic tendencies that say ‘Just go off and do it by yourself in your own spiritual journey.’ That doesn’t work. So the reasons why we can trust the Bible is 1) the Bible is the means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus, and secondly, because it’s already built to be translated, which means it can adapt and adjust and speak clearly truth into any cultural situation and if we know that then we can enter into discussions and questions about what that really means in any particular time and place and trust that as a community God will reveal it to us, because he always has.”
Thinking of the Bible as being “built” to be translated is helpful to me. Perhaps the crazy convoluted process in which Scripture came together in the form we receive it today is a testament (ha! no pun intended) to why it is trustworthy, not why it’s not. If we remember what the Bible is for- namely, it’s for telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity though the ages culminating in the person of Jesus- (a notion I think Michael affirms in saying “the Bible is a means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus”) then it also bears remembering that this storytelling has always been a group project. It was in the context of a community that the first oral traditions that later became written scripture first evolved. It was within a community that scriptures were copied, edited, and added to as the “big God story” continued on. Letters within Scripture were written to whole communities of believers in various cities, and the story continues to be told today, right at this second on a blog.
Thinking of the Bible as a means to an end also solves another problem. It rescues us from the temptation to resort to “Bibliolatry,” as unfortunately all too many would-be Jesus followers have done. Some Christians are so focused on being “Bible based” and “preaching the Word” that they lose sight of the One of whom the “word” speaks. They lose sight of the living Word, Jesus. They forgot that while the “law” in scripture is useful because it points in the direction of how to have the right relationships God made us for, what’s important are those relationships, not the rules that help us have them well. As I’ve long said using my own personal mantra, “rules are for relationship.” Or as Jesus put it, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Likewise, we’re reminded in scripture that the day will come when God “will put (his) laws in (our) hearts, and (he) will write them on (our) minds.” I’ve talked about this before. So if you ask me why I continue to trust the Bible, I can give you one crucial reason: because it reliably points to Jesus. I trust the Bible to do that. I trust it to point me in the direction of right relationship with Jesus, with those around me, and with God’s good earth. It’s a signpost along “the way” of following Jesus, but ultimately my trust does not fully and finally reside in any text. My trust finds its final home in Jesus himself. In the absence of right relationship with Jesus, the Bible has little value for me.
I’ll be honest. I still have lots of problems with the Bible, at least 20 or so, as noted above. Some of them are mitigated by remembering how the Bible came together and remembering too that what came together was not only a compilation of many different voices separated by language, culture, and time, but also many different genres. Some of what we read in scripture is narrative or prose. Some is poetry. Some is allegorical. Some is apocalyptic, a genre which many interpret as telling the future, but maybe is best understood as telling a hard truth about the present which couldn’t be heard unless it was couched in language that on its face had to with the future, much like the best science fiction today. Thus some of the stories in the Bible are clearly “stories” meant to make a point but not needing to be factually observable to be “true.” Others seem to be intended to be historical accounts, but sometimes it’s just hard to tell which is which.
Our challenges don’t end there, though. Even when it does seem somewhat clear what kind of story we’re reading in Scripture, we’re still faced with the question of what to do with that story. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve sin and a curse is pronounced. Included in that curse are the words “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ ” Remember, those words were first spoken, then written, then fragmented and put back together, then translated many, many times and finally ripped from their historical and cultural context as they were brought to us. The question is still begged, however, does this description of what is (“he will rule over you”) means that it is what should be? Is patriarchy Christian? Many Christians over many years have basically said “yes” to this question and in all too many cases women were oppressed as a result. Some of us hopefully have been smart enough to move away from complementarianism and have taken more egalitarian stances in our marriages, workplaces, and churches. Still, does the Bible give us a “right” answer? What about slavery? Many Christians were on the wrong side of this too, and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible to justify their position. Were they again right to do so according to the text(s)? How about LGBTQ issues today? Or the death penalty? Or abortion? What about war? Or killing and eating animals (yes, you can defend your position on this using Scripture)? My point is that would-be Jesus followers have been all over the map on these issues throughout history, and in most if not all cases, they used the Bible to support their answers. Does this mean that everyone’s right? That no one is? And what do we do when passages seem to contradict themselves? And what weight do we give various passages within the Bible? Are some more important than others? How do we decide? Who gets to decide?
I think what Bart so brazenly and honestly declared he did with Scripture when he was still following Jesus- which I referenced in my last post- is something we all do. He said that he “will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that” didn’t comport with his “first article of faith,” namely “that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.” He also declares just what king of a god he can believe in (at the time), namely one that is “at least as moral as he is.” He starts from there and then moves to scripture to find affirmation of this view. Some would immediately assert that this is wrong, backwards. Are we really so different, though? Remembering that all reading is interpretation, we all bring our assumptions to the Bible, and most of us too often use it as a tool to justify our pre-conceived positions.
All of this only reinforces the need to remember what Scripture is for, namely again telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages. Of course it’s also useful for what it says it is useful for, which is: “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but this is only possible within a community that is willing to do the hard work of ongoing interpretation, together, as together that community does its best to follow Jesus, to ask “what is God up to?” and “how should we respond?” Some Christians will be deeply offended by the paragraph above about Bart’s “first article of faith” (which alludes to universalism) and his approach to Scripture (which some would call brazenly cavalier), and it reminds me of something Bart’s father, Tony Campolo, used to do when he would speak at Christian colleges. He usually said something like this, which I found recorded here:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Obviously (hopefully it’s obvious, anyway) he was being hyperbolic, but his story does what good stories do. It got you to think. It raises questions about justice and rules and begs the questions: “what do we think God really cares about?” and “do we care about those things as much as He does?” So I wonder about those who would be offended by the paragraph above. Are you more offended because Bart believed, with some Scriptural support, that God’s love for humanity would be so, well, loving that it would eventually wear down our resistance to it down to every last man, woman, and child throughout history; or are you more offended that Bart would be honest about discounting some parts of the Bible or ignoring them altogether in favor of others? If the former, I’ll have more to say below. If the latter, is it possible that you’re offended because if you’re at all like me you know that deep down you’re no better? I can certainly agree with him regarding myself, and I have lots of evidence that almost every Christian does this. Many “conservative Christians,” for example, elevate some passages of scripture that touch on immoral habits like drunkenness or promiscuity to the point that they’re quick to judge those who engage in such acts while seeming to utterly ignore how Jesus seemed to interact with those who engaged in such acts. Some such would-be Jesus followers wouldn’t be caught dead with such “sinners,” while Jesus seemed to greatly prefer the company of “sinners” over that of the (self-)”righteous.” Similarly, some “single issue voters” will use abortion as the alleged metric for deciding who to vote for because murder is pretty clearly wrong and life seems to pretty clearly begin at some point in the womb (and as the father of a son born at 24 weeks and 3 days gestation I can unequivocally say my son wasn’t quite cooked enough when he was born but he was certainly my son already and he’s an amazing young man today!). Astoundingly, though, those same single issue “don’t murder” voters seem to have no difficulty supporting war and the death penalty and seem to be unwilling to lift a finger to support the social safety net and living wages and universal healthcare and early education/intervention opportunities, all of which can have a dramatic impact on continuing the already downward trend in abortion rates. And you know what? They can use scripture to defend some of those positions.
Speaking of scripture, or more accurately, some people’s interpretation of it, I started writing these two posts and spent much of the last one talking about Bart and his repudiation of faith for a reason. Actually, and importantly, my recent post with all the Kingdomworks pictures is related too. You see, there was an interesting, if not strange, confluence of events that happened lately. It started when I discovered that my old KW team-mate Holly is actually kind of famous.
Holly and I had been in touch a little in the year after KW and then again haltingly some time after that, but then we fell out of contact as was the case for all my other team members save for my friend Dean. It was a surprise to suddenly find Holly again and also find that she’s something of a star in the improv circuit, to the point where she made the main stage at Second City and even auditioned for Lorne Michaels at SNL. I’m super proud of her and gratified by her success, and because of it all and because of her presence on YouTube and other sites I was able to hear, in her own words, a little about her journey. Most poignantly, though, and part of how this all came to a head for me is that Bart interviewed her I think for over an hour on his podcast about humanism. Perhaps it goes without saying that like Bart, Holly no longer considers herself a Jesus-follower.
It’s probably worth noting that after doing KW Holly spent a long time, maybe as much as a decade, supporting her night-time work learning and training in improv by working during the day for Willow Creek, smack dab in the belly of the beast of modern-day Christendom (which, if you know me or have read this blog, you know that “Christendom” stands for everything the church should not). I don’t meant to judge (much). I’m sure there are many well-meaning would-be Jesus followers who form wonderful relationships and maybe even serve the poor in meaningful ways by virtue of their being a part of Willow Creek. But what do you have to give up to get that goodness? I can only imagine how mind-numbing and soul-sucking it was to produce dramatic experiences for rich white suburban Chicago Willow Creek kids and their parents, which I think is somewhat close to what Holly was doing for them. I can only guess it was especially soul-sucking for Holly, who famously wrote me after Kingdomworks and said this:
If you can’t make it out, it says: “…at present I desire to high tail it back the where we belong. Back on the street, where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
I can’t help but suspect there was a lot of sweat involved in serving Willow Creek kids and their parents, but not a lot of purpose. I’m not mad at Holly. I have no right to be and no place in her life now, and I recognize that her journey is her journey. I don’t judge it, or her. I can’t say that I’m emotion-less about it all, though. I feel….wistful, a bit melancholy I suppose. If you know me, you know I’ve been “mildly depressed” for most of my life; so this is not something new for me. It is…different, though. I guess as I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years in many ways trying to recreate my KW experience by moving to Philly (twice!) and working in social service and in the foster care system for some years and then with disadvantaged kids in education for the better part of a decade, through all of that I felt like I was trying to get “back to where I belong,” and it was comforting to know I may not be the only one. Perhaps I digress.
So….that happened. Then, in spending a little more time on my dear friend Bart’s website than I had of late, I came across his podcast where he interviewed his very introverted wife Marty, whom I hardly know but had the pleasure to meet a few times and was welcomed into their home once. Anyway, the subject of their talk was them wrestling with the notion that they (atheists) have gone “too easy” on Christianity (they’re careful to say not too easy on Christians, but I suppose the “institution” of Christianity, to be sure), particularly in regard to the generally-accepted-by-many-Christians doctrine regarding hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment for much of humanity throughout history, including perhaps your friends, neighbors, and loved ones. So, first I realized Holly was semi-famous but not following Jesus anymore, then that Bart had recorded a conversation of over an hour with her that touched in part on the summer that Holly and I shared doing Bart’s program, KW; then I discovered Bart’s conversation with Marty that delved deeply into this question of whether or not Christianity as an institution in the world had done great harm by espousing and inculcating many young minds with this palpable fear that they will suffer eternal torment if they don’t “believe the things and say the things” about Jesus. Thus, Bart wondered if not only had Christianity done great harm but also could rightly be accused of literally abusing the children that grew up believing this. Marty talks a little about her experience growing up believing this. I can certainly relate, and I know my wife, Kirsten, can as well. I’ve often talked about “fire insurance” Christianity and rejected it wholesale for all the reasons I’ve already said, but hearing it put in these terms was perhaps appropriately challenging.
So let me be clear again. Much as Bart did with his embrace of universalism before deciding not to follow Jesus, I reject, outright, the idea that God will eternally torment in a pit of fire anyone that doesn’t “believe the things and say the things” for whatever reason. As I’ve said before, Bart can tell his own story far better than I and he has and continues to do so, but I would like to suggest that to whatever extent he rejected Jesus because of this notion that God would cause his children to suffer forever, whatever the justification; this need not have been so. I know many Christians over many years have supported this idea with words from the Bible and whole generations have grown up taking this idea of hell as “gospel truth.” I remain convinced that they’re wrong, for several reasons.
First of all, as I said here a couple of years ago while wrestling with some of these same questions (including conversing a bit with the same writings by Bart that I have continued to wrestle with in these more recent posts), I defer to Rod White of Circle of Hope, who writes the following here:
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”
I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).
“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).
Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.
I added in that post from a couple of years ago:
Thus, as Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.” So God persistently, stubbornly, despite it being a “long and difficult task” in Bart’s words, works to overcome evil, respecting our freedom all along the way to choose to join him or not. When, in the end, whenever and however that comes, we finally choose not to join him in that task, God respects that choice too and in his mercy permits us to “get ourselves without God,” which is death/nonexistence.
To my theological imagination, this makes perfect sense. If it is in Christ that “all things hold together,” and sin is separation, then eventually those who resist to the end God’s goodness and grace and refuse to accept his invitation into right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world will then experience final separation from God, which means no longer “holding together,” no longer being. This is a final end/death. Think of babies who die tragically from “failure to thrive,” from a lack of loving touch and of human kindness. We were so obviously made in and for love that it’s hard to imagine how we could go on existing in any place where there was fully and finally none of it. If it were possible, that place would be hellish indeed.
This is what Michael Binder suggests in another of his sermons to Mill City Church. If you go here and scroll all the way down you’ll eventually see a sermon titled “The Separation of Hell” by Michael Binder from 5/2/10. Before echoing many of the larger points I’ve just made, he starts by sharing a bit of pop theology on hell from Seinfeld:
Then he moves on to his sermon proper, using the story of the “rich man” and Lazarus from Luke 16:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
His sermon is worth a listen, but some of what he gets at is that first of all this is not a story necessarily about hell. It’s a story about money. Just a few verses before Jesus had given his oft-quoted statement on money: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The passage then adds: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’ “
In a culture where health and wealth were regarded as rewards from God and conversely sickness and poverty were seen as judgment, Michael says Jesus preached the coming of a kingdom that was radically different. He says: “In a place were God is king, no one gets to lie in the filth with untreated sores, hungry. That doesn’t happen in God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying, ‘You don’t understand; the wealth you were given, it’s meant to help that guy; it’s meant to bless this person who’s having a terrible time and needs someone to aid him’.” Thus Jesus was preaching something radically different from the accepted practice of the day, though this should not have been the case, as way back in Genesis 12, speaking to Abram, God had made clear that God’s people were “blessed to be a blessing:”
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.[a]
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Somehow the message hadn’t stuck; so Jesus uses this story from Luke to make the point. Michael adds, “This person (the nameless rich man, whom the Pharisees and teachers of the law are meant to identify with) is justifying their lifestyle, justifying their lack of action, lack of help for this person with their religious beliefs. Nothing makes Jesus more angry than the people who are in charge of religion saying that not only do I not acknowledge this (poor) person, but I have no obligation to help them.”
Michael says that one of the most remarkable things about this passage is that the rich man, when he can communicate with Lazarus, doesn’t ask to be rescued, to be taken from that hellish place as you or I might have thought to request. Instead, he asks that Lazarus, a man who when each of them were still alive was clearly in a much lower class than he, be sent essentially to serve him, to “increase his comfort level,” as Michael said. Thus, even in a hellish place, the rich man is so locked into his selfish ways that he seems unable to even conceive of the steps necessary to change. By this time in the rich man’s story he’s so trapped in his self-centered way of being that it doesn’t even occur to him to humbly ask for rescue. Thus, Michael says, it’s this text that have led C.S. Lewis and others to conclude that “hell is locked from the inside,” not the outside. I’m reminded again of the The Great Divorce.
That said, though this passage is much more about money than hell, Michael goes on a little to explore the two main words used in the New Testament for hell: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, Michael says, comes from the “Greco-Roman” world and just means “the underworld, the afterlife, the place of the dead; and it often means a place that you can’t escape, and it can be a place of punishment.” Michael adds that:
Gehenna was referring to a valley that was out behind Jerusalem, and this is where a lot of the imagery of fire, and burning, and torture (regarding hell) comes from. The south side of Jerusalem had this big valley and that’s where Jerusalem would dump all their trash…and they burned it…and so there was this constant burning in this valley going (on) behind Jerusalem and there would have been worms and maggots and things eating up all the trash that was in there.
Even worse, says Michael, in one of the worst periods of Israel’s history two of her kings sacrificed their sons there, in Gehenna, to the god Molech, and afterwards the valley was considered cursed. So this is known imagery. Michael then concludes: “At times I think people reject the idea of hell because they don’t like this caricature of a fiery burning place and like I said most scholars think this was a metaphorical piece, but what’s frustrating to me,” Michael goes on, “is that somehow when people hear that….that’s comforting to them; it’s consoling to think, ‘well, maybe there really isn’t a fiery hell’.” “No,” Michael says, “no there probably isn’t a fiery hell; there’s something much worse than that. There’s something far worse than burning for all eternity; there’s a place completely absent of God’s presence…completely absent of love…” I’m still not sure that we could exist in any place devoid fully and finally of love, but I pray I’ll never have to find out.
Either way, God isn’t a cosmic child abuser. He didn’t kill his son to satisfy some perverse system of justice that we could never adhere to. God is love. God loves us enough to make us free, and in our freedom we have fallen short of loving him and one another as we should. That leaves us isolated, alone, separated from God and one another. God still loves us, though, and so rescues us, even though bridging the gap between us requires him to traverse death itself, because any place without love, without God, is necessarily a place without life. We can choose to receive this free gift, this offer of rescue, of the restoration of the right, loving relationships we were made for. Or, I suppose, we can choose not to. If so, God doesn’t vindictively torment us forever. Instead, as Volf said above, those who continue to resist God’s love right to the very end, “…get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.”
I should begin to close with the words of another mentor in my life that I’ve mentioned before, Duane Crabbs. Duane once responded to an email thread I forwarded him that contained some theological arguments about some of the big questions I’ve been wrestling with above. He answered me by saying:
I have little or no interest in debating beliefs/opinions with anyone, even about ultimate matters like suffering. As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated, dare I say re-incarnated. I don’t think God will give us the grace to intellectualy figure out suffering and its causes. I do know he offers every one of us the grace sufficient to bear our own suffering and to enter into the suffering of others!
Wow! As usual, I think Duane is right, and again I think the church has done the world a great disservice for quite some time now. We abstracted a personal (but communal and relational) faith and reduced it to “believing the (right) things and saying the (right) things” about Jesus. We made it about lending intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and checking all the right boxes on a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s. Thus, an intellectual, moralistic faith leads to intellectual problems that only a personal (but communal and relational) God can solve. As Bart said, it doesn’t matter quite as much why I started following Jesus; it matters why I’m still trying to. And so again I will echo Bart when he said:
I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.
I too think following Jesus is the best kind of life. Though I am so very much a work in progress, I am being transformed by the gospel right here and right now. I’ve known love deep in my soul in a way that I can’t explain, but I’ve felt it well up inside me and overflow with love for those around me that simply defies any other explanation. My heart continues to break for “all the poor and powerless, for all the lost and lonely,” not because I’m a swell guy, but because the King of the universe reigns in my heart, and he won’t quit until the beloved community he dreams of, the new humanity he’s creating, is a reality for every last one of us, if we’ll have it.
I think Bart’s right, by the way. To whatever extent “Christianity” terrifies little kids into saying a magic prayer so that a vengeful god won’t torment them forever in a fiery pit, it is an evil in the world. I don’t think that has much to do with following Jesus, though, and I pray the day comes when enough of us follow Jesus closely enough that such a caricature loses its potency. In the meantime I’ll keep plumbing the depths of God’s love for me and doing my best to love those around me well enough that they want to jump in and experience it too. And who knows? Maybe Bart and Holly will join me again some day. After all, the arc of our lives may be long, but I suspect it bends towards Jesus, because Jesus is love, and love is what we were made for.