Saturday, September 28, 2013

Are Heaven and Hell Real Places?

As we have seen, Rob Bell, in his controversial book Love Wins, rejects the notion of eternal punishment. In so doing he challenges the traditional notions of heaven and hell as final destinations. Heaven he describes as a kind of state of being, a place where God's will is done; and he notes, quite rightly, that the Bible points to a time in the future when that will take place here on earth. He takes this as a call to make the earth a better place in which to live. " . . . eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God" (Love Wins, p. 59).
    As for hell, Mr. Bell tells us that Jesus uses hyperbole and metaphor "that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone" (p.73).
    That raises the question, then, are heaven and hell real places after all?
    A lot of what Mr. Bell says about heaven is undoubtedly true, and we do not wish to discount it. The Bible does, in fact, look forward to "the restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21; NKJV), a time when the earth will be reclaimed for righteousness. The "kingdom of heaven" will be established in "the age to come." We must beware of an unbiblical Platonism.
    We would want to add two important qualifications, however. First of all, when Christians die now they go to a place where Christ is already present, "at the right hand of God" (John 14:2,3; Rom. 8:34; II Cor. 4:18-5:2; Phil. 1:21-23). As we have noted, Mr. Bell leaves the question of what happens to us when we die unanswered. But the Bible is quite clear about this subject.
    Secondly, when the kingdom of heaven is finally established on earth, only certain people will be allowed to enter it. (I Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). The coming of the kingdom calls for a definite response on our part.
    But what about hell? Is it a real place?
    The physical aspect of hell is a little unclear. Sometimes it is described as "outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and sometimes as a "lake of fire" (Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14,15). But one thing is certain: it is a place of torment.
    Mr. Bell spends some time discussing the phrase "eternal punishment" in Matt. 25:46. He notes that the underlying Greek phrase kolasin aionion could be translated "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming," or "an intense experience of correction" (p. 91). His basis for saying this is that the verb kolazo originally meant "to prune" or "to trim," and the noun aion (aeon) has the basic meaning of "a period of time." Thus he draws the conclusion that the kolasin aionion is a period of time in which we are pruned or corrected, ostensibly to make us better, not destroy us everlastingly.
    The context, however, would indicate otherwise. The scene is the Last Judgment. The nations are divided into two groups, "the sheep" and "the goats." The "sheep," those who showed kindness to others, are invited to "inherit the kingdom" (v. 34). But to the "goats," those who were indifferent to the suffering of others, the "Son of Man" (i.e., the Messiah) says, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (p. 41). It is hard to interpret this as meaning anything other than a conscious intent on the part of Christ to punish the wicked for their wrongdoing.
    Thus when we come to Jesus' summary statement in verse 46, He draws a contrast between the "everlasting punishment" of the wicked and the "eternal life" of the righteous. What is "everlasting life"? Jesus, after raising Lazarus from the dead, said, "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die" (John 11:26). On the other hand we are told in the Book of Revelation that "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and forever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name (Rev. 14:11). It is a terrifying vision, and if leaves little room for escape.
    Mr. Bell says "Our eschatology shapes our ethics" (p. 46), and on this point he is certainly right. We live in an age that is supremely materialistic and secular. Most people in the western world today give little thought to what will happen to them when they die. They live for the present, and they devote their lives to the pursuit of their own individual ambitions and desires. But they ignore the stubborn fact that we must all eventually die. We are on this earth only for a fleeting moment of time, and what then? Mr. Bell offers us no answer to the biggest question of all, the one staring us all in the face.
    Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rob Bell’s Problem with John 3:16

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,
    and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Rob Bell
HarperOne, 2011
198 pp; pb.


    Rob Bell has always been an innovator. He began questioning the traditional way of doing church during his seminary days at Fuller Theological Seminary, and in preaching class he was always looking for new and different ways of communicating the message. He eventually became the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. By 2011 the church was getting between 8,000 and 10,000 in attendance on Sundays, and Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Love Wins is his fifth book.
Rob Bell at the Time 100 gala

    And what a controversial book it is! Mr. Bell pretty much rejects the orthodox understanding of the gospel, arguing that both hell and the atonement are metaphors.
    Mr. Bell begins his book by quoting John 3:16:
            "That's the story,
             'For God so loved the world . . .'
             That's why Jesus came.
             That's his message.
             That's where the life is found." (p. vii).
He then goes on to say that the orthodox view that some go to heaven and others go to hell is "misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear" (p. viii). He emphatically denies the idea of eternal punishment. He says that God loves us unconditionally, and says that
            "Our trusting,
             our change of heart,
             our believing God's version of our story
             doesn't bring it into existence,
             make it happen, or create it." (p. 188).
But what really was Jesus' message? Significantly Mr. Bell did not quote the second half of that most famous verse: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (NKJV). The verse, in fact, says something quite different from what Mr. Bell would have us to believe.
    The verse does, of course, state that God loves the world. But how does God express that love? By giving His only begotten Son. And why did He do that? So that we "should not perish but have everlasting life," a reference back to Daniel 12:2. And what must we do in order to receive "everlasting life"? We must "believe in Him."
    The context of the verse makes its meaning clear. The world is under "condemnation" because "the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest their deeds should be exposed" (vv. 19,20). As a result, "he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (v. 36). In other words, God is most definitely angry with us because of our sin and rebellion, and that is why we need an atonement, which God Himself provided in His Son, Who was "lifted up" (v. 14) – and allusion to the crucifixion. And thus the necessary precondition for salvation is clear: Christ is the Savior; we must believe on Him.
    Mr. Bell, in developing his theory of universal love and salvation, passes over in silence a great deal of what he Bible says on the subject. He chose not to discuss the holiness of God, the justice of God, or the wrath of God. He does not mention the last judgment. Hell and the atonement, as we have seen, he treats as metaphors. And he nowhere does he answer the question of what happens to people when they die.
    For all practical purposes Mr. Bell is a theological liberal with a repackaged version of "the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." And his theology contains the fatal weakness of all liberal theology. By cherry picking texts of scripture and treating others as metaphor, he is, in effect, superimposing on the Bible his own perceived notions about God. But in the end all he has to show for his efforts is a theology he made up himself. In the final analysis it is nothing but an exercise in self-delusion.
    When it comes to the questions of life after death, of heaven and hell and the way of salvation, we are completely dependent upon what God has told us in His Word. We have no other avenue of knowledge about these things. The warnings of Scripture need to be taken seriously, for they come from God Himself. We ignore them at our own peril. We need to look at all that the Bible says on the subject, and not just cherry-pick the ones that suit our fancies. Mr. Bell can do better than that!

Related articles:
The Problem with Liberal Theology 
Letter to a Unitarian Minster 

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Real Issue in the Calvinist Debate

It is easy, in the midst of a theological debate, to lose sight of the real issue at stake. We state our position, we attack our opponent's position, we marshal the proof texts pro- and con. Yet in the end the issue is not which set of theologians from the past was right and which was wrong. Nor is the issue which abstract intellectual system is correct and which is incorrect. The real issue is our relationship with God.
John Calvin
John Calvin devoted his life and his considerable skill to the study of Scripture, and he probably understood it just about as well as any man in history. On the whole he was a far better theologian than most of his critics. Yet in the end he was a fallible human being much like the rest of us.

    Ultimately it is all about God Himself. God wants us to love Him with all of our hearts, to fear Him, to trust in Him, and to obey Him. He warns us repeatedly against trusting in our own devices, and wants us instead to rely firmly on Him. He calls us to a life of prayer and holiness. Yes, God created us to be morally responsible human beings and He holds us accountable for our actions. Yet this in no way changes the fundamental relationship between us: He is God, and we are not. He is the Creator; we are the creatures. He is infinite, eternal, and self-existent; we are mere creatures of the dust. He is absolutely holy; we are stained and polluted with sin. To Him we owe everything; in ourselves we are nothing. And everything we do, we do in the strength which He supplies, and we do this to His honor and glory, not our own. "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to Whom be the glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36: NKJV).
    Salvation is a matter of God saving us. We do not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Rather, God's work of salvation should lead us to bow before Him in wonder and adoration. God wants our hearts and our minds, and will satisfied with nothing less.
    In short, it is the honor and glory of God which is at issue here. Does our theology lead us to Him?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Ten: The Great Commission
We affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned His church to preach the good news of salvation to al people to the ends of the earth. We affirm that the proclamation of the Gospel is God's means of bringing any person to salvation.
We deny that salvation is possible outside of a faith response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


    On this article we are happy to report that there is no disagreement whatsoever. Most Calvinists would wholeheartedly join with their traditional Southern Baptist brethren in promoting the gospel and praying for the salvation of the lost. Indeed, some of the greatest evangelists and missionaries of all time have been Calvinists – we mention George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and William Carey, to name just a few.
George Whitefield preaching

    Nevertheless there is some reason for concern here. Today there is a tremendous amount of anxiety over the deepening social and cultural crisis engulfing our society, and this, in turn, raises the question of what exactly the Christian's response to all of this should be. To state the matter bluntly, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade was too outrageous to ignore. This, in turn, gave rise to the "Religious Right" and the massive involvement of evangelical Christians in politics.
    It could be argued, however, from a strictly biblical point of view, that all of this overlooks the real issue. The corrupt politics, the outrageous court decisions are mere symptoms of a deeper malady, man's sinful nature and his rebellion against God. And the only thing that can cure the disease is personal salvation. The individual sinner must be brought to acknowledge his sin and guilt before a holy God, and must embrace Christ as his Savior. In the final analysis society can only be changed by changing the individuals who make up society.
    The consequences of sin and depravity extend far beyond the next election or the next legislative session. As sinners we are under the wrath and condemnation of almighty God, and as a result we face eternal damnation. All around us, every day, our fellow human beings are dropping into an eternity without Christ, and are facing the horrible consequences of their sinful lives. The obituary section of the morning paper is a grim testimony of the results of our rebellion against our Creator.
    In a word, the only hope mankind has is salvation in Jesus Christ. "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12; NKJV). Evangelism must be the church's top priority.
    But it must be true evangelism, and we have two concerns here. First, we must make sure that it is the true gospel that we are preaching. The real issue must be clearly defined, and the true remedy clearly proposed. Too often, in our zeal to increase church numbers, we have diluted the message so that the whole point of the gospel is missed – man's sin and Christ's redemption. Multitudes have made empty professions of faith and have been added to the membership rolls of the church without any evidence of repentance or regeneration. This is a terrible tragedy, for their latter end is worse than their former, since they have been given a false assurance of salvation while they are still on their way to hell. May God have mercy on the charlatan preachers who led them to this dreadful result!
    Secondly, we must make sure that evangelism is done in the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot achieve true success otherwise. "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63). "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. . . " (II Cor. 10:3,4).
    For too long we have tried to secure results by dint of our own ingenuity and effort. The results speak for themselves. The churches that grow do so largely by "lateral transfers" from other churches, as sheep stealing is sometimes politely called. Our own young people drift away from the faith, and as our congregations age they face eventual extinction. What the Southern Baptist Convention and indeed all of American Evangelicalism desperately needs is not just a shift in theological position, but a falling down on our knees before God, a humble acknowledgement of our sins and our failure, and a plea for power from on high. Only then will we see the results for which we all long.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Perseverance of the Saints

We resume our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Nine: The Security of the Believer
We affirm that when a person responds in faith to the Gospel, God promises to complete the process of salvation in the believer into eternity. The process begins with justification, whereby the sinner is immediately acquitted of all sin and granted peace with God; continues in sanctification, whereby the saved are progressively conformed to the image of Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit; and concludes in glorification, whereby the saint enjoys life with Christ in heaven forever.
We deny that this Holy Spirit-sealed relationship can ever be broken. We deny even the possibility of apostasy.


    When we come to Article Nine of the Statement we behold a remarkable spectacle indeed. Hitherto the authors of the Statement have been at great pains to limit the power of God in salvation. The sinner has a free will. There is no such thing as irresistible grace. God does not "cause" a person to respond to the gospel. But now, suddenly and inexplicably, the sovereign power of God reappears! God "completes the process . . . into eternity." " . . . the saved are progressively conformed to the image of Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit." The authors go so far as to "deny even the possibility of apostasy."
    While it is a little hard to know exactly what the authors meant when they said that "this Holy Spirit-sealed relationship" can never be broken, , their position appears to be substantially the same as the Calvinist one they claim to be refuting. God is at work in the hearts of His children to ensure that they persevere to the end.
    If that is, in fact, what they intended to say, however, they are being grossly inconsistent. The plain fact of the matter is that if man has a free will, and there is no such thing as irresistible grace, then there is virtually nothing God can do to keep a believer from falling away from the faith and denying Christ.. And unless the authors of the Statement are willing to argue that atheists and scoffers can enter heaven in their state of unbelief, it is entirely possible for a Christian to lose his salvation. At least John Wesley was consistent on this point!
John Wesley

    It may come as a surprise to some of our readers that, of the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism," the Perseverance of the Saints (the "P" in "TULIP") is actually one of the more difficult ones to prove from scripture. The sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible, and scripture explicitly discusses election and predestination. But it also contains dire warnings about the consequences of falling away from the faith.
    One such passage is Hebrews 6:4-12. The passage is sobering. The author has been writing to a group of Hebrew Christians who, in the midst of persecution, were tempted to renounce Christianity and revert back to Judaism. The passage in view certainly uses language that one would ordinarily think would describe a converted person: they have been "once enlightened," "have tasted the heavenly gift," "have become partakers of the Holy Spirit," and "have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" (vv. 4,5; NKJV). It then goes on to say that if such a person were to "fall away" it would be "impossible" to "renew him again to repentance" (vv. 4,6). Thus not only is it apparently possible for them to fall away, but having done so their loss of salvation is virtually irrevocable. Similar language is found in Heb. 10:26-31; II Pet. 2; and the General Epistle of Jude.
    On the other hand there are other passages which imply that the elect are inevitably saved and therefore can never lose their salvation. The apostle Paul, in Romans chapter 8, lays out what theologians call the "ordo salutis" (the order of salvation – the successive steps that salvation takes). It begins with foreknowledge and predestination and ends with glorification, of which he speaks in the past tense, as though it were already an accomplished fact: "and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (vv. 29,30). This "glorification" refers back to verse 17, where Paul says that if we are children then we are also fellow-heirs with Christ, "if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together." He is speaking here of the future state of glory that awaits true Christians. Paul then goes on in verse 31 to ask the pointed question, "If God is for us, who can be against us?," and finally concludes by saying that nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 39).
    How, then, do we reconcile the two passages? We think that the key to understanding Hebrews 6 is found in chapter 3, verse 14: "For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end." Our perseverance in the faith is the evidence of our already having been genuinely made partakers of Christ.
    It is obvious that there are many individuals who have made professions of faith in Christ, and have been baptized and joined churches. They gave every outward appearance of having been saved. Tragically, however, some of them fall away and disgrace their former profession. Some even go so far as to become outright atheists. One thing is absolutely certain: in their present state they give no evidence of being saved, and if they were to die in their present condition they would face an eternity without Christ. Were they ever really Christians in the first place? In a sense the question is purely academic. The only thing that really matters is their present state. There is no evidence now that they are really Christians. As for their past state, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (I John 2:19).
    One of the greatest blessings of the Christian life is to know that you are saved and the you always will be saved. No matter what trials or difficulties you may face in this life, a future glory awaits you. The church was deprived of this truth for many centuries, and the recovery of this truth was one of the most blessed benefits that emerged from the Protestant Reformation.
    But it is not a truth that should lull us into carnal complacency. If the evidence of spiritual life is not present we have no reason to presume. Let all take heed and beware!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The World’s Policeman?

Last night President Obama gave his speech on the situation in Syria. We are greatly relieved that he is asking for a postponement of a vote on a military strike against that nation. Diplomacy now has a chance to work. Nevertheless some important questions remain.
    The president outlined his case for possible future military action. He presented the evidence that the Assad regime had used poison gas on its own citizens on August 21, and then proceeded to argue that this was a threat to U.S. security. How, one might ask, does a civil war in a country half way around the globe present a threat to our security? The president's argument is that if a tyrant can get away using with using weapons of mass destruction in one place others will be encouraged to do the same elsewhere. Eventually no country will be safe.
    For those of us of an older generation, the argument sounds eerily familiar. During the Vietnam war U.S. presidents used an argument for U.S. intervention based on the alleged "domino effect." The argument was that if the U.S. did not act to stop Communism in Southeast Asia it would eventually spread here.
    The result was a prolonged military campaign that ended in failure. There were vivid scenes of American personnel being evacuated by helicopter from Saigon as the country fell to the advancing North Vietnamese troops. But a strange thing happened along the way – Communism did not spread all over the world. The red flag does not fly over Canada. In fact Communism collapsed within the Soviet empire itself. What American policymakers had failed to recognize is that political turmoil is largely caused by local conditions. Revolution in one country does not necessarily mean revolution in every country. The policy of "containment" was largely unnecessary and futile.
    President Obama insisted that the U.S. is not the world's policeman. Yet the gist of his argument is that American military power is necessary to stabilize conditions around the world. It is hard to know what he means by "being the world's policeman" if he does not mean exactly that. (He also insists that he is not trying to start a war. But by nearly anyone else's reckoning a military strike against another country is exactly that – an act of war, and one does not fight a war by half measures. The first shot leads to another, until either one side is completely defeated or both sides are utterly exhausted.)
    The fact of the matter is that the U.S. has been trying to be the world's policeman for over a century now.
In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sent the "Great White Fleet" around the world to project American power. Ever since then American presidents, both Republican and Democratic alike, have pursued a policy of internationalism. It was an American refinement of 19th Century European colonialism. As Rudyard Kipling famously put it,
        "Take up the White Man's burden,
         Send forth the best ye breed –
         Go, bind your sons to exile
         To serve your captives' need."
    The use of poison gas ought to be a matter of grave concern to the entire world. But a U.S. president must weigh carefully the consequences of our actions. Let us hope and pray that diplomacy has its sway. Launching cruise missiles into Syria is not likely to solve the problem.


Friday, September 6, 2013

A Question for the President

President Obama is pressing ahead with his call for a military strike against Syria.  He says that it will be a limited strike that will not involve "boots on the ground."

We have this question for the President: Suppose someone wishes to retaliate?  What if the Assad regime launches a missile attack against Haifa or Tel Aviv?  What if Hezbollah detonates a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut?  What if Iran tries to sink a U.S. vessel in the Straits of Hormuz?

What will the U.S. do then?

A act of war is an invitation for, well, more war!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Should the U.S. Attack Syria?

    At the last report President Obama was going to ask Congress for a resolution supporting a planned military strike against Syria in retaliation for that government's use of chemical weapons in rebel held areas. The president says that the proposed strike would be limited in nature, would not involve ground troops, and would not be aimed at producing regime change. Nevertheless, it is our conviction that Congress should vote "no."
Bashar al-Assad
 There is little reason to doubt that the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used poison gas, and that numerous civilian casualties resulted. And there is some weight to President Obama's argument that the world cannot afford to stand idly by while a brutal tyrant commits war crimes against his own people. The use of poison gas creates a dangerous precedent with repercussions for all humanity. Yet a unilateral military strike by the U.S. would be a terrible mistake.

    First of all there is the fact that Syria is a sovereign, independent state, and that a military strike, no matter how limited in scope, amounts to nothing less than an act of war on our part. Syria has not attacked the United States, and is not a direct threat to us. The chemical weapons attack took place within the confines of Syria's own borders. The U.S. simply does not have the authority unilaterally to attack another country with which it is not at war.
    Secondly, a limited military strike is unlikely to change anything inside of Syria. Assad will still be faced with an insurrection, and he will continue to use any means at his disposal to survive. Short of a ground invasion of his country to remove him from power he is unlikely to change his tactics. If anything, a "limited strike" by a foreign power will only cause his supporters to rally behind him.. It would risk life and property without achieving a positive result.
    On the other hand, a military strike by the U.S. could have far-reaching and potentially catastrophic results. What if Syria decides to retaliate by firing some missiles into Israel? What if Iran decides to enter the conflict on behalf of the Assad regime? What if Russia decides to intervene? Wars often have unforeseen consequences because the outcomes are determined by factors other than logic and justice. What is, at the moment, an internal conflict within Syria could easily mushroom into a regional conflict instead.
    Nor do we want to appear to be supporting Assad's enemies, either. The civil war in Syria is rapidly assuming the aspect of a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, with the mainly Sunni rebels receiving support form elements of Al-Quida. Why defeat the Islamic extremists in Iraq only to support them in Syria? It is not the proper role of the United States government to adjudicate the competing claims of two opposing factions of Islam. And yet that is exactly how it is likely to be perceived in the Middle East.
    The use of poison gas does create a dangerous precedent for humanity. But so does the notion that any country is free to attack any other country at will. The proper forum for addressing crimes against humanity is the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and any military action against Syria should only be taken under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council.
Human life is sacred. The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" underscores a basic moral principle. Under the classical just war theory a war must have both a just cause and a reasonable chance of a positive outcome. It is not clear that either of these are present in the case at hand. We therefore conclude that that proposed military action is morally unacceptable.

Other posts in which you may be interested:
American Militarism 
You Shall not Murder 
Peace on Earth 
"Blessed are the Peacemakers"