Unexpected Words to People Losing Faith (John 6)


Here’s the video of my sermon at SeaCoast Grace Church this past weekend.

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Is Rob Bell a Hell-Believing Universalist?


Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). $22.99, 224 pages.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.

Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.

Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.

Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them—a difference that is both temperamental and methodological—illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell asks, “Does God get what God wants?”—namely, “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, “Do we get what we want?” A “yes” answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A “yes” answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.

A “yes” answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.

If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.

But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”

Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want hell…love wins there too?

In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. “Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus’ words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin aiōnion and zōēn aiōnion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the “word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” And aiōnion describes either “a period of time with a beginning and an end” or “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then “the phrase [kolasin aiōnion] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”

If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he’s saying about hell: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.”

There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits “the root fallacy” when he thinks the root-meaning of kolazō/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolazō and kolasin are translated as “punish” and “punishment” in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by “pruning” or “trimming”) or retributive. Second, the word aiōnion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body’s experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.

Bell doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues—correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues—again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates “the age to come” in the midst of “this age.” In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience “eternal life” right here and right now. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “The old has gone, the new is here!” But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” And 2:5 adds, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either “eternal life” and “new creation” or “wrath” and “judgment.”

The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Or Revelation 19:11: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.” In these passages, and in many others, Christ’s return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God’s love. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” Then he writes: “That’s a small detail, and its’ important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.” Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.

And if that’s the case, in what sense does love actually win?

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P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

“Practicing Affirmation” by Sam Crabtree


Sam Crabtree, Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). $14.99, 176 pages.

As my wife and I raise our toddler son, we notice that he responds better to affirmation than to correction. If we affirm his behavior as good and praise him for it, he increasingly behaves in the desired way. However, if he hears “No” too often, he tunes us out.

According to Sam Crabtree, “Affirmation is the purpose of the universe—specifically, affirmation of God.” But, he argues, we also should affirm “those who are not God.” The Bible teaches that God affirms us, whether believer or unbeliever, if we act in ways that reflect his image. And it further teaches us to do the same to others. When we affirm people, we praise the God in whose image they are made.

Affirmation is the “key to refreshing relationships.” According to Crabtree, it should be “detached from correction,” “steady,” “honest,” and “God-centered.” More than a compliment, an affirmation pays attention to “patterns of character that emerge from the work of God going on inside a person.”

Affirmation does not negate the need for correction. My wife and I cannot affirm every temper tantrum our son throws, for example. But affirmation—especially when it predominates in a relationship—provides the emotional space in which correction can be given and received.

Crabtree serves as executive pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where John Piper is senior pastor. The way Crabtree frames some of his remarks reflects Piper’s distinctive Calvinist theology, but Arminians can learn from the book too. Crabtree offers sound biblical advice on affirmation, a topic that should not be theologically controversial, but a practice that is sorely needed in our homes, our churches, and our communities.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Whole Duty of Man (Ecclesiastes 12:9–14)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 12:9–14.

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Today, we conclude our study of Ecclesiastes with, fittingly, a meditation on “the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:9–14 is a summary of all that the Preacher has tried to teach us in the previous eleven-and-a-half chapters. His lessons can be summed up simply enough: “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

By what authority does the Preacher sum up our whole duty in this way? It is not by means of prophetic authority, for the Preacher does not claim to be a prophet. It is not by means of priestly interpretation of the Law, for the Preacher is not a priest. Although the Preacher is a king (1:1), he does not use his royal power to promulgate his message. No, the authority of the Preacher’s message is the authority of common sense. He is “wise,” “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.” His authority is the authority of reason. Many people mistakenly try to oppose faith to facts, revelation to reason. But the Bible teaches us that both can be avenues to truth, if our hearts are pure. Both reason and revelation are “given by one Shepherd,” that is, God.

Wisdom such as the Preacher displays is an inherently good thing. It is a “goad,” encouraging us through “words of delight” to live well and truly before God. It is like “nails firmly fixed,” providing an indispensable, unchanging support for the good life. Wisdom both initiates change, in other words, and conserves blessings.

Wisdom also is simple and eternal. The Preacher contrasts wisdom and “making many books.” Making many books refers to man’s ongoing effort to understand himself and the world he lives in. Such learning is necessary. Often, as with the realm of the hard sciences, we make many new and exciting discoveries. But while knowledge of our DNA changes (thus requiring new books), knowledge of our moral nature does not. You would be a fool if you went to a doctor who studied only seventeenth-century medical textbooks. You would be an even greater fool if you ignored a moral writer like the Preacher, though he has been dead for millennia. Scientific knowledge changes; moral wisdom does not.

So, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” The notion of fearing God frightens us. We like to think of God as the God of love, not fear, and in a certain sense, he is. But God is so great and majestic, so holy and awe-inspiring, that we small creatures would do well to remember our place in the universe and show due respect for him and for his Word. Why? “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” A wise person always keeps this truth in mind.

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with a statement about the world that is, “vanity of vanities” (1:2), and ends with a statement about the world to come, the “judgment.” We live between these worlds and must make choices in the former to prepare us for the latter, so choose well. If you follow the Preacher’s common-sense advice, you will.

Are You Prepared for Death—and Life? (Ecclesiastes 12:1–8)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 12:1–8.

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In Ecclesiastes 12:1–8, the Preacher calls you to worship God now, while you can, before advancing age and declining ability rob you of the power to do so.

He does this by painting a vivid portrait of the negative aspects of aging. (We should always remember, of course, that aging has many pluses: the joy of a life well lived; the wisdom of experience; the pleasures of a lifelong companion, children, and grandchildren, to name just a few. But the Preacher’s focus does not fall on the positives, in this passage, only the negatives.) Consider the images:

  • Aging is a storm that blots out the sun (verse 2).
  • Aging is accompanied by weakened arms (“keepers”), legs (“strong men”), loss of teeth (“grinders”), and blinded eyes (“windows”), according to verse 3.
  • Verses 4 and 5 associate aging with increased isolation (shut doors), deafness (low sound and low song), and restless wakefulness (rising at bird chatter), fear, white hair (almond blossoms), stiff walking (the dragging grasshopper), and decreased sexual appetite (“desire fails”).

At one level, the Preacher’s call is depressing. Who wants to consider his own mortality, after all, or make present choices in light of future death? No one, as far as I can tell; probably not you—certainly not I.

But the Preacher’s call is a rational one. We live in the day and age of strategic planning, long-term initiatives, and step-by-step processes for reaching your life’s goals. Surely you cannot plan your life without considering its end. And surely, if you are going to die, it would be wise for you to consider how to enter eternity. Too often, we make the mistake of thinking that our seventy-odd years on earth are all that matters. The Preacher wisely reminds us of the life to come: “man is going to his eternal home” (verse 5).

At the end of the day, you see, all things in heaven and earth go “Poof!” There will come a day when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (verse 7).This present life is a vanity of vanities. Only God, and those who choose to love him in this life, endure in happiness forever.

So, the obvious question is this: Are you prepared, not only for life, but also for death and the life to come?

Young at Heart (Ecclesiastes 11:7–10)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 11:7–10.

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Several years ago, I taught the Open Bible Class, a Sunday school class for senior citizens. Now, I must admit that I had a few preconceptions about seniors when I first began teaching them. I thought they were, like, you know, “old.” And they were. The class has its fair share of eighty- and ninety-year-olds. What I did not expect, however, was the lesson I learned from close contact with those wonderful people: Just because you are old does not mean you have to act like it. A few of those eighty- and ninety-year-olds led a more active life than I did; they knew how to really enjoy the day.

Thinking about my friends in Open Bible, and reflecting on Ecclesiastes 11:7–10, I cannot help but think that God wants us to be young at heart, even if our bodies are old.

The Preacher begins with a simple statement: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” Since only the living can see light and enjoy it, what the Preacher is really saying is that life itself is sweet and pleasant. All things being equal, life is preferable to death. The gospel promises us eternal life rather than soul sleep or spiritual annihilation precisely because in the biblical worldview, God is a living God who offers his creatures a good life, if they will receive it from him with faith.

Life being good, the Preacher goes on to point out that we ought to rejoice in it, especially as we age: “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all.” But that rejoicing has a tinge of sadness with it because of the tainting effects of sin: “the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.” As Christians, we cannot rejoice fully in this life precisely because it is marred by sin. But the gospel holds out the promise of creation’s restoration, as well as our own.

Not surprisingly—given his basic optimism about life—the Preacher counsels young people especially to live with gusto: “Rejoice…in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” It almost seems as if the Preacher counsels too much gusto, to tell you the truth: “Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes,” in other words, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But, he quickly reminds the young to be guided by wisdom in their hedonism, for “God will bring you into judgment.”

The final verse sums up the Preacher’s advice: “Remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” The young can be carefree and pain free because, well, they are young. For the rest of us, living without pain and anxiety is a conscious, intentional choice. Chronologically, our youth comes and goes. It is a thing that goes “Poof!” Spiritually, however, we can choose to be young at heart and always to enjoy the life God gives us.

The Abundance Mentality (Ecclesiastes 11:1–6)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 11:1–6.

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God wants you to develop an abundance mentality.

In the early nineteenth century, the Rev. Thomas Malthus argued that “population tends to increase faster than the supply of food available for its needs.” Consequently, human beings face a perpetual shortfall of necessities and must act with a scarcity mentality, focusing on how to increase their slice of a limited pie. Malthus’s argument influenced Charles Darwin and his followers, the latter of whom especially saw life as a struggle between species over limited resources in which only the fittest survived.

The abundance mentality is the exact opposite of this scarcity mentality. It begins with the assumption that there is an abundance of earthly goods to be enjoyed by all people, rather than a scarcity to be snatched up by a fortunate few. Rather than selfishly hoarding goods, a person with an abundance mentality selflessly shares them with others who are in need. And a person with an abundance mentality is generous precisely because he knows that one day he may have need too.

In Ecclesiastes 11:1–6, the Preacher extols the many virtues of the abundance mentality using this arresting image. “Cast your bread upon the waters,” he exhorts us, “for you will find it after many days.” Be promiscuously generous, in other words, for by doing so, you will be treated generously in turn.

Now, such a motivation to generosity may seem selfish, as if your altruism is really egoism, as if by helping others you help yourself. Well, yes, that is the case. And so what! God wants us to be generous to others with the blessings he has given us. If we reap generosity in return, I do not think he minds too much. The main thing is that we are channeling his blessings to others through our gifts. Or rather, through his gifts.

By acting generously toward others, you see, we create a community of sharing and goodwill that will stand us in good stead during difficult days. Notice that the Preacher emphasizes our ignorance and the uncertainty of the future: “you know not what disaster may happen on earth,” “you do not know the work of God who makes everything,” and “you do not know which will propser, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” We neither know nor control the future, but we can still act in the present to create a beloved community in which generosity and kindness to the less fortunate prevail.

So, develop an abundance mentality, and give generously. Such gifts have the habit of returning to their sender.

Government, Good and Bad (Ecclesiastes 10:16–20)


Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 10:16–20.

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We recently held a national election, which gets me thinking about politics.

Does the Bible have anything useful to say about government or citizenship? Absolutely! But it usually speaks in general principles rather than offering detailed policy guidelines. Take, for example, what we read in Ecclesiastes 10:16–20.

The Preacher begins by noting how unpleasant it is for citizens to live under a bad regime. More precisely, he points out how cursed it is for “the land” to live under the unwise (child kings) and self-indulgent (feasting princes). Obviously, the land includes all the people who live on it, and so the land refers to citizens. (We call our own country “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” for example.) And yet, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that in the century just past, bad government has been bad for the environment too. The countries of the former Soviet Union are still dealing with the sludge left by that totalitarian regime. And the worst famines of the last century (1930s Ukraine, 1950s China, 1980s Ethiopia) were government-engineered, to a certain degree. Under bad government, the land and its people both suffer.

By strong contrast, good government promotes the commonwealth. What are characteristics of good government? Two things: The best people govern, and they do the right thing at the right time and for the right reason. America, of course, is a democratic republic, so the Preacher’s praise of aristocracy (“the son of nobility”) does not apply to us straight across the board. But the basic principle—that the society’s leaders should be the best trained—still makes sense.

The Preacher then turns his attention to two side topics: the danger of laziness and the value of material possessions. A house falls apart if it is not constantly cleaned, maintained, repaired, and painted. So, quite frankly, does a country, if its president and citizens neglect the spiritual, moral, and physical infrastructure of the nation. But we should never forget, as we work hard, that life is more than maintenance. God did not merely put us on earth to work, but also to enjoy. So, bread for laughter, wine for gladness, and money to buy our needs and wants.

Finally, the Preacher returns to the topic of government. In a highly authoritarian society, which is what monarchies tend to be, it is important not to think ill of the ruler. In a totalitarian society, doing so can get you imprisoned or killed. So, writing in the context of a monarchical society, the Preacher warns citizens to watch their mouths, lest their words occasion royal wrath. In America, of course, we have a First Amendment right to say what we want—however negative or positive—about those who govern us. Our government, thankfully, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—in Lincoln’s lapidary phrase. Still, although it is legitimate to criticize those who govern us, we ought to do so in a respectful way, if not of the officeholder, then at least of the office. Whether our government is monarchical or democratic, we citizens should mind our manners.

In sum, good governments govern wisely, and good citizens act respectfully. Those are two general and common-sense principles for both governors and the governed.

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