My biggest theological shift

Shift happensThere are a lot of things from the traditional, generally-evangelical, low-grade fundamentalist church upbringing of my youth that I have left behind.  Teachings, traditions,  and practices that no longer make senseor that I simply no longer believe to be true.

Some of them were difficult to say “goodbye” to, and have taken years for their grip on me to be relinquished.  Others were not nearly as difficult to part company with.  We were never really close friends, anyway.

But there is clearly one change that is greater than all the othersone that affects every area and discipline of my life.

I was taught at homein my Sunday school classesfrom the pulpitin Bible studiesthat the ultimate goal and purpose of being a Christian was to make it to heaven when I died.  Secondarily, it was my responsibility to make sure I did whatever I could to make sure others followed me there.

And the default partner to those goals was to dramatically and passionately put the fear of hell..that place of eternal suffering and endless torment for everybody who didn’t believe the way I didinto all that crossed my path.

Talk about a heavy burden to bear.  Yeesh.  The good news is that over time, I have come to see things from a different perspective.

It all began to change in my mid-twenties when I did my first serious study through the Sermon on the Mountand the Lord’s Prayer, in particular.  When I first comprehended that Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”, it turned my theological world on its side.

He was telling them (us) the Kingdom was about here and now and not about  there and then.  Jesus said that he came that we might have full and abundant livesright now.  His death and resurrection can bring deliverance from sin and justification before a holy and righteous Goda liberation and freedom to become everything He created us to benow.  The teachings of the NT letters are not so that we can make it to heaven when we die, but so we can live faithful and purposeful lives in the present tenseand be partners in showing the world what true Kingdom “come” really looks like.

John Wesley said it this way:

John-Wesley-Quote

My life is no longer shaped and dictated by what is going to happen after death.  Not for me or others.  Fear of hell motivates no one for the long term.  Maybe it has in the past, but I’m convinced fear ultimately pushes people away.  However, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  1 John 4:18

I fully intend to live in the presence of God forever.  And forever means now.

And that’s the message I want people to hear.

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Going to hell…again.

hellknowing that most of you don’t linger on my blog to read many of the comments, i thought i’d share with you my response to two really good ones…comments that challenged me to work hard… not just to be clear in my response… but to be clear in my thinking and understanding.

i’m really grateful when people care enough to question or even disagree.  it’s the only way iron is sharpened.

the first comment asked me to give my understanding of one of jesus’ most difficult teachings in luke 16:19-31.  you might want to take a few minutes and read the passage before you read my response.  here it is:

Here’s my short response (realizing that all parts of it can, and should be, challenged). First, although there are some who believe Luke 16:19-31 is an accounting of an actual historical event, I believe this story falls into the category of a parable…Jesus’ primary method of teaching in the NT. I have always taught (and been taught) to be very careful to avoid ascribing literal meaning to every detail of a parable, but to look for the over-arching meaning. This parable appears to me to be about the deceitfulness and deadliness of making riches your god, rather than seeing the parable as the description of what hell is going to look like.

Second, even if we agreed this parable gave a “real”, rather than a “figurative” description, the problem is with what it is describing. It is not describing the final judgment or the final destination of the wicked…it’s describing what goes on in Hades. Trust me, I am no expert on this! But in my limited study of Hades (and its OT counterpart, Sheol), I’ve always understood it to be a temporary place…the place that the dead go to wait the final judgment. For the righteous dead, it’s a good place. For the unrighteous dead, it’s a bad place. Some even believe its a place where the unrighteous might even get a second chance. (I’m not sure I buy that, but many believers through the ages have). Either way, it seems obvious to me that this story has nothing to do with the final judgment. Its a story that speaks of the torment that would take place for the wicked during that temporary, in-between time before final end is played out. To me, it does not speak of eternal, unending torment.

the second was a comment regarding the definition of words translated “hell” in the new testament…as well as the nature and extent of god’s judgment.  here’s my response:

I appreciate your struggle with my interpretation and position on this matter. None of us are able to come up with definitions and interpretations completely on our own. Years ago, I submitted myself to a set of scholars, Bible interpreters, pastors and theologians who helped frame my understanding of Scripture on this matter. I understand fully that people do not all see the Bible alike, nor do they always come to the same conclusions and understanding of Biblical definitions. We all subject ourselves to sources of information and wisdom and have to do our best to pick and choose those we trust for the most accurate rendering of truth. I am no different from anyone else on this. I read, study, compare, criticize, question and ultimately choose who and what I believe.

My understanding of the word gehenna does not include the word “unending” in it…though I do agree it appears to refer to the “final” judgment. In my study, there seems to be a rich Jewish history to the word that is somewhat complicated and very specific to the Jews in Bible times. I have come to understand gehenna to refer to a “smoldering dump” where trash and refuse was sent to burn. But my understanding of trash burning is that though a pile of trash may smolder and burn indefinitely, it will only keep burning because new trash is thrown on…the original trash eventually burns up and is no more.

As far as “the lights just going out” not being enough punishment for those who don’t know or experience the love of God through Christ…I just have to disagree. To get to the end of 50-60-70 years of painful, disappointing, unpredictable, up and down human existence… and then miss out on an unending, limitless, eternal and everlasting perfection in the presence of our Creator…well, that seems like over-the-top justice to me. My mind simply cannot comprehend…nor has my study of Scripture presented me with a God who needs to inflict unending torture and suffering on top of the most heinous punishment I could imagine: to be left out.

To me, justice is fully served by God cutting off his relationship with his unbelieving and unrepentant creation forever. And just like when the door of the ark closed, I believe the unredeemed will know they have missed out on the Great Banquet as their last experience of consciousness. How much worse does it need to be?

my hope is that this dialogue has motivated you to take your study of god’s word…and his command to be salt and light in a dark world…more seriously.  remember, if you want to dig deeper into this topic, i gave you some pretty good resources in the previous post to begin your journey.

Going to hell

hellmy early church upbringing had a singular focus:  death.

now that’s not quite as morbid as it sounds.  but it’s still reality.  oh…we had our potlucks and vacation bible schools and choir practice and church work days and prayer meetings and fellowship nights.  we still did lots of church stuff in church ways and much of  it was formative and laid the foundation for my faith to grow.

but make no mistake.  our focus was on death.

to be fair, the focus was really on what was going to happen after we died.  in comparison to all of eternity, these measly 72.3 years we get to live on earth seems pretty short.  the real issue was always whether i would make it to heaven when i died or whether i would exist in eternal and unrelenting pain and torture after death.

talk about scaring the hell out of a young kid!

this discussion deserves a lot more than i am going to give today, but here’s the simple version:  in spite of its popularity… and apparent biblical justification…i haven’t believed in the concept of a literal “lake of fire” or endless, conscious suffering for those who don’t know the grace of god through faith in jesus, for over thirty years.

i do, however, take the words of john 3:16 (and many, many others like it), quite literally.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

i believe that those who die without believing in jesus perish.  perish means to cease from existence.  i believe in eternal life, but not eternal death.  in spite of the passages that have traditionally been used to teach that hell is not really death, but an eternal life of conscious punishment,  i have come to believe that those who die without experiencing the life god intends will simply die forever.

But sinners shall be altogether destroyed;  the future of the wicked shall be cut off.  Psalm 37:38

i realize this position is not without controversy, especially because it is not consistent with the popular view presented in the church and society.  but i am not alone in this conversation.  if you are interested in further study, here is a good link to a paper written by dr. glenn peoples.  also, here is an awesome book written by edward fudge (probably the foremost modern apologist for this position).  finally, here is a link to a great website on rethinking the whole concept of hell.  these are pretty cool resources.

i hope this whets your appetite for study.  don’t be afraid to rethink this.  it could change your whole outlook on being a follower of christ.

for the better.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  John 10:10

Looking back

i realize it may not seem like much of a big deal to most people, but to me, this is really up there.

yesterday i taught on matthew 7:13-14…

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

seems pretty straightforward, but there’s something about how this passage is always used that troubles me.  i grew up with the image of saint peter poised at the pearly gates (comic book style), waiting to ask each pilgrim an important question to determine whether or not entrance into heaven would be granted.

from where i see it, this caricature comes from the blending of three different passages in the bible.  the first is in matthew 16:13-20.  this the section where the catholic church builds their doctrine of the pope…and where peter gets the job as the heavenly doorman.  check out verse 19:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

here is not the time or place to talk about the pope and catholic church’s historic (mis) interpretation of these words of jesus, but let’s just say  we wouldn’t be doing church the way we do today if martin luther hadn’t dared to challenge the church status quo nearly 500 years ago!

also, a few words out of john’s picturesque dream in the book of revelation paint a picture of what “gates of heaven” might look like:

The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.  Revelation 21:21

now, you combine those two verses with the passage out of matthew and you get a story passed down through the ages…one that’s been told and retold to children in sunday school and bible classes for hundreds of years.  and one that influences our interpretation and application of the bible…and the continued development of key bible doctrine…to this day.

like i said yesterday, i believe in heaven and hell.  but i refuse to let my understanding be dictated by cartoon images, church tradition or doctrinal loyalties.  just sayin’…   and i refuse to apply meaning to a bible passage that just isn’t warranted.  like yesterday.

when jesus said there are two gates…one wide and one narrow…he was not talking about those being the entrances to heaven and hell.  they are the doors to the roads we walk.  they are not the entrances to the end.  rather, they are the entrances to the beginning of our journeys.

it may seem small to you, but this is huge to me.  i spent most of my life being part of church families that were overly preoccupied with the question of who’s going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living.

that’s all changed.

Heaven or hell…the only choices?

got your attention,  huh?

if you call yourself a christian,  you’ve probably been raised to want others to become christians also.

it comes with the territory.   it’s part of our culture.

but have you ever stopped to ask yourself,  “why?”   why do you want others to believe what you believe?   why is it important that people have the same understanding of god that you do?

i think the priority reason that i was always taught…and what always seemed to make the most sense to me…was that i didn’t want people to go to hell when they died.   at a young age,  i embraced the idea that those who didn’t hold to the same tenets of my personal belief system would spend eternity in endless physical torment.   hell was something that scared me as a child…for myself,  as well as my friends.

the problem was  (and still is)  that,  although the potential of that horrible fate bothered me quite a bit,  it didn’t ever seem to bother my friends.   in fact,  most of the time they just made fun of it.   you see,  when you don’t really believe in god,  you don’t really believe much in the afterlife either.   heaven or hell.

so trying to strike the fear of hell in my friends was pointless to them.   and it usually left me feeling ambivalent.

over the years,  my motives for sharing my faith  have undergone quite an overhaul.   there are as many difficulties for believing in the existence of god and the uniqueness of jesus as there are people.   everybody views life and faith through their own particular lens…and sometimes that lens is scratched,  full of smudges,  or even cracked.

because of that,  maybe our insistence on focusing attention on the afterlife ought to be rethought.   maybe we ought to get a little better at showing people why knowing god and loving god and serving god makes such a difference right here.   and right now.

maybe we should get a little more comfortable with the idea that jesus came to give us life before we die…and not just sometime after we’re gone from this earth.

maybe that concept would make more sense to people.

i know it does to me.

The Finish Line

tonight,  my evening walk produced.

nothing that’s going to change the world…or even the small pocket that i inhabit…but definitely an idea that took shape.   i will break it out in due time.   not even a tease tonight,  tho…

the great enlightenment happened in the first fifteen minutes.   then my pinball brain ADD kicked in.   my mind was going everywhere.   i couldn’t concentrate.   i couldn’t slow down.   focus was nowhere to be found.   so i just kept walking.   and my knees hurt really bad.

i got in a hurry and forgot to put on my patella straps…these special neoprene bands that wrap around the knee right below the patella,  to help create a small gap in the knee to keep bone from rubbing on bone  (where there is little or no cartilage and lots of arthritis).   hope you feel smarter,  now…

as i was on the home stretch,  i started thinking how the pain is a good thing.   not the character-building kind,  but the kind of pain you’re supposed to have when your body is simply wearing out.

look,  this is no martyrdom.   i don’t have the i’m-getting-old blues.   this is not a melodramatic,  “woe-is-me”.   far from it.   no,  it comes from the confident awareness that my life is not to be saved.   it is to be spent.

the goal of life is not to get to the end and be able to do the same things we did in our twenties and thirties.   our goal is to be used up.   i still exercise…not because i want to look good in a bathing suit  (creepy thought) or  admire my backside in a storefront window  (even creepier)…but to be strong enough to keep going.

i want to make it to the finish line,  but i have no need to look good…or even feel good…when i drag in.   this is both metaphorical,  as well as real.   hurting knees or limited shoulder range or aggravated spinal discs or poor circulation or whatever…these should really be badges of honor for a life well-spent.

the same is true for our hearts and minds,  as well.   i want my brain to be just about fizzled out by the time i reach the end.   i don’t want to be praised in my urn by people who say that my mind was sharp right up until the final out.   i would much rather have somebody stand up and say,  “wow,  his head finally exploded from all that thinking and planning and goal setting and studying and mind-wrestling he did every day!”

and i want my heart to be completely empty…drained of every bit of love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion and patience and joy and grace that i could possibly give.   i do not plan to take any with me into the great unknown.

by faith,  i believe i will be re-filled with whatever i need for the next leg of race.   new knees,  shoulders,  heart,  and  mind?   perhaps.   maybe even a nice tan and chiseled abs…

it was a good walk tonight.

Will you go to heaven when you die?

for many,  if not most people who are acquainted with the christian way,  being saved is almost always synonymous with going to heaven when we die.

growing up and having spent most of my life in christian circles,  i was introduced to bible concepts of being born again…getting saved…accepting christ as my savior…at a young age and was consistently taught that the most important question a person would ever have to answer was “are you confident that you will go to heaven when you die?”

consequently,  trying to turn discussions to matters of death and heaven and hell was something i was pressed into believing was my ultimate goal in every relationship.

i get it.   we only have one chance at life and when death calls,  there are no do-overs. i still believe it is important that we all come face-to-face with the question of our eternal destiny…before we are actually laying somewhere on a death bed.   i really do.

but here’s the problem.   salvation is not about a destination. it is about a life.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.   Romans 6:23

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.   John 10:10

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.   John 17:3    Eternal life is not going to heaven.   It is knowing Jesus.

“…whoever believes in Him gets to go to heaven when he dies.” John 3:16    No.   He gets everlasting LIFE.

with all due respect to the mysterious greatness of what life after death may bring,  salvation is mostly about life as we know it right now.

eternal life is not about heaven.   it’s about a relationship.

salvation is not about where i’m going.   it’s about what i’m becoming.

being saved is not primarily about the distant future.   it’s about today…and maybe tomorrow.

i understand we need to have a sense of urgency.   i understand that people need to make decisions for christ before it’s too late.   like i said,  i get it.

so let’s make sure we are communicating the right stuff with our sense of urgency.   sure,  eventually that eternal life inside of us will secure us a sweet place in the afterlife one day (or heaven as we like to say).   but that’s not the focus of salvation.   what happens when we die is just not the emphasis placed on salvation in scripture.

rather,  the emphasis on salvation in scripture  is about LIFE.   the question isn’t, “where are you going when you die?”  the question is, “are you experiencing life with god or not?   because that’s what salvation is all about.    and when we are saved, we are rescued from the life we are living and delivered to a new and completely different kind of life.

the goal is not to simply get rescued from hell.   the goal is to get reunited with god.   right now.

how awesome is that?