Keep Up the Good Work: Criminal Mercy in South Florida

The governing authorities are the servants of God to uphold what is good and right. But sometimes the servants get wrong. Bad wrong. Crazy bad wrong. When that happens the servants need to be reminded who they serve and what their role is. Such is the case in Ft. Lauderdale where three people have been arrested for feeding homeless people. Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, one of the arresting officers instructed the culprit to “drop that plate right now.” Yes, drop the plate and move away slowly…with your hands up! You have the right to remain silent.
How many passages of scripture flood to mind after the reading of this headline:

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me. And these will go away into eternal punishment.” -Jesus, Matthew 25:42,45-46

“In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak.” -Paul, Acts 20:35

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor.” -Jesus, Luke 14:13

“They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do.” -Paul, Galatians 2:10

“Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom…But you have dishonored the poor.” -James 2:6

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your own community…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” -Deuteronomy 15:7-8

I could go on. There are many, many others, not to mention the texts that curse those who oppress the poor. That’s right, curse. The imperative to care for the poor is a chorus that rings throughout scripture. It cannot be missed by anyone reading with their eyes open. What is astounding is that this sort of tomfoolery must actually be named for what it is. Any clear-minded person should see the savagery in criminalizing ministries of mercy with the impoverished. Talk about having it backwards. 
In this case, Mr. Abbot and the pastors who have been arrested are the ones who have it right. And they should take comfort in the promise of Jesus, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Well done, fellas, keep up the good work.
Photo credit: Associated Press

Jerry Walls Responds to my Question on Hell (@rachelheldevans)

Jerry Walls is taking a turn in Rachel Held Evan’s “Ask a…” series, and he is answering question on hell, free will, and possibility of postmortem repentance. I raised a question about a surprising, if not disturbing, passage in Revelation that portrays the torment of hell as taking place eternally in the very presence of Christ. Here’s the passage from Revelation 14:9-11:

Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (NRSV, the italics are, of course, mine).

Here’s my question:

Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?

Here’s Walls’ response:

Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him. So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.

Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29). But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  

As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff). The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power. But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.” If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).

I’ll begin by saying that Walls raises a couple of interesting points I’ve not considered before. First, he’s right that fire is often an symbol of God’s presence, which is fascinating (and troubling!) when applied to the image of “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Might the lake of fire be the very consuming fire that is God himself? Should we be thinking of Hebrews 12:29? Second, I’m not read-up on the Eastern tradition that makes no distinction between the light of God’s glory and the fire of hell, though it is initially both compelling and satisfying. It certainly resonates with all the Lewis I’ve been reading this year.

In the end, I think Walls’ suggestion that we need to understand God’s presence in two ways is on target. This surprising passage appears to mean that, while a person can be spatially near to Christ, physical proximity is not joyful intimacy. Two people can be in one another’s presence and still a rift stand between them. In fact, the physical nearness of those against whom we are opposed may even cause our anger and frustration to burn with heightened fury. Lewis holds this tension in balance in many of his works. For those who love Aslan, his presence is unspeakable joy; for those who hate him, it is a terror. Nearness to Christ is not necessarily love for him. Nearness can inflame antagonism. As Orual, who stood unseeing on the threshold of heaven, blind though she had entered the gates of the home of the gods, full of fiery hatred, for him. 

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NB: You may be interested in Robert Mulholland’s assessment of this passage in Revelation, which sets it in a Jewish context and resonates with Walls’ reflections. Also, be sure to head over to Rachel’s blog and read the rest of the questions and Walls’ answers.

Once More, Unbelief and Falling Away: Evidence from Hebrews

Yesterday, I pointed to the role of unbelief in Romans 11 as it relates to a person’s being cut off from the people of God. But that chapter is not the only place the language of unbelief shows up in a discussion of falling away. The book of Hebrews contains an important passage as well, and it’s not the one you might expect. Arguments from Hebrews that believers may fall away are often based on the so-called warning passage in 6:4-6. However, the presence of the language of unbelief in 3:12-19 is relevant as well:
“Take care, brothers, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving (Gk. apistia) heart that turns away from the living God (3:12)…So we see that they [the Hebrews] were unable to enter [into rest] because of unbelief (Gk. apistia, 3:19).” 
Several features of this text are relevant to the role of unbelief and its relationship to falling away.
  1. As in Romans 11, the unbelief of the Hebrew people is the basis of the exhortation to the Christian community to persevere in faith. This means that multiple New Testament authors saw Israel’s unbelief as analogous to the potential situation in which Christians might fall into unbelief. It may also suggest continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God, since the new are liable to the same danger as the old.
  2. The passage is directly addressed to the Christian community and presupposes belief in the God revealed in Jesus. The explicit addressees are “brothers”, a common descriptor for members of the visible community of believers in the early Christian movement. In 3:1, the term “brothers” is qualified by the phrase “holy partners in a heavenly calling”, which emphasizes the author’s understanding that they are true believers. The addressees are warned not to turn away from God, which suggests that they are presently oriented toward God in contrast to those who are rebellious.
  3. Turning away from God is directly correlated with an unbelieving heart (apistia). This suggests that the author saw it as a real possibility that believing Christians might return to unbelief and turn from God, thus falling away from membership in the people of God and falling away from participation in the saving work of God; thus jeopardizing their entrance into God’s rest.
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Eternal Security? How do you fall away?

In a couple of recent posts (1, 2) I’ve reflected on the language of security and falling away in the New Testament. When the suggestion is made that a believer can indeed fall permanently and to his detriment from grace, the question is commonly raised as to how this happens. What does someone have to do fall away? How does a person move from justification to condemnation? Following on from my last post, I’ll focus my comments on Paul’s discussion of the matter in Romans 11.
 
The starting point must be the comparison that Paul draws between God’s attitude toward unbelieving Israel and his audience in Rome. My previous suggestion that a believer can indeed fall to their peril is based on this comparison in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that Israel was broken off for unbelief; thus, his warning to the Romans, “if God did not spare the original branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (11:21). For the apostle, believing Gentile Christians are liable to the same fate as Israel, namely God might cut them off. The comparison between the Roman church and Israel is developed through a contrast between the faith of the Romans and the unbelief of Israel, “They (Israel) were broken off because of their unbelief (Gk. apistia), but you stand only through faith (Gk. pistis)” (11:20). The explicit contrast of Paul’s Greek is somewhat muted in the English translation of “unbelief” vs. “faith” simply because English doesn’t have a negative word using the root “faith”. The Greek apistia vs. pistis is much stronger, and a more literal translation would say that Israel was “broken off because of their afaith (or unfaith?), but you stand only through faith.” This is enough to highlight the fact that, for Paul, if a person can move from God’s favor into condemnation, it is conditioned on whether or not that one continues in faith in Christ. The logic is quite clear. If it is through faith that we are united to Christ and brought into a state of reconciliation with God, then our unbelief would mean the breaking of our union with Christ, which would also mean that we no longer partake in the blessings of our former union.
 
Paul’s understanding of the contrast between faith and unbelief becomes increasingly clear when we consider Romans 4:20. Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes, “No unbelief (Gk. apistia) made him doubt the promise of God, but he was empowered by faith (Gk. pistis) giving glory to God.” Note the again the strong contrast between apistia and pistis. Abraham’s righteous standing before God is conditioned on his belief in the promise of God (4:21-22), and the opposite of this by-faith-righteousness is unbelieving condemnation. In Romans, Abraham is the prototypical Gentile believer, because he believed and was justified prior to his circumcision. So, faith in the crucified and risen Christ incorporates even a Gentile believer into Abraham’s family, which is defined around the Messiah. In contrast, unbelief cuts a person off from this family. This is precisely what Paul says happened with ethnic Israel, and in his thinking it is a danger to believers in Rome. Thus, his exhortation to continue in the kindness of God, which is conditioned on perseverance in faith, in order to avoid being cut off (11:22).
 
Returning to the initial question regarding how one falls away, we can say that the condition for being cut off from the people of God is unbelief or a cessation of faith in Christ. He does not here raise the issue of evil works as a means for falling away, though he would certainly assert that evil works are the product of unbelief. This makes sense in light Paul’s larger soteriology. If a person is justified by faith, then falling into unbelief would necessitate falling out of justified reconciliation with God. One might say that this is all hypothetical for Paul, and that a true believer will never fall into unbelief. The problem with that suggestion is that Paul doesn’t seem to be dealing in hypotheticals. His argument is based on the very concrete and historical example of God’s action to cut off unbelieving Israel. Cutting off, he insists, is the grievous consequence of unbelief. For Paul, it appears to be a real possibility that a justified true believer could fall into unbelief and be cut off from the people of God.

Eternal Security? My Crucial Verse

Everyone has particular passages of scripture that shape their reading of other passages of scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we create a framework for reading the Bible (or any document) where we prioritize certain parts of it. We take one portion as a lens for reading the rest. This may seem suspect at first, but it’s not. It’s simply part of how we read and interpret texts. Any idea in any text only has meaning in relation to other ideas in that text. This hermeneutical reality has a long standing history in the church. For centuries, theologians have suggested that we allow the clear and straightforward parts of the Bible to guide, inform, and shape our reading of the less straightforward, less clear, and downright hard-to-get parts. This is how it works; we might as well be up front about it.
When it comes to the so-called doctrine of eternal security (or the perseverance of the saints), the crucial passage for me is Romans 11:17-24, especially verses 19-21. I formerly held the view that true believers cannot ultimately fall away, but my view was never exegetically grounded. It was motivated more by the psychological comfort of knowing I was indeed eternally secure. But the trouble with textually ungrounded psycho-therapeutic theological constructions is that they sometimes encounter texts that chop the safety net into little bits and pieces, which is what happened when I read Romans 11:19-21:
“You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (NRSV, emphasis added).
There are two aspects of these verses that forced me to change my view on the perseverance of the saints. First, Paul is explicitly speaking to people who “stand by faith.” That is, we are dealing with believers here. And we know from what we’ve already read in Romans that those who have faith in Jesus are justified and have been reconciled to God (3:21-26). They “have peace with God” (5:1), and for them there is “no condemnation” (8:1). Second, Paul tells these justified, reconciled, peace with God having believers that the possibility exists that God might “not spare you.” Yes, that’s right. Paul compares these baptized and believing Chrstians to unbelieving Israel (the natural branches) and declares that, if they, like Israel, fall into unbelief, they will not be spared. There it was. I couldn’t escape it. My therapeutic theological safety net had been decimated.

This passage seems to me so straightforwardly clear that it cannot be seriously taken any other way. (Yes, I know many take it other ways). To make Paul’s declaration that God might not spare these believers to mean that believers, once they have believed, can never fall into condemnation requires exegetical gymnastics of olypmic proportion. This verse hit me so hard and so fast with its stunning clarity that it became my crucial verse. It changed my mind and now shapes my reading and reflecting on questions of perseverance. Everything else is viewed through this lens.

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NB 1: I’ll point out the fact that this passage comes at the climax of the larger Calvinist go-to passage of Romans 9-11. I would argue that this is a really good reason for not supposing that Romans 9 means what Calvinists take it to mean. Whatever Paul thinks about God’s purposes in election, he also envisions the real possibility that one can be a member of the people of God and fall away.

NB 2: I’m not saying that everyone who holds to some form of the perseverance of the saints is doing so for the sake of psychological comfort. That’s just what I was doing.

Hell in the Presence of the Lamb?

Hell is always a hot topic. And in studying Revelation in recent weeks, I’ve come across a passage that challenges the way I’ve commonly thought about the reality of eternal punishment. Like many, I suspect, I’ve tended to think of hell as unending removal from the presence of Christ. Add whatever imagery you care to that; nothing significantly increases the horror of banishment from the presence of the glorious beauty of the resurrected and conquering king of all. But the Apocalypse of John is challenging my thoughts about this to some degree. Consider these words:
“…they will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:10).
What? Did you catch that? They will be tormented forever in the presence of the Lamb? John seems to be suggesting that those who oppose Jesus in the present life by worshipping the beast (14:9) exist forever in some proximity to Jesus. Stunning. Simply stunning. There go my preconceived notions about hell. But how could this be? And what could it mean? Here are some helpful thoughts on this passage from Robert Mulholland, one of my own teachers, in his most recent commentary on Revelation:
“This seems an uncharacteristically cruel picture of heaven, where the Lamb is seated on the throne surrounded by the holy angels (7:11, 17). The operative term here is “holy.” An noted above, the holiness of God burns against all that is unholy, not in a vindictive, retributive, vengeful, punitive manner, but simply as the reality of holiness. John seems to have seen that those who are unholy spend eternity in the presence of the holiness of heaven. To spend eternity in the presence of holiness when one is, to the core of one’s being, unholy, would be an endless torment. The same image of fallen Babylon in proximity to New Jerusalem is seen by John in chapters 21-22. There John sees that the gates of New Jerusalem are never closed (21:25), that outside is fallen Babylon (22:15), but nothing unclean is allowed to enter (21:27). It seems that fallen Babylon exists forever in the presence of the holiness of New Jerusalem. Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is another image of heaven and hell being in close proximity to one another, but nothing of hell could enter heaven (cf. 1 Enoch 48:9, which says, ‘as straw in the fire so shall they [the wicked] burn before the face of the holy’)” (543-534).
So, the idea in Revelation that those who experience the unending torment of hell exist in proximity to the presence of Christ in heaven is not an isolated and unique text. Jesus himself seemed to work with a similar idea and apparently assumed that his audience did as well. Perhaps the concept could be summarized by saying that those who despise Christ in the present life will be unable to enjoy his presence in the next. For those who hate him, his presence is a torment. This is certainly one place where the text is pressing me to rethink some things I’ve traditionally thought.
What do you think? Does this passage in Revelation cause you to reconsider the way you think about hell? What do you think about Mulholland’s comments? About the idea that those who despise Christ in the present will be unable to enjoy him in eternity?

Knowledge & Life after Death: The Surprising Epistemology of Shane Hipps

It seems the hoopla over Rob Bell’s last book just won’t go away (to the joy of the folks at HarperOne, I am sure), and more has been said from both sides than I have time (or, for that matter, care) to read. But one item that came across my desk this week struck me as quite interesting and somewhat peculiar considering the source.
The folks at ChurchLeaders.com are hosting some interchange between Shane Hipps, successor to Rob Bell as teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church, and Francis Chan, who wrote a book in response to Bell. With this post, I’d like to respond to some of what Shane Hipps’ said, especially with regard to how knowledge is to be had.
Let me say up front that this is not a post about hell, Rob Bell, or universalism. It is a post about logic, consistency, and epistemology (the discipline that studies how we know things). Those matters are significant, because if we are to say anything at all, especially in print and not least with regard to important and sometimes controverted issues, then we must speak with clarity, consistency, and wisdom.
Let me say up front that I appreciate much of what Shane Hipps has written. I certainly disagree with him on some things, but I do so with gratefulness for much of what he has said. He has thought more and more deeply about the relationship between changing media forms and the Church than most, and his work in that area has had significant impact on my own understanding of those issues. So, even though I write today with some concerns about Hipps’ epistemology, I aim to do so with charity acknowledging that much of his work has had a weighty effect on my own thought and is valuable for the Church.
That said, let’s turn to the issues at hand. In his essay at ChurchLeaders.com, Hipps said this:
As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.
Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course, you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.
Hipps here reveals what he believes is necessary to have certain knowledge about something (or, at least, life after death). That is, he reveals something about his epistemology, and what he reveals is striking to me given other things that he will say later in the post. For Hipps, it would seem that certain knowledge needs (1) personal experience and (2) verifiable evidence. With regard to life after death, to be able to speak with certainty, one would need to die and come back to life (personal experience) and have pictures (verifiable evidence). And even with these two things, you can only speak with certain knowledge about your own experience and not that of others. No one presently available to us has either personal experience of life after death or pictures; thus, we are right to be skeptical of their speculations.
The reason all this strikes me as peculiar is because Hipps identifies himself as one empathetic to the postmodern ethos (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, 17), but his comments above on knowledge come across as deeply modernistic. Modern epistemology demanded verifiable empirical evidence as the only source for true and certain knowledge. And if such evidence could not be produced, the only other option was doubt and skepticism, because, after all, if it’s not verifiable, it’s just speculation, fantasy, a waste of our time.
The problem with modernist epistemology was that it was driven by a presupposition that ruled some answers out of court before the questions were even asked. This is precisely why many modernists rejected the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. “We know things like resurrection don’t actually happen,” says the champion of modernism, “no one available to us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. And we certainly can’t verify such claims. Thus, they are not to be considered available to be known.” The modernist presupposition rules out the possibility of something like resurrection before the question is even raised.
Hipps here falls prey to the same critique. He has specific presuppositions about how something can be known with certainty, namely through personal experience and verifiable evidence. And his presuppositions about how things are known rule out all sorts of answers (indeed, even all answers) when the question of life after death is raised. From the perspective of Hipps’ epistemology, there is no reason to even ask such questions, because we can’t know anything about that; it’s all speculation. Is it fair to rule out some answers before the question is ever asked?  One reason that modernism failed is that it did precisely that.
Another issue that comes up is whether Hipps’ criteria for knowledge meet their own standard for knowledge. That is, can we experience and verify that experience and verifiability are indeed the basis and criteria for certain knowledge? Hipps says that to have certain knowledge we need personal experience and verifiable evidence. But how do we know that he is right? Let’s apply his own criteria for certain knowledge to his criteria for certain knowledge. Does anyone have an experience to show us that experience and verifiability are necessary for knowledge? Is there some data somewhere that we can verify in order that we may know that these criteria are indeed the standard for how you know things? What if there is some other way of knowing? Have tests been done to rule out other possibilities for how things can be known? Does anyone have pictures?
The reality is that there are plenty of theories of knowledge out there that do not take Hipps’ criteria as the exclusive standard for knowledge. Perhaps things can be known in other ways. Perhaps there are other kinds of evidence, legal or historical. Perhaps we can know things because they are revealed by a trustworthy source. If so, it is not the case that experience and verifiability are the only means by which a thing may be known.
The last concern I’ll raise here is this. At least one other affirmation that Hipps makes in the very same post does not stand up to his criteria for knowledge. He says:
Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore; now he knew.
Hipps emphatically affirms that the very dead Jesus of Nazareth was raised again to life. Whether Hipps would say he has certain knowledge of this, I don’t know, but he certainly doesn’t seem to put the resurrection of Jesus in the category of speculation. He affirms it emphatically. The problem for Hipps is that the resurrection of Jesus does not meet his criteria for knowledge. No one alive has a credible experience of meeting the embodied Jesus and there is no verifiable evidence (like a photograph) that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. So, according to Hipps’ own epistemology, we can only speculate about the resurrection of Jesus. Nothing can be said of it with certainty or definiteness. The inconsistent thing is that Hipps affirms definitely and emphatically that Jesus was raised from the dead, even though his epistemology says such a thing cannot be known. And in public discourse and debate inconsistency is a problem; unless, of course (and with a tip of my hat to my college logic prof), you are not worried about little things like consistency.
At the end of the day, Hipps here falls prey to the postmodern critique of modern epistemology. I would have thought that Hipps would recognize this, and I would have expected to find him on the other side of the modern/post-modern debate. Perhaps I’ve simply not read enough of his work, but given his affinity for postmodernism, his epistemology surprises me.