The Luxury of Questioning Hell

hell

Hell is a dreadful topic. A professor of mine once stated that he’s a “biblically-hopeful universalist”; meaning he adheres to the Biblical testimony of a final judgement while at the same time yearning that eventually, miraculously, somehow all will choose allegiance to Christ over eternal rebellion and suffering. I would fall in the same category. I hope hell doesn’t exist. But it’s also difficult to ignore the Biblical witness to its reality.

And the topic of hell is a touchy subject among American Christians. Most contemporary discussions operate in the shadow of Rob Bell, whose infamous book Love Wins sparked a tidal wave of conversation across evangelicalism. But Bell was hardly the first nor the last person to ask questions regarding arguments for or against eternal punishment. An increasing number of American Christians ask similar questions: can a loving God and an eternal punishment really both exist?

But the very act of questioning hell is a luxury of which we’d be wise to also take note. Because the western, American perspective through which we question hell deeply influences our conclusions.

First of all, it should be said that we Americans do not regularly experience hell on earth. I want to follow that statement with a bold and assertive footnote: bad things do happen to Americans, in America. I am not attempting to (and I sincerely hope than none of this comes across as) belittling to the pain borne even to those in first-world. The girl who’s been raped at her first college party knows hell on earth. The veteran who’s homeless and mentally traumatized experiences hell on earth. The parent who answers the door at midnight to find a police officer with a grim face knows hell on earth. The eighteen year-old who’s struggling with bi-polar disorder and regularly spirals into suicidal states knows hell on earth.

In other words: America is not devoid of pain.

But Americans do live in avoidance of pain. We go to great lengths to distance ourselves from its pertinence. And, in many ways, we have succeeded. Because of this, we do not understand pain in the way citizens of developing nations must.  We have clean water. We have inconceivably low rates of infant death. Even the most unfortunate Americans live on more than $1 a day (unlike 970 million people across the globe).There are limited cycles of perpetual poverty in America; there’s no mass genocide taking place in our backyard.

What we need to acknowledge, then, is that evil is a real and pertinent aspect of reality. And while we want to believe that a good and loving God couldn’t possibly be a judgmental and wrathful God, we also don’t find ourselves grappling with the daily reality of evil, pain, death and suffering.

Thus, when we begin to ask questions regarding hell, we need to understand hell not as a place where God throws all the unfortunate souls who didn’t make his “nice” list. Rather, hell is a place where evil is judged, where sin and death meet their end. To remove our belief in such a place is an attempt to remove the reality of pain and evil in the world as it is. We might fool ourselves into doing so as Americans; we could believe that with enough anti-septic, therapy and tolerance we can cure almost all wounds. But this illusion is a luxury only members of the first-world can attain.

Secondly, Americans can question the existence of hell because we are not regularly confronted with egregious social injustice. Again, there are numerous exceptions; the first caveat I would make to this point is that I present it as an white, Protestant, male living in America. There most certainly are people who experience grave injustice in America. But, for the average American (in comparison to the rest of the world) life is pretty good. Injustice is present in America, but not as an undeniable reality. And certainly (I am quick to admit) not to someone who lives in the majority, such as myself.

For me to question hell- to question the divine necessity to vanquish evil, to examine the scales of justice and judge as fit- has something to do with the fact that I don’t regularly encounter incarnated evil. And I don’t regularly witness a need for retributive justice.

These are luxuries I must acknowledge.

Because it’s easy for me to want to emphasize God’s mercy over God’s judgement; I don’t live with an immediate necessity for the latter. Would I still be asking the question “are we sure God needs to judge evil?” if I lived in a town that was just raided by ISIS? Would I really be thinking “surely, everyone will eventually love God” when I’ve just watched my crops destroyed, my daughters raped, my husband killed, and I myself having now been sold into sexual servitude?

I don’t know. But one thing is for certain: I can’t be arrogant enough to say that I would.

The theology of the oppressed is the closest to a Biblical theology that we have in the modern world. And we need to listen to the oppressed more than we ourselves speak. We have much to learn from them, including a sound perspective on hell.

I recently had the chance to meet with the Vice President of one of the largest non-profit relief organizations in the world. He’d just returned from visiting refugee camps in the Middle East. Most of them were Christians, fleeing persecution. In addition to poverty, drought and malnutrition, they’d witnessed their children beheaded, their friends crucified, and numerous other unspeakable atrocities. Hell was real to them; hell was their life.

And I asked him what the Christians there believed about hell, believed about the eternal judgment and destination of their enemies. He thought for a moment and then replied: “It wasn’t really a concern, for them at least. I asked them how they felt about ISIS, and they told me ‘we pray they come to know Christ.'”

That’s it. No debate about whether or not they’ll end up in hell. No question about whether God will execute his justice upon them or whether God’s goodness allows for the possibility that they be damned. None of that mattered. What mattered was their understanding of the Christian imperative: usher in the kingdom of God while holding onto hope- despite and within your circumstances.

We Americans get entrenched in our ivory castles of theology that we forget the real matter at hand: the kingdom of heaven is coming! It is near; it is not yet; but it is here!

“Does hell exist?” It’s a good question- I suppose- one which I have the luxury of asking. But it’s not the most helpful question, nor is it the real question at hand. The real question looks through the evil and suffering of this present age, beyond the cross, and to the empty grave. The real question is less concerned about the destination of my enemies and more concerned with the impending arrival of Love Incarnate. The real question is less obsessed with knowing the details of justice’s manifestation (as if that’s even possible), but focuses on the hope of a time when evil will be judged and found unnecessary, untrue, unreal.

The real question is not whether or not hell exists. That’s a good topic for cheap cigars and late nights on the front porch. But the real question, the one that transcends our circumstances (be they good or bad), unites us with those who suffer and leads us to pray for those who oppress, is this:

Christ’s kingdom is coming; what role will I play in it’s arrival?

And, as Christians, we all have the luxury of asking that question.

 a

a

a

Advertisements

Pens Saved from the Splatter

pens saved from the splatter

My wife and I went cross-country skiing the other day. An arctic freeze gripped the landscape and gusts of wind whipped snow to and fro across creation. It was such that I was sitting at my desk, looking out my window and feeling immensely sorry for the damned, unfortunate bloke who might be forced outside in this weather. That was when my wife spoke up from the kitchen.

“We should go skiing,” she said.

She’d might as well propose that we don coconut bras for church. “Why would we do that?”

“To get some fresh air. It’d be good for us.”

“Survival instincts beg to differ.”

She didn’t seem to hear this so I figured considered myself safe and returned to my reading. Five minutes later she disappeared into our bedroom and reemerged with apocalyptic speed, all dressed for the tundra.

“You ready?” she asked.

I looked at her, down at my book and fuzzy slippers- which felt as warm as the womb- then back at her. She smiled like she was asking me to dance at a dry wedding.

“C’mon. Pllleeeeeeaaaasssseeeee?”

Fifteen minutes later, I was the damned, unfortunate bloke.

I don’t consider myself a writer. To make such a presumption would be somewhat precocious. For there is no such thing as a writer; there are simply those who walk the road with a pen in hand, as opposed to folks who don’t. I aspire to the explanation provided by Albert Einstein: I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious. And I happen to have a pen.

And lately, I’ve really struggled with the doctrine of hell. There’s an inevitable tension between God’s grace and justice which-try as we may- cannot be explained away. But I think it is dishonest- absurd, even- to object to the idea of hell based on emotions: fear, sadness, horror or pity, even. I can deny Texas exists for all I’m worth. But since it’s still there and some day I might end up there- damned, unfortunate bloke that I am.

At the same time, if Christ’s parable of the taxpayer and Pharisee praying at the temple has taught me anything, it’s that those who propel their ideology with hell’s pertinency are the most likely to reap what they’ve sown, so to speak.

As we trudged our way through drifts the wind abused any skin it could find. I hid my chin in my jacket. I wiggled my fingers to keep them warm. My wife skied ahead of me like it was sunny and seventy-five.

And I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful everything was. The snow was untouched. The trees waved their branches like hands before the alter. The sun was making it’s way to bed, desperate rays hugged the landscape as it receded, like a mother embracing her child before turning to leave, looking back through tears at her baby all grown up and starting college.

I think hell will have beauty. I think there will be beauty unattainable and devoid of hope: the sun setting over an arctic landscape, water just out of reach, unending droughts of darkness. And poets will find that their ink can only splatter.

I do not want to praise these notions. But I want to observe- my pen in hand- the tension that is faith.

Annie Dillard once wrote a book from a cinder-block room over looking a parking garage. Jack London only slept four hours a day when writing waking himself with an alarm clock that was rigged to drop a weight on his head.

If writing is to be done, if our pens are to be saved from the splatter, then it must come from the darkness of beauty. I am incapable of testifying to the comedy of an empty grave if I’ve not felt the sting of abandonment on my heart: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? As much as possible, that is.

As the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, my wife stopped long enough for me to propose that we should call it a day, providing, as evidence, the snot icicle hanging from my nose.

I want to live in the tension of the redeemed and the damned, beautiful and terrifying, grace and sin. I want to trapeze-swing from the pendulum of faith, singing as I go. I want to ski into the cold night and return with hope, the size of a mustard seed, but alive still. I want all these things. I ask to receive. I want them so my my pen that splatters might separate the waters and form words, and them part of the Word. I want this. I really do.

Mostly though, I just want to get warm.

a

a

a

a

a

“Where Do Dead Babies Go?”- An Alternative View

I want to start this off by making a couple disclaimers. The first being I am not a theological expert. While it does not take an expert theologian to point out pastoral discrepancies anymore than it takes a lawyer to identify injustice- I think it ought to be noted. What follows, therefore, is my opinion which I humbly- but confidently- assert. I want this opinion heard because I believe that fellow Christians, atheists, parents and hurting mothers, fathers and families alike all need to be informed to the persisting reality of a differing point of view.

Furthermore I want to pay due respect to the author of the article I will be countering, a certain Dr. Stephen Kim. I want to respect and love him as a brother in Christ. Dr. Kim has a great amount of education- to that I must give a tip of the hat. It is further necessary to point out that Dr. Kim is not alone in his beliefs; there are other Christians who believe similar to him regarding this issue. While my objection to his beliefs has a lot to do with the callous nature in which they were presented, I also want to be clear that there is ample reason to disagree with him entirely. Thus while attempting to pay necessary respect to Dr. Kim’s assertions as well as his identity as a Christian brother, I want to be clear that I believe his views are profoundly hurtful, not just to fellow believers, but to the true gospel message.

The article which I hope to refute is titled “Where Do Dead Babies Go.” I encourage anyone reading this to read the article first, as it will give you a chance assess Dr. Kim’s side of the argument without my inevitable bias. Within this article, Dr. Kim presents the basis for his belief that:

“…based on the biblical evidence, it would seem that babies who die in infancy are not deemed elect and therefore, go to hell.”

I have not personally experienced the pain of miscarriage or still-birth, let alone the horror of something like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). But when I read such a callous and insensitive presentation of this theological position as Dr. Kim presents (nowhere in the article does he express concern, sympathy or love towards grievous readers), my heart cannot help but break for the 15% of women under the age of 35 who will experience a miscarriage next year, let alone the 35% of miscarriages that occur when the mother is over 35. When I read Dr. Kim’s flippant proclamation, I want to weep for any family members of the 2,000 infants who died from SIDS last year alone that might stumble upon Kim’s article and have to deal with such insensitivity. All of this is to say nothing of the families of an estimated 3.1 million children who die of malnutrition each year. If you are reading this and you have experienced any of these, or know someone who has, I first of all want to tell you how sorry I am for the pain you have endured. That pain is real, it hurts, and it ought to be acknowledged if any legitimate discussion on this topic is to take place.

With that said, I want to now present three glaring issues with Dr. Kim’s article with which I will show the lack of theological coherence and truth in Dr. Kim’s assertion that upon death an infant is damned to hell. My points of refutation are as follows:

1. Dr. Kim utilizes faulty logic to make his argument.  

Dr. Kim states that miscarriages cause immense grief in the Old Testament because death is “the end-all-be-all for babies” (i.e. they are now damned). In support of this, Dr. Kim cites passages like Hosea 9:14-15 and Exodus 23:25-26 stating that the grievous nature of miscarriage in these passages make a lot more sense because the babies have been damned.

This is horrifically and insensitively absurd. Following the logic of this statement, one shouldn’t mourn a Christian who passes away because they’re in heaven now- there’s obviously no reason for pain- the only reason deep mourning might occur is because of the passing of a damned soul.

The contrary reality is that miscarriage is not only mourned in the Old Testament- or today for that matter- because of the child’s imminent damnation, it is mourned because it hurts. Death hurts. This is the tragic reality behind the Christian message which is then coupled with the good news that Christ conquered death. Despite Christ’s conquering death, mourning is encouraged in the Bible (“blessed are those who mourn”). Mourning is encouraged because immense grief provides room for immense hope; only when a Christian experiences and understands the power and grip of death can they truly understand the goodness of Christ’s defeating death. “Death where is thy sting?” is a beautiful taunt of that which has the power over all of us but Christ has defeated!

In continued arrangement of an illogical case, Dr. Kim states that infant baptism is “nonsensical” and cannot atone for one’s sins. In support of this he states that infant baptism was “never ever found in the New Testament”. First of all, this in and of itself is not entirely true- or at the very least it is terribly ignorant of what is a long standing debate. For instance: in Acts 16 Lydia was converted by Paul’s teaching and was baptized “with her household”. Lydia’s household including young children- so it would seem that they too were baptized.

I am not attempting to support infant baptism. I’m simply making the case that Dr. Kim ought to at least acknowledge that a debate on this topic exists- certainly before using it to draw such imminent conclusions.

Even if what Dr. Kim says is true- that there is no instance of infants being baptized in the New Testament- it still ought to be noted that an argument for something based on the absence of any contrary evidence (or an argument from silence) is a logical fallacy. Otherwise, I could say numerous things aren’t Biblical ( rock music, eating processed food, altar calls, soccer and America) because they aren’t found in the New Testament. For us to believe, therefore, that his argument holds any water, we have to believe that this is because he is basing it on something other than Scripture.

To this end Dr. Kim notes that baptizing of infants “isn’t even found in the first 3 centuries of Christianity.” This is utterly false. Irenaus, Hippolytus and Origen all testified the legitimacy of the practice. For instance:

“I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. Infants are baptized for the remission of sins.” Origen, Homily on Luke 14:5

Again, the point to my bringing this to light is not to necessarily support the idea of infant baptism. I am simply trying to make it clear that to so strongly and adamantly refute the idea of infant baptism as the springboard for claims regarding eternal destiny of children isn’t possible unless you at least give some tip of the hat to opposing viewpoints.

But Dr. Kim doesn’t even acknowledge the potential for fallacy in his logic, let alone give them enough credence to make us believe his use of Scripture might be anything other than systematic regurgitation of a denominational agenda.

Instead Dr. Kim builds his argument on misappropriated use of Scripture and shows blatant disregard for historical claims. In short: the logic of his argument is terribly questionable.

2. Dr. Kim presents a misunderstanding of the means of salvation.

In one of his comments defending his argument, Dr. Kim refutes the assertion that under his logic anyone who lived before Jesus must be condemned to hell as well. To this Dr. Kim said: “Old Testament believers were saved by faith in the gospel as well” supporting his claim with a decontextualized Bible verse. Dr. Kim also uses this idea of salvation by one’s faith as his foundation for believer’s baptism; believers are baptized and saved- Kim states- because they have faith in God. Such notions are completely unbiblical and reflect a poor reading of reformational theology at that.

Christians are not saved by faith in the gospel, we are saved by the grace of God. What I mean is that it is not our action of believing but God’s action of grace to humans that brings us into salvation. It doesn’t matter how little faith I have, as long as I have some faith, God’s grace can save me (as in “the faith of a mustard seed”). I am not saved, therefore, by how hard I close my eyes, clench my fists and “have faith” ( a vague notion at best), I am saved by God’s grace on me. Faith is simply an acknowledgement of his grace. It is the proclamation that though a sinner -wonder of wonders!-I am saved.

Likewise, believers in the Old Testament are not saved by their faith, they are saved by God’s grace. Noah was selected by God and found favor in his eyes; Abraham believed the grace God had already displayed in God’s choosing him and thus it was credited to him as righteousness; throughout the Old Testament a consistent pattern is witnessed: God acts, humans acknowledge his act. That is faith.

Salvation occurs, therefore, when the individual is brought into the grace of God. Faith does not save us- grace does. Meaning it is not our action in having faith, but God’s provision of grace, that saves us. Faith is merely the acknowledgement of that which God has already done.

This may sound like a nit-picky objection. But the point is that an infant who dies in childbirth, the womb, in childhood, etc. can absolutely be saved by the grace of God. The child’s fate does not rest in any of their own doing- much like the fate of anyone who has ever lived doesn’t control their own fate. Adults can acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, acknowledge the grace of God which has the power to save us, but our acknowledgement does not prompt God. Such theology is backwards.

The idea that a child is damned because he or she never made the conscientious acknowledgement of Christ is simply void.

3. Dr. Kim presents a callous and hurtful misrepresentation of Christianity. 

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4

While this objection stems mostly in Dr. Kim’s presentation of his beliefs, it is also an objection to the beliefs themselves. The message of Christianity is one of hope to the hopeless, comfort to those who mourn and reconciliation of all creation to God their creator. Heaven will be, as Tolkien poetically put it, somewhere where all that is sad will be untrue. The daily task of a Christian, particularly as a minister, is to exhibit, proclaim and testify to the reality of this good news which has come in Christ, is present today in the Spirit and the Church, and will be in the age to come with the ushering of God’s perfect rule over everything.

It is deplorable that Dr. Kim took this message of blessed news and callously presented it as a message of terror to those who need hope. Statistically speaking, it is highly likely that most of the people who read this post have experienced the loss of an infant, whether directly as a parent, or as a brother, sister or family member. Despite the handling of a terribly painful topic, Dr. Kim unapologetically lobs a grenade of (erroneous) theology into the grief of those who accessed the article (do you really think anyone Googling: “Where did my baby go when it died?’ is having a good day?).

Such handling of this topic is abrasive and empathetically bankrupt, akin to telling a depressed person “either get over it or just do away with yourself” or an abused spouse “maybe it’s because you’re sexually unappealing.” Though I am a Christian, I find myself relating to an atheist commentator on the article who said “If I weren’t already an atheist this post would have pushed me over the edge.”

Contrary to this, I hope readers will hear and know the following truth: the Christian gospel is not a story of exclusivity, of God saying ‘here’s a list of who gets into heaven- if you’re not on it then that sucks for you.” Rather Christ asked all those who were weary to come to him, particularly the helpless infants and widows. He promised that if we only knock, only ask, then our cries will be heard- that the plights of children do not escape his ears.

If you have experienced the loss of a child, I pray and hope that you will know that the Biblical narrative testifies to the reality of your pain. It speaks to the horror and ache of miscarriages, SIDs, starvation and freak accidents. And the message it speaks into this pain is one of hope, not judgement. God does not delight in the death of children. Rather, his grace surrounds and protects, especially the least of these.

I hope and pray that people who read Dr. Kim’s blog come to know and understand that Christianity does not testify to a God who flippantly damns children to hell. Though God’s ways are mysterious, though we cannot understand the pain of this life, rest assured that God’s love can and does reach into the depth of our despair and catch the weak and helpless when they fall. This is the Biblical testimony: that God weeps with those who weep and mourns with those who mourn and that his grace can cover the taint of Adamic sin, even in the womb.

I hope that everyone who comes to the point of grieving a lost child can be comforted with the hope of the gospel. Contrary to Dr. Kim’s portrayal, God’s grace is present in our deepest human pain. And his grace gives us hope, hope that uplifts, enables and reminds us that love has defeated death and gathered us all into his arms.

“But Jesus called the children to him and said ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’

 Luke 18:16