2011 was in some circles the year christians debated hell, thanks to our friend Rob Bell. (Hey that rhymes!) At least that’s what I’ve been told by people like Andrew Jones, whom I trust on such subjects. (read his post if you weren’t part of the blogosphere wars of hell last year!) And maybe I’ve Morgan Guyton has a very interesting article on Jonathan Brinks provoketive magazine that can be interesting for those who think about hell, and that has some interesting thinking in another direction. You can and should read it here[if you like to understand the rest of my post that is].
It’s not like most theological blogposts framed as a lot of arguments, but interestingly as a set of question, some of which are very to the point, unlike a lot of discussions that I’ve seen. And I mostly like the answers that are in line with the church fathers and easters christianity, while finding the more recent evangelical and calvinist answers a bit shallow. Maybe that’s just me…
The questions are the following. (you should read the explanation o, provoketive too to understand some of them)
1) Is God a being or the source of our being?
2) Is God’s primary agenda to love His creation or defend His glory?
3) Is God’s justice primarily retributive or restorative?
4) Is God’s holiness an intolerance for imperfection or an intolerable perfection?
5) When we escape hell, is it because God changed His mind about us or because we changed our minds about God?
6) Are we saved by proving something to God or does God save us from having something to prove?
Those questions, or at least some of the answers are based in understandings of the Christian faith that go back much farther than our protestant discussions, and I have the feeling some of there things should be rediscovered instead of fighting over answers to irrelevant questions. (I find it very intersting that Morgan sees the medieval philosphy of nominalism to blame for how we went astray. I never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense)
My reaction to those questions would be:
1) why either/or, I would say both, but the second one is very important indeed and something we miss. We should pay more attention to the church fathers of the eastern orthodox sometimes…
2) I’m not John Piper, so I go with the first one..
3) primiraly restorative, and this is a very important point missed by a lot of protestants.
4) I wouldn’t frame it in either terms, but I go with your description of the second option, which reminds me of Sadhu Sundar singh and of the eastern orthodox. Very powerful paradigm shift if contemplated in combination with the first one…
5) I think there’s more to it than changing minds. I would say there also is an ontological change, a real difference in the universe itself, due to the incarnation, cross, and resurrection (death, evil and sin being defeated Christus Victor-wise). But again the second option…
6) the second option, but again there’s more to the subject. Maybe associated with the ontological changes I see in Christ (see 5)
and I would add 2 question that are important. I don’t say they have to be either/or though.
7) is the scope of salvation focussed on saving single persons of on saving the cosmos as a whole?
8) Is the gospel centered on the saved person or in the Reign of Jesus and the Kingdom of God?
For those who understand the lingo I’ll add this from Morgan in the comment section. It is very important stuff, and I have a feeling I have to write about it later without all the heavy theological words…
Holiness is of course more than just “intolerable.” It’s also awe-inspiring, beautiful, wonderful, etc. In the context of describing hell as a product of God’s holiness, the question would be whether God cannot tolerate sin or sin cannot tolerate God. I like to say it the second way because it preserves God’s sovereignty and perfect benevolence. God doesn’t need to “react” to sin with wrath. Being entirely self-sufficient, God’s God-ness simply IS wrath to sin, which cannot survive its encounter with His holiness.
As far as the ontological question about God’s relation to our being, I really think that the problem with Western Christianity is nominalism, the idea that God is just another being in the universe which is held in place by His externally-imposed will, instead of the sacramental view from the first half of Christian history that God is the only “real” thing in the universe and all other things are contingent upon God for their being.
All of the arguments about free will vs. determinism, etc, disappear under the sacramental ontology, because if God is the source of our existence, then following God’s will for our lives is not submitting to some arbitrary omnipotent bully completely outside of us, but instead connecting fully with the source of our being instead of getting tossed around by idolatrous fetishes that don’t represent our true desires. Augustine’s definition of free will occurs within a sacramental ontology and thus has a completely different meaning than the nominalist definition of free will. Calvin read Augustine with a late-medieval nominalist lens rather than a sacramental one. Hence TULIP.
And to end a part of my reaction, about the nature of hell (according to orthodox views)
So we have 2 aspects of hell, none of which have to do with being tormented or actively punished. The C.S. Lewis view of getting our own Kingdom and getting cut away from God, which may result in non-existence or at least ceasing to be the imago dei (as NT Wright says somewhere) and the intolerable holiness of God (an idea I first encountered in Sundar singh, and later found again in the orthodox tradition, but might also be implied in the end of Lewis’ great divorce, when the ghostly narrator seems to get dissolved in the breaking light of the morning) which makes it impossible for an unreconciled person to be in Gods presence. (which is why in the OT people who encountered YHWH were surprised that they had not died)
what do you people think?