6 + 2 questions for the hell debate


warning: theological lingo ahead!

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?

shalom

Bram

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5 responses to “6 + 2 questions for the hell debate

  1. Very good, and a lot of these thoughts I would echo.
    I find the Eastern Orthodox-like views very interesting and more in line with what I’ve learned about in my recent journey of faith than the usual evangelical descriptions.
    Thanks for thinking about stuff like this!

  2. Pingback: Save us from ourselves… « In spite of me…

  3. Ditto what JohanKH said. Lots of thoughts I’d echo, and indeed I did, with some of my own on my own blog. I also answered the questions you added:

    7. Is the scope of salvation focussed on saving single persons of on saving the cosmos as a whole?

    When we make it about the single person, or even just about people, we make the scope way too small. The scope is the cosmos, all creation will be reconciled and saved, the whole universe. But that includes every single person. I am convinced that Jonah33, even if their song is cast in the mainstream evangelical mold, had it right when they sang:

    “You know that even if you were the only one… His reason was simply you… it was all for you…”

    The single person matters as much to God as the whole cosmos. He is the shepard who would leave the 99 to find that one lost sheep.

    8. Is the gospel centered on the saved person or in the reign of Jesus and the Kingdom of God?

    As with the previous question, the problem of our age is individualism, so I would focus on proclaiming the wider scope of a salvation that is for the whole cosmos. Therefore I will go with the gospel being about the Kingdom of God. The good news is the proclaimation that Christ is Lord of all, that the Kingdom has come, that Jesus is the risen king, and he will reign for ever and ever. But as Kingdom people, as citizens of Heaven, as followers of Christ our king, the good news are centered on us serving every individual, to love them, each one, as we love ourselves.

    I want to go with something like a communal indiviualism. Where we are included in a greater scope and purpose. We are brought out of our individual deaths into the communal life that is the Kingdom of God. Not for our own sake, but for our own worth. If that makes any sense…

    http://www.inspiteofme.org/2012-01/save-us-from-ourselves/ 😉

  4. Thanks for expanding the conversation. Check out Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation and John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory for some of the background on my perspective. Boersma is more accessible than Milbank for what it’s worth. TST was one of the hardest books I’ve ever read.

    • Thanks for those recommendations! That’ll be for later then though, I don’t have the time nor energy to read ‘one of the hardest books ever read’.

      I’ll write more on this later…

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