2006-02-20

Theologically Correct Bible Songs (part 1)

Part of a series dedicated to revealing the concrete effects of imbalanced theologies by re-writing hymns and children's songs as if the theology were actually true.  The songs are somewhat funny, obviously badly warped, and certainly nothing we would want to teach our kids or congregations.  And yet, I think they faithfully carry out the explicit logical conclusions of certain types of theology.  If the theologies are correct, and something that people can actually believe, then WHY NOT sing these songs?  But, if the songs are horrendous, how can we keep believing the theology that underlies them (even if in a kinder, gentler, more nuanced version)?

Enough logic.  On to the songs...

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Jesus Loves the Little Children
(A Five-Point Calvinist Version)

Jesus loves the little children
All the chosen children of the world
All of those elect from birth
But the rest will die and burn
Jesus loves the chosen children of the world

Jesus chose the elect children
Out of all those lost and dead in sin
All the rest can't choose what's best
But God holds them guilty nonetheless
Jesus chose the elect children of the world

I am one of the chosen children
God likes me more than he likes you
We can tell who's damned to hell
'Cause they don't act nice or look swell
I am one of the elect children of the world
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He's got the whole world in his hands
(Extreme Augustinian Version)

He's got the whole world in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

My free will is just illusion, in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

All free choices are really movements, of his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

The universe is just clockwork, in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

We are responsible for what we can't change, in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

We are puppets of providence, in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!

What you think doesn't really matter, in his hands... (3x)
He's got the whole world in his hands!
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Amazing Grace
(An Arminian / Semi-Pelagian Version)

Amazing Grace, how nice is God
To help those who help themselves
I was a nice guy, but its odd:
I'm nicer with his help

Grace chose me 'cause God knew I'd be
A guy who'd choose His plan
He saw my potential and thought he:
He deserves a helping hand

If I get there in ten thousand years,
It will be 'cause I stayed true!
I used his grace to finish the race
So I am better than you!
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Jesus Loves Me
(A Theologically Liberal, Politically Correct Version)

Jesus loves me this I know
For a vague feeling tells me so
But your God is as good as mine
I'm sure your God makes you feel fine

Chorus:
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
I think some God loves me!
A vague feeling tells me so!

Your truth is yours and mine is mine
No one can know truth at this time
Our best guess is what we feel
Truth feels good, but guilt's not real
(chorus)

The Bible is such an old book
Modern thought has taken a good look
If its not new it can't be right
So only believe what's in your sight
(chorus)
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More to come later...

2006-02-18

An Open Letter to Those thinking of leaving their Christian Traditions

This is a letter primarily to some of my good friends (you know who you are) who have expressed severe disenchantment with their own Christian Traditions, and are currently thinking of moving over to the Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox Communions.  But this letter is also for everyone who may be thinking about "jumping ship".  I want to begin with a quote by St. Paul:

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

Now let me tell a little story to illustrate the points I want to make:

The other day I was reading commentaries for my Seminary class on Genesis.  One of the commentaries that speaks to me the loudest is that of the internationally renowned scholar Walter Bruggeman (and believe me, there is a reason why he is renowned).  He is one of the few scholars that both so-called "Liberals" like and so-called "Conservatives" like.  I'm not a big fan of the "L" word, or the "C" word because they are both pejorative and both stretched so far that they have little meaning anymore other than being a verbal club to beat the other side with.  Yet, I am going to use both terms here because I need some type of verbal shorthand to make my point.  I will also use "Left" for "Liberal" and "Right" for "Conservative".  So forgive me if you don't like the terms nor my idiosyncratic use of them.  

But, anyway, Bruggeman comes out of the United Churches of Christ, which is arguably one of the more "Liberal" Protestant Traditions.  Despite this, he is one of the world leaders in a revival of looking at the Scriptures from a "canonical" viewpoint.  That is to say that he believes God is still speaking to his people through the words of the canonical documents we have in our Bible today, which have been virtually the same (for the Hebrew Scriptures) for the last 2,500-2,000 years.  Canonical criticism basically says that however God got these documents to us- whether by original authorship, or collection and adaptation of verbal traditions, or by gradual editing and redaction- he got them to us.  And ever more than that, the Word of God is genuinely and uniquely present in these texts and if we refuse to listen to God speaking through them, then we are simply refusing to listen to God altogether and are instead creating a "god" in our own image.

The professor of my Genesis class seems to come to the text with the same basic viewpoint as well. The very interesting thing is that both Bruggeman and my professor were educated in old-school, Bultmann-type, Demythologizing Liberal Biblical scholarship. This Liberal scholarship was the direct heir of 19th and early 20th century theological and Biblical Liberalism that cut up the Bible into a puzzle of thousands of "source documents" and "oral traditions", and declared the Bible to be just another book about human experiences of God, rather than a unique book that records God's self-disclosure to humanity.  Furthermore, this old-school type of Liberalism was empirical, naturalistic, and pseudo-scientific, so it largely emptied the Scriptures of any unique supernatural intervention by God (including becoming uniquely incarnate in Jesus Christ).

What was the "Conservative" reaction to these "Liberals"? To deny them, decry them, and ultimately leave them.  And, in all honesty, in the early 20th century most "Liberal" clergy were more than glad to kick their "Conservative" family members out the door and deny them as well. For 150 years "Conservative" screamed at the Liberals over and over that they needed to believe that God was really, uniquely speaking through the Scriptures, and that the classical doctrines of the Church on God, Christ, Spirit, Scripture, and Salvation were true.

Most of that went unheeded by "Liberals", who were so darned sophisticated they were sure the old faith needed to be radically re-adapted to fit a "modern age".  But, two world wars, two atomic bombs, several depressions and genocides, along with the radical failure of almost every utopian plan for a great society, and "Liberal" optimism began to falter and then crumble under the weight of failure to estimate the sinfulness of sin and the necessity for a supernatural salvation.

Enter Karl Barth, who was raised as a good son of Liberalism, yet began the first serious, sustained, in-house protest of his own Liberal Protestantism.  He did not leave the Liberal camp, nor did he yell at it from the outside like so many "Conservatives".  He sat resolutely, unflinchingly, expertly right in the midst of the storm and preached Christ crucified and risen, and the reality of God speaking through the Scriptures. His lead has been followed by many in this country, especially in such developments as Post-Liberal theology led by George Lindbeck, Radical Orthodoxy led by such people as John Milbank, and the awakening to classic orthodoxy led by people such as William J. Abraham and Thomas Oden.

This revolution in systematic theology started in the 1940's was followed by the "canonical" turn in Biblical studies that began in the 1980's, led by folks like Bruggeman. All of this led me to ask myself the BIG question:

Why has this turn in Liberalism back to classic orthodoxy happened in the last 50 years, spurred on by people INSIDE the Liberal camp, when 150 years of the rantings and ravings of the Conservative camp utterly failed to change Liberalism?  After all, the turn that Liberalism is making is coming back around to essentially classical positions on God, Christ, Spirit, Scripture, and Salvation.  Sure, those coming from the "Left" still reject some of the more oddball (and equally non-classic) doctrines of the "Right", such as absolute historical inerrancy of the Bible and scientific precision of the Creation and End-Times narratives of the Bible. But these doctrines are scrutinized from within the Conservative camp as well.

I believe that the reason why the revolution INSIDE has changed the "Left" far more than the OUTSIDE attack of the "Right" is because the "Right" has been guilty of protesting the "Left" in a way that is fundamentally un-Biblical, non-Christian, and anti-Incarnational.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is why 450 years of "Protest" by "Protestants" outside the Roman Catholic Church has failed to change them as much as 50 years of internal reformation has through Vatican II and Pope John Paul II.

The idea that we can somehow speak prophetically to change a group of people from OUTSIDE of that group of people is patently false.  The idea that social, political, and even military pressure from outside of a community can cause internal change in that community is utterly wrongheaded.  When the Hebrew prophets railed against the idolatry and injustice of the Jewish religious community, did they advocate leaving the Jewish community and making a new Temple? No, despite the Jewish abuses (which were as bad as the worst Catholic or Liberal or Protestant or Conservative abuses), the prophets advocated reformation from the inside of the community.

This is followed by the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles as well, who always conceived of the Jesus-movement as operating WITHIN the Jewish synagogue system.  It was only when forcibly expelled by the Jews that the Christians began separate gatherings.

In fact, the whole principal of changing communities is utterly, totally Incarnational throughout the Bible.  God leaves all of the perks, privileges, and rights of heaven, and empties Himself, and becomes one of us to reach us in Christ.  He does not invade from outside to force conformity (at least not until the end of the Age).  He comes in humility and speaks prophetically from within the human experience as one of us.

Paul, following this pattern, empties Himself of all of the perks, privileges, and rights of his Jewish heritage, considering it all a pile of crap compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing and sharing Christ with others (cf. Phil. 3). Paul empties himself, lives as Christ, and becomes all things to all people, so that he may bring them to Jesus.

Jesus and Paul do not merely tolerate the people they empty themselves to become part of.  They love them.  They like them.  They deeply enjoy and care for these people, not disdaining them (even if they have to rebuke them).

This same pattern is followed by all effective missionaries.  Look at St. Boniface among the Germans, St. Patrick among the Irish, the Family and friends of Jim Elliot in South America, and Mother Teresa among the Indians.  All emptied themselves and became part of the people they wanted to reach so they could be prophetic from the inside.

That is why Barth and Bruggeman and people like them have been able to speak prophetically to Liberalism and change them.  That is why Pope John Paul II was able to change the Catholic Church.  They are part of the ethos of their communities, and they speak the language of their communities, and they deeply value their communities, and thus they are able to speak Christ into their communities prophetically.

Conservatives who think they can bring about this kind of change by yelling at people from outside are simply not Biblical.  A true prophet does not speak from outside in, but from the inside up.  Even Jonah was brought by God into Ninevah to bring them to repentance (even though he did not want them to repent).  I feel like many Conservatives are a lot like Jonah.  They yell from outside about how bad this group and that group is, and how bad they need to repent, but they don't really mean it.  They just want to justify themselves by pointing out how bad others are.  They don't really want people to repent, or else they would leave their privileged status inside the Conservative community, become missionaries inside the community they despise, and speak prophetically from inside.

In the Bible, those who speak from the outside of a community only have two words to speak: judgment and abandonment.  Isaiah and the other prophets only speak of the judgment and abandonment of the pagan nations when they indict them.  When Lot and his family are called out of Sodom and Gomorrah, they are to utterly abandon them to judgment, and not even look back.  This is not a missionary move, but an anti-missionary move that indicates that they have given up all hope for those communities.  They no longer want to change them, nor have a part in changing them.  They only abandon them to judgment.

What does all of this mean to "jumping ship"?  It means that if you abandon your Church Tradition, you are denying and abandoning the Family you came from.  You are giving up all rights to critique or be a prophetic voice to them.  You are turning your back on Lot and heading to a new land, never to look back.

This is not to say that there is not a time to abandon ship.  Sodom had to be abandoned.  If many views of the End of the World hold true, then Christ will only come back when the world gets so far gone that it can no longer be redeemed. We all know that some families and communities can get so sick and unhealthy that they have to be abandoned or else they will literally kill those inside.  But abandoning is a very serious thing.  It is handing over something to death.  It is giving up all rights of being prophetic or redemptive as long as one remains outside of the group, abandoning the group.

When I first found the Anglican Communion, and its American segment, the Episcopal Church, I left my Conservative, Evangelical, and Charismatic "roots" and fell in love with a new way of following Christ.  I knew that I brought things to the table that the Episcopal Church needs- like a passion for Jesus, a love of the Scriptures, and a belief in the work of the Spirit- but they also brought me things I needed- like Reason, Sacrament, and Historical rootedness. After I found that, then I was eager to bring everyone to the Episcopal Church, with all her warts and all her glory.

I have changed this, however.  Not because I love my Christian Tradition any less.  But because I love the whole Church even more.  I still think my Tradition is better than yours, and would be glad to discuss why.  But what does it mean that mine is "better" than yours?  It means that where I see the Anglican Tradition doing things "right", I feel that they correspond with the my most important insights into the Gospel, and where I see them doing things "wrong", I feel I can either tolerate, or protest them, better as an Anglican than anywhere else.

Those on the Left and on the Right have strengths as well as sins.  The sins of the Left are the sins of Liberalism, while the sins of the Right are the sins of Legalism.  It just so happens that God has made me better equipped to deal with the strengths and sins of the Anglicans than anywhere else, and He has called me to be a prophetic voice here.  "To the Anglicans I became an Anglican."  But God makes us all a little different, and calls us to be prophetic to Anglicans and Atheists, Baptists and Buddhists, Democrats and Republicans, Churches of Christ and the Church of Satan, Catholics and Charismatics, Wahabis and Wiccans.  Some of these I can be prophetic to, some you can.  Some I can't stomach, some you can.

So, to those who want to leave their Church Tradition, I give a warning and a welcome.  The warning is this: If you leave your Tradition and become Anglican (or Catholic, or Orthodox, or whatever) you will find that the grass is not actually greener over there than they are on your side of the fence.  It just happens that the green spots and the brown spots are in different places than where you are, and you can't yet see that from the distance you are at.  If you leave your side of the fence to come over here, it will not be long before you realize all of our brown spots and wander if there is not a more pure, more green pasture somewhere else.  Furthermore, if you leave your Tradition you loose all rights and abilities to be prophetic to them.

The welcome is this, especially to my friends: I have no doubt you would make great Anglicans, and that you would be deeply edified by Anglican faith and piety, just as I have.  It could be a great home for you (but I don't make guarantees). Furthermore, the Anglican Church could benefit from people like you- people who are passionate about Jesus and who stand for the Scriptures.  You would have quite a ministry here, and you would be welcome.

So, you gotta decide: Who has God called you to be prophetic to?  To the Church in general?  To your Tradition in particular?  To those outside the Church? To the academic community?  To the business world?  How would switching Traditions affect your ability to be prophetic to the people God has called you to?  As the Clash sang: "Should I stay or should I go?  If I go it will be trouble, if I stay it will be double."  Stay or go: It opens doors and closes them.  It gives benefits and costs a great deal.  Choose wisely.

2006-02-16

How do you get "saved" in the Anglican Church?

This article was originally an essay in a booklet I am putting together called "Explaining Anglicans". But, today I read a wonderfully touching, yet insufficient, explanation of salvation from a fellow Episcopal youth minister. You can find it here.

Although I really, truly sympathize with the pastor who posted this article, I believe he frames the issue in an EITHER/OR debate: Either salvation is individual, other-worldly, and about doctrinal correctness (as in Fundamentalism) or salvation is communal, this-worldly, and about loving social justice (as in Liberalism). I think this is too simplistic. Salvation is rather both-and.

It is the central question of all Christianity. It may be asked different ways: How can I be saved? How can I know God? What is the meaning of life? How can I be made right with God? How can I be redeemed from all my mistakes and failures? If Anglicanism is to be called a Christian Church, it must have a Christian answer to how we are "saved" and enter into a relationship with the living God.

There are two different types of people who will read this essay. First, there are those who do not know God, but who are looking for a community of faith to find God. It would be a very sad thing indeed to tell all about the Anglican Church, without sharing the good news of Christ: how to receive salvation and know the living God. Second, there are those from other Christian traditions reading this, and they may want to know if Anglicanism is fully Christian by knowing what we teach about salvation in Christ. They want to know what the "Gospel", or "Good News" is that we proclaim. This answer should suffice for both readers.

With that said, let us define how we are saved. We believe in St. Paul's definition of salvation: "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:8-10). To fully understand what this means, we need to define four concepts: saved, grace, faith, and good works.

First, Anglicans think of being "saved", or rather "salvation" as much more than a "get out of hell free card". In fact, salvation after death (that is, avoiding hell and gaining heaven) is just one effect of being saved. It is not the essence of salvation itself. Salvation is first and foremost a new relationship, or a new state of being, with God (Tit 3:3-7; 2Co 5:17). Salvation is love: to love the Lord with all of you are, above all else (Deu 6:5; Mat 22:37-40). To be saved means to go from a state of disconnection and alienation with God, to a state of being united with Him through Christ. When we are saved, we become new creations (2Co 5:17). Christ becomes our life, and lives in us (Gal 2:20). As a result, we partake in Christ's divine life and that life becomes a part of us, joined to us, flowing through us (2Pe 1:3-4; John 14:20, 17:21; Eph 3:16-19).

Think of it this way. We are like lamps that were made to show forth Christ's light (Mat 5:14-16). Being "unsaved" is like being an unplugged lamp. It is useless and cannot fulfill its purpose without electricity flowing through it. God is the power plant, the source of divine life. From Him flows all purpose, all love, all existence, through Christ. Being "saved" is being plugged back into God through Christ, so that His electric life, love, and purpose flows through you. This "plugging in" is what the Bible calls reconciliation (2Co 5:18-20; Rom 11:15; Eph 2:16; Col 1:20-22). This is an important distinction, because many people see salvation just in terms of avoiding hell after you die, and there is SO much more to salvation than that.

Salvation means entering into eternal life, but eternal life starts right here, right now. In fact, salvation stretches across time and includes a past event, a present process, and a future promise. We are "saved" in the past event of Christ's death and resurrection, because that event allows all people to be reconciled with God (2Ti 1:9; Eph 2:4-7; Col 1:21-22). We are individually "saved" as a past event when we hear the message of Christ and put our trust in Him (Eph 1:13-14, 2:8-10; Tit 3:5-7; John 1:12-13, 3:14-18). As a present process, we are being saved as we "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" while God's Spirit works in us to accomplish salvation (Phi 2:12-13; 1Pe. 1:9). As a future promise, we will be saved as we meet Christ face to face in the resurrection, and live with Him forever in the New Creation (Mat 10:22, 24:13; Rom 5:10, 13:11; Rev 21-22).

Now, if someone asks you "are you saved?" You can say: (a) Yes, I was saved 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross; (b) Yes, I was saved when I put my faith in Christ as my Lord and Savior; (c) Yes, I am being saved as Christ's Spirit works in me to make me more like Christ; (d) Not yet, but I know I will be saved when Christ raises me from the dead; (e) All of the above: they are all correct if you have faith in Christ.

Finally, for Anglicans salvation is more than just a "me and Jesus" thing. While salvation is a personal relationship with God through Christ, it is also a community relationship. God did not save us to be lone rangers. He saved us to be brothers and sisters in a family (see Eph 2:11-22). Remember, right after loving God above all, loving other people is next on God's list (Mat 22:37-40). Salvation is first and foremost communion with God, but secondly it is also community with God's people. You can't really love God if you don't really love God's family (1Jo 3:11-24, 4:7-21). Loving God and loving others are mutually dependent on each other, and the more you participate in one, the deeper you will grow in the other.

For this reason, Anglicans stress being a part of the Church, God's Family, as a necessary part of salvation. In extra-ordinary circumstances you can be saved apart from being part of the Church. The thief on the cross next to Christ was (Luke 23:39-43). But ordinarily, salvation includes membership in Christ's family, the Church (Eph 2:19-22; Mat 18:19-20; Act 2:42-47; 1Co 12:12-13:7). Neglecting God's family is neglecting God and neglecting to grow in salvation (Heb 3:13, 10:24-25).

Becoming a member of the Church happens by baptism (1Co 12:13; Eph 4:4-6). In one way, we are "saved" by being baptized and participating in the sacraments of the Church, because we are joining together with the community of salvation (1Pe 3:21). Yet, just participating in the Church is not enough if we do not have a personal faith in Christ (Heb 11:1-6, 4:2; Gal 5:6; Rom 14:23). Just sitting in an airplane does not make you a pilot, although getting on plane is a necessary step to becoming a pilot. In the same way, just sitting in a Church does not make you Christian, although it is a necessary part of being Christian. You miss out on all that salvation is if you do not know Christ personally AND participate in His family.

Now we turn to discuss "grace". Grace in the original language means "free, unmerited gift given to one that is not worthy". That is what salvation is to us. We can not earn or merit God's gift of salvation. We cannot go up to God and say "Remember that favor you owe me? Time to pay up!" If you want to make God laugh, tell Him that He owes you something. Everything we have, and I do mean everything, is a gift from God to us that we cannot earn. From our society, to our food, to the air we breathe, to the fundamental physical laws that hold the universe together, it is all a gift from God held in His hands (Job 33:4; Psa 104, 139; Col 1:16-17; 1Co 4:7).

To make things worse, it is not just that we don't deserve God's gifts. We have actually rebelled against Him. We have sinned, and sin means "to miss the mark" of God's perfection. Remember I said that the top two things on God's list are to love Him above all, and next to love His children (Mat 22:37-40). Sin is a fundamental denial of these two things. It is choosing to not love God, and choosing to use and abuse his children, which we all do in big and small ways (Rom 1, 3, 7). This sin disconnects us from God, literally unplugging us from His life, love, and purpose. It leaves us lost, hopeless, and needy. Sin destroys society, the environment we live in, and carries this destruction to generations yet unborn (Gen 3:7-24; Deu 5:8-10; Ezra 9:11; Rom 1:18-32, 5:12-21). In short, sin leads to death: social death, emotional death, spiritual death, physical death, and if we are not saved, eternal death (Rom 6:23; Jam 1:13-15; Eph 2:1-3).

Because of our weakness and sin, Anglicans do not believe that you can be saved in any way, shape, or form by earning salvation from God. We are not saved by good works, nice deeds, religious rituals, or cosmic merit badges (Eph 2:9; 2Ti 1:9; Rom 3:20, 9:16). We believe that God so far surpasses anything good we can do, that there is nothing we have in ourselves that will impress God enough to make Him Love us. With Isaiah, we say that "all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags" before Him who is totally pure and Loving (Isa 53:6, 64:6; Job 15:14-16).

That is where God's grace, His unmerited, un-earned gift, steps in like some sort of super-hero to save us helpless wretches (Tit 3:4-7; Eph 2:4-5). In fact, grace is not LIKE a super-hero. It IS a real-life super-hero: Jesus Christ. God became one of us to lead us back to Himself. When we were lost, Jesus showed us the way back to God in Himself (John 14:1-7). When we were dead in sin, Jesus took our death and sin into Himself on the cross and died for us (1Pe 2:24; Isa 53:4-6; 2Co 5:21). That's right, I just said that God died for us. But even more than that, He conquered sin, suffering, and death by rising again from the grave (Rom 1:4; 1Co 15). Death could not hold Him. Sin could not shackle Him. As the embodiment of grace, the embodiment of God Himself, Jesus saved us when we could never save ourselves (Rom 5:6-10).

In a very real way, we are babies to God like an infant in the arms of it's father. The baby can do nothing positive for the father except trust him. In fact, all the baby can do is poop on itself and cry for help (kind of like us with God). Yet the father loves the baby because it is his: his flesh, his blood, his creation. It is the same with us and God. God saves us by an act of sheer grace in Christ because we are His. All we can give God is trust which brings us to love, know, and follow Him. In return, we become His children, re-born by His grace (Tit 3:4-7; John 1:12-13, 3:1-8).

This brings us to the third word I want to describe from St. Paul's definition: faith. Faith and grace work together like a gift and a recipient. God's grace is like a Christmas gift under the tree. We have the choice of whether or not to open it. If we never open it, we never get to personally receive what is inside. It becomes useless to us, even if it was the most priceless gift in the world. Well, Jesus' gift of grace IS the most priceless gift in the universe (1Pe 1:18-19; Psa 49:7; 1Co 6:20). It is the gift of eternal life purchased with the blood of God's Son! It is sitting right there. But we must open it by faith. We must place our whole-hearted faith in the Giver and the Gift (John 1:12-13, 3:1-18). Without faith nothing else we do will contribute to our salvation one iota (Heb 11:1-6, 4:2; Gal 5:6; Rom 14:23).

So what is faith? Faith in Christ is a whole-person response to accept Him as your Lord and Savior (John 1:12-13; Rom 10:9-10). Faith includes our mind, our heart, and our will, and is made of three parts: Belief, Trust, and Repentance. Belief is simple. It is knowing and accepting facts about Christ. He lived, he did miracles, he taught, he died, he rose again, he will come again (1Co 15:3-8; Phi 2:4-8). Yep, I believe all those things are a reality. That is belief. Trust is a bit more difficult. While belief is knowing about Christ, trust is knowing Christ personally and relying on Him. Belief is head-knowledge of Christ, but trust is heart-knowledge of Christ. It is love, dependence, caring. Both believing in Christ with our mind and trusting in Christ with our heart are necessary to faith in Christ (Mat 22:37).

Finally true faith requires a movement of our will. This movement is called "repentance". Repentance means to turn from one thing toward another. It means to turn from lesser lords and turn toward THE Lord of All, Jesus Christ. This repentance includes renouncing all lesser gods and announcing that we believe in the one true God, who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 10:9-10). This three-faced faith of belief, trust, and repentance is what opens the gift of grace. If you don't have that faith, then ask for it from God. He will give it to you (Jam 1:2-5; Help my unbelief). After all, St. Paul tells us above that this faith is "not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph 2:8-10).

This brings us to the end of St. Paul's definition, in which he tells us that we were saved so we could do "good works". What are good works? "Good works" means to do the things that Jesus did: to obey His commandments, follow His example, and live in His Love (). They are not the cause of salvation. They are the effect. They are the result of living as new creations, saved by grace through faith.

Think of it like this: Salvation is like a plant, representing our new life as we grow in Christ (see Col 2:6-7). God's grace is the soil and water that this plant grows in. Faith is the root that holds the plant in the soil of God's grace. Good works are the fruit that grows out of the root. Notice that the fruit does not cause the root, but the root causes the fruit. In the same way, good works do not cause our salvation, but they demonstrate the growth of our salvation.

Just as a new plant grows toward the sun, the life of salvation grows toward the Son of God. Good works show that we are growing both closer to the Son and more like the Son. If we truly have faith, we will grow. If we are not growing closer to Jesus and growing to be more like Him, we need to ask God to "re-plant" us with even greater faith. If we have no good works, we may have a "dead faith", and we need to ask God for genuine, living faith (Jam 2).

So, are good works necessary in salvation? As a sign, yes, but not as a cause. Anglicans firmly believe that we are "saved by grace through faith" and that good works are the outgrowth of this salvation. We believe that this is the meaning of life, and that the whole universe was made by God for salvation, so that everything could participate in His divine live with Him. Anglicans invite everyone to join with us in participating in the salvation of Jesus Christ. This is our Gospel. Amen.

2006-02-13

An Open Letter to the Republican National Committee

I received an email on February 13th, 2006 from the Republican National Committee asking for feedback about the GOP.  Not letting any opportunity slip to tell someone what I think, I penned the following letter:

Thank you for asking for my feedback.  The first thing I would like to say is that, although I do not agree with President Bush on everything, I like him as a person, respect him as a Christian, and feel that his basic course of leadership is what the country needs right now.

With that said, I am SIGNIFICANTLY LESS HAPPY with the Republican party and its general slide into becoming the party of religious triumphalism and moral self-righteousness, rather than the party of limited government, strict constitutionalism, and separation of powers.  In fact, it has been enough to make me want to vote Libertarian.

In fact, I write to warn you that if you continue down the path of parroting the agenda of the so-called "religious right" then you are going to alienate people like me, and cause another "Ross Perot" type debacle, as true fiscal conservatives decide to leave the party to vote for someone who actually stands for their values.

Do you really want another Perot-type election?  

I don't.  And I don’t want another "Clinton" in the White House because the GOP has decided to abandon the principles of fiscal and constitutional conservativism, to become the party dedicated to making sure that every American mimics 1980's style Evangelical morality and cultural values.  But that is where you are headed if you do not change course.  Be warned.

And, in case you write me off as a non-religious person, let it be known that I write to you as a follower of Jesus Christ and strict constitutionalist.  I believe God has granted a specific sphere of authority to the government to protect citizens against criminal acts, but not to legislate private moral choices.

I do believe that one of the basic roles of government is protection of human life- ALL human life from womb to tomb- and thus I do side with legislation against abortion as "birth control", as long as abortion is still allowed as a last-ditch medical option in the case that a mother's life is in real danger due to the pregnancy.  My "pro-life" stance is perhaps one of the few areas where I agree with the current attempts of the GOP to legislate private moral choices.

For instance, I believe murder, gluttony, theft, lack of charity, coveting, and homosexuality are all sin, and thus immoral.  But, government has no authority to govern what we eat, how much charity we give, or what we desire.  Yet, the state can and should protect us from theft and murder.  It is basic logic: All crimes are by definition, immoral acts, but not all immoral acts are crimes.  The government has the responsibility to protect its citizens from crime, but has no authority to enforce non-criminal moral choices.  Thus, I urge you to refuse to allow government into our bedrooms or our living rooms.  Consensual sex activity is between a person and their God.

Furthermore, I believe the best "defense of marriage" is for married men and women to take their vows seriously, for their families to support them through troubles, and for their communities of faith to provide the education, formation, and assistance necessary to make marriages last.  When marriage once again is taken seriously by the Church and faithful families, it will no longer need "defense" from the government.  The obvious joy and love that radiates from such marriages will be the best "defense" we could ever want.

I have voted Republican for quite a while, but now due to the constant moral triumphalism of the "religious right" (as if we don't have sins of consumerism and greed), along with Republican attempts to enlarge Government and enter our bedrooms and churches, I am seriously thinking of
voting otherwise.  Please help me believe in the GOP again, alter the current course of the Party, and stand for small government again.

Thank you.

2006-02-04

SOVEREIGNTY AND FREEDOM, HOPE AND HELL

Examining The Paradoxes Of Creator And Creation In The Light Of Ultimate Reconciliation Through Christ

Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian

Out of all of the doctrines of the Christian faith that cause problems for both believers and those who are yet to believe, the doctrine of hell seems to create the most problems.  The traditional view that hell is the last word God gives to the unrepentant, even if hell is a self-chosen reality, seems absolutely horrific if God is as loving and powerful as Christians say that He is.  How could God be anything like a loving Father if He is content to give up on any of His children, and allow them to suffer forever.  Wouldn't He keep reaching out to them if there was any possible way to reach them?  And if anything is possible with God (cf. Mat 19:26), is there ever a reason for God to stop reaching out?  Why then is hell apparently God's last word to a significant portion of humanity?

Or is it?

In the course of Christian tradition, many Christian thinkers have implicitly or explicitly spoken of the idea that hell may not be God's last word.  God may, in fact, reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. There are not a few texts in Scripture which hint at, or blatantly support this idea.  Most notable are St. Paul and St. John here, although other hints can be found even in the Hebrew Scriptures.  During the age of the undivided Church, the brilliant theologian and martyr Origen openly taught that hell was a redemptive process on the journey to an ultimate reconciliation of all things to God through Christ.  There were many in the Eastern Church who followed this line of thinking, most notably the great Trinitarian thinkers of the fourth century, the Cappadocians.

Through the middle ages and even into the renaissance this idea was severely muted, or transferred into images of a "purgatory" that would cleanse the "not-so-faithful" before they entered into the presence of Christ.  Purgatory, in turn, became something that one had to pay through the nose to get a Papal dispensation to get out of (at least in folk Catholicism).  This led to a rightful claim of "works righteousness" by Reformers who were sick of Shepherds who were slaughtering their own flocks for mammon.  So, the concept of purgatory, along with the implicit possibility of a redemptive hell, was thrown out along with the abuses of purgatory.

As the Reformation took hold, wreaked havoc on Europe, and ushered in the Enlightenment, the idea of a universal restoration was co-opted by non-Christocentric, non-Trinitarian thinkers who began to deny the reality of hell and the necessity of Christ.  To even think about hell in terms other than a final destination was (understandably) to put one outside of the Christian camp, and in with the likes of Deists and heretics.  The idea of a universal reconciliation through Christ ceased to be a live option for at least a half a millennia because those who would think about it denied the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the reality of hell.  And those who affirmed the Trinity, the Incarnation, and hell, would not even think about the idea of a redemptive hell or universal reconciliation.

Yet, in the last 150 years a new interest in a robustly Evangelical, Christocentric, Trinitarian, idea of universal reconciliation and a redemptive hell has arisen in several diverse thinkers such as the 19th century Presbyterian minister, poet, and novelist George McDonald, and the 20th century New Testament scholar William Barclay.  Others have held something like this idea, such as apologist and novelist C.S. Lewis (especially in his book "The Great Divorce") and Swiss theologian Karl Barth (especially in the implications of his doctrine of Christocentric election).  

When one considers seriously what a non-permanent hell might imply, one finds out that it could be the foundation for a solution to some of the thorniest questions of Christian theology, such as the relationship between Divine sovereignty and human freedom, the balance of grace and human responsibility, and the nagging questions about the power of evil and the goodness of God.  The following paper will consider the implications of a redemptive hell which assumes that such an idea is exegetically feasible based on the texts of Scripture and the consensual tradition of the Church.  I have written other papers examining Biblical issues related to this, and do not have the space to do so here.

I. THE LOGIC AND NATURE OF A REDEMPTIVE HELL

William Barclay (implicitly) and Thomas Talbot (explicitly) sets up the following three propositions for Christians to affirm or deny regarding salvation:

1. God's Purpose: God loves all He has created (or God does not).

2. God's Power: God has the power to accomplish His purposes (or God does not).

3. God's Outcome: God will bring all creation to participate in His love (or God will not).

If the first two premises are true, then the third necessarily has to be true.  This does not deny consequences of freely chosen sin and separation from God.  It simply means that God will overcome them.  It means that God indeed created every person to love, and to reconcile to Himself.  It means that Christ's atonement has the power to bring every single person to be at-one with God.  It also means that the call of the Holy Spirit to receive this at-one-ment through Christ is persuasive enough, stubborn enough, and lovely enough that eventually every one of God's beloved will come to freely receive that love.

However, the majority Christian view of the outcome of all things is to deny proposition 3: that God will NOT bring all to participate in his love.  Sin and separation will have the last word.  Some will be lost forever.  While the Biblical texts, on a cursory reading, can certainly lead to this position (yet, I think many people see a way out of this within the text of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church), this position entails a logical denial of one of the first two premises as well.  You cannot deny premise 3 without negating either God's purpose or God's power, or both.

The traditional Augustinian / Reformed view is to deny premise 1: God does not love all people.  He has created some to be either "passed over" and allowed to be lost forever, or actively directed to hell by divine providence in double predestination.  This brings up very large questions about the love and goodness of God as our Father, which I think are ultimately insurmountable.  How could God be loving, or worthy to be called a Father, when He allows (or actively causes) His own children to suffer eternally?  The data provided to us from Scripture and a significant amount of Christian tradition is that God did indeed create all things for love and relationship with Himself.  God is Love.  He loves His enemies even to the point of sending His own Son to die for them.  He teaches us to Love our neighbors and our enemies so that we may "be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect".  There is no way that God purposed to create anything to hate or to exclude from His Love.

The traditional Pelagian / Semi-Pelagian / Arminian views (I realize they are not the same thing) deny premise 2: God ultimately does not have power to save all people.  He has created people with true freedom, and allows this freedom to ultimately defeat his purpose of love in at least a few, or some, or many, or even the majority, of persons across history.  This brings up questions about the nature of God as Trinity.  Is God "all powerful" or not?  And if not, is God worthy to be called God?  Secondly, is Christ's atonement really effective enough (strong enough) to at-one for all people?  Does something (of human effort) have to be added to make it effective?  Finally, is the Spirit too incompetent, impatient, or unlovely to call the lost to Christ?  The Biblical and Traditional resources we have seem to indicate that God is all-powerful, that the atonement of Christ is totally sufficient for the salvation of all, and that the call of the Spirit is completely competent, supremely persuasive, and ultimately lovely.

So, it seems clear to me that Scripture and [much of] tradition clearly affirms premises 1 and 2.  Based on the same resources, it also seems possible to affirm premise 3.  Yet, if we affirm premise 3 we are faced with the thorny question of hell.  If it logical that God will indeed save all people, is hell even a possibility anymore?  Do we have to edit hell out of our Bibles to believe God will save everyone through Christ?  I do not think so, and here are five propositions about the nature of hell in light of God's purpose, power, and outcome:

1. Hell is a reality and a possible destiny to be avoided:  Hell is vigorously affirmed by Jesus above all, the rest of the NT canon, the later developments of the OT, and the catholic, orthodox tradition of the Church.  It is not a question of whether there is a hell.  There is, and it is a deadly reality.  The question is: what is hell's nature and its purpose?

2. Hell is the natural consequence for denying God’s Love in Christ:  Sin is self-chosen rejection of God and a relational rupture which disconnects us from all of God's love, life, and purpose.  This ontological, organic disconnection from God has the ultimate natural consequence, if followed to the dreadful end, of total separation from all created realities upheld by God's will.  This we call hell, the negation of all goodness and all God-ness.  It is not imposed by God, but sadly allowed by God, as a parent who must ultimately allow his or her child to fall into addiction and self-destruction, having spent all available material resources to help them.

3. Hell is utter isolation from God and all others:  It is a cosmic quarantine which stops the infection of sin from spreading even further.  The only way out of quarantine is when the patient is cured.

4. Hell is the worst suffering imaginable:  In Biblical language it is compared to extreme loneliness, fire, darkness (notice the contradiction of metaphors here), and "the worm that does not die".  It, in short, is a reality that is horrible beyond what words can fully describe, just as "heaven" and "God's presence" (one in the same thing) are beautiful beyond what words can describe.  This is just sheer logic: If one negates all that is good, one is only left which that is bad.  If one negates all being, one is left in non-being, destruction, dissolution.  The only way that the rejection of sin does not follow logically to the snuffing out of the sinner's existence is if God lends some type of preventing grace in which, even in the utter isolation and suffering of hell, the sinner's existence is maintained.

I know there are some views which say that hell is non-existence, but I find this view exegetically and traditionally non-feasible.  It seems that once a person is created, they are never un-created.  But why would God keep alive persons in misery forever without end, if there was no way out?  Again, this would bring up the same questions about God's goodness, purpose, and power.

5. Hell lasts as long as we can possibly imagine: While some Scriptures tell us that hell's duration is what we translate as "eternal" (Mat 25.41; 25.46) or "into the ages of ages" (Rev. ch. 14 and 20), and that its destruction is "eternal" (2Th 1:9).  Other Scriptures give us the hint (not as a "prooftext", but as an insinuation) that hell is something temporary, something God will take us out of (cf. Psa 49:15, 139:7-12; 1Sa 2:6; Hos 5:14-6:2, 13:14; Job 14:13; Eze 16:53-63, ch. 37; Jer 30:24; 1Pe 4:5-6).  Furthermore, there are other Scriptures that blatantly assert that God wants to ultimately redeem and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ (Eze 33:11; 1Ti 2:4; 2Pe 3:9; 2Sa 14:14), and that He will indeed bring this about (John 3:17; 12:32; 1Jo 2:2; Acts 3:19-21; Heb 2:9; 1Ti 4:10; Tit 2:11; Rom 5:12-21; 8:28-39; 11:32; 1Co 15:21-28; 2Co 5:15; 5:19; Eph 1:10; Col 1:19-20; Philip 2:9-11).

To look at this in time, we would have to say that both heaven and hell start right here, right now, and they grow inside us, and in our society, as yeast spreads through dough, as wheat and weeds grow up together, and as an infection or a medicine spreads through the body.  Heaven and hell are not just eschatological (although their fulfillment is found eschatologically), they are the natural, organic outgrowth of what is going on in THIS age.  Is it not Christian teaching that there are "ages upon ages" of reality?  We live in one temporally and dimensionally bounded "age" of reality, and we live alongside other "spiritual" dimensions right now, and there will come still other ages beyond this age.  Furthermore, we do not know what the nature of time and existence will be in these ages, other than that they will be a progressive fulfillment of, and organic growth from, our current age.

This raises multiple questions about what "eternal" (Greek: "aionion"; Hebrew: "olam") means in reference to other ages, after our current spatio-temporal age is metamorphosized into something very different (as different as a seed  to a plant, or a single cell into a human). There is no real reason to believe that hell is a permanent destiny, either metaphysically, or in relation to God's purpose and power for creation.  It seems that hell, after all is said and done, may be a temporary redemptive consequence, designed to help us choose to turn from self to God.

It seems that "eternal" means something like "enduring as long as we can possibly imagine".  That is, that we will only be separated from God as long as we can imagine ourselves existing without Him and without His love.  As soon as we realize that we can no longer exist apart from Him, when we recognize our very being is hidden in His unfathomable love, and we repent from self, then we are reconciled to God through Christ.  As soon as we stop imagining illusion we become able to see ourselves in Christ.

II. THE NECESSITY AND SPECIFICITY OF CHRIST AND HIS BODY IN A REDEMPTIVE HELL

The only way to avoid hell is to receive Christ: It is easy when hinting at universal salvation to fall into the trap of denying that hell is a reality on one hand, or denying the absolute nature of Jesus' atonement on the other hand.  While the idea of a "redemptive hell" certainly does not deny the reality of (nor the horror of) hell, the question remains: Can someone be redeemed from sin, death, and hell apart from Christ?  Is Christ just one of many Savior figures along side Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, Marx, and Mister Rogers?  Or, is Jesus just an embodiment of some vague universal principal of divine forgiveness that is actually available to everyone even if Jesus never existed?  Or, is the Christ of the Christian faith something to be discarded in favor of the kinder, gentler, more politically correct Jesus that really lived 2000 years ago?

First of all, if we are going to speak of Jesus Christ, we simply have no information about Him apart from that data that we find predicted by the Prophets, announced by the Apostles, recorded in Scripture, defended by the Martyrs, canonized by the Ecumenical Councils, and witnessed by the Church.  I suppose one could object on the grounds that God's Spirit was active in inspiring and speaking through THIS (such as the parts of Scripture and Tradition that make me feel good and validate me), but that the Spirit was not speaking through THAT (such as everything that makes me feel bad or wrong).  I suppose we could invent historical-critical and pseudo-scientific reasons for testing Scripture to find out what is "authentic", only to find out that everything we want to be "authentic" is authentic, and everything we don't want is not authentic.  But all of this presupposes that the Spirit is fairly incompetent in inspiring that which has been universally accepted by the early Church.  Not only that, but all of this seems highly subjective, and smacks of a type of fundamentalism that wants to warp and twist the faith into whatever ideology it likes.  

Also, if we reject these canonical sources, we simply are left with speculation upon speculation upon speculation built into our own version of Christ, who, by the way, looks an awful lot like us (with nice teeth too!).  Yet, the only hard, non-subjective, non-speculative evidence we have tells us that the Jesus of History is the Christ of the Bible, and anything else is merely a human construction.  Worshipping a human construction has a handy-dandy name in Scripture and Judeo-Christian tradition: idolatry.

So, we are left with the Christ of faith who is the Jesus of the consensual, orthodox, catholic, Christian tradition.  It is this Christ who is repeatedly referred to as the person who must be received, believed, loved, followed, and acknowledged in order to be reconnected to God (cf. John 3:17-18; 3:36; 10:7-18; 11:25-26; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1Co 3:11; 1Tim 2:5; 1Jo 5:12; Rom 10:4; Heb 2:3; Mat 7:22-23; 10:32-33).  He alone is able to make us at-one with God.  There is no salvation apart from Christ.

Part of the reason for this is ontological: Jesus is God Incarnate.  To accept Jesus is to accept God.  To deny Jesus is to deny God.  Know Jesus, know God.  No Jesus, no God.  One cannot accept God without accepting Jesus.  He is simply part of the package, and according to the canonical Sources, always has been.  It is simply impossible to repent and return to the Lord without returning to Jesus Christ as well.  In connecting with Christ we organically, ontologically re-connect with God.

Part of the reason is relational: Jesus brings at-one-ment to our relationship with God by becoming human like we are, by preaching, teaching, and healing, by dying, by rising again, and by eventually coming back to rule the Universe.  In Jesus, God relationally reaches down to us to raise us back up to Godself, since none of us will ever be able to jump up into heaven on our own power.  Jesus came to heal our broken relationship with God, and broken relationships are restored by two things: repentance and forgiveness.

But forgiveness implies a sort of relational substitution.  This is not a notion of substitution in legal terms, as if there is a Book of Law listing punishments and rewards that God has to fulfill in order to be a good God.  Instead, it is the kind of substitution of the just for the unjust that happens anytime true forgiveness is given.  If you steal $20.00 from me and I forgive you, I take the debt of $20.00 on myself, without making you pay me.  If you push me down a flight of stairs in anger and I forgive you, I take the consequence of the broken bones and bruises on myself, without demanding your bones be broken. If you say horrible things about me and hurt me, and then I forgive you, I take that emotional pain into myself without demeaning you.

The natural consequence of our rebellion against God is death and hell.  For God to forgive us, God must take that consequence into Godself and not allow it to happen to us.  Could God have done this substitution in secret, quietly taking suffering, death, and hell into Himself, so that no one could see or know He had done it?  Perhaps, but the rejection of God is public, so it would make sense that God's self-substitution would have to be public as well. Not only that, but we are made as embodied beings.  We tend to be very concrete (not to mention stubborn).  A secret substitution in Heaven would make no sense to us.  It makes more sense that God would prepare us for thousands of years for His substitution by cultivating in human society the counter-intuitive notion of sacrifice to atone for sin.  Then he would come publicly and fulfill this preparation as Jesus Christ.  Then He would constantly remind us of this atonement through proclamation and sacrament within His Church.

If forgiveness means real personal sacrifice on the part of the forgiver, this just makes sense to me.

But not only does God take into Himself our consequences as villains against Him, but God also takes our pain as victims who are abused within a sinful social system.  By His wounds we are healed.  Is it too bold to say that substitution and repentance work both ways?  For God to forgive us, he must stand in our place.  But God, in a sense, is to blame as well.  He made a wonderful, terrible system that went way wrong and has hurt a whole lot of people (not to mention animals and the environment).  The same gift of freedom that allows for real love and real fulfillment is the wonderful, horrible gift that allows for genocide and abuse.  For God to love us, and for us to love him and each other it had to be this way.  Un-free love is not love, but either the product of rape (if God forces love on the unwilling), or a pre-programmed robot (if God creates people who cannot not choose Him).

So, to create free, finite, growing persons who can choose to accept or deny love is "very good" (cf. Gen 1).  But at the same time it is horrible because it dooms an entire Universe to the prospect of endless varieties of disobedience and evil.  God knows this, and God "owns" this.  God is responsible for the system He has made, even if not for the individual choices of the free agents within it.  So, God takes "divine responsibility" for what He has done AND what we have done, and enters into every bit of the pain that we experience, takes it all into Himself, and defeats it in the resurrection.

The Triune God thus fully enters into suffering with us.  In the person of Christ, God experiences every bit of the pain we endure through humiliation, rejection, rebellion, betrayal, physical suffering, homesickness, injustice, and facing His own mortality.  In the person of the Father, God experiences the pain of helplessly watching the One He loves above all be abused, killed, and taken away from Him.  In the person of the Spirit, God experiences the pain of knowing it was possible to do more to save the One you Love, but not being able to.  And not only this, but as an infinite, eternal God who contains all time and space, God experiences this as an eternally present reality, completely atoning for an infinite amount of sin.

It is astounding what God did in Christ, publicly, for all of the universe to observe for all ages.  He heals the whole Universe by the once-for-all offering of Himself to atone for everything we have done and everything that has been done to us.  

But it is precisely the eternal nature of Christ's atonement and the universal scope of the love of God that is manifested in Him that tempts people to divorce God's love and forgiveness from the specific person of Jesus Christ.  The desire to affirm God's purpose and power to save everyone often yields to the perennial temptation to make the atonement- provided by a specific person at a specific place in a specific time- into some abstract principal of forgiveness and love available apart from the person of Jesus Christ.  It becomes easy to say that the person and work of Christ is either a pious myth that points to the universal truth of God's love (thereby revealing the theologian's complete lack of understanding of the historical sciences) or that Christ is but one specific instance, among many, of a fluffy, vague, amorphous ideal of divine love.  Either way, the canonical Christ- that is to say the real Christ- becomes merely a tool subverted to serve another ideology, either as a myth that illustrates the "ideal", or as a inspired savior among other saviors who lived this "ideal".

This amorphous universal "ideal" is then free to morph and change with the trends of the day until it becomes possible to use this "puppet christ" to justify things as twisted as killing six million Jews in the name of progress and purity.  True, this is a rather extreme example of what can happen when we abandon the specificity of Christ for some vague universal idea that He is supposed to embody, but any denial of the Christ of Scripture can destroy the Christian faith in lesser and greater ways.  The truth is, nobody can have a relationship with the Universe.  Nobody can be reconciled to an abstract.  Relationship, forgiveness, and reconciliation are things that can only happen between specific persons.  Forgiveness is not some disembodied universal principal.  Forgiveness is intensely personal, messy, and heartbreaking- like crucifixion.

If we abandon the specific Christ of the canonical sources we have not gained the "ideal", we have lost everything.  And God knows this.  God knows that humans cannot really grasp the universal apart from the specific, nor the abstract apart from the concrete (that is for angels to grasp, not humans).  That is why this universal Ideal of Love became a specific person at a specific time.  So we could see, touch, hear, and follow Him.  That is why He left records of Christ, and a community to continue His concrete presence on the Earth.  Jesus is the Logos Incarnate: God's Ideal made individual, God's Purpose made person, God's Reason made flesh, God's Word made human, and God's Plot for the Universe made into an Actor in the Drama.  If we loose His specific narrative and nature, we have literally no idea of what the Ideal is.  We become the blind arguing about the Source of the light.

But, since a dead Savior is really useless, and a dead Ideal is even worse, Christ's atonement was not complete by merely dying.  He had to defeat evil, death, and suffering to put death to death so that life could live forever.  This the Triune God did in the resurrection of Christ.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ destroyed hell from the inside out and led the captives of hell to freedom (cf. Eph 4:4-10).  The power of the resurrection Spirit is imparted to anyone who repents from sin and accepts the Lordship of Christ, so that they too may be raised from sin and death and seated in the heavenly realms with Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3, 1:20; 2:6).  In less abstract language, by accepting Christ and His atonement, we also receive His power to defeat and overcome evil, suffering, and death just as He did.

Now if there is salvation from hell, whether it is in this age or another, it is found in the specific person of Christ alone.  But how is this specific Person communicated universally to all of creation?  Does Christ, in "I Dream of Jeanie" fashion, magically appear to all people (perhaps at the moment of death) and say "take me as I am"?  Or does He employ another method to spread Himself to all people?

The Biblical and Traditional answer is clear: Those who receive Christ, who are indwelt by His Spirit, become extensions of His physical, mystical Body in the world.  We become the Body of Christ, His hands and feet (cf. Rom 12; 1Co 12).  Not only that, but we become Christ's "ministers of reconciliation" and God's "ambassadors", so that God is "making His appeal through us" (2Co 5:16-20).  We are sent into all the world to bear witness to Christ and to incorporate people into His Body, because those "who accept us accept Christ, and those who accept Christ accept the Father who sent Christ" (Mat 10:40, paraphrase).  

But is this just for this age?  Does our identity as Christ's Body, and our mission of carrying Christ to the lost, stop at death?  This is hard to comment on, because the Bible is really aimed at helping us through this age, not whatever comes next.  However, it does say that part of our job is to make the mystery of Christ known in the heavenly realms (cf. Eph 3:10-11), and that in the coming age we will judge and rule the universe with Christ (cf. Mat 19:28; 1Co 6:2-3; Dan 7:27; Rev 20:4).  We are not given the specific nature of our task in judging and ruling in these passages, but one would expect our mission will be consistent with the purpose of human judgment throughout most of Scripture.  Human judgment is never done for the sake of condemnation, but for the sake of protecting and restoring people to God.  If one is condemned, it is for the purpose of discipline, to turn them to God eventually.  Everything we are to do as Christ's body is ultimately redemptive, not destructive.  And then there is also that fascinating parable of Jesus where two righteous men speak to a wicked man suffering in Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Why did they go to speak with him in hades if not for a redemptive purpose?  Why are we not given the end of their conversation?  We can say nothing for sure other than the fact that the door is open for the redeemed to reach out to those in hell.

It would thus seem like the Church has some role in the ministry of reconciliation after this age.  And if there is a ministry of reconciliation in the next age, hell is not God's last word to sinners.  Rather, Christ is His first Word and His last Word, the Alpha and the Omega.

III. THE RESOLUTION OF GRACE AND FREEDOM IN A REDEMPTIVE HELL

Now that we have affirmed the reality of hell, the probability that hell is a redemptive process and not a permanent destination, and the necessity of Christ operating in and through His Church for salvation from hell, we have a crucial area to explore: What does the concept of a redemptive hell do for the 1700 year debate between theologians who stress divine sovereignty and monergism in our salvation (such as Augustinians, Calvinist, and Reformed Christians), and theologians who stress human freedom and synergism in our salvation (such as Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians)?

It is my contention that the tension between these two parties simply dissolves once a redemptive hell and an eschatological reconciliation of all things is posited.  To demonstrate this in abbreviated form, I will use the acronym of so-called "five point" Calvinism (the "TULIP") as an outline to discuss how a redemptive hell resolves debates about grace and freedom. Under each point, I will briefly describe the "Calvinist" affirmation of each point, and the "Arminian" denial of each point, followed by the resolution found in a redemptive hell.  I freely acknowledge that this is at best a caricature of the many nuanced positions found on each side of the debate, yet due to space restrictions, it seems the best option.

"T" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to total depravity.  It means that sinners are completely and thoroughly corrupted by the effects of sin that they cannot choose anything good at all.  Not only are they corrupted by their own self-chosen sin, but they are born from a "mass of perdition" that is completely corrupted by original sin, so that humans never even have a chance to be good after the fall.  The corruption is not only a disconnection from God, but also a total blindness to the things of God, a volitional aversion to what is good, and the burden of guilt and condemnation inherited from the whole of humanity.  "In Adam's fall, we sinned all".  In short, things are as bad for us as they could possibly be.

This is denied on the other side by saying that while the natural consequences of sin are total depravity, God as a good Father does not allow us to fall that far.  He "prevents" our total corruption by giving us "prevenient grace".  Thus, due to God's grace and not our goodness, we always retain some ability to respond to God as we know Him and do what is right.

Yet, if hell is redemptive, both the worst possible case and the best possible case for humanity turns out to actually be the case.  Yes, it is true that humans are born into the bondage of sin.  The spiritual and physical DNA we inherit from our parents is corrupted, so that we no longer know the good, desire the good, or choose the good.  Our society is corrupt, and we are held in bondage to systemic, organizational sin.  We live in a world dominated by Satan, "the prince of this age", and his demons who wage constant warfare to pull us away from Christ.  We even bear the guilt and condemnation of the human race on ourselves before we knowingly choose sin for ourselves.  While this seems unfair, we must consider that none of us is an autonomous individual.  We are individual persons only in relation to other humans, and we derive our identity only in community.

Furthermore, we bear the communal responsibility for the systemic sins going on around us.  Think about the guilt of the good, law abiding Germans who simply allows the Jews to be murdered next door by the thousands.  Even as the stench of death filled their neighborhoods, these people went about their good lives, going to work and church, but never lifting a finger to ask questions about the death camps.  They may not have done anything to cause the situation, but they did nothing to stop it either.  They thus bear the guilt of evils they never directly did.

Or, take our own personal histories, for example.  Even though I am a very different person from who I was at age 18,  I still am responsible for what I did then.  Even if I got drunk out of my mind and wrecked a car, I am still responsible for that act when I am sober, although I may not remember it.  The responsibility for sin is thus carried through communities, through history and even through things we are not fully aware of.  We are not isolated individuals, but something like an extended identity that reaches through the whole race of humanity.  As such, we all share in all of the consequences of our actions across time and space, across history, even if we are not aware of it.  We share in ALL of the consequences of each corporate identity: corruption, disability, guilt, and condemnation included.  

The Bible calls this corporate identity either being of that race that is "in Adam", or of that race that is "in Christ" (cf. Rom 5; 1Co 15).  In Adam all die due to sin, but in Christ all will be made alive due to resurrection.  All is on both sides, and the same "all" that dies is the same all that is raised to new life.  Things are as bad as they can possibly be, but also as good as they can possibly be.

It seems that as time goes on, as the consequences for sin get worse and worse, God keeps on sending more and more grace to prevent corruption, and to call to Christ.  This exponentially growing cascade of consequences and grace keeps going from birth through adulthood to death and into the next age.  If someone makes it to the next age actively denying God's love, God allows the consequence of hell to be so monumentally horrid, and the call of grace to be so incredibly attractive, that it will eventually convert even the hardest of hearts.

So both turn out to be right: We are totally depraved (and getting worse).  But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, and God keeps pumping grace at us until His grace eventually overcomes our depravity, either in this life or beyond.

"U" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "unconditional election".  This means that some sinners are unconditionally elected and predestined out of the "mass of perdition" to receive salvation, without any concern about what merit they have (because they can have none).  In less extreme versions of Reformed theology, the non-elect are simply "passed over" and allowed to fall into hell through their own natural consequences.  In more extreme versions there is an active double predestination where God wills to hate a portion of humanity (who, actually, are no more sinful than the elect), and send them to hell "for His glory".  The logic behind both the single- and double-predestination versions is usually that the suffering of those in hell will somehow make the pleasures of God's presence seem even more pleasurable by comparison, thereby bringing glory to God.  This makes God into a monster.

This is denied on the other side by saying that God only elects on the basis of His foreknowledge of humans.  In less extreme versions this is foreknowledge of those who will choose faith in Christ, or at least those with the capacity to have faith.  In more extreme versions this is foreknowledge of those who will persevere in good works and obedience and die faithful to Christ.  In both versions God effectively chooses those who choose Him first, or at least those who would choose Him if given the chance.  It presupposes that people are picked for salvation because they possess a certain amount of merit before God: either they are better than others because they can believe, or they will believe, or they will earn God's favor through good works.  This makes God play favorites.

So, is God a two-headed monster who damns people for what they cannot help, or a good ol' boy that helps those who help themselves?  Neither.  If hell is redemptive, then all are eventually, unconditionally elected in Christ, no matter how good or bad they are.  Furthermore, this election is Incarnational: it is accomplished in and through the Body of Christ.  Those Christ reaches out to are elect, those Christ does not reach out to are not elect.

Jesus says that "Many are called, but few are chosen (Greek: eklektos)".  This I take to mean that God is calling all people into His Kingdom through the work of the Spirit in prevenient grace.  Yet, out of all that are called, a few are specifically chosen (literally elected) to follow Christ, and in turn choose others to follow them.  Jesus chose twelve (later adding Paul) to follow Him.  He elected them.  How did they understand their election?  Did they understand it as a position of exclusive privilege, which allowed them to sit smug in their electness?  No, they saw it as an election to serve and to choose others and call them to serve Christ.  They saw their election as inclusive, not exclusive.  They were blessed to bless others, not to horde it to themselves.

The entire history of the "chosen people" from Abraham forward was a call by God to be blessed in order to be a blessing, to be elected in order to elect others (cf. Gen 12.1-3).  We are called by God's love, and we are chosen to serve others with that love.  Thus, election is not just something God does from before the foundation of the world.  He elected and predestined Christ and the members of His Body to be saved, and to save others.  All who they choose and call into that identity "in Christ" also become part of this predestined community because of their communal identity "in Christ" and rejection of their identity "in Adam".

Election thus becomes adoptive.  When a father adopts a new member into His family, He does not do it without the consent and desire of His existing family.  No good father would adopt someone who his family despises, no matter how much he wanted to adopt.  Likewise, God has told us He loves everyone, wants to save everyone, and wants His Family, the Church, to call everyone into relationship with Him.  He has given us the "keys of the Kingdom" to bind and loose the things of God (cf. Mat ch. 16, 18; John 21).  Those who we adopt, He adopts.  Those who we reject, He turns from.  But not without constantly convicting us, prodding us, and reminding us about His love until we finally repent and reach out to them.

This adoptive election is carried out through our "ministry of reconciliation" in this age and beyond.  In all ages, God's people keep reaching out to the excluded until all are included and all receive the Love of God in Christ.  I think that CS Lewis' fictional tale of the glorious citizens of heaven sent to love the wraiths of hell in "The Great Divorce" is a fantastic picture of this ministry.

Both of the typologies for and against "Unconditional Election" are thus essentially approaching the problem from the wrong perspective: both are exclusive instead of inclusive, legal instead of relational, and individual rather than communal.  When one looks at unconditional election from an inclusive, relational, communal standpoint, in the light of God's ultimate victory through a redemptive hell, then it all resolves.

"L" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Limited Atonement".  This means that the saving power of Christ's atonement is limited only to those who are elect.  The issue here is the intent, extent, and how potent Christ's work is.  Extreme versions of this theology will limit the intent, extent, and potency of Christ's work only to the elect, so that it is impossible that He could have atoned for even one more person.  Less extreme versions will affirm that Christ's atonement is potent enough to save all, but that the intent and extent are limited.  Still less extreme versions will affirm universal potency for Christ's work (it could save anyone who believed), and the intent of His work (He wants everyone to believe and be saved), but will deny the actual extent (because not everyone is predestined and called to believe).  This view interprets all of the Scriptures of God's love for "the world" and Christ's death "for all" in exclusive terms: They are re-interpreted to refer to the elect around the world and death for all of the elect.

This is denied on the other side by saying that the Atonement is unlimited in intent, extent, and potency.  It is intended to save all who believe, it is potent enough to save all who believe, and it extends to all who believe.  The only problem is that not everyone will believe.

This is quite simple to resolve in light of a redemptive hell.  On one hand, the atonement IS limited only to those who are elect.  But, since those who are elect includes all whom God has made, then the atonement includes everything.  Granted, this atonement will be applied only to some in this life, and others will have to literally put themselves through hell before they accept the atonement.  But, nevertheless, the limited atonement includes everyone, and thus is intended for all, extended to all, and potent enough to save all.  Some may not believe and receive it in this age, but God, through His Son and His Spirit, will not give up until they do.

"I" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Irresistible Grace".  This means that the Holy Spirit will not fail to draw the elect to Christ.  The Spirit is completely competent, and knows exactly how to work in the lives of people to bring them to Christ, because the Spirit completely knows the heart and mind of each person.  The Spirit is supremely persuasive, and is able to "sell" Christ in such a way that the elect will not fail to desire Him.  The Spirit is ultimately lovely, and the elect eventually fall in love with Christ through the Spirit's wooing.  Finally, the Spirit is just more stubborn than the will of even the worst sinner, and will eventually wait them out and not permit them to die apart from choosing Christ.

This is denied on the other side by saying that grace is never forced on anyone, and that humans are always free to deny the call of the Spirit.  Nothing is certain, and not even God can overcome human freedom, because to do this would be to destroy the capacity that makes love possible.

In view of a redemptive hell, this denial is correct, because the Spirit will not co-opt nor re-program a free person to make them choose God.  They can resist the Spirit as long as they want.  But here's the catch: The Spirit is more stubborn than they are.  They may resist for ages upon ages of relentless selfish suffering, but the Spirit will keep pouring on grace upon grace in the depth of their pain until they realize.  It may take a million-billion of our years, but the Spirit will reach them.

So to, the affirmation is correct.  The Spirit's calling is ultimately irresistible, not because the Spirit is coercive, but because the Spirit is completely competent, supremely persuasive, ultimately lovely, and infinitely patient.  A redemptive hell resolves and even affirms the insights of both sides on this issue.

"P" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Perseverance of the Saints".  "Once saved, always saved".  It means that those elected, those atoned for, and those called into Christ will not be able to fall away and loose salvation.  Jesus will never let them go, or allow them to leave once they have accepted Him.  What He has started in our lives, He will be faithful to complete until the Day of Judgment.  Unfortunately, this also means "Perseverance of the damned" as well, since they will be forever barred from choosing Christ no matter how many chances they are given.  In the end, those who deny Christ and "fall away" from the faith simply show evidence that they were never truly believers anyway (cf. 1Jo 2:19).

This is denied on the other side by saying that, while the power of the Spirit indwelling the believer is powerful, God nevertheless always leaves room for radical freedom of choice.  We can leave our "marriage" with God whenever we want, and God will permit us to go.  Most versions of this theology allow for a person to repent and return to Christ.  However, more extreme versions will also say that there is a sin (or sins) which we cannot repent from.  Once we have committed it, we are lost forever and have no hope.

The problem with both of these is that in both hell and death is the last word for a significant portion of the human race.  This is an extremely odd thing to say for a God who is all powerful, all loving, and who ultimately destroys death itself (cf. Rev ch. 20-21; 1Co ch. 15).  It is even more off to say about a God who's first and last Word to creation is His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who was sent to save all creation.  Not even death is supposed to separate us from His love (Rom 8:39).  It just doesn't fit.

However, the idea of a redemptive hell affirms what is true in both typologies.  First, the denial is correct in affirming that someone can "loose their salvation" by denying or drifting away from Christ.  Furthermore, it is an "unforgivable sin" to deny Christ, and as long as someone knowingly does this, they cannot be saved.  They stay in hell.  But, the moment they stop denying Christ, they may be saved.  

Yet, the affirmation of "Perseverance of the Saints" is correct that no matter how many times we fall away, God will find us and woo us back to Himself, until at last we choose never to deny Him again.  If we fall away a hundred times, He will patiently call us back 101.  If it is a million times, He will draw us back a million and one times.  He will never give up.  We may not persevere, but He will.  What He has begun He will bring to completion by the time of the final judgment.

This cycle of falling away and being drawn back ties into the image of discipline and hell being a "refining fire" that God puts us through to purify us and make us able to selflessly love Him and love others.  He tells us that the lost will have to enter the cleansing fire, like the fires that are used to consume garbage in the dump of Gehenna outside of Jerusalem (Mat 10:28; 25:41-46; Mark 9:42-49; Rev 20:10-15).  When the garbage is consumed, what remains afterward are those metals that are valuable.  Yet, God also tells us that every person will have to undergo testing and refining by fire (Mark 9:49; 2Co 5:8-11; Heb 12:5-10).  Indeed, some of the most powerful images of refining fire is not directed toward non-believers at all, but toward those in God's own chosen community (1Co 3:11-17; Jer 9:7-9; Dan 11:35; Gal 6:7-9; 1Pe 4:17).  St. Paul tells us that a person's "work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames".

We all will be refined and purged of selfishness until we finally choose to become the vessels of love, life, and purpose that God created us to be.  When we look at the eschaton with a view to God's ultimate purpose of reconciling all things to Himself through Christ, we see that many things begin to resolve.  The tension between freedom and sovereignty resolves.  The tension between grace and merit resolves.  The tension between the universality of God's love and the particularity of Christ's work resolves.  The tension between the consequences of our sin and the mercy of God resolves.  The tension between the incredible goodness, and inherent evil in creation and humanity resolves.  It affirms the truth found in the most optimistic and most pessimistic views of the human situation.  Furthermore it all resolves in a way which is Biblically and logically coherent, and consistent with the canonical faith defended and propounded by the Church through the ages.  When it is all said and done, it seems to me to make better sense of all of the data than any other hypothesis I know of.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.