Saturday, 8 September 2012

Give them hell

So, there’s a book that was given out free at New Wine recently – ‘Revolutions in World Missions’. In the midst of some good insights, it’s a classic ‘American’s  are greedy, evangelicals are self-centred’ guilt-inducing polemic in the guise of a hard-hitting cry for the poor. A central theme is that every second someone in the two thirds world dies without having heard the good news and as a result, goes to a lost eternity of torment. And we are to blame.

Thinking Allowed has a number of problems with this. Firstly, if the fact that people are starving to death in a world of plenty isn’t of itself enough to shake you out of your complacency, it’s unlikely that their eternal destiny is going to make much difference to the response. But more importantly it’s the theology that has us worried.

In this bizarre worldview, people who have done nothing other than be born are deemed as deserving a punishment of such unspeakable magnitude as to make any earthly torture seem inconsequential. Even when these individuals have lived long enough to make their own moral choices, they have done so unwittingly, unknowingly because nobody has told them. Yet still, they are deemed guilty of such a heinous offence against a loving God that the right and just response is to torture them forever.

On the other side of this coin are those who have been saved from this unimaginable horror. Their job is to warn those who are unwittingly hell-bound of their impending doom. Now, what happens to those who fail to perform this critically important task? Surely, if the unknowing are consigned to hell, those who could tell but don’t must certainly face even worse? But no, ‘once saved, always saved’, they get to go to heaven...

Ah, but you can’t go on your feelings, the fact that it might seem outrageous to our flawed human view of justice doesn’t mean that it is actually unjust. ‘God’s ways are not our ways’. Our calling is to be obedient... ‘ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die’.

And yet... and yet, we were made for relationship with God. Jesus took on human form. If God is so other than us in such a basic concept as justice, how can we ever have a meaningful relationship? Shouldn’t we at least explore what other worldview scripture might support?

Might we not look past the fact (as quoted in the book) that Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven and acknowledge that his audience on those occasions was not the unsaved but the disciples or the religious leaders. It was often a warning to those who should know better rather than to the poor, oppressed or unknowing. Secondly, whilst not speaking about ‘heaven’ Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God and the concept of bringing heaven to earth. He had both a temporal and eternal view when it came to the meaning of life. His calling was not to bring guilt and the fear of punishment, but claimed anointing to bring good news... healing, liberty, transformation – here and now as well as into the future. ‘I have come that you might have life in all its fullness...’ Why do we think, as ‘Christ’s body’, that we should do anything different?

When we look across scripture we see that in about half the instances where hell is discussed, it is described as an eternal punishment. In the other half, as a place of temporary suffering. We note that these comments were predominantly warning to believers. We read in Psalm 139 that even if we go to hell (sheol) that God is even there. When evangelicals suppose Jesus to be in hell after the crucifixion we note that Jesus told the thief ‘today’ (ie when he was in hell) ‘you will be with me in paradise’. We read Peter talking obscurely of Jesus ‘preaching to the saints in hell’. What does all this mean? There are some good learned books on this – David Pawson and Greg Boyd are particularly scholarly aurthors. The truth is there is genuine debate  over the nature and  extent  of hell, let alone its inhabitants.

Thinking Allowed suggests that a biblical worldview is that we get to make moral choices in this life. It’s the basis of a love that ‘does not insist on its own way’.  If in the face of death we are still making faith based choices, God seals those choices - for all eternity we get what we have persistently chosen in this life. With great sadness, though, a God of love who gives choice must also honour those choices even when they break his heart. For those who knowingly and persistently choose to be their own god or to make the enemy their god, the real and one God honours their choice. If we choose in this life to live outside the love of God, the God who is love must honour those choices.

But making choices for God doesn’t just affect our destination, it profoundly alters the journey. Poverty, sickness, death even – all can be transformed by the love of God, here in this life as well as for eternity. It is our responsibility to fully receive the transformation that is offered, because it is out of the drama of that that we genuinely become motivated to share the good news. It is out of our experience of good news that we have testimony and witness. Our lives have been changed, we personally know the love and grace of God. We yearn for others to know it, long for others to experience the freedom and joy that we share. That’s the spur, the imperative to evangelism, not some guilt induced story of a wrathful dictator with a warped sense of justice.

The scripture says ‘Will not the judge of all the earth do right’. Thinking Allowed is confident that He will.