church

Thou Shalt Not Judge!

thou_shalt

One of the most popular, perhaps most scathing, objections towards Christians today is that we’re too “judgy.” We hypocritically judge those outside of the church by flying in the face of Jesus’ teaching that “Thou shalt not judge.” (Yes, always quoted in the KJV language, for some reason…)

In fact, this one verse, Matthew 7:1, is perhaps the most widely known among non-Christians. It is also, I believe, one of the most misunderstood among non-Christians and least practiced among Christians.

Both sides of the fence tend to miss this one. On the non-Christian side, people believe Jesus is telling his followers to never make a judgement about anyone and to just mind their own business. On the Christian side, people believe Jesus is telling his followers to never judge one another but to reserve all judgement for non-Christians.

These two interpretations both fall short of what Jesus was getting at. As a result, it has led to much confusion and heartache for both Christian and non-Christian alike. For that reason, let’s revisit Jesus’ teaching on judging to find a better way to understand it in three Thou shalt’s…

1. Thou shalt not judge! (with a wrong judgment)

2. Thou shalt judge! (with a right judgment)

3. Thou shalt assess your audience

1. THOU SHALT NOT JUDGE! (WITH A WRONG JUDGMENT)

First, let’s examine the misunderstanding of Jesus’ command. Popular interpretation of Matthew 7:1 is captured well in this cartoon by The Oatmeal. Written by (presumably) a non-Christian, it serves as a great summary of how many people hear Jesus’ teaching of “Thou shalt not judge” and see it practiced by his followers.

"Does your religion make you judge people?"

“Does your religion make you judge people?”

Unfortunately, this is a very bad way of understanding Jesus’ teaching. By telling his followers not to judge, Jesus was not eliminating all forms of criticism, evaluation, discernment, or even judgement. How do we know this? He actually commands his followers to judge!

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” – John 7:24

We need to judge in order to discern between what is right and what is wrong, what is righteous and what is unrighteous. To always turn a blind eye to everything would be dishonest to Jesus’ whole teaching. So, if we wanted to succinctly put Jesus’ entire teaching on judgement into one sentence, perhaps it would be a mashup of Matthew 7:1 and John 7:24.

“Judge not, that you be not judged, but judge with a right judgement.”

Wait… what? That seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? Not if you consider that Jesus was talking about two types of judgement: a wrong judgment and a right judgment. We know this because he specifically uses the term right judgment.

So, when he says “judge not, that you be not judged” he tells us to curtail our wrong judgments, not to abandon judgement altogether.

2. THOU SHALT JUDGE! (WITH A RIGHT JUDGMENT)

So what does this mean? For Christians, it means many of us have some work to do in how we judge. To a certain extent, the objection that non-Christians bring up about Christians being judgy is true. This is not because we are never to judge, but because they have identified in us wrong judgment. So, what is wrong judgment?

Jesus gives us a great (and humorous) illustration of wrong judgement in his Sermon on the Mount.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:1–5

Here we have a guy with a gigantic log (large sin) stuck in his eye going around performing the “kind act” of removing what amounts to saw dust (small sin) from his brother’s eye. Kinda funny if you think about it, the joke is still humorous 2,000 years later! Sadly, though, the joke is on us. We shouldn’t think of ourself as the guy with the speck – we’re the guy with the log.

Here is where we see a wrong judgment.  If we point out the failures and flaws of a brother or sister in Christ while having that exact same (and magnified) failure or flaw, we are hypocritically judging in the wrong. Paul says it like this, “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same thing (Rom 2:1).”

Jesus doesn’t call us to be critical referees; he calls us to referee our own criticism.

If you call someone out for half-truths, do you ever tell half-truths? If you criticize stealing, are you 100% financially honest? If your husband/wife does something you don’t like, is there something you’ve been neglecting yourself?

In the words of that great twenty-first century theologian ICE CUBE, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”

At the end of the day, Jesus isn’t looking for critical referees. No, he’s looking for those who will referee their own criticism.

3. THOU SHALT ASSESS YOUR AUDIENCE

So, are we to sit idly by while we see unrighteousness and injustice all around us? Should we never make a judgement? Granted, we should remove the log from our eyes before removing the speck from our brother’s. But that’s family language, that’s within the church. Surly, as representatives of Jesus on earth, we are called to judge those outside of the church… right?

Jesus finishes his teaching on judgement with a very colorful, hyperbolic illustration.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” – Matthew 7:6

Okay… what’s Jesus saying here? In the original audience’s ears, they would have known exactly what he was saying. To them, pigs were unclean and dogs were voracious scavengers (not Fluffy or Fido, think hyena or jackal). The picture Jesus is painting for us is shocking – He tells us not to give what is precious (our judgment) to pigs and dogs (non-Christians).

Wow, strong language. Why did he say that? Jesus, being the great communicator that he is, uses over-the-top-language to make a very important point. As Christians, we need to assess our audience.

Giving a right judgment (after you’ve removed the log) to a brother or sister in Christ is precious (like pearls) because it helps them conform more to Jesus. Giving that same right judgment to a non-Christian may not be received the same way. In fact, it might get a little hostile.

What Jesus is telling us is, “Before you judge, assess your audience. Non-Christians will most likely appreciate your judgment like a pig appreciates a pearl necklace.”

Christians appear judgy because we do not assess our audience well.

We see this happening all the time, especially on Facebook and Twitter. Christians blasting out judgment to everyone and wondering why they get hostility in return. Perhaps this is why Paul quipped, “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge (1Co 5:12–13)?”

Therefore, in a sense, the complaint that Christians are too judgy is true. Why? Because we’re not assessing our audience well. On top of that, we seem to have a hard time delivering that judgment graciously (Col 4:6).

So, the next time you’re ready to click POST or TWEET, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Is this a right judgment? (Do I have a log in my eye?)

2. Have I assessed my audience well? (Am I giving pearls to pigs?)

3. Is my speech salted with graciousness? (Colossians 4:6)

If we Christians stepped up to the plate and started to referee our own criticism, maybe we wouldn’t be so judgy!

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Even Good Things Can Become Idols

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The reformer John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. Humans have a proclivity to take things, even good things, and turn them into objects of worship. As I was reading through 2 Kings last week I found a powerful example of this – one I had never caught before.

Throughout 2 Kings we are witness to a series of bad kings pushing the nation of Israel towards worshipping local gods and breaking God’s covenant with His chosen people. But then, in 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah comes along and has had enough.

[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).” – 2Ki 18:4

The Israelites took a good thing that God used (the bronze serpent) and turned it into an idol. It happened slowly over time, but eventually a good thing God used replaced Israel’s worship of God Himself.

But first, let’s back up for a moment. What’s up with the Nehushtan? (Say that ten times really fast). Why was it a “good thing God used”?

WHAT’S A NEHUSH…WHATEVER?

In Numbers 21:4–9 we have a story of God’s recently freed people (the Israelites) becoming rebellious against God and complaining to Moses about being brought out of Egypt into the wilderness to die. They wanted to go back into slavery and sought a response from God about their request. In response to their complaints, God sends snakes which was probably not what they had in mind when they were complaining.

Some of them began to die from poisonous snakebites. This is when the people realized they needed God’s help. They repented and asked that the snakes be taken away from them. Moses took the request to God who told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Moses was then instructed to hold the pole up in the air, and if the people would look at the pole (or Nehushtan), they would not die from the snakebites.

All in all, this story points ahead to Jesus – the pole represents the cross and the snake (sin) represents Jesus on the cross. Jesus taught this interpretation Himself in John 3:14.

FROM GOOD THING TO IDOL

Fast-forward hundreds of years to Hezekiah and 2 Kings 18:4. Apparently, the Israelites had been making offerings to the bronze serpent that Moses had fashioned. Instead of worshipping the God who saved their ancestors, they were worshipping a thing that God used to save them.

This must have been extremely frustrating for God watching His chosen people worship a thing that was used instead of the one who used it. It would be like thanking the life-ring instead of the lifeguard for saving you from drowning. Or thanking the fire hydrant instead of the fireman from dousing the flames engulfing your home.

The bronze serpent was something God used, not God Himself. Instead, the Israelites took a good thing and turned it into an idol.

The more I reflected on this story the more I realized how relevant this is for us today because we tend to do the same thing. Sometimes we forget that even good things can become idols. Of the many ways this is possible, here are three that come to mind.

1. Idols can be things God used many years ago, but has since moved on.

The bronze serpent was something God used while the Israelites were wandering through the desert. That was roughly 750–780 years before Hezekiah was king. Even still, people were holding on to the relic of God’s work in the past and worshipping it in the present.

Don’t we do this as well? We being to idolize a movement, ministry, or minister who God used in the past. We look back at the glory days when God used someone or something and then we put them or it on a pedestal.

Like the Israelites, we need to be careful not to fixate (and even worship) something that God used many years ago, but has since moved on. The only thing worth looking back in time to worship is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Anything else could become an idol.

2. Idols take the focus off the things God does and on to the things God uses.

Notice that the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent and not for what God did through the bronze serpent. There’s a huge difference.

If the Israelites were making offerings for what God did through the bronze serpent (i.e., giving Him thanks for what He had done for their people all those many years ago) there wouldn’t have been a problem. But the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent. In essence, they were thanking and worshiping the thing rather than the being who used the thing.

This happens to us all the time. We tend to gravitate towards things or people or movements that God uses, then eventually replace them for God altogether. For example, we may appreciate a particular preacher God is using. We gravitate towards that person and slowly begin to focus only on them. We only listen to their sermons or podcasts. We only read their books or blogs. Soon, they become the object of our affection rather than God.

Is there anything wrong with gravitating towards a person God is using? Of course not. The problem begins when we replace them with God. Like the bronze serpent, we forget that they are a tool being used by God and not actually God Himself.

3. Idols can be anything, anywhere, at any time.

The Israelites were worshipping a ~780 year old bronze serpent that God once used for good. Sounds really weird, doesn’t it?

We tend to think of idols as something archaic. Backwards ancient people worshiped golden calves and sacrificed their children to giant statues, but we’re modern and evolved. We don’t worship idols and sacrifice children like those foolish people in the past.

However, we must remember that an idol is anything that shifts our focus of worship off God and onto something else. For the ancients it was a fabricated deity that took the form of some statue made by a craftsman – big business back in the day. They focused their worship (time, efforts, finances, etc.) to a fabricated deity rather than God in hopes of success, fulfillment, and/or blessing.

Today, we tend to worship fabricated deities that take the form of things like careers and hobbies – big business today. We focus our worship (time, efforts, finances, etc.) to a career or a hobby rather than God in hopes of success, fulfillment, and/or blessing.

We’re no different than the ancients. We’ve just found more complex ways of being idolaters. The ancients sacrificed to a deity’s statue for health, wealth, and enjoyment just like we sacrifice to careers and hobbies for the same thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with careers and hobbies (or bronze snakes), but when they become gods to us we start to veer off course.

TO SUM UP

How do we keep from ending up like the Israelites and worshipping a good thing that God used instead of worshipping God Himself?

I think the answer is in Hezekiah’s actions – he broke the bronze serpent into pieces.

If there is something in our lives that we can’t help but worship, then maybe it’s time to “break it” into pieces. We need to take it off the pedestal in our minds, break it, and replace it with God.

Sure, it could be painful. I’m not sure Hezekiah took pleasure in destroying a wonderfully important piece of his people’s history, but if it becomes an idol then it needs to go. The idol needs to be broken into pieces.

The good news is that there is liberation in breaking our idols into pieces. After Hezekiah destroyed Israel’s idols we read that “the Lord was with him.” This is not to say that God wasn’t always there and had just now shown up, but that Hezekiah (and Israel’s) relationship was restored with God. It was fuller, richer, more complete.

When we destroy our idols, we begin to experience God’s joy in worshipping Him. After all, that’s what we were made to do.

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The Church of North Carolina

CoNC

Normally, I don’t like to write about politics. It can become very divisive and quickly takes our attention away from Jesus.

But something happened today that is significant for the church in America.

According to NBC News, the State of North Carolina has introduced a bill that declares the state’s ability to establish an official religion.

After reading the article, I glossed over the bill to see if it was actually true. I scanned down to the bottom and looked for Emperor Constantine’s or Henry VIII’s signatures, but found nothing. (If it wasn’t the third of the month, I would have almost thought this was an April Fool’s joke.)

But there we have it – a U.S. state declaring its right to establish an official religion.

The bill reads;

Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

Naturally, the assumption is that North Carolina would like to establish a state religion some time in the near future after this bill’s ratification. Once passed, the state will be able to setup its own established religion. Services for the Church of North Carolina will start spring of 2014.

Of course, establishing an official state religion would buck up against one of America’s foundational principles – the separation of church and state – which has lead to a flourishing of churches across our country since its inception.

“But wait,” you may say, “isn’t there something in the constitution that stops this sort of thing?”

I’m glad you asked. Yes, there is. In fact, it was the first thing added to the U.S. Constitution after its ratification – the First Amendment.

However, the North Carolina bill argues that the First Amendment does not apply to individual states. It only applies to the federal government. The First Amendment reads;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Thus, according to North Carolina lawmakers, the state can establish a religion but the federal government cannot.

Now, before diving into the theological relevance of this bill it’s beneficial to draw out the legal consequences to its logical conclusion.

Couldn’t this logic be applied across other aspects of the First Amendment?

For example, could California abridge freedom of speech because it’s a state and not the federal government?

Could Indiana abridge the press because it’s a state and not the federal government?

Could North Dakota abridge the right of the people to peaceably assemble (all eight of them) because it’s a state and not the federal government?

Where is the line drawn in this logic? If one aspect of the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the state then it could be argued that none of the First Amendment should apply to the state. It seems to me that this is a very slippery slope.

Not to mention, what happens in fifty years when the Church of North Carolina begins teaching crazy things like its leader’s ability to forgive sins in exchange for the donation of money?

Let’s just hope there is a town called Wittenberg in North Carolina.

THE GOSPEL CHANGES PEOPLE, NOT LAWS

Although this bill will no doubt attract a lot of attention, it is highly unlikely that it would stand up to constitutional scrutiny in the long run. But the fact that it was created at all speaks volumes to the current political climate in America.

Underneath the bill is the reason that it was suggested in the first place. As NBC News alludes, even though there is no mention of a specific religion the motivation behind the bill seems to be towards promoting Christianity.

In my humble opinion, it seems that Christian lawmakers in North Carolina are displeased with the changing morality in America and do not want certain federal laws being mandated within their state.

While it’s true the morality of America is changing, is it reasonable for Christians to expect the answer to be found in laws? Should Christians pass laws to “preserve” America’s morality?

I would argue a heavy “no”.

Laws are not the way to go about changing people’s hearts. The gospel is. If Christians are unhappy with the shifting morality of American culture then they need to share the gospel, become more Christ-like, and pray for the nation.

The answer is certainly not found in establishing a state religion. If history has taught us anything, it’s that official state religions don’t always work out for the best. Just look back at the marriage of the Roman Empire to the Christian church. It took years of reformation, war, and heartache to separate two things that should never have been together in the first place.

Christians: instead of repeating our mistakes, let’s get back to the gospel. If we want to see change, true and lasting change, then we need to get serious about what God takes seriously – making disciples of Jesus.

To do that, we need to repent of our own evangelistic apathy. We need to publicly speak about God’s grace, the truth of His holiness, and the deep well of His mercy. We need to pray for our nation, its leaders and citizens. We need to get back to the basics – Jesus.

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Louie Louie

So, I suppose Louie Giglio gets to add this to his resume:

First Ever Inauguration Invocation Official For 24 hours or Less

If you haven’t heard the news Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, was invited to give the invocation for the presidential inauguration at the end of the month… for about a day.

Let me summarize the Giglio ordeal in four (real) Tweets:

  • January 8th – President Obama chooses evangelical Louie Giglio to deliver invocations at inauguration // @drmoore
  • January 9th – Sign this White House petition, share/retweet widely: Replace anti-gay bigot Louie Giglio at inauguration // @msignorile
  • January 10th – Giglio inaugural prayer axed due to biblical sermon (he stated orthodox positions on homosexuality) // @baptistpress
  • January 11th – The Louie Giglio Moment: Are Evangelicals (and about 4 of 10 American Adults) No Longer Welcome in the Public Square? // @edstetzer

*shakes head*

Wait… what just happened?

According to the Twitterverse, Louie Giglio was invited to give the invocation at the inauguration, was then “outed” as an anti-gay bigot which lead to his “axing” from the inauguration, and now Evangelicals are no longer welcome in the public square.

And all this happened faster than it took me to get my next Netflix DVD delivered in the mail.  Woah.

This just goes to show that with the increased speed of information comes the increased speed of culture-wide changes.  I mean, one week Giglio is rallying 60,000 students to end modern global slavery.  Then, literally the next week, he is asked to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.  Then, literally the next day, he’s an anti-gay bigot who was axed from the national stage – color coded for both left and right comments respectively.

Those on the left accused Giglio of being an anti-gay bigot due to a sermon he delivered 20 years ago in support of traditional marriage.  Those on the right accused everyone else of axing Giglio from the national stage for preaching Christian orthodoxy.

And both are only half-truths.

For those who think Giglio is a neanderthalic bigot with no business on the national stage, please take 5 minutes to check out his End It Movement, then tell me he’s a bigot with a straight face.  He is not a bigot, regardless of whether or not you agree with his view on marriage and human sexuality.

For those who think Giglio was forced off the national stage because of his orthodox Christian beliefs, please keep in mind that he was the one to bow out.  It was Giglio, not the Obama Administration nor the Inauguration Ceremony Committee, who walked away from this opportunity.

Had Giglio waited for the (now apparent) public pressure to have him removed, it would have placed the two previously mentioned parties in a position to select who they believe best represents America’s spiritual leadership.  Then it would be obvious – Christian orthodoxy isn’t welcome on the national stage.

Why This Matters

As this story rapidly unfolded, what surprised me most is that fact that this surprises Christians at all.

Of course Christian orthodoxy isn’t welcome on the national stage.  The closer one sticks to the gospel, the more friction they will meet against culture – both from the left and from the right.

Christianity is spreading a bizarre and backwards message in the eyes of our nation – a Jew 2,000 years ago died, resurrected, and now wants me to rely solely on him for the guidance and restoration of my entire being.  And this guy, who (btw) also claimed to be God, gets to tell me how to live my life? *pft*  How “anti-American individualistic” of him…

The gospel is crazy talk to our nation.  It’s also known as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”[1]  So the fact that it’s not welcome on the national stage should not surprise us. The gospel isn’t something that people want to hear.

Sure there’s culturally noble aspects to it – social justice, resisting tyranny, liberating the poor – but the other half of the coin paints a terrible picture of humanity’s current state of being.  And no one likes to be told they’re broken or wrong or misled.

In fact, they hate it.  Jesus’ whole discourse in John 15:18–25 (as hard as it may be to read) touches on that very topic.  He concludes that “they hated me without cause.”[2]  And if they hated Jesus for his message, who delivered it perfectly and without blemish, why should we be shocked to learn that our peers no longer have patience to hear our message, especially when we frequently deliver it imperfectly and with many blemishes?

Friends, it’s time to face this truth – America is no longer a nation influenced by Christianity.  The message of the gospel is becoming unfashionable and culturally intolerable at a very rapid pace.

Let’s move past this shock so we can focus our attention on our truest task at hand – proclaiming good news to the poor and bringing liberty to the captives.[3]

And even though many people will mock and reject the gospel, as they did to Paul on Mars Hill in Athens, some will say, “we will hear you again about this” and meet Jesus through his people and by God’s spirit.[4]

=======

[1] 1Co 1:23

[2] Jo 15:25

[3] Lu 4:18–19

[4] Acts 17:32

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The Rising None’s

No, the Rising None’s aren’t an indie-rock band.  (Although, that’s not a bad name…)  The rising “none’s” are actually a category of religion that more and more Americans are choosing over any other faith – no faith at all.  For the first time in U.S. history the fastest growing religion is “none”.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.”  Further still, 88% of those 1/5 are not really interested in looking for anything. The most likely to reject any religious faith at all?  Millennials born between 1981-1994.

Set aside everything you’ve heard about Mormonism or Islam being the fastest growing religion in America.  It’s actually Religious Apathy.

The immediate question is why?

It would seem that the relatively sharp decline in religious interest is related to faith itself – or at least the outliers of faith. The report observes that,  “Overwhelmingly, [people] think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

This isn’t good news for those who like to share the Good News.  And while I don’t like to associate true Christianity with religion, this study nonetheless gives valuable insight into the growing spiritual landscape of the nation.

Religious apathy is, perhaps, one of the most difficult mission fields that exists.  It’s one thing to present the gospel to someone of a different worldview, as they may be interested in spirituality on some level.  It’s a whole different ballgame to present the gospel to people who just don’t care.

So what do we do with this information?

Rather than being threatening, I think this Pew Forum is a much needed wake-up call.  Not only that, but the study gives us great insight into sharing the gospel in an ever-changing spiritual culture.

According to the study, the religiously apathetic are uninterested because “religious organizations” are:

  • too concerned with money and power
  • too focused on rules
  • too involved in politics

Replace “religious organizations” with “Christians” and we have some serious criticism from non-Christians about us.  And instead of defending our actions, I say we examine each claim in order to reflect on ourselves in the way others see us.

1. Christians are too concerned with money and power.

I think this is a terrible indictment on the Church’s unspoken witness to the world.  When they look at the Church from the outside in, they see corruption and greed. And I think there’s some truth to that observation.

The Church, particularly in America, has spent a ton of money in the past 60 years.  But what do we have to show for it?  Institutions? Facilities?  Programs?  Successful ministries?

It also doesn’t help when guys like this funnel $4.8M of church funds to pay for his own debts.  Unfortunately, that’s the type of news that makes front pages – not the other resources going to help the impoverished or planting new churches.

When people look at the Church they see greed, corruption, and injustice.  What they should see instead is love, grace, and sanctifying community.

Even Jesus said that the Church’s bulletin board advertisement should be love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jn 13:35

Where have we failed in this?  How can we turn that image around?

2. Christians are too focused on rules.

This should break the heart of every Christian.  If non-Christians view the Church as an institution of moral rules and not one of gracious love, then we are definitely off-course.  In fact, being rule-focused and not grace-focused is the exact same reason Jesus gave the Pharisees for missing out on God’s work! (Lk 11:37-52)

The Church wasn’t meant to be a moral social club where good people come to compare their own righteousness.  It’s more like a hospital where broken people come to be healed, rehabilitated, and sent back out into the world a new person.

Christians should illuminate the world with grace, not moral rules.  Every religion teaches people how to become holy before God, but Christianity teaches that God makes people holy before him.  It’s a huge difference.  And apparently, we aren’t communicating that enough.

3. Christians are too involved in politics.

I’m not sure this image will ever go away, especially within a democracy.  If Christians are allowed to vote, then they will bring with them a certain level of their worldview into politics.  Non-Christians do the same thing.

But, is there a chance that the Church could be too involved in politics?  Sure.

This means that politics can often times become a distraction from the true focus of the Church – proclaiming the gospel and bringing people to Jesus. (Mt 28:16-20)

The question we should ask ourselves is which kingdom are we pointing people to?  Man’s temporary kingdom or God’s eternal kingdom?  Whose kingdom politics are we more wrapped up in – our own or our King’s?

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Eternally Temporary

I wrote about Rob Bell’s Love Wins a few months ago, and since then more and more people are picking the book up and finding time to read it.

The fury storm surrounding the book was actually sort of humorous.  People were condemning it before it even hit the shelf.  Others were praising it before Amazon.com could get the Kindle edition loaded on their servers.

I’ve seen more pastors and Christian leaders denounce the book without actually reading it for reasons I can only estimate are due to extremely busy schedules, their own academic laziness, or the fear of doctrinal challenges to their own beliefs.

Whatever the case may be, Love Wins has caused a huge stir in Christianity.

Since more and more people have picked the book up, I revisited it and felt there was one aspect of the book I wanted to flesh out more than I had in the earlier posts – Bell’s view on Hell.

As I stated before in other posts, I really want to like Rob Bell and I’d say about 80% of Loves Wins is solid.  Heaven is a real place.  It is not full of chubby, baby angels with harps.  It will be a recreated earth without sin.  We will live there forever.

I love all that and believe it has a solid foundation in scripture.  But, there’s that other 20% which is causing all the controversy, one squarely resting on the question of whether or not Hell is an eternal place.

This is the hinge Love Wins swings on.  If Hell is eternal, then Bell’s theory begins to unravel.  If it Hell is not eternal, then Bell’s theory holds strong and would open Christian theology up to many new concepts, and we should really pay attention to what he has to say.

The foundation of Bell’s theory is eloquently summarized in one sentence from Love Wins– “Forever is not really a category the biblical writers used (Love Wins, 92).”

Bell does not believe Hell to be eternal; rather, we superimpose the concept of eternity to certain biblical passages when they do not belong.

Furthermore, Bell insists that “Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever,” since terms like eternal and eternity are not actually found in the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible (Love Wins, 92).

Thus, passages speaking of Hell as eternal torment should actually be understood as speaking of a temporary rebellion.

Take 1 Thess 1:9 as an example.  “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

Here, “eternal destruction” isn’t really eternal, but rather an unknown period of time with an eventual end.  Like purgatory.

But is that really the case?  Should we take “eternal” at face value or is it a matter of faulty translation?

Rob Bell’s Hermeneutic

The Greek for eternal destruction in this passage is αἰώνιος ὄλεθρος (aiōnios olethros).  For Bell’s hermeneutic (way of interpreting the bible) to work, a lot rests on aiōnios (eternal) meaning anything but eternal.

So let’s take a look at the word.  The root word of aiōnios is aion, where we get the English word eon from.

Aion, according to Bell, is actually an age, period of time, or even intense experience (Love Wins, 91).  With this in mind, if we apply this interpretation to that verse (1 Thess 1:9), we get something like this;

“They will suffer the punishment of destruction for [a period of time], away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

Accordingly, Hell is temporary and one day the punishment of destruction will end.

Sounds good.  Hell is only temporary.

But before we start questioning two-thousand years of Christian theology, let’s ask the opposite question.  If aion is used to describe Hell as being temporary, is it also used to describe Heaven as temporary?

To answer that, let’s take John 10:28 into consideration.  “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is a classic verse describing the eternal nature of not only Heaven, but our salvation.

“Eternal life” in John 10:28 is αἰώνιος ζωή (aiōnios zōē) which literally means never to cease life.  If you remember, the root word for aiōnios is aiōn.  The word aiōn is used again in this verse just a few words later in the idea of “they will never perish”.

“They will never perish” in this verse is οὐ μή εἰς αἰών ἀπόλλυμι (ou mē eis aiōn apollymi). The combination of eis and aiōn literally mean into the perpetuity of time.  This combination eis aiōn is the most common New Testament Greek word of the English forever.

Now, one could make eis aiōn mean just an age or a curtailed (albeit long) period of time which does have an end, just like in English if someone exaggerated how long something took they could say, “It took an eternity to get through the line at the DMV.”

But, that’s not the rule a majority of the time, just like in English “forever” and “eternity” does not mean 45 minutes in the DMV line a majority of the time – it literally means a period of unending time.

This is why Bell’s idea of eis aiōn being only an age rather than eternity is attractive, but ultimately dangerous to adopt.

Look back up at John 10:28.  If eis aiōn only means a certain age, then Jesus said we will only be given “eternal” life – life that will end at a certain age or eon.  Jesus also says we will only be able to stay firmly within His grasp for a certain amount of time, not forever.

The verse would be better translated, according to Bell’s hypothesis, as this; “I give them life for a certain period of time, and they will not perish for an age…”

Applying Bell’s hermeneutical approach to “eternity” in Jesus’ teaching backfires.  Hell is not forever, but neither is Heaven.  Punishment is not eternal, but neither is our salvation.

As the old adage goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Either Hell is temporary and so is Heaven, or they are both eternal.

Here are some more examples in the New Testament of Bell’s idea applied;

  • John 8:51 – Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will not see death [for an age].
  • Luke 18:29-30 – Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers …who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come, life [for a period of time].”
  • Romans 11:36 – For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory [for a period of time]. Amen.

At least in the New Testament Greek the concept of eternity is clearly laid out and is applied to both Heaven and Hell.

What About the Old Testament Hebrew?

For the Hebrew Old Testament, Bell argues a similar point – there is no concept of eternity in biblical Hebrew (Love Wins, 92).  While neglecting the common Hebrew word עַד (‘ad, forever) he claims that the, “closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for ‘forever’ is the word olam (Love Wins, 92).”

Unfortunately for Bell’s hermeneutic, this simply isn’t true.  The concept of eternity does exist in the Hebrew Old Testament and appears over 40 times in the form of ‘ad and over 400 times in the form of olam.

While it is true olam can be translated to reflect a long period of time, ‘ad cannot.

Again, as with the New Testament, problems begin to appear if Bell’s hermeneutic is applied.  God’s promises are not eternal, but rather temporal.  He does not reign forever, but rather for a curtailed period of time.  God’s righteousness transforms from enduring forever to only enduring for a certain period of time.

One verse in particular is troublesome when attempting to remove its eternal nature.  Psalm 48:14 says, “that this is God, our God forever (olam) and ever (‘ad). He will guide us forever.”

This verse becomes almost untranslatable if Bell is correct.  “That this is God, our God for a period of time and for an age.  He will guide us for a long time.”

Psalm 48:14 clearly tells us that the biblical writers were not only well familiar with the concept of eternity, but that both olam and ‘ad are descriptive of forever.

The Hebrew for “our God forever and ever” is elohim olam ‘ad.  Both words for eternity, olam and ‘ad are used to describe the eternal nature of God.

The other option is that God is only our God for three days (Love Wins, 92).  That God’s righteousness will one day come to an end.  That His patience and love through His covenants are bound by an expiration date.

Why Does it Matter?

So why does it matter whether or not Bell is right about the concept of eternity in the bible?

Just like Bell himself said, “Our beliefs matter.  They matter now, for us, and they matter then, for us.  They matter for others, now, and they matter for others, then (Love Wins, 184).

He’s completely right.  Our beliefs do matter.  For Christians, many of those important beliefs find their source in scripture.  If we cannot interpret the bible properly then we cannot rely on it as a source of inspiration, information, or guidance.

Questioning long held beliefs is okay so long as they are confirmed or repealed through scripture; repealing long held beliefs by ignoring parts of scripture is not.  Simply because we may not like the idea of an eternal Hell does not mean it is absent from scriptural teaching.  It’s something we need to wrestle with, not ignore.

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church, theology

Good Ol’ Fashion Faith Healin’

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine wrote me a text message…

“Guys, quick!  Derren Brown has a show on channel 4 eight now about faith healing in the US…!”

This friend’s recommendations are never lame so I flipped the television on, changed to the channel, and began watching a show with famous a British magician about faith healing in Texas. [1]

The premiss of the show was to demonstrate how the majority of faith healings were faked by conmen who desire not to heal the inflicted but to hoodwink the faithful.  Armed with a crew posing as a foreign faith healer, Derren Brown masterminded a live event of fake faith healing only to end the event in front of a live, believing audience with a message that most faith healers were liars who were only after their money.

It was a good show.  And it got me thinking.

Derren Brown caught on to something during their experiment.  He noticed that fake faith healers used extremely charismatic preaching to excite the crowd into a fervor for the main event – the healing.

These men would preach a message about how God did not want them sick, how the Holy Spirit could heal them, and why Jesus is the answer to all their ills.

The faith healer’s message was a pretense to the primary purpose being the faith healing (and ultimately people’s money).  The Gospel message was the foundation on which the healings were performed.

Something about Derren Brown’s poignant insight drew me to the Book of Acts.  I know there were miracles involved with the early church, but were they done in the same manner as the fake faith healers on Brown’s show?  Was the formula really [preaching < faith healing]?

So, I started reading and here’s what I found.

The apostles in the Book of Acts performed miracles, but they did so not as a main event.[2]  Rather their healing miracles were always a precursor to the message they wanted to preach.

The healing was used to excite the crowd into a fervor for the main event – the preaching.  This is the exact opposite of the faith healers.

The apostle’s formula was [healing < preaching].

Healing should never be the main event to anything in a church, it should always be the preaching and message of the Gospel.  The apostles knew this – the Gospel is the only thing which can offer healing beyond physical affliction.

Miracles have and always will play the supporting role to the Gospel.

Unless, of course, you really think Peter Popoff’s “Debt Cancellationg” miracle spring water is legit.  Seriously, a debt “cancellationg” kit.

Taken from Peter Popoff Ministries website

(It is probably so marvelous that Popoff had to combine the words ‘cancellation’ and ‘cancelling’ to accurately describe its awesomeness.)

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[1] You can watch the show here, just know there is strong language used.

[2] This is seen well in Acts 14:8-18

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