Give me enough slack and I can get out of anything. I am a master of manipulation. Before you get too smug, let me say this: you are too. It’s called sin. Manipulation is lying for the sophisticated.
I have gone on record saying that I hate the doctrine of Hell. If there is anything in my theology that I could discard—if there was a theological “burn card”—it would be the doctrine of eternal punishment. It causes me great anxiety and disillusionment. I am sorry if that makes some of you uncomfortable, but that is just the way it is. That is me.
That is why I am somewhat jealous of people who can find their way out of this doctrine. That is why, in one sense, I am envious of those who have found ways to adjust or deny the existence of the eternal punishment of the unredeemed. Would that I could follow them, but my conscience will not yield to my emotions and allow me to.
Here we go again…
Francis Chan has a book coming out in July called Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. Though the book has not yet been released, there is a substantive and dramatic video preceding it to get people talking (following the lead of Rob Bell prior to the release of Love Wins). I know of no other Christian author with the popular appeal right now that overshadows that of Rob Bell, so Francis Chan’s contribution to the issue should only serve to intensify this discussion. As well, from what I have seen from the video (and the obvious connotations carried by the title), I imagine that Chan is going to defend the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment in a unique way.
And, just like with Rob Bell’s book, there are people critiquing the book before it comes out. As I said before, I have no problem with this, as the promo videos are meant to provoke thought by allowing us to preview the substance of the book. More copies get sold that way.
Jeff Cook, at Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog), is the first I know of to begin the pre-publishing critique by examining the implications of the video. Check it out here. While Cook opens with some very kind remarks about Chan, as the old saying goes, nothing really counts before the word “but”!
Rational Christianity vs. Biblical Christianity?
The first critique Cook makes is a breakdown of Chan’s statement on the video concerning Isaiah 55:8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways.” I often refer to this as the “doctrinal disclaimer” which can be used for good or for ill. However, Cook’s beef is his perception that Chan is attempting to advocate some sort of irrational Christianity. Cook says, “In contrast to Chan’s claim, we need to rationally wrestle with our views about who God is and what he does, and to fail to do so is sloth.”
However, I get no sense that Chan is trying to use Isaiah 55:8 as a “rational disclaimer” against those who are trying to use their minds. Again, I have not read the book and neither has Cook, but it seems a bit presumptuous to strike with this implied claim of irrationality.
God does indeed call upon us to use our minds and never establish our faith on blind irrationality. About this, Cook is correct. But I think that this critique has a bit of water poisoning to it. I have only read one of Chan’s books, but he does not seem the irrational type. By making such a seemingly blind accusation (i.e., that Chan is irrational), he seems to be suggesting that a belief in Hell is irrational. However, being a philosophy guy, Cook should realize that rationality has no voice in the reality or non-reality of Hell. It is only revelation.
God’s Justice vs. Ours?
Next, Cook seems to imply that Chan is saying (or is going to say in the book) that our sense of justice does not parallel God’s sense of justice. As he puts it, “The idea of ‘justice’ must be the same for God and for us, otherwise the term lacks linguistic value.”
At face value, in my opinion, this is partially correct. I would have put it this way, “Our idea of ‘justice’ most often parallels God’s view of justice, otherwise the term lacks any analogous meaning.” We call this the “analogy of being,” which issues forth in an “analogy of language.” A good way to illustrate this is by our understanding of what it means to love our children. I love my children more than anything on earth. In other words, I know what it means to “love.” When God speaks of himself in such a way (i.e., as a loving father), we are right to believe that our understanding of love parallels what God means. In other words, God’s definition of “love” is not going to be parallel to our definition of “hate;” it should parallel to the affection we feel for our children. We can know objectively what it means to love and have confidence in our conclusions about God’s love for us.
Concerning this, Cook says:
Chan asks, “Do you ever even consider the possibility that maybe the creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours?” Of course it is in one sense, but if God’s concept of justice is radically different from ours, then it makes no sense for us to call God “just” anymore. If we are to talk about “justice” at all, the definition must hold for ants as well as deities, otherwise we are talking of apples and oranges and all such language breaks down.
Again, Cook seems to be reading something into Chan’s statement that I did not see. He seems to be implicitly accusing Chan (and, by extension, all those who believe in the traditional doctrine of Hell) of denying the analogy of being in order to hold on to a doctrine of eternal punishment. In order to qualify for Cook’s “radically different,” those who believe in an eternal hell have to redefine “justice” to mean “injustice”.
As I said, I don’t see Chan saying this at all. In fact, when I watched the video I was impressed with Chan’s carefully chosen words when he said, “maybe the creator’s sense of justice is actually more developed than yours” (emphasis mine). This is exactly what Christians believe, isn’t it?
There are two things to keep in mind in reference to the analogy of being with regard to this issue:
1. God’s justice is more developed than ours. While I know what it means to love my children, this only parallels what it means for God to love us. It in no way should be assumed that it captures the fullness of God’s love. God’s love is actually more than just “more developed” than our love. It is perfect. We can not have a true conception of God’s love without having a full conception of God’s love.
2. Most importantly, while we do believe that people should possess the proper expressions of the image of God and thereby have analogous understandings of concepts such as “love” and “justice,” we are sinners. We are fallen. We are corrupted. And sometimes, even as Christians, we can manipulate God’s revelation for our own desires. If not, how can we give any credence to passages such as these:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent–the LORD detests them both.
You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.
You have wearied the LORD with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”
In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
The point I make here is not academic. It is very spiritual. Our sinfulness can and often does cause us to call justice evil. In doing so, we are denying the analogy of being through our fallenness.
Chan was right in the video to preface all conversation about hell with this reality. We all too often have the tendency to conduct our own divine tribunals, placing God and his revelation on the witness stand. And you know what? We are just crafty enough to deem him guilty of not abiding by our sin-tainted senses of morality and justice.
Cook goes on (and I think this is where he is really getting to his own beef with the doctrine of Hell):
“There is no state of affairs in which it is appropriate to incarcerate a human being in a state of eternal, conscious torment.” As I suggested before, this requires a response from those who hold the traditional view of hell; they must show that it is in fact “just” to do so. The response that “God knows things we don’t” or “God does things we wouldn’t do” is insufficient here (In philosophical jargon, this is a “phantom argument”).
I would have to disagree. There is a state of affairs in which eternal conscious torment is appropriate: in God’s kingdom. If the Bible truly teaches the doctrine of eternal torment (and I believe it does) then we necessarily find ourselves in such a “state of affairs.”
Though I don’t know Jeff Cook, I do know Scot McKnight. I don’t know whether Scot evaluated Jeff’s comments before they were posted on the blog, but knowing Scot, I’d be surprised if he agreed with this one: “The response that, ‘God knows things we don’t’ or ‘God does things we wouldn’t do’ is insufficient here.” I have one question: When is it sufficient? When is it sufficient to trust God knows what he is doing? When is it sufficient to say that his ways are greater than our ways? When is it sufficient to say that his judgments are greater than ours? If not here, when? This does not prove the doctrine of eternal punishment is indeed true, but the doctrine of our insufficiency to elevate our morality above God’s is. There simply are times when we have to punt our understanding and knowledge to God’s.
While there is a lot more that can be said, I think it is important for us to realize that our faith does take faith. In other words, while our faith in God is not a blind irrational faith, God is at liberty to explain things to us or withhold explanation without explanation. Sometimes our beliefs will be hard to believe.
When I lose sight of this, I turn to a pagan king named Nebuchadnezzar who learned this lesson the hard way:
His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
There will be times when we are tempted to hold back his hand in our own sense of righteousness. If not, this passage has no meaning. There are times when God will move his hand (in judgment) and we will think we are doing people a service by holding it back with all our might. But do we really want to be in such a position? Do we really want to be among those accusing God of unrighteousness, saying “Give account for yourself”? Do we really want to accuse God of incompetence and injustice, then redefine him for the sake of our palate?
I am reminded of an illustration of a child, hanging from the balcony as a fire rages in her house. Her dad calls for her to let go and trust that he will catch her. God calls on us to trust him. A lot of what he has revealed makes perfect sense and parallels how we might do things. Other things leave us on the balcony with the prospect of falling to the hard ground. I actually hope that people who deny eternal punishment are right. But I have no liberty to manipulate my hopes into doctrine. I simply trust that God is infinitely more just, loving, and moral than I am and let go.
I am not saying that I know Cook is looking for loopholes to the doctrine of eternal punishment. I just imagine that this is what he and so many others are doing. Why? Because it is what I am tempted to do. We manipulate the truth and hold on tight to the balcony while God calls on us to let go. The question is, are we willing to let go?