Archive | Difficult Issues in Scripture

Can I Reject an Eternal Hell and Still Be Saved?

I don’t really like this question. No, let me be stronger: I hate this question. Please forgive me. I understand the question and empathize with it on just about every level, no matter what it’s source may be (philosophical, biblical, or emotional). However, when you ask me this question you put me in a difficult position. I want to be as honest as possible, yet remain aware of the pastoral nature that addressing this subject requires. In other words, it is not an impossible question, and should never be seen as such.

This question, and others like it, are becoming more and more common today.

  • If I become a Christian, do I have to believe in Hell?
  • Do I have to believe that those who have never heard of Christ are going to hell?
  • Does God really elect some people to go to heaven and not others?
  • Do I have to believe in inerrancy, a six-day creation, the sinfulness of homosexuality, or the reality of a literal being named Satan? Really?

Don’t get me wrong, not all these questions have equal gravity. Some are more debatable than others. Moreover, there are many questions similar to these which leave me relatively unsure that I have the best answer. Therefore, it is not so much the questions themselves that are most important. The difficulty comes down to the fact that we are often tempted to give people a loophole to theological issues that may be, otherwise, too intellectually or emotionally unpalatable. Often, for the sake of peoples’ acceptance, we will reduce the tenets of Christianity down to a minimal set of truths that are the easiest to swallow.

In some ways, it is not unlike another question that I don’t like: “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?” I was asked this by my sister in 2003. I was asked this by my very depressed sister in 2003. I did not want to answer. At least I did not want to answer honestly. I believed my answer would somehow give her permission to do something we all feared she was about to do.

Technically speaking, whether or not one believes in an eternal hell, a literal Satan, or whether or not God used evolution to create man, these issues, while important, are not cardinal issues of the Gospel. What I mean by this is, if you push my back against the wall, I would not say that someone who says they don’t believe in a literal Satan is not a Christian. Nor would I say that all the other questions, including the one concerning the existence of an eternal hell, is so doctrinally central that a denial of such is a damnable offense (or evidence of one’s retribution). This would include the question of suicide. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin, nor does it keep people outside the gates of heaven. (Though I would often rather this to remain a secret.)

So, if someone asks me these theological questions in a more academic or objective sense (which is almost never the case), I am comfortable—indeed obligated—to say that their respective positions regarding such beliefs do not evidence or determine their status as a child of God (as I was with my sister who, as some of you know, did commit suicide in 2004). But I am not a fan of making Christianity “palatable enough” for anyone to accept. In other words, my goal is not to win you to a Christ that is necessarily easy to believe or follow. And I am afraid that some of those who are attempting to be theologically astute wind up becoming academically agnostic. That is, they are agnostic enough to find every place where they don’t have to take a stand, which allows them to remain neutral for the sake of evangelism. Continue Reading →

Is God an Egotistical Maniac?


“It is absurd to believe that the deity has human passions, and one of the lowest human passions, a restless appetite for applause.” -David Hume

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31 31

“Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God . . . so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” 1 Peter 4:11

There is a popular notion among Evangelicals that I think has become part of our folklore. Indeed, it is the shibboleth (secret pass code) of my fellow Calvinists. When I call this “folklore” I don’t necessarily mean “not true” (as we will see), I simply mean that it is uncritically accepted without much thought. Many would say that God’s sole purpose, intent, and motivation for creating humanity and all of creation was for His own self-glorification. If you were to ask God, “Why did you create us?”, his answer, without hesitation, would be, “Easy, to glorify myself.”

Many unbelievers will bring this up as a primary point of departure from the Christian faith. They would say that the Christian God is an egotistical maniac, only out for his own self-glory. As one person put it: “If I had a child I would not bring him into this world and say, ‘Congratulations, I created you to worship me’. I would not want a son simply to serve me.” He goes on, “I never asked to participate in this game of life. I was nothing and then I was created simply to serve him or I’d have to burn for eternity?” He goes on to accuse God of being egotistical, sharing in the most base traits of humanity. Is this true? Does God have a “relentless appetite for applause”?

Wrong Answers

Wrong answer #1: Yes, God is an egomaniac. But it is okay since he is God.

This is the answer many people would give (though not in so many words!). The idea is that being self-serving and demanding of recognition is acceptable so long as the recognition is warranted. It’s only bad when we do it because we don’t deserve it. Therefore, God’s egotism is a “righteous egotism.” What is base and sinful for man is not so with God.

I am going to let you in on a little secret. I am from Oklahoma. We have a certain way of getting by with things here through the way we talk. We can sanctify many conversations by using certain qualifiers. For example, we can get by with any gossip by simply adding the words “God bless his/her/their soul” to the end of the sentence. “Did you hear about Bobby and Susan? They are having marital problems, God bless their souls.” “I hear  Rick is starting to drink again, God bless his soul.” I think we have something similar in Christianity. We can attribute just about anything to God so long as we tag it with the word “righteous.” God is vindictive, but it is a “righteous vindictiveness.” God is jealous, but it is a “righteous jealousy.” God is cruel, but it is a “righteous cruelty.” I think we need to be careful here. Sometimes these things are true, such as God’s jealousy (Deut. 5:9). But simply placing the word “righteous” in front of the character trait does not often do justice to what is trying to be said. Continue Reading →

How Do I Stay Sane and Believe in Hell?

Below is an email (edited) that I received recently. How would you respond? Please speak directly to John Doe.

“Dear Michael,

Right now I am in a crisis of faith and am in great need of your advice.

[He then talks about the abusive and legalistic Christian environment he grew up in]

Right now, intellectually I believe in double predestination but emotionally I am a Universalist. If I allow my emotions to bleed into my intellect then I will become a heretic and if I allow my intellect to bleed into my emotions I will become suicidal. In other words, I can’t handle the truth, so I lie to myself.

In an attempt to become consistent I read some of Jonathan Edwards. His view seems to be that because God hates the damned, the saints in heaven will also hate the damned and will rejoice over their misery. I thought that maybe we as Christians should do likewise, so I watched a bunch of YouTube videos by Fred Phelps (the “God-hates-fags”, funeral picketing guy). He argues that God hates the reprobate more than Satan hates the elect and that therefore we should hate non-Christians. I grew up with a lot of abusive, unstable, racist, paranoid relatives so I have seen what hate looks like. It’s a very ugly thing, but what’s really scary is that there’s a part of me that enjoys watching Fred Phelps; that enjoys the adrenaline that comes with stomping on another human being with your mind. I watched Fred Phelps the other morning, and for the rest of the day I felt like I wanted to fight somebody, so I decided to not watch him anymore.

My question that I desperately need answering is: **How do you believe in hell without becoming a suicidal psychopath?** All my life I have struggled with mental illness and my main goal has been peace of mind. I have sought peace in religion but many a time it has been an aggravator and not a soother. I am in a part of my life where I’m going through religious change and am afraid that I may abandon orthodoxy for the sake of the emotional stability that I have so desperately sought all my life.

I realize that such is dangerous because even benign quirks in theology will lead to illogical patters in life. Right now I’m very close to deciding to never have children because they’ll probably go to hell (there’s a part of me that suspects that the vast majority humans do) and it is cruel and evil to bring souls into existence that are probably doomed to damnation. They’ll probably grow up in a world ruled by homosexuals and Muslims. I have become so bitter that I have come to often feel that God hates humanity; that He delights in our misery. I still love God, but I’m starting to love Him in a Stockholm-Syndrome, Battered-Woman, masochistic kind of way. There’s a part of me that feels like I should never get married because my wife will probably go to hell, in fact, it may just be better if I become super reclusive and not have any relationships because everybody’s going to go to hell. There have even been times when I felt like I would probably go to hell and that I should torture myself in order to prepare myself for the afterlife. Michael, I think I’m losing my mind.

People have told me that this should motivate me to evangelize but every time I have tried to I make myself look like an absolute nut and push people away from the faith. I think my mental health makes this very difficult and I have come to think that maybe I have no purpose in life. Maybe God just created me to suffer.”

Did Jesus Turn Water into Wine or Grape Juice?

The issue of alcohol and the Christian is an incredibly volatile subject causing great division and stern judgments on both sides. I have been deeply affected by this issue myself, as I have many friends and family members who are controlled by alcohol. I am not a teetotaler, but I rarely drink. I don’t like wine. Some beers are pretty good. I like tequila. But if the consumption of alcohol were made illegal, I would not even really notice.

There are so many different positions out there with regard to this issue. Let me try to name a few:

  1. Those who abstain from alcohol and believe that this is the biblical position for everyone.
  2. Those who abstain from alcohol but don’t believe this is a biblical mandate to enforce on others.
  3. Those who drink alcohol only for “celebratory” purposes (i.e., Lord’s table), but don’t get drunk.
  4. Those who casually drink wine or beer, but abstain from “hard liquor” and don’t get drunk.
  5. Those who casually drink alcohol in order to feel “merry” or “tipsy” but don’t get drunk.
  6. Those who drink alcohol and get drunk occasionally but are not “drunkards” (i.e. addicted).

Outside of this, all Christians would (or should) agree that being addicted to alcohol is expressly forbidden in Scripture, as it relinquishes control of our faculties to alcohol rather than to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Paul warns Timothy about such abuses with regard to the qualifications of a deacon (1 Tim. 3:8) and elders (1 Tim. 3:3).

I am not going to discuss here which of the above positions is correct. However, I do want to discuss one passage of Scripture that infuses the debate over alcohol with great passion. It is the subject of Christ and his relation to alcohol while here on earth. Most specifically, I want to ask the question of whether Christ, during the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in John 2, turned the water into wine, unfermented grape juice, or something else. Here is the text:

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

This question raised by this passage does indeed contribute a great deal to the overall debate. For if Christ turned the water into an alcoholic beverage, then his participation in the issue certainly does not bode well for those who preach that the biblical position requires Christians to abstain from alcohol altogether. He would have been serving as a bartender, if you will, at a celebration where abuse of alcohol certainly may have taken place. More than that, there is no reason to doubt that he himself would have drunk this wine.

Yet some maintain that the wine Jesus produced was a non-fermented type of wine called “new wine” (kainos neos). In this case, it would be like grape juice. Others believe that the wine Jesus created was watered down so much that one would have to suffer a severe bladder problem in order to get drunk. However, neither of these interpretations are supported by the best textual scholarship, and seem to be driven by a desire to maintain a rigid teetotaler position.

New Wine is Unfermented Wine? Continue Reading →

Was James Being Legalistic in Acts 15? or “Can I Eat a Rare Steak?”

Last week I went to lunch with a student here in Edmond, OK. While I rarely get the chance, whenever I can, I go to a stake joint just down the road. I love steaks. After I ordered, the waitress asked the normal question: “How would you like that cooked?” “Medium rare” I responded. As always I am informed that “medium rare” means that it will be very red inside. Translation: it will be bloody. “I know what it means . . . give it to me.” But am I sinning by eating blood? According to James in Acts 15, I may be.

In Acts 15, we find the first council of church history (at least, that we know of). It is sometimes called the “Jerusalem Council”. Let me explain the occasion of the council. In Antioch there were large numbers of Gentiles who had come to the faith. However, there were certain Jewish Christians who were teaching these Gentiles that they had to be circumcised in order to be truly saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas did not like this much (as you can imagine). Therefore, they began to dispute with these Jews. The Christians in Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all with the head honchos (Acts 15:2). Continue Reading →