A HELL of a Problem

If you have checked out my “Blogs-O-Interest” page, you may have seen the one called “Open Mike.” Mike published a post there today which prompted me to write what turned out to be a rather lengthy response. I submitted the response on his blog. But I thought it would also be good to put it here on TLW. Obviously, that means that I need to paste in his post first. So here it is:

Weighing Scripture
Posted on December 17, 2010 by Mike Hamel
Many Christians would like nothing more than to reject the orthodox doctrine of hell but their high regard for Scripture prevents this. Can a Christian believe in the Bible and also believe that God will save everyone?

“Obviously, if a Christian must believe the Bible is the ‘infallible words of God,’ the answer is no,’” admit Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland in their book, If Grace Is True:

There are too many verses about judgment, hell, and the eternal punishment of the wicked to make such optimism reasonable. If you are unwilling to question the Bible, neither my experiences nor my arguments will carry much weight. I had to abandon my need to protect every word of Scripture in order to consider what I now believe to be the core message of the Bible.
If you believe every statement or story about God recorded in Scripture is equally true, nothing I can say will alter your conviction that God will save some and damn the rest. But I suspect many, like me, have struggled to reconcile the often contradictory biblical images of God.
… Weighing Scripture is discerning which Scriptures accurately reflect God’s character. If all Scripture is equally inspired and authoritative, God is as likely to swallow us up in an earthquake or drown us in a flood as God is to forgive our sin and take us into his arms.
… Weighing Scripture allows for the possibility that some descriptions of God and his behavior are inaccurate.”

Weighing Scripture is something all readers do, whether they realize it or not. And I realize that for most of my readers, the above paragraph goes too far. But it is an honest effort in a worthy cause—understanding God and his dealings with humanity.

We don’t all reach the same conclusions as a result of our study but we should be open to considering different perspectives from sincere people. Whether the dialogue confirms or changes what we believe, it can be a valuable, albeit discomforting, process.

And now here is my (KC’s) response:

Hey, Mike —
I appreciate you bringing this to the fore again. Personally, I don’t think American evangelical Christians do enough thinking about hell. If the doctrine is right, the dearth of treatment that this subject gets from the pulpit is truly scandalous. There should more preaching on it for the sake of the “converted!”

I also want to express appreciation and hearty agreement with your final paragraph. I have no doubt at all that if I were to encounter Gulley and Mulholland in person, we would share warm fellowship in the Lord. And if I were to read the whole book, I would probably find much food for thought and would at least hold them in good regard as Christians thinkers.

However, in the excerpts you have shared here, I see some problems.
As I have written to you before, I think there are better reasons for believing in a less than totally strict exclusivism than having to question the veracity of the Bible. It would be far better to point to the significant amount of energy the Scripture puts toward the inclusiveness of God and to show that, at many points, the Scriptures themselves seem to impel the faithful reader toward hope for a more inclusive salvation. Then the work of the Bible scholar and the exegete would be to iron out how these seemingly inconsistent scriptural impulses coalesce into a right understanding of what God is doing with the vast majority of people in the world who do not “know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” I am ready—even eager—to adopt a much more inclusive soteriology, if persuaded via an approach of this sort.

So far, though, I have not been able to get there. The most I can hope for is that, on that great day of our meeting, the Lord will have shown Himself to be a cleverer and more tricky Savior than I can as yet see. I fully suspect that even as Paul tells us that the Jews of his day read Moses with a veil over their hearts, we Christians are going to find out that we read both Moses and Paul (as well as the rest) with a similar veil. I’m guessing that just as the Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots and others were reading the Scriptures in their different erroneous ways, we will find that we too will have our vision corrected by our Lord when He returns. But the key is that all these people were serious Bible-believing (though not all accepting the same texts) folks who thought they were reading God’s word aright. The Zealots, for example, thought the Messiah would be one kind of leader, but He turned out to be something else entirely. Perhaps a similar corrections awaits us who believe that all who perish outside of the faith will be sent to hell forever.

Yet the most we—or at least I—can say for now is “Maybe.” But for every coin that reads “maybe,” there is another side that says “maybe not.” And since my dreams of an inclusive salvation just might turn out to be in error, I dare not fail to preach or teach the dangers of leaving this life without a real faith in Christ.

Now, as for the things included in your excerpt from Gulley and Mulholland, my charge against them here is that their language, their talk about the Scriptures is anemic and paltry. It always is with “limited inerrancy” types. Of course, “every statement or story about God recorded in Scripture is equally true;” as believers in Christ, they should believe this and not set it up as an unfortunate and misplaced zeal on the part of many of their brothers and sisters. The question they should be asking is: ‘In what way is this or that passage true?’

It is clear that not all Scripture is the same type or genre of literature and the work of interpretation is not always to be conducted in the same way with every passage. Real problems come when people read biblical poetry, for example, as if it were an epistle. Narrative must be read for what it is too. But we don’t look for the setting, characters and plot of a poem or a letter. The apocalyptic genre brings a bunch of wild challenges of its own. And so on and so on it goes.

Yet ALL of these kinds of Scripture are EQUALLY true. At the risk of sounding postmodern (which doesn’t bother me at all), I can strongly aver that The Chronicles of Narnia are “true” stories. The question is: How are they true? This would be a much more respectful way for the likes of Gulley and Mulholland to talk about the Scriptures than to suggest that they are “fallible” or “inaccurate”—yuck! (BTW, I do not say, myself, that the Scriptures are true only in the same way that Lewis’s fantasy books are.)

Looking at the second to last paragraph of your excerpt, I find myself scratching my head. How in the world can I “discern which Scriptures accurately reflect God’s character,” when I have already poisoned the well of my most reliable source for knowing that character. If the Bible is to be questioned, then I have little way of knowing God’s character. Oh sure, I have “nature” and human intuition and reason. History is enough to show that these guides are not only insufficient but tend to lead those who trust them too much into quite twisted beliefs. I realize the Gulley and Mulholland probably don’t mean to dishonor God, but I would suggest to them that there is something very uppity about thinking that they are fit to judge the Scriptures. And there is simply no other way to slice it, as far as I can see. They see themselves and (I presume) others whose opinions the like as being up to the task of judging the Bible. Yikes!

Now I look at the next sentence and find that there are some serious problems. They write, “If all Scripture is equally inspired and authoritative, God is as likely to swallow us up in an earthquake or drown us in a flood as God is to forgive our sin and take us into his arms.” First of all the examples and the way they are used here seem to show a hermeneutic that is both unskilled and simplistic. I would point again to the need for understanding the various kinds of literature that God has given us in His word.

But beyond that is the problem that the very logic which brings forth their sentence makes just as much sense in reverse. Here is what I would say: If Scripture is NOT all equally inspired, then God is as likely to swallow us up in an earthquake or drown us in a flood as God is to forgive our sin and take us into his arms. If some of what the Bible reveals to us about the character of God is to be accepted and some is to be rejected, why should it be the “nice” things that are believed? Just ‘cause we prefer it that way? I think the ice is getting pretty thin here…

Well again, Mike, thanks for the challenge! I hope you can tell that I hold you in very high regard, disagreements of this sort notwithstanding.

I look forward to the day when we can get that cup of coffee. 🙂
Shalom, my brother!
– KC

Postscript:
If anyone is interested in reading more of my thought on this very important topic (I’m sure there must be hundreds of you out there! 🙂 ), I would point you to my paper, “The Hospitable Kingdom,” found here.

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3 thoughts on “A HELL of a Problem

  1. If we could continue this discussion in person, it should be in a pub, not a coffee house. It’s what a professor friend of mine calls a “pipe & stein” discussion. Your comments about the book I quote are valid. It is written on a pastoral, not academic, level. The argument has holes but I like the heart behind it.

    I think your analogy about how Jesus was misunderstood by the Bible-reading Jews of his day is right on target. Humility is in order as we grapple with weighty ideas, especially considering the equipment we have to work with . . . “Running the show is the brain, an aquatic organ comprised of eighty-five percent water, leaving about five ounces of solid tissue to do all the work. This spongy mass accounts for two percent of our weight yet consumes twenty percent of our intake of calories and oxygen.”

    Five ounces to comprehend the eternal, hmmm.

    Have a blessed Christmas my friend.

    Mike

    • The phrase, as I used to hear it, was “pipe and beer.” But your version sounds more authentically original. 🙂
      Sounds good! Count me in!
      I get what you mean about the brain, but it probably bears giving a response somewhat to the side of your intent.
      If the physiology of the human brain were all the apparatus at our disposal, there would be no difference between us and the likes of Richard Dawkins–except that his is probably a better running machine.
      “For who has known the mind of the Lord…? But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Cor. 2:16)
      May the Lord bless you and Susan and your clan this Christmas!

  2. I am in firm agreement with the lack of Hell being preached from the pulpit. (yes, insert a little humor in the way I stated it). Humility, and a stronger sense of who we are in Christ Jesus would be our blessing from the Father to be sure.

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