Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Aw, Hell

I remember vividly sitting in my Introduction to Theology class at Texas Lutheran.  One of my classmates made a comment to the professor about the devil.

My professor replied, "I don't know what you are talking about."

The student said, "Satan.  The devil.  The guy talked about in the Bible."

The professor responded, "I don't believe in the devil, so I don't know what you are talking about."

A bit of hyperbole on my professor's part, but his point was made abundantly clear.  He didn't believe in the devil.  None of us in the class were willing to challenge him on this assertion.  It's little doubt why.  Our grades hung in the balance.

Yet, it was a bewildering thought to me how a professor of theology who was an ordained pastor and practicing Christian could blatantly admit no belief in the devil--especially in light of what Jesus revealed to us in Scripture.  Yet, as time progressed, and I learned more, I began to understand.

I also found out, my college professor was not alone.  More and more folks in the "progressive" strain of Christianity do not believe in the devil, Satan, or even hell.  And as I perused the Living Lutheran website the other day, I found one more--the head of an ELCA seminary.

Dr. David Lose published an article titled, "Do We Miss Hell?"


You can read the following in context, but I will delve into a few things in succession:

For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given it’s relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell.
There are a few assumptions here.  First off, the idea that a "scant" amount of discussion in scripture equals a sense of unimportance.  I mean, geez, the idea of hell was only conveyed by Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate as He taught his followers and others.  Sure, it only seems to be relegated to the New Testament to the friggin' teachings of Jesus, but it's scant.  O.K.  Am I the only one who kind of sees this as a fishy assumption?  What else did Jesus say that we can simply ignore because it is "scant?"  Anyone?  Anyone?  Let's not play this little game here.  Jesus made reference to hell numerous times, and unless you want to say the NT writers were not credible--which there are more than a few who do--then you've got to deal with what Jesus said.  And if you decide to go down the road of simply dismissing such sayings as "Matthew's Jesus," then I am equally able to dismiss any other saying of Jesus in the same attributive fashion.

Second point--the God we know in Jesus doesn't consign someone to hell.  Dr. Lose should know better.  We consign ourselves to hell.  Read Dante's inferno.  Dr. Lose seems to be heavily influenced by the "far right of the religious spectrum" instead of the orthodox understanding of what hell really is--separation from God.  The fact of the matter is: God loves us enough to allow us to chase our deepest heart's desire for eternity; and if that desire is not God, then we will chase that other desire forever and never, ever be satisfied--hell. 

I must move on to more of Lose's article to continue the points:

What, that is, is the motivation for our gathering, our giving, our serving and volunteering? At least things were pretty clear when you had heaven as the carrot and hellfire as the stick. But what now? Even heaven seems increasingly difficult to talk about, as we perhaps too narrowly defined it as, well, the opposite of hell. So if we don’t have the mother-of-all reward-and-punishment schemes to fall back on, have we figured out exactly what we’re offering people. Community? Perhaps, though a little vague. Justice, certainly, though harder to attain (especially, some might argue, absent the threat of hell). Abundant life? This one appeals greatly to me but has been at times co-opted by the prosperity-gospel folks on the one side and Madison Avenue on the other.
*Sigh.*  The mother of all reward and punishment schemes.  Really?  I am starting to hope this article is tongue and cheek.  I really am hoping so.  With Luther's explanation to the eighth commandment ringing in my ears, I am desperately hoping Dr. Lose is being blatantly humorous here.   What is the motivation for our gathering, our grieving, our serving, and our volunteering?

Nothing less than what God has done for us.  But before I get to that, one more paragraph:

I think if the mainline traditions are going to have a future, we need to be far clearer about why we gather and what we imagine participation in our communities yields. I’m not advocating for a return to hell, mind you, just recognizing that we need to recognize that in a world of many faiths, many narratives, and many, many ways to make sense of our lives, we need to get straight what we think is the heart of the Christian faith and offer that in as winsome and compelling a way as possible. I don’t miss hell, but I’m not sure we’ve quite figured out what to do without. And that needs to change.
Yes, we live in a world of many faiths, many narratives, and many, many ways to make sense of our lives; however not all of these faiths, narratives, and ways are equal or truthful.  There is such a thing as objective Truth--even if we cannot know it objectively.  And Christianity stakes its claim on the God who became flesh and lived among us--the God who knew we were making a mess out of our relationships and our world--the God who loved us so much, He could not stand to see our destructive behavior toward Him and toward one another and after numerous times of trying to get us to change our ways through punishment and obedience to the Law, sent His Son to perfectly fulfill the Law, to pay for our sin, and to clothe us with His righteousness.  And on the third day to rise again to point us toward the hope to which we are guaranteed--a new heaven and a new earth with no separation from God.

Oh, I know.  I know.  The most difficult thing for most folks outside the Christian narrative to accept is their sinfulness or how that sinfulness has separated them from God.  I know the idea of original sin is passe in some circles.  I know many folks in the mainline and emergent church tend to talk about sin in terms of corporate structures.  I get that.  But the Gospel is meant for individuals to begin with.  "Truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above."  (John 3:3).  And if one is truly honest with one's self, one knows one is sinful.  Evidence abounds for this.  The desire to be our own god and rule our own little worlds reigns supreme in damn near everyone.  ("If everyone would just do what I say, then everything would work out fine," said everyone at some particular point and time in their lives.)

And yet, when the Gospel takes hold, a corporate structure begins to take shape:

Worship becomes the place where we gather in thanksgiving for what God has done through Jesus--to place Jesus at the center of our hearts and lives as we strive to combat all the other false gods which diligently sink their claws into us to pull us away from the One, True God.  Worship becomes the place where the Good News--the Gospel--is announced over and over and over again:  God, through Jesus has accomplished salvation for you!  Live into that freedom!  This Gospel cannot be lived out.  You cannot accomplish what Jesus accomplished.  It is already done.  Period.  It is no "mother of all reward and punishment schemes."  Every other world religion and philosophy operates in that fashion.  Those are all the ones which say "do this, and you will be rewarded."  Christianity says, "You are rewarded (accepted), now do this."  It stands alone in that category and is blatantly contrary to the way the world operates.

And when you know you are accepted...
When you know you are justified...
When you know that even in the midst of your failure, you are loved...
When you know the cost God paid to claim you...

You can't help but want to worship Him and lift your voice.  For in Him is life--abundant life right here and now.  A life, not full of wealth and riches (although some are lucky to acquire them), but a life full of peace and joy knowing one does not have to work to justify one's self.  One can freely engage in love without fear and anger. 

And if fear and anger take root in you...
If you feel like you constantly have to justify yourself...
If you think wealth, or health, or sex, or property, or what have you will satisfy...

You already have hell grasping at you.

But, aw, hell, what do I know?
For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given its relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2014/09/140911-Do-we-miss-hell#sthash.eO9H4oBt.dpuf
For the last few decades at least, you see, “hell” has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given its relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we’ve figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2014/09/140911-Do-we-miss-hell#sthash.eO9H4oBt.dpuf

3 comments:

John said...

Liberals like Dr. Lose have a fatal bias: they think most people think like them. They have mistaken the fringe for the core. The UCC and TEC are ample examples that they will "inclusionize" their denominations out of existence. Meanwhile, the world is desperate to hear the Gospel of salvation from a hell that is all too real. Keep preaching, brother Christian.

Anonymous said...

What do you know? A lot more than most Lutheran college and seminary professors!

Kathy Suarez said...

Luther left the Catholic Church for much less.