Friday, June 10, 2011

The Divided Waters (Part 2)

Why I don’t believe in limited salvation or the existence of hell

-Some argue that hell exists because of God’s wrath and because the Bible says that God “hates” certain people. In arguing from this angle, one forgets that the ancient Israelites were known to speak and write in hyperbole (obvious and intentional exaggeration) in order to illustrate a point. They had no word in their language for “like” or “dislike,” so they used the terms “love” and “hate.” Romans 9:13 states, “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” God is said to have “hated” Esau because He disapproved of some of his actions and did not select him for the same purpose as his brother Jacob. However, God later redeemed Esau and reconciled him with Jacob. These don’t sound like hateful actions. In Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is not telling his disciples to despise their parents and siblings with blood-boiling hatred, nor is he ordering them to loathe their own lives. He’s simply telling them to prioritize God over people.
As for wrath, the Greek equivalent of the word is “orgee.” Orgee means anger. It’s interchangeable with the word “vengeance” and it means “to repay.” God does not repay with inordinate punishments, but doles out a consequence that is equal to the crime. The famous “eye for an eye” legal code was introduced in Exodus 21:24 in order to prevent punishments that were far too severe. It was not meant literally, but used as a means to ensure that the repercussion fit the crime. The Bible describes God’s discipline as carefully and fairly measured (Romans 2:6; Leviticus 24:18-20; Psalm 62:12). No sin would be proportional to never-ending punishment, since eternity is immeasurable.
There are some Biblical passages in which God becomes angry at various clans of people and says He will show them no mercy. Withholding mercy is not a permanent judgment, though. It means He will not relent from disciplining people until they have learned their lesson. Even striking them dead is not a final judgment. God causes the sinners to die physically, but also causes them to die to their sin (Romans 6:7, 7:9; 2 Corinthians 4:11). Their physical death is not final either, as they will be resurrected in the future.
In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus says, “Every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not…either in this age or in the age to come.” Some cite this as evidence that God doesn’t always forgive. This verse does not mean they will never be forgiven, though. It’s reasonable to speculate that their redemption will take place at a later time, or that they must face an appropriate penalty before being absolved. “In the age to come” is not synonymous with “forever.” Plenty of people also presume that Matthew 7:21 and Luke 13:23-28 refer to some being eternally separated from the kingdom of heaven, but neither of these passages indicate permanent estrangement from God. There may be temporary separation, but the people discussed in those passages will receive another chance. In Hebrews 3:16-19, the concept of “never entering God’s rest” is commonly read to mean that the Israelites who disobeyed God were forever barred from heaven, but it actually means they were not able to enter the  Promised Land on earth.

-In early Scriptural manuscripts written in Hebrew and Greek, people are not said to be eternally punished. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated to “forever/everlasting/eternal” is “olam.” Olam describes an undetermined amount of time, not necessarily eternity. It also meant “of God,” “age-abiding,” or “of the age to come.” In the New Testament, the word translated to “eternity” or “forever” is aion. “Aion” is the Greek version of “olam.” Some assert that aion and olam mean eternal because the words are used to describe God. However, they are also ascribed to the amount of time Jonah spent inside the big fish. He was in the fish’s stomach for three days.
The word “aion” is translated to “time” in 1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” Obviously in this case, aion does not mean eternity. “Before eternity began” would make no sense, because eternity has no beginning. In the same way, eternity doesn’t make sense in the context of “eternal” life, because both our physical lives and afterlives have a beginning. The original phrase was “aionious” life. In this context, it meant “of the age to come.” This related to the age following the Second Coming of Christ, when the world will be rebuilt and reconciled with God.
The word “aion” is translated to “for ages past” in Ephesians 3:8-9: “…and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.” Obviously “aion” does not mean forever in this verse. An eternal secret would never be revealed, yet it is being revealed in this passage.
Even if the original Scriptures had spoken of eternity, it could be viewed as hyperbole. Regardless, the early manuscripts don’t speak in terms of eternity unless the verses pertain to God’s nature.

-Words relating to fire and torture are also vastly misunderstood. In both the Old and New Testament, fire is a metaphor for correction. It is used to refine a person, not to senselessly torment them. Malachi 3:2 describes God as “like a refiner’s fire.” It logically follows that the Lake of Fire is a refining fire as well. According to Mark 9:49, “Everyone will be salted [refined/corrected] with fire.” If the description of fire in this verse were to be read literally and associated with hell, it would mean that everyone will be damned. Obviously, this isn’t the case.
As for torture, the original Greek word is kolazo. This was translated into English as “torture.” However, the New Testament Greek lexicon defines it differently: “1. To lop or prune, as trees and wings. 2. To curb, check, restrain. 3. To chastise, correct, punish. 3. To cause to be punished.” None of these definitions entail torture. Most refer to correction, which would be a pointless process if it were everlasting. The only definition which could possibly relate to torture would be “to punish.”
There is a distinction between punishment and torture. Torture is sadistic and cruel, which are not qualities of God. Punishment serves the purpose of correction, however, and rehabilitation is punishment’s ultimate goal. You discipline an unruly child with the intent to teach him, not to torture him. You don’t hate your child when he is disobedient. In the same way, God doesn’t hate us when we rebel. He seeks to reconcile us to Himself. Consider Romans 5:8: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Compare this statement with Romans 11:32: “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
If God hated sinners, He wouldn’t have reached out to us. This doesn’t mean we face no repercussions for our sins. It simply means the repercussions are doled out in love. According to Hebrews 12:5-6, “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as His son.” This theme is repeated in Job 5:17; Psalm 94:12; Proverbs 3:11-12; 1 Timothy 1:20; Deuteronomy 8:5; and Revelation 3:19. Since everyone will face discipline in the upcoming age, we can conclude that God loves all of us enough to improve us.
According to world-renowned Greek scholar and translator William Barclay, “The Greek word for punishment here [Matthew 25:46] is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.”

-A lot of people think that passages about “death,” “destruction,” or “perishing” relate to hell. They actually relate to three different things, none of which include eternal torture. First, the use of the word “death” is not always metaphorical. It sometimes refers to literal physical death. Secondly, it can allude to the figurative death of sin. When the Lake of Fire (in which the “fire” symbolizes refinement and correction) is called “the second death,” one can deduce that it refers to the death of sin which follows physical death. The Lake of Fire is discussed in Revelations, which describes the day in which all the dead will be resurrected and fully reformed. Our reformation is both physical and spiritual. According to the text, we will be honed, fixed, and ultimately healed. Thus, the second death is the death of our sinful nature. The “fire” itself is not eternal, but its results are everlasting. We're not destroyed when our sin is destroyed. Instead, we are renewed. A sinner is “destroyed” in the same sense that you can destroy an enemy by making him into a friend.
“Destruction” and “perishing” can also mean general harm or failure, such as in the context of “the path that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13) or “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16; Proverbs 18:24).
Romans 9-11 makes much more sense to me when read in this context. I interpret it to say that God elects certain people to have specific knowledge and to carry out certain tasks. God allows others to be immoral so that people will learn from them. However, “destruction” does not mean they will be unredeemed forever (See 2 Samuel 14:14 and Romans 11:25-32). In the same way that we can misread the concept of destruction, we also tend to use “saved” or “salvation” as catchall terms. Being saved could mean being restored or being guided toward a productive and healthy path. It can also refer to the preservation of one’s physical life. In light of the other definitions, one can see that it does not refer to being spared from eternal torture.

-The parable about Lazarus and the rich man does not read like a literal description of heaven and hell. It appears to be a metaphor that contrasts Israelites with Gentiles (non-Jews), in which Jesus advised his countrymen to show compassion for Gentiles instead of lording their spiritual blessings over them.
The rich man who is clothed in purple and fine linen represents a Pharisee of Jesus’ day. According to The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary, “The wearing of purple was associated particularly with royalty . . .” (“Purple,” p. 863). The New Bible Dictionary says, “The use of linen in OT times was prescribed for priests (Ex. 28:39). The coat, turban and girdle must be of fine linen.” (“Linen,” p. 702). This indicates that the man clad in purple and expensive linen symbolized priesthood and royalty. In Exodus 19:6, God says of the Israelites, “And ye shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation: these words shalt thou speak to the children of Israel.” The Pharisees loved money and prestige, just like the rich man in this parable. Pharisees were present while Jesus told the story, so he had to be mindful not to spell it out explicitly. However, they realized he was alluding to them and were outraged.
The poor man, Lazarus, represents a Gentile in the way he waits outside of the rich man’s gate and begs for crumbs of food (which symbolize spiritual blessings). This relates to Gentiles because they were said to have been left outside the gate of Judah in Ephesians 2:12. They wanted to be blessed by the Israelites, but were snubbed due to Judah’s holier-than-thou attitude. Jesus strongly deterred people from spiritual elitism and urged the Jews not to shun the Gentiles. He encouraged people to reach out to all who were needy, sinful, broken, “unclean,” or depraved. He preached equality and unity.
In the parable, Lazarus and the rich man’s death signified a shift in their spiritual positions. Lazarus is taken to “the bosom of Abraham,” meaning he is in favor with God. The rich man, however, is in “hell” (which simply meant “concealed” or “covered.”) He calls out to Abraham, meaning that he assumes his ancestor will redeem him because all families are blessed through Abraham. The rich man believes that he retains righteousness through his ancestry, but does not seek God. When he is enveloped in flames (symbolizing deep emotional anguish), he asks Lazarus to cool his tongue with a drink of water. Now, this is not a literal fire. Everyone knows that a sip of water would do nothing to alleviate the agony of being fully immersed in flames. In Luke 16:26, Lazarus tells the rich man, “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” The great gulf is the rich man’s self-righteousness and lack of faith. If he humbles himself and seeks God, he can overcome his predicament.
Another factor conveys that this parable is not about hell: The rich man represents a Pharisee, but Romans 11:25-26 says that “all of Israel will be saved.” This is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. Therefore, even the Pharisees are not condemned to an afterlife of endless torment.

Other points to consider

-The belief in hell generally incites people to obey God more out of fear than out of love.

-If you can’t be saved through your own actions, why would you be damned by them either?

-If the wages of sin is death (in the sense of perdition, rather than simply physical death), wouldn’t Jesus have had to spend eternity in hell in order to pay the full price of our sins?

-How could Jesus be more powerful than Adam if Adam was able to condemn everybody, but Jesus was unable to save all of us?

-Wouldn’t the existence of hell entail that Jesus had failed in his mission to save all of mankind? See John 3:17, 12:32, 12:47; 1 Timothy 2:4, 2:6, 4:10; Colossians 1:19-20; Titus 2:11; Ephesians 1:7-10; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Luke 3:6; Joel 2:28; and Isaiah 45:22-25.

-If we’re supposed to love our “enemies,” would God do any less? Jesus tells us to share our love regardless of reciprocation; not to merely love those who love us. Since this is the case, wouldn’t God be sinning if He only loved those who love Him?

-“The path is narrow” (Matthew 7:13) sounds like it alludes to the fact that there are limited ways to be righteous, not limited ways to be admitted to heaven. When Jesus says that many try to find the path but only a few discover it, he may be using “life” as a metaphor for righteousness.

-If we are judged immediately after death (which the Bible does not say), why would we need to be assessed again at the Resurrection? If God’s punishments are “completed” in the days of the Second Coming (Revelation 15:1), why would they continue in hell? An eternal punishment is never completed.

-If God wills that all people be saved, why would He be incapable of carrying out His own will? This would mean He’s not all-powerful. How would Jesus have won if so many souls ended up in eternal torment? As Gerry Beauchemin wrote in Hope Beyond Hell, “God, as Creator, is owner of all things (Ps. 2:8; Ez. 18:4; Col. 1:16; He. 1:2), and that includes you and I. He has never relinquished that title. Only He has absolute ‘free’ will over His property. Should we be forever lost, He would be the loser.”

-The very word “hell” is derived from “Hele,” the Norse goddess of the underworld. “Hel” was the name of their underworld, and it featured a vicious three-headed dog called Cerberus. Originally the word “hel” simply meant “hidden” or “underneath.” It appeared in the 1611 KJV spelled as “hel.” This type of underworld was introduced to Christian doctrine when the church was trying to convert as many Pagans as possible. They wanted to transition them into Catholicism by allowing them to preserve certain Pagan traditions. In the process, the Catholic Church incorporated some Pagan beliefs into their own teachings.

-Hell was never mentioned in the Torah. If Jesus were first introducing the concept of hell in the NT, he wouldn’t have spoken of it so casually. It wouldn’t have sounded like everyone already knew what he was referring to. He speaks of Gehenna, which was translated into “hell” a number of times. Gehenna, however, was a garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem. This was where worms feasted, garbage burned, and wild animals tore at the trash (hence the description of worms chewing and the sound of animals’ “gnashing of teeth.”) We can assess that Jesus was using Gehenna as a metaphor for the disaster we incur when we refuse to do what’s right. In Matthew 5:26, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there [Gehenna] until you have paid up the last cent.” The word “until” reveals that time spent in the metaphorical Gehenna is of a finite nature.

-In the accounts of Near-Death Experiences in which people report a descent into “hell,” I notice quite a few inconsistencies. Many accounts contradict one another, and they vary depending on the person’s religious beliefs. (For example, one Pentecostal woman believes she was sent to hell for wearing makeup.) NDEs featuring heaven, however, are remarkably consistent with one another, regardless of the person’s frame of reference. Some people genuinely believe they’ve been to hell, but sincere belief doesn’t prove it happened. Others may say they went to hell because they enjoy the attention, or because they want to “scare people straight” and decide that lying is acceptable as long as it gathers more converts.

-The Bible doesn’t say you will be damned for not believing in hell, nor does it say you must believe in biblical inerrancy to be saved. Salvation is by grace, not by “correct” knowledge. The belief in salvation by appropriate knowledge has a distinctively Gnostic flavor. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Gnosticism, it was a religious movement which branched off of Christianity before the Bible was compiled. Gnostics believed in multiple gods and taught that Jesus was fully divine instead of a combination of divine and human. They also believed that one could only be a legitimate Christian if privy to “secret” knowledge. They thought that God selected specific people to endow with this knowledge, and those entrusted with it were considered the spiritual elite. Gnosticism was declared heretical by the Catholic Church, and most Christians consider it so.)

-Jesus said those who aren’t for him are against him, but he also said those who aren’t against him are for him (Mark 9:40). This can be taken to mean that as long as you don’t count him as an enemy, you’re a friend. You can have religious beliefs outside of Christianity without being “against” Jesus. As long as you love your neighbor and do what’s right, you’re on God’s side (1 John 2:29; Romans 13:8-10, 14:15-18). In Matthew 12:30, Jesus was probably referring more to his teachings than to his literal self. If you live by the principles he espouses, how could you be his enemy? The fact that one cannot enter heaven without Jesus doesn’t mean that Christianity is a prerequisite for salvation. It means Jesus is the one who lets you in. C.S. Lewis expressed this view in Mere Christianity: “Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”

(Continued in Part 3)

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