Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reflections on hell and justice

Consider with me the following events:
  • Item #1: Rob Bell, the well-known Grand Rapids pastor formerly known as an evangelical, openly flirts with universalism and seems to deny that explicit faith in Jesus in this life is required for entrance into God's Kingdom in the next.
  • Item #2: Seal Team 6 invades Pakistan and shoots Osama bin Laden in the chest and head before burying his body at sea to be consumed by its creatures.
  • Item #3: Majid Movahedi, a 30-year-old Iranian man, is sentenced to being blinded with acid for the crime of throwing a bucket of acid in the face of Ameneh Bahrami, a formerly beautiful Iranian woman who refused to marry him. Bahrami is disfigured and blind, and her prospects of marriage or even living outside her parents' home are remote at best. Islamic law, with its concept of qisas, allows for literal enforcement of "an eye for an eye."
These things may seem wildly disconnected on the surface, but below that they are connected. They are all about justice, and about how it is achieved.

Bell's problem is that he cannot support the biblical idea that a God of infinite love is simultaneously a God of infinite holy wrath and justice. So he redefines God's love to exclude eternal hell for anyone. Yet in what sense is it just, indeed, in what sense is it even loving to allow the guilty to escape punishment? In Bell's world, the finally impenitent are to be welcomed into heaven; but that means that both rapists, torturers, pedophiles, murderers, sadists, child-sacrificers, Nazis, Communists, and dictators are all to be allowed to live forever with those they victimize. Where is the love in that? Do not even the worst of people protect their children from these things? Why would God's love mean less? Further, isn't it true that many criminals escape justice in this life and never pay for their crimes? Many murderous dictators die in their beds. Many murderers, abusers, and other assorted nasties never serve a day in prison, nevermind dance at the end of a noose. And even if people "get what they deserve," it does not seem to me that the scales are fully balanced even then. Consider that Saddam Hussein butchered 300,000 of his own people, often in ghastly fashion. Are we to believe that justice is satisfied because he was hanged? What about the other 299,999 lives he took, which debt remains unpaid?

Bin Laden's death was weird. I was elated. We who had suffered had finally put paid to a man responsible for 3,000 dead of my countrymen on 9/11 plus 18 crewmen of the USS Cole, plus two embassy bombings and Khobar towers. It was about time, in my mind, that death came for the one who had brought so much of it. Yet many of my Christian brothers and sisters told me not to rejoice in the falling of my enemy, because Christ tells us to turn the other cheek and because we ought not rejoice that the rod that struck us is broken. I found that reaction genuinely odd. Jesus' statement has nothing to do with enabling people to murder you; it is about enduring personal insult (hence the right cheek). Moreover, by any biblical standard OBL was an evil man who murdered and oppressed the innocent. By what logic are we not to celebrate the end of oppression and the bringing of justice? Is not the diminishment of the quantity of sin and evil in the world, even if by only a slight amount, in itself a good thing worth celebrating? And will not God's bringing of justice on the Great Day be just as much a cause for glorifying God as the salvation from judgment given to us who trust in Christ?

And finally, what about "an eye for an eye"? Is that a barbaric relic, a leftover idea best left in the past? Are the world's human rights groups correct to protest? It should be noted that Islamic law is hardly revered for its justice, but what about in this case? What is the appropriate punishment for blinding and disfiguring a woman simply because she refused to marry you? How do we determine?

It seems to me that true justice, biblical justice, involves both reparation and retribution. Reparation is simple-It involves repairing, to the extent possible, the damage your evil has done. Thus, in the Mosaic Law, a thief had to repay what he stole, a man who seduced a virgin had to marry her and could not divorce her, and a man whose ox caused damage had to pay for it. But there is also a retributive element, of punishment for having done evil in the first place, especially as it relates to crimes for which reparation is impossible. Thus murderers, kidnappers, adulterers, and idolaters are put to death. Likewise, the thief has not only to repay, but must pay back four-fold.

One reason I believe in hell, in addition to the fact that the Bible emphatically teaches it, is that I have to believe that a God of justice eventually balances the scales. The unrepentant sinner must pay his debt. The wicked must not be allowed to continue in their wickedness forever. Oppressor and victim must not share eternal dwellings, for that would be the triumph of Satan instead of the victory of God. Evil must be atoned, one way or another. Which, in my case, greatly magnifies the glory of the cross, at which my debt for my treasonous rebellion was paid. But we must not minimize the glory of the God who offers two pathways, one of the Substitute, whose death covers my evil, and the other of full recompense for it in my own body, by pretending that love requires us to eliminate one of those roads. Else what do we do with the bin Ladens and Pol Pots, and Hitlers, and Stalins? What do we do with the Majid Movahedis? What do we do with the more mundane evil done by ordinary sinners like you and me?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Do You Feel Me God?

As many of you know, I went to the Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago a few weeks back. I'm still processing the gigantic info-dump that I was a recipient of, but for me, far more than the good examples of preaching Jesus from the Old Testament and D. A. Carson's theological woodshedding of Rob Bell, the most significant message was James McDonald's sermon on Psalm 25.

A little background is probably in order. I went to the Gospel Coalition also in 2009, at a time when I was going through the most painful turmoil I have ever known and out of which circumstances I lost friends. In those days, I felt more hurt, angry, and betrayed than I ever have before or since. I did not know what to do or where to turn, and so I called out to God, and He answered me. Still, when I went back this year, there were emotions that I did not expect to encounter awaiting me there.

Into this stepped Pastor McDonald and Psalm 25, which he reminded me was probably written when David had fled from Absalom. Hurt and betrayal abounded, no doubt. And out of this David wrote and sang, and wondered, in James' words, "Do you feel me, God?" Do You know what it's like to be me? It's a constant question that God's people have whenever they are hurting and in pain, whether Job's epic suffering, when he called out "Do You have eyes of flesh? Do you see?" to my much less poetic prayers in my own days of trouble.

I thank God that, whatever the situation, God's answer is always "YES." In fact, I know that is is "YES," not simply because of the Scriptures, which tell me so, but because of Jesus. He knows pain. He knows suffering. He knows betrayal, hurt, pain, loss, the whole gamut of human experience. And because of that, I take comfort and find refuge in God's presence and his strength.

This message, more than maybe any other, I've heard in a while, reaffirmed to me God's love and care for me. And if you are hurting person, I hope you will find its reaffirmations helpful too.

Not According To Our Sins - James MacDonald - TGC 2011 from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

I also think that deep, basic unbelief is back of human carelessness in religion. The scientist, the physician, the navigator deals with matters he knows are real; and because these things are real the world demands that both teacher and practitioner be skilled in the knowledge of them. The teacher of spiritual things only is required to be unsure of his beliefs, ambiguous in his remarks and tolerant of every religious opinion expressed by anyone, even by the man least qualified to hold an opinion.
Haziness of doctrine has always been the mark of the liberal. When the Holy Scriptures are rejected as the final authority on religious belief something must be found to take their place. Historically that something has been either reason or sentiment: if reason, the prevaling doctrine has been rationalism; if sentiment, it has been humanism. Sometimes there has been an admixture of the two, as may be seen in liberal churches today. These will not quite give up their Bible, neither will they quite believe it; the result is an unclear body of beliefs more like a fog than a mountain, where anything may be true but nothing may be trusted as certainly true.
We have gotten accustomed to the blurred puffs of gray fog that pass for doctrine in modernistic churches and expect nothing better, but it is a cause for real alarm that the fog has begun of late to creep into many evangelical churches. From some previously unimpeachable sources are now coming vague statements consisting of a milky admixture of Scripture, science, and human sentiment that is true to none of its ingredients because each one works to cancel the others out.
Certain of our evangelical brethren appear to be laboring under the impression that they are advanced thinkers because they are rethinking evolution and re-evaluating various Bible doctrines or even divine inspiration itself; but so far are they from being advanced thinkers that they are merely timid followers of modernism--fifty years behind the parade.
Little by little evangelical Christians these days are being brainwashed. One evidence is that increasing number of them are becoming ashamed to be found unequivocally on the side of truth. They say they believe but their beliefs have been so diluted as to be impossible of clear definition.
Moral power has always accompanied definitive beliefs. Great saints have always been dogmatic. We need right now a return to a gentle dogmatism that smiles while it stands stubborn and firm on the Word of God "that liveth and abideth forever."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I have been reading my theological forbears over the past few weeks, preparing for the ordination exam I will have to take later this year to transfer my ordination to the Evangelical Free Church and ran across the preceding at the end of the book This We Believe, by Arnold T. Olson. But I was struck by how contemporary it all sounds. Apart from updating the Bible translation and changing the word "modernism" to "postmodernism," it could have been written today, instead of 50 years ago. It could apply to the Rob Bell brouhaha, sure, but it could also be written about the whole general split happening right now within evangelicalism between those who believe the Bible in the same way as their forbears and those "too cool for school" types now demanding that the rest of us join them in "re-thinking" all of our basic theological convictions. Some temptations (and thus struggles within the Church) are perennial, it seems.