Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd

“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd 

Today I am just thrilled to share an interview with theologian and teacher Greg Boyd, whose new book, Benefit of the Doubt, releases this week.  Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and The Myth of a Christian Nation. Greg has also been featured on the front page of The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. 

What I love about Greg’s work is his commitment to both intellectual integrity and faithful obedience. His books always challenge me to not only think, but to act. And his latest, Benefit of the Doubt, is right up my alley…and likely many of yours too…for it tackles issues related to faith, doubt, certainty, and obedience. I think you will find many of Greg’s thoughts here helpful and profound. Enjoy! 

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Rachel: First of all, thank you so much for this book.  I really related to your personal experience with doubt and found myself underlining paragraph after paragraph of Benefit of the Doubt, praying your words would reach those who need it the most.  To start off, tell us a little of your own story. What triggered your first doubts about your faith?

Greg: Thanks Rachel, I appreciate the opportunity to talk.  I don’t know if I can say when I first had doubts about my faith, because my faith has pretty much always been accompanied by doubt.  But it was a prayer meeting I attended twenty-some years ago that first got me questioning the very concept of faith that most Christians embrace today.  A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.”  She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed. 

As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick.  And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of.  It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke! 

This motivated me to begin to seriously question whether the notion that our faith is as strong as we are free of doubt is really an accurate understanding of faith. The Benefit of the Doubt is really the outcome of that line of questioning that began in that prayer meeting so many years ago.  

 Can you explain what “certainty-seeking faith” is and why you claim that it's a problem today? 

 “Certain-seeking faith” is the sort of faith that people were trying to exercise in the prayer meeting I just talked about.  It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. I’ve found that this is how most Christians today think about faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters in my book fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with the Christian faith and behind most of the negative things non-believers associate with the Christian faith. 

Among other things, as I stated earlier, this model reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants.  Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it!  So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.

You go so far as to claim that certainty-seeking faith is “idolatrous.”  That is a huge claim, especially since this is the kind of faith most Christians today embrace! Can you explain it further? And how can we break free from it?

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In the book I make the case that we are created with a core need to feel fully alive, unconditionally loved and worthwhile, and ultimately secure, and God created us with this need because he wants to meet it, and is the only one who can actually meet it.  An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs. This form of idolatry is a danger whenever people assume (rightly) that they are saved by faith while also (mistakenly) equating faith with their sense of certainty.  For it means they now feel “saved” – uniquely significant and secure before God – on the basis of their psychological certainty. 

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, the only way to get free from this without falling into some other form of idolatry is to realize that biblical faith isn’t about feeling certain, but about a willingness to commit to living for God in the face of uncertainty.  We need to accept that uncertainty is simply part of what it means to be human and to trust that God’s love for us, revealed most perfectly on Calvary, isn’t dependent on how certain or uncertain we feel.  The God revealed on Calvary isn’t a God who is impressed with people’s ability to make themselves feel certain that their beliefs are right.  He’s rather a God who simply wants us to trust him, in the face of uncertainty, by lovingly laying down our lives for him in response the way he has lovingly laid down his life for us. 

What difference do you see between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?  And why do you believe this distinction is important?

 As I define them, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of that opinion.  When I married Shelley, my wife, I had to first believe a number of things about her, but I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to living the rest of my life as her husband. 

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal, relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising faith. And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of faith is simply about how willing one is to trust God’s character and how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite the uncertainties they may have.  

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other “Christian” things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.   It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that means anything to God is how faithful his people are in trusting his character and in living in relationship with him, regardless of whatever level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

In the book you write that, “God enters covenants, not contracts, with people.” Could you share a little about how the court-of-law framework of theology has affected how we read the Bible? 

This is a very important point that I spend a lot of time on in my book. Whereas a “contract” is a deal between parties, a “covenant” is a commitment that involves the parties themselves.  Contracts involve exchanging money, work or possessions, while covenants involve a commitment of our life. And while covenants are rooted in people trusting one another, contracts are only necessary when people don’t trust one another. So too, while contracts are about what different parties can get from one another, covenants are about what different parties pledge to give of themselves toward one another.   Buying a car or house involves a contract: getting married involves a covenant.  

Unfortunately, while covenants permeated the lives of people in biblical times, western culture is entirely contractual. Indeed, marriage is the only remaining covenant we have, and people today are unfortunately increasingly viewing even this in terms of a contract.  Because of this, most contemporary western Christians interpret Scripture’s covenantal concepts as if they were contractual, and as I show in Benefit of the Doubt, this has fundamentally screwed up our understanding of a number of theological concepts in Scripture. 

Can you give us an example? 

Sure. Consider the way most Christians think about “salvation.” They think of it primarily in legal and contractual ways. God the Father is the judge, we are the guilty defendants, and Jesus is our lawyer.  In this view, the Father was going to send us to eternal prison (hell), which we deserved, until Jesus stepped in and worked out a strange deal with the Father in which he somehow takes on our guilt and our punishment, while we are acquitted, assuming we can believe these things are true with a requisite degree of certainty. 

It’s of course true the Bible uses some legal metaphors to describe salvation, but as I demonstrate in my book, the primary framework, and the framework in which even the legal metaphors should be understood, is covenantal.  This dramatically changes everything! Understood as a covenantal concept, salvation, isn’t about a deal that takes place between us and God. It’s rather about entering into a marriage-like relationship with God – a relationship that involves us pledging ourselves to him in response to the pledge of himself he offered us on Calvary. So too, whereas the legal model was focused on belief and therefore didn’t involve our character transformation as a central consideration, the covenant model is all about character, for its anchored in faith, and as I’ve said, covenantal faith is about our willingness to trust another and to live in a trustworthy way in relation to another. 

You can also see the significant difference between these two models of salvation by the sorts of questions they inspire. If a person is thinking in terms of the contractual model, there are all sorts of legal-type questions that need to be addressed. For example, since salvation is a legal deal, it makes sense to wonder if the deal can be “undone” (the debate about eternal security)?  If it can’t be “undone,” it makes sense to wonder what, if any, are the negative consequences for living in ways we know God disapproves of?  

On the other hand, if the “salvation-deal” can be undone, it makes sense to wonder what are the precise legal conditions that would undo it? Is the “salvation-deal” undone if a person fornicates, for example, and dies before they can repent? And (here’s one I’ve found Christian engaged couples ask frequently), what exactly does it mean to “fornicate”?  How close to “vaginal penetration” can you get before you “cross the line?  In the contractual framework, it naturally makes sense to want to get away with as much as you can without “crossing the line,” for contracts, recall, are predicated on a lack of trust and are about what individuals can get from one another. 

The mindset behind these questions makes perfect sense in a contractual, court-of-law framework, but that make no sense whatsoever in a covenantal framework. No one in a remotely healthy marriage would ever wonder about how much they could get away with before their spouse would divorce them, for example.  And if a spouse ever did wonder about this, it would simply reveal that he or she was already dishonoring their covenant.  For one only resorts to contractual thinking when the covenantal pledge to give of oneself to another and to trust and be trustworthy toward another is absent. 

In this light, and in light of how pervasive the legal paradigm is in contemporary Christ thinking, is it any wonder we see so live covenantal trust and trustworthiness in the lives of professing Christians today?  

You acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges confronting people who believe the Bible is “God’s Word” concerns the violent portraits of God in the Bible. and you spend a whole chapter on this topic. What advice do you have for people who are deeply troubled by these portraits?

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There are three things I share in Benefit of the Doubt about this incredibly important topic.  The first is that I attempt to show that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ isn’t just one revelation among many others in Scripture. He is rather depicted as the supreme revelation that culminates and surpasses all others. God spoke in many different ways in the past, the author of Hebrews tells us, but in these “last days” he has spoken “through the Son.”  And in contrast to all that came before, the Son is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of his being (hupostasis, meaning “essence,” Heb. 1:1-3).  This is why Jesus could say such radical things as; “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn.14:9) and could claim that all Scripture points to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-7; 44-7). What this implies, I contend, is that, whether we can explain the violent portraits of God in the OT or not,   it would be unfaithful for us to ever allow anything we find in the OT to compromise what we learn about God in him. 

Second, I argue that as the NT depicts it, the cross sums up and supremely expresses everything Jesus was about.   This is why John said, on the basis of what he learned about God from Jesus, that “God is love” (I Jn,.4:8) and then defined the kind of “love” that God is by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16). God’s very essence, in other words, is cross-like love. On the one hand, this increases the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God, for the cross reveals a God who would rather did for his enemies than use his power to crush them.  So we have to wonder, how do portraits of God commanding genocide or causing mothers to cannibalize their babies point to the enemy-loving, non-violent God revealed on the cross?!  On the other hand, however, I argue that the cross itself holds the key to solving this problem, which leads to my third point. 

The cross reveals that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, God is willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of their sin. Yet, in doing this, God reveals his true nature, for as we look upon the God-forsaken, guilty-appearing criminal on the cross, we know that it was God who voluntarily stooped an infinite distance to become this for us.  Now, if the cross reveals what God is really like, then it reveals what God has always been like. And this means we should read Scripture with the awareness that God has always been willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and take on appearances that reflect the ugliness of their sin.  

I thus suggest that we should read all Scripture “through the lens of the cross,” and when we do this, we can begin to see how even the most horrendous portraits of God in the OT bear witness to the God revealed on the cross.  The cross reveals God to us only when we look past the surface appearance that reflects the ugliness of our sin and discern in its depth our gracious God stooping to bear our sin and take on this ugly appearance for us.  In this light, I suggest we should read Scripture always asking, where else might we find that God is revealed not by how he appears on the surface, but by what faith can discern as we look past the surface to discern God humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people? 

My short answer to this question is that, whenever we come upon portraits of God that, to one degree or another, fall beneath the beautiful, non-violent portrait we are given in the crucified Christ, we should assume that the revelatory content of these portraits is, to this degree, not found on the surface of the portrait itself, but in what faith can discern happening beneath the surface as it beholds God stooping to bear the sin if his people.  Hence, I submit that the ugliness of portraits such as the one of Yahweh commanding his people to slaughter “everything that breathes” or of causing mothers to cannibalize their children reflects the ugly, fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people, not God himself. What rather reveals God is that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, he was willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people by being willing to take on this literary appearance in the inspired record of his covenantal activity (viz. the biblical narrative). 

You are such a prolific writer and theologian, and you’ve written about everything from open theism, to Satan and demons, to politics (The Myth of a Christian Nation is among my most often recommend books), to the problem of suffering. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are you feeling most passionate about right now? 

Right now I’m in the final stages of a massive research project I’ve been working on for five years that develops and defends the thesis I just outlined in response to your previous question.  It’s entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. To say I’m “passionate” about this topic  is a massive understatement! I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this Scripture’s’ violent portraits of God, for I believe these portraits constitute one of the biggest reasons why many abandon the faith while many others refuse to take the Bible as God’s Word seriously. It’s also the primary reason why most Christians today refuse to accept that God is altogether as beautiful as he’s revealed to be on the cross and/or that God is unconditionally opposed to all violence.  

Because I’m proposing a new hermeneutic, I needed to make my case as airtight and as comprehensive as possible, which is why the book has taken me five years to research and write and has now evolved to over 600 pages! But non-academics need not worry, because I plan on following it quickly with a much shorter work that will capture the gist of my argument, but without all the scholarly material that’s packed into the larger academic book. I hope to have both finished by the beginning of 2014 which means they should be published (by InterVarsity Press) by the end of 2014. 

 When it comes to theology, you seem to have a curious mind and an explorer’s heart. How do you handle the inevitable criticism that comes along with that? 

I make it my primary goal of every day to get all of my “life” – my core need to be loved, to feel worthwhile, and to feel ultimate secure – from what God thinks about me as revealed on the cross.  I believe this is the most fundamental objective for disciples of Jesus.  To the extent that Christ is our “life,” we don’t need to be trying to get “life” from what people think about us, or from any other potential idol I might latch onto.  But to the degree we don’t get all our “life” from Christ, we can’t help but try to get it from what people think about us, or from some other idol.  This is sheer bondage.  Only to the degree that all our “life” is from Christ can we live in true freedom.  And only to this degree can we “die to ourselves” and live out the radical call of the kingdom to imitate Jesus by lovingly sacrificing ourselves for all others, including those who would identify themselves as our “enemy.”

Thanks so much for asking such great questions Rachel! Keep up your great Kingdom work! 

Thanks for this profound and thought-provoking responses, Greg. You are ALWAYS welcome here! 

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Be sure to check out Greg’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt. And if you haven’t found Greg’s ReKnew site, you’re missing out; there are tons of great resources, articles, and discussions there. And if you’re interested in hearing Greg speak on the topics covered in this interview, consider participating in the upcoming ReKnew conference on Faith, Doubt, and the Idol of Certainty, September 27-28 at Wooldand Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. 


 

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Ask a conditionalist (annihilationist)...Edward Fudge responds

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As our interview series continues, I’d like to take a few weeks to discuss the topic of hell. I’ve got some great guests lined up, including a  Christian universalist  (who supports the view that one day God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ), a traditionalist/exclusivist  (who supports the view that only Christians are saved and the lost suffer in an eternal hell), and a  conditionalist  (who supports the view that immortality is conditional upon belief in Jesus Christ, so the unsaved will ultimately be destroyed and cease to exist rather than suffer eternally in hell). 

We begin with conditionalism, which is sometimes referred to as annihilationism. Conditionalists begin with the premise that only God is inherently immortal. For humans, immortality is God's conditional gift, bestowed at the resurrection but only to the redeemed. Those who reject God's grace throughout life do not live forever. When John 3:16 says the options are eternal life or perish, conditionalists say that means just what it seems to say.

According to conditionalism, at the end of the world, the good and bad alike are raised to face judgment. The righteous enjoy eternal life with God; the lost are sentenced to hell. But God does not keep billions of them alive forever to torment them without end. Instead, those in hell suffer such precise pains as divine justice may require, in a destructive process that ends in extinction. This is the second death, the wages of sin. Eternal punishment is eternal destruction, eternal capital punishment.

Our guest is the man widely attributed with the renewal of conditionalism in our time: Edward Fudge. 

Fudge is the author of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, the book Christianity Today identified as the standard reference on conditionalism. He and theologian Robert A. Peterson of Covenant Seminary co-authored Two Views of Hell, with Peterson making the case for the traditionalist viewpoint of conscious, unending torment and Fudge presenting the conditionalist alternative. 

You had a lot of questions for our guest - over 200! I think you will be pleased with his thorough, thoughtful responses. 

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From Robyn: What scriptures have pointed you in this direction? What process led you to your convictions?

Thanks to Robyn for this question that reminds us of what matters most. 

During the summer of 1976, Christianity Today published an article of mine entitled "Putting Hell in its Place." In it I noted that Jesus uses the word gehenna eleven times in the New Testament and that he is the only person in the New Testament who uses gehenna regarding that reality. Since no one else in the New Testament uses this Greek word for hell to talk about hell, I surveyed a dozen texts that mention two possible outcomes of final judgment, to see what words they do use to discuss the dreadful option.

An Australian theologian and publisher named Robert Brinsmead, a former Seventh-day Adventist, read the article. Brinsmead had rejected all the SDA's distinctive doctrines except its view of hell as a place of total destruction rather than a place of everlasting torment. At the time, he was seeking a non-Adventist researcher with a background in biblical languages and theology whom he could commission to research the topic thoroughly and provide him with the findings. After reading my article in CT, he thought I might fulfill his need.

Brinsmead visited my home in Alabama and offered me the research project, which I accepted. My assignment was to uncover, analyze and organize everything about the end of the wicked from the whole Bible, Jewish literature from the time between Malachi and Matthew, and major Christian writings throughout church history. I had held the traditional view of everlasting torment all my life and never expected to change my mind. But the following data impressed me and finally left me no choice. 

1. Immortality is conditional.

First Timothy 6:16 says that only God has immortality in himself. Humans are not naturally immortal. The notion of immortal souls is a pagan Greek myth, brought by converted philosophers into the early Christian church. I have documented a direct relationship between the notion of the immortality of the soul and the idea of unending conscious torment. You can read the whole story detailed in The Fire that Consumes, summarized in Two Views of Hell, and popularized in Hell--A Final Word.

In the Bible, human immortality is always God's gift to the redeemed, is always given in the resurrection, and always involves a whole, embodied person. Every moment of our existence is a gift from God. Those who go to hell are completely cut off from God, the only source of life and ground of being, and they finally must cease to exist.

2. The wicked will perish and become extinct.

Neither the word gehenna ("hell" in the New Testament) nor the traditionalist idea of unending conscious torment is in the Greek Old Testament. Yet the Old Testament says much about the final end of the wicked--in principles, pictures, prototypes, and prophecies.

Old Testament evidence:

When the Old Testament talks about the final end of the wicked, it uses language that sounds like total extinction.

It is a principle of divine justice that evildoers will answer to God, either now or later. What can they expect when that happens? Many Psalms give the answer, and Psalm 37 is a typical one. It says the wicked will perish, vanish, be cut off and be no more. Other Psalms say that God will break the wicked in pieces, slay them, and blot them out of the book of the living. 

The Old Testament uses at least fifty verbs and seventy metaphors or similes to picture the final end of sinners. They will be like:

chaff blown away,

a snail that melts, 

grass cut down, 

wax that melts, and

smoke that vanishes. 

If the wicked die in health, wealth and fame, they do not escape judgment. We know their end. God will not be mocked.

The Flood (Gen. 6-9) and the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19) both serve as New Testament prototypes of final judgment (2 Peter 3; Jude 7). As the Flood destroyed with water, the wicked will also be destroyed with fire. Sodom was reduced to ashes and became an example of what awaits the wicked. Jude says that Sodom (which was destroyed forever) provides an example of eternal fire.

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The Old Testament contains many prophecies of the final judgment, but I will mention just two. The book of Isaiah closes with a scene of the redeemed in the New Jerusalem. God has killed the wicked, whose corpses are being consumed by gnawing maggots and smoldering fire (Isa. 66:24). This is the origin of the familiar "worm that dies not" and "fire that is not quenched." Later, in the Apocrypha, Judith changes Isaiah's picture of dead bodies being consumed to a scene of living people being tormented forever (Judith 16:17). 

Malachi foretells a time when the wicked will be set ablaze and burn until nothing is left except ashes under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Mal. 4:1-3).

New Testament evidence: 

When the New Testament talks about the final end of the wicked, it uses language that sounds like total extinction.

John the Baptist -- He introduces Jesus as the End Time judge who will separate between "wheat" and "chaff," and who will "burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12).

Jesus Christ -- By the time of Jesus, Gehenna was a name used for the place of final punishment. It was itself named for a valley outside Jerusalem that had once been the site of infant sacrifices and other abominable practices. Jesus mentions Gehenna eleven times.

Jesus warns that God is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28). Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The verbs "destroy" and "perish" here both stand for the same original Greek word. It is sometimes used figuratively but we have no reason to think that it is so used here.

There are two eternal destinies according to Jesus: eternal life and eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46). Both are eternal because they belong to the Age to Come, and also because they do not have an end. We know what "life" means, but what is the form of this "punishment"?  It is the destruction of both soul and body (Matt. 10:28), a destruction that is eternal (2 Thes. 1:9). It is eternal, total, capital punishment that will never be reversed.

Apostolic preaching -- What did the earliest evangelists say about hell? Final punishment is mentioned only once in the Book of Acts, when Peter warns that anyone who rejects God's greatest Prophet (Jesus) will be "utterly destroyed" (Acts 3:23). The Greek Old Testament uses this same verb in the Flood story and also to describe capital punishment.

Paul -- The apostle Paul says more about final punishment than anyone else in the Bible and he never uses the word "hell." His favorite way of describing it is to say that the wicked finally die, perish and are destroyed. (See Rom. 6:23; Rom. 2:12; 2 Thes. 1:9.)

Hebrews -- The anonymous author warns that apostates will be destroyed (10:39), and speaks of a raging fire that consumes (10:27-31; 12:29).

Peter -- For Peter also, hell means destruction or perishing, as in the destruction by the Flood or of Sodom (2 Pet. 2-3).

James -- The brother of Jesus describes the end of sinners in terms of death (1:15) and destruction (4:12) in a day of slaughter (5:5).

Jude -- Sodom's annihilation is an example of the "punishment of eternal fire" Jude 7).

John  -- Among Revelation's symbolic pictures, John sees the wicked tossed into a lake of burning sulfur identified as "the second death," in contrast with the redeemed who enjoy access to the "water of life," the "tree of life" and the "book of life" (Rev. 21-22). John's Gospel speaks of two final rewards: to perish or to have eternal life (John 3:16).

These are some of the major biblical texts that led me to change my mind about the purpose of hell and the final end of the wicked.

From Christina: What, in your opinion, is the strongest argument for the traditionalist side and how would you answer it?

If by "strongest" you mean the argument from whose clutches those bound by it find it most difficult to escape, it is not a scriptural argument at all. It is the argument that says: "The church has always taught unending conscious torment and therefore it must be right." Aside from the fact that the assertion itself is false, the sweeping change of mind on this subject is driven most of all by a close reading and examination of the Bible. If someone puts ecclesiastical tradition ahead of biblical teaching, that person is rarely motivated to consider change.

At first reading, the strongest scriptural argument for the traditionalist side might be the moment in John's vision on Patmos when he sees the beast and the false prophet tossed into the lake of fire where the devil already is, with the comment that they are tormented day and night forever (Rev. 20:10). However, there is good reason to conclude that even this passage does not support the traditional side.

The lake of fire and brimstone, or lake that burns with fiery sulfur (NIV) is named for the agent of destruction that rained down from heaven on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving in its wake only rising smoke—clear evidence of a completed wipeout (Gen. 19). It is surely significant that John borrows language from the annihilation of Sodom to name and to describe the site of final punishment.

Death and hades are also thrown into the lake (Rev. 20:14). Commentators and theologians from all major views of hell are agreed that this refers to the disappearance of death forever and to the everlasting cessation of hades. For these two abstractions, both incapable of sentient suffering, the lake of fire stands for their extinction and annihilation.

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In these closing chapters of Revelation, the word "torment" itself sometimes means a total destruction and death. The wicked city "Babylon," is pictured as a woman. In Chapter 18, her judgment is "torment and grief," which turns out to be death, mourning, and famine, and she is consumed by fire. It is not unthinkable, therefore, to understand "torment" of the devil, beast and false prophet as death and consumption by fire which is never reversed.

Interestingly, there are no people in this verse--only the devil, beast and false prophet. The latter two are symbolic personifications of anti-Christian institutions: ungodly government (the Roman state) and antichrist religion (the emperor cult). By the time the vision reaches the point described in Revelation 20:10, all human followers of the beast and false prophet already have been killed, either by sword in the first diabolical mustering of troops against the Rider on the White Horse (Rev. 19:21), or by fire from heaven in the second such adventure a thousand years later (Rev. 20:9).

For humans, the final options are either life or death. Whenever John mentions humans in the lake of fire, he is always careful to identify the lake of fire as "the second death." Then, to strengthen the symbol, he contrasts the second death with something representing life, whether the book of life (Rev. 20:14-15), or the spring of the water of life (Rev. 21:6-8). 

Even if we knew none of the above, it would not be proper to interpret dozens of clear statements throughout the Bible to fit one or two symbolic passages in the Book of Revelation. It is a well-established rule of interpretation that one should read symbolic or unclear texts in the light of texts that are non-symbolic and clear, not the other way around.

Nor is it appropriate to choose an opinion supported by a handful of texts at best and to discard an alternate view that has the support of many multiples more of scripture passages from Genesis to Revelation. The preponderance of evidence favors the latter, and this principle justifies our accepting the conditionalist case even if we have a few unanswered questions remaining.

From Charlie: What are your thoughts regarding those not rescued by Christ. Not just those who reject Christ, the Church, and the Christian way, but specifically those who never knew "the way"--those from ancient times who never knew YHWH because of Israel's ethnocentricity, or people in the world who never knew Christ due to Christian's disinterest or inability to minister "effectively" to various places in the world. What do we do with the non-Christians? Do we really believe that God will only accept people who, from year 33 to now, have the title “Christian”?

Everyone who is finally saved will be saved through the atonement that Jesus accomplished. There is no other basis of salvation (Acts 4:12). To say it another way, the atonement of Jesus is so large and so powerful that it takes care of everyone who finally is saved. Even the Old Testament saints, who never heard the gospel as we have, will enjoy eternity with God because of what Jesus did for sinners.

How many others, if any, will enjoy the benefits of Jesus' atonement although they never knew about it in this life? God has not told us, and we simply do not know. We are specifically forbidden to judge the final destiny of others. That makes very good sense because we do not know their hearts or their circumstances, and we lack the ability either to save or destroy. 

 I shudder when Christian preachers give assurances of salvation to everyone who might be listening. I grieve when Christian preachers make dogmatic assertions about people they say will be lost. The gospel promises the believer in Jesus (and no one else) immortality and eternal life. God is faithful, and he will never do less than he has promised. But he is also generous, and he is perfectly free to do as much more as he sees fit (Matt. 20:1-16). 

We see the heart of Jesus in his prayer from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34). God is on the side of saving, not of condemning (John 3:17). For that, as one ignorant person who desperately needs God's forgiveness, I am eternally grateful.

From Simon: The story of the rich man and Lazarus is problematic on many levels--it posits that we enter bliss or punishment immediately, rather than after resurrection and judgment. It is the one Bible passage I find impossible to reconcile with conditionalism, but neither is it compatible with either of the other two views on offer. How do you read it?

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Although it comes up early in almost every open discussion or Q/A session concerning final punishment, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus says nothing about the nature of hell or what happens to those who finally go there. It is Jesus' solemn response to some Pharisees who love money more than God, who feel secure in the high esteem they enjoy with the public, and who ignore--even mock--the teaching of the Son of God himself and squander the opportunities God gives them to repent. All this we learn from the context before we ever reach this parable (Luke 16:1-18).

This is a familiar parable told by the rabbis and found in several versions. Jesus apparently borrowed it, then changed the characters to emphasize his points of interest. The dead rich man is pictured in Hades (the unseen realm of the dead, mistranslated as “hell” in the KJV), not Gehenna (“hell,” the place of final punishment). Meanwhile, the rich man's brothers are still living on earth, where Moses and the prophets are still the final authority. Hell is nowhere in sight. 

At most, this story might say something about an intermediate state for unfaithful Jews at some time before Jesus died and rose from the dead. However, neither the context nor the punch-line is about any intermediate state of the dead, so we need not think that this parable teaches even that. Some traditionalist authors conclude that this parable has no place in a discussion of hell.

From Christina: Do you believe in the possibility of post-mortem salvation? Might someone choose in favor of God after the resurrection of the dead and consequently spend eternity in heaven rather than be destroyed?

I know nothing in the Bible that holds out the prospect of conversion after death, after the resurrection, or (as universalism has it) after entering hell itself. Instead we read that it is appointed for us to die and face judgment, and that today is the day of salvation. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also illustrates the necessity of responding to God now before it is too late.

The strange picture in First Peter 3 about Jesus preaching to spirits in prison does not have anything to do with post-mortem evangelism. Close study shows it to match other Scriptures that picture the ascending Jesus declaring his victory over Satan to fallen angels who once influenced the world to sin, but who now are being held in spirit-prison as they wait for their day of judgment. 

Ironically, traditionalists plant the seeds of universalism when they say that people in hell continue to sin, which requires God to increase their punishment. If people in hell can affect their future for the worse, they should be able also to change it for the better. On this question, annihilationism offers a bright light and clear lines found at neither extreme.

From Rachel:  What was it like having a movie made about your life?

That would be "Hell and Mr. Fudge," featuring Mackenzie Astin as the adult me, Keri Lynn Pratt as my wife Sara Faye, and John Wesley Shipp and Eileen Davidson as my parents (www.hellandmrfudge.com).

What thoughts and feelings emerged as I experienced my personal story through a feature movie? Four words capture my answer. To begin with, it was surprising. And humbling, to be sure. Exciting--to watch producers, screenwriter, director and others take the little stories scattered throughout my life and knit them into a beautiful, compelling, award-winning work of art. Most of all, the experience has been gratifying, as God has taken the story he first caused to be lived out in my experiences, and now is blessing others by its retelling in this first-class feature film. 

From Jennifer: I grew up in a conservative, evangelical environment, but have spent the last few years with a growing sense of discomfort with the cookie cutter set of doctrines that I was raised with. I have struggled with how to continue to attend church and fellowship with fellow Christians, torn between keeping silent on my differing beliefs and suffering the disconnect from others, or speaking up and risking their correction, concern, and judgment. I am tempted to simply walk away entirely. As a “someone” with a very public view that is contrary to the "official" party line, and who has ministered in so many different churches--evangelical and otherwise--what has your experience been in this area? Have you faced more ostracizing, acceptance, interest, judgment, indifference from your fellow Christians? How have you handled this and continued to be in fellowship with other Christians without capitulating or walking away?

Believe me, Jennifer, I have encountered all the reactions you name. The author of one recent article called me a false teacher, a heretic, an unbeliever, an apostate, and even a crank! Now that one stung! Even when wrong, I am really a very nice guy! (By the way, everyone is a “somebody”—some are just bigger targets than others.) We cannot control how others treat us, but we can decide how we will regard and treat them. Someone else's misbehavior is no cause for us to imitate them instead of imitating Christ.

I have found that most people react positively and express interest in further study, including teachers and preachers who work with integrity in the face of constant critics and detractors. Some people do prefer conformity over conviction, and they react to diligent study with studied disapproval. It is a bit bewildering to hear these same people proclaim allegiance to Scripture alone as their final authority.

To all the "Jennifers" out there, know that God’s people are not limited to any particular congregation, denomination or fellowship. If your present congregation does not permit honest, open study of the Bible and does not find its unity in Jesus Christ, his saving work for us, and his Spirit in us, I encourage you to look elsewhere. Life is too short to waste, which happens when one’s church does not point to the solution but instead is part of the problem. God bless you!

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Thanks again for your questions! You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian,"  "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," and  many more— here.

 

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Love: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

[Trigger warning: abuse, rape]

Yesterday’s post seems to have struck a nerve, so I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the comments rolling in. But one commenter, Kat R., made an important point that I don’t want us to overlook. 

Responding to the kind of theology that suggests hurricanes and earthquakes and school shootings happen because an angry God has lost his temper and is unleashing his wrath and discipline on people whose sin nature makes them incapable of understanding such actions as loving, Kat R. writes: 

“…When Christians are told that God is love, but that "love" looks and feels like the opposite of what we know love to be (it's angry, it's emotionally unstable, it's violent), it's not a far journey to make for some leaders in churches to ALSO claim that their angry, unstable, and violent actions are "loving". This is how abuse happens.”

Kat is right. I’ve seen this play out time and again—not only in church situations, but also in marriages and homes. When love is stripped of its most basic meaning for the purposes of theological accommodation (“your childhood abuse/ cancer/ rape/ poverty is just God’s loving discipline in your life”), love loses all meaning whatsoever and becomes totally relativized. 

I’ve heard some theologians explain it like this: God is like a father, disciplining his children. Children don’t always realize that a parent’s rules and enforcements are for their own good. Similarly, God’s “discipline” (which they associate with natural disasters, violence, tragedy, rape, abuse, etc.) may not make sense to us now, but it’s part of God’s good plan. 

This metaphor makes sense at first blush, but it’s one thing to say that a parent may send a child to the corner for the purpose of loving discipline, quite another to say that a parent may rape and abuse a child for the purpose of loving discipline. When we cast God as an angry and abusive father whose actions we don’t understand as loving because our sinful minds are incapable of grasping true love, and when we say the logic of this paradigm should trump our intuitive revulsion to it, we’re veering into "orthodox alexithymia" territory fast. 

Eric Fry added this:

If "God is Love" is something that cannot be fathomed by our emotional understanding of love, then that verse has little meaning outside of any context people wish to place upon it. And placing a context upon 'love' that lies outside of our emotional understanding diminishes Christ's loving sacrifice…. Our deep appreciation and gratitude for that sacrifice can come only out of our own emotional understanding of love. The 'change of heart' of repentance can be only a shallow thing if it comes solely from our intellect.”

And Captivated Photo said:

“I always think of the 1 Cor 13 "The Love Chapter" as a chapter explaining Love or God as love to us. I replace the word Love with God and therefore begin to understand that God is patient. God is kind. God is not easily angered...etc. It's simplistic but it helps remind me who God is and how Love really looks.” 

I like that. 

So what is love? 

It’s exactly what we know it to be. 

 Love is patient.

Love is kind. 

Love does not envy. 

Love does not boast. 

Love is not proud. 

Love does not dishonor others.

Love is not self-seeking.

Love is not easily angered.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

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