Monday, January 09, 2006

the point being...?

there is much conversation around heaven and hell in current theological circles. many evangelicals are questioning the traditional conceptions we have inherited about what the afterlife may be like. scholars are beginning to examine anew the greek words in the new testament that in the past have been translated as "hell"- leaving many with the belief that perhaps there may be no such place. others have opted for sort of universalism in which it is believed that hell exists- but not that anyone ends up there.
i often find myself frustrated in these dialogues because of the speculative nature- can we really know now? and do we need to? but the conversation is worth joining because of the perspective offered regarding the "here and now." most of these theological trends seem to be in reaction to the traditional pitch that if you become a christian, then you (lucky you) get go to heaven and you don't have to go to hell (like everyone else). obviously, this is problematic on a number of levels: immediately salvation becomes an individualized venture (what do i get out of the deal?) and the gospel becomes about getting peoples butts into heaven (how many have you "led to the Lord?") resulting in a christian culture that is defined by escapism (sing along, you know this song: "this world is not my home, i'm just a'passin' through!!!).
when Jesus taught, his main point was never "getting to go to heaven" or "follow me so you don't end up in hell." Jesus was always about the here and now- the Kingdom of God is at hand, how will you join today? with Jesus, eternal life seemed to already be in effect. his invitation was always a choice: "with your actions today, will you bring hell to earth? or will you bring heaven to earth?"
with this perspective, salvation is now a community venture (we impact each other in soteriological ways), we are focused on bring the Kingdom of God to earth (not hung up on trying to figure out who is in and who is out when this thing is over), and we take ownership of our planet (because this is our home, God said it was good, and we are to care for it as such).
what are your thoughts on this?
a variety of thoughts inspired by rob bell, brian mclaren and a handful of profs and students at school.


Aaron said...

phil, i agree with your thoughts on this subject... the very nature of this discussion can only be subjective and speculative at best, because we have no clear way to know exactly how Jesus was speaking (literally, metaphorically, geographically?) when he spoke of heaven. If i can reiterate what I believe to be your point: Jesus spoke of much more than this-- he spoke of the Kingdom, he called people to follow, to bring His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. I think in our culture we have reduced the concept of salvation to simply selling a product. If you want heaven, it's only going to cost you a few moments as you repeat this quick prayer after me. Where do we find anything like this in the Bible? Jesus command/invitation was always to "follow" him... and in following Him one would quickly observe that He preached that the Kingdom is at hand... and he lived his life in such a way that supported what he preached. people saw him and followed. they believed.

no altar call.
no sinner's prayer. (although i realize that the Bible says to repent, to believe and you'll be saved, to confess your sins)
the act (or moment of "conversion" if you must- ahem-- could be found, i believe, in the act of following)

so with this being my ever-evolving soteriological views, the discussion of heaven and hell becomes nothing more than periphery.

although, those catchy "you're screwed if you don't have Jesus" signs have caused me to re-evaluate my position... i'm missing out on a whole world of protesting at this point.

NathanColquhoun said...

Last Word and the Word After That
and then common sense triggered by that book certainly got my head working over time about hell and heaven and the Kingdom of God.

elnellis said...

fodder for conversation: how can something so core to our understanding of the gospel become merely peripheral based on a different perspective? is this reactionary or true recovery? and how did we get in that place in the first place?
as you can see, i have much thinking to do in this realm, and no nathan, i havn't read the last word... but i had mclaren for a class last year in which he gave the summary of his stance on the issue.

pedro said...

Hey guys,
I appreciate, as always, your perspectives and thoughts. I haven't thought much lately about the topic of heaven and hell, but I will, as always, pepper the conversation with my historical/cultural contextual musings.

Phil, I agree entirely with you that the focus of our lives should always primarily rest in the "already" of the Kingdom and that our primary focus should be to follow Christ with faithful obedience and obedient faithfulness. It is manifest that the human perspective(culturally, theologically, philosophically, etc.) of life after death has continued to evolve for those who live in pursuit of Yahweh, from Abraham to us here in the 21st century. We must, then, always come to a discussion of such matters with a measure of humility.

Even though topics such as our existence after death are periphery, they are contained within the pages of scripture and within contemporary theological dialogue and thus tend to color our understanding of the core of our faith (as Phil has indicated in the original posting).

Because I am unsure of the absolute nature of our post-temporal and post-physical existence, I tend to approach such matters as eschatology and afterlife from the perspective of hope, much as C.S. Lewis did. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis indicates that glimpses of eternity were caused him to encounter joy in his at a moment of time. It seems to me that this is is the purpose of the great triumverate (faith, hope, love) - to deepen our joy as we follow Christ.

nathan Barrett said...

Phil, good fodder for thought and discussion. In regards to the individualistic nature of "getting out of hell free card" in salvation, I have no problem with that. As a child I prayed that prayer for many reasons, but only in working our my salvation have most of them become clear. But because I believe in the "already not yet", those soteriological principles were true when I was six as well as now, the only thing that was missing was the encounter with the reality as well as the ability of a six year old to understand the depth of Christ's offer of salvation and its purpose. I guess being individualistic is not wrong when it comes into balance with community. I think one can think individualisitically as long as it is in submission to the community. The only problem is that when you are a new Christian, I believe in some way, you are just a like a new born baby who is only concerned with self-preservation, food, warmth, being touched and so on. This being true, a 26 year old who surrenders to Christ is going to have a dis-equilibrium in thier life maturity and spiritual maturity that will cause them to view salvation as an escape from hell and not so much as a call to significant and meaningful responsibility within the Kingdom of Heaven, although they shouldn't stay there, it is okay for them to be there for awhile and then bring into balance what they have received with what they are to do with it. So in conclusion, do you think it is better to allow individualisism in Chrisitianity as defined above or is their another understanding or more full understanding that could be gained? Is it ok to view salvation' purpose as the ability to not go to Hell and still hold the Kingdom of Heaven in its proper place? Seeking balance with this tension...

elnellis said...

pedro, i appreciate your mention of faith, hope and love in this discussion- i hadn't thought about it in those terms. because of the "already" we have faith. because of the "not yet" we have hope. but the "now" is where we are called to live in love towards god and other. often the error of the church is that it leans heavier on the hope-for-heaven side at the expense of the now. we become escapist in our mentality and secluded into our "ghettos of hope." i want to figure out how to bring the focus back to the "now" (existential soteriology?)- driven of course by the already and not yet.
and nathan, i believe you do have a point about progression in faith journey. we all go through stages where different things are the focus of our spiritual energy. and as far as individualism vs community i would say that in order to ecounter another you have to be an I (martin buber). if you give up yourself there is no longer anyone there for others to encounter- if you are absorbed into the community or become something else for the community. i guess what is necessary is a healthy differentiation of self.

my brotherinlaw read the post and pitched the question, what does all this mean for missions? great question. what do you guys think?

nathan Barrett said...

Pedro, huge big word - triumverate. I want to use it now. Could you expand what you meant in that last remark about "faith, hope and love". I wasn't totally sure where you were taking us with that.

Phil as far as mission, I'm sure the implications are numerous, but the one I'm thinking of is that missions embodies incarnational ministry and meeting the host culture where they are at in their context. In Muslim ministry, because they have such a high value for monotheism and judgment, hell is a very good discussion starter because they already have a context for it. One friend explained to a Muslim that hell isn't just a place, it's focus is complete separation from God - it is where God isn't in His favor, grace, love, etc... It is where paradise isn't.

On the other side, is the postmodern intellectual who has feelings and doesn't believe in one God or Heaven or hell or anything of the sort. In that case, hell is probably not a good discussion direction. The question " If you died today, do you know where you would go or what would happen to you?" is probably better than " If you died today, would you go to Heaven or hell?" But for a Muslim the idea of paradise and hell is in their context already. I know that I didn't touch on the Kingdom of Heaven aspect but it is probably because there isn't enough space and I do believe that the discussion of after-life destinations will always remain central to evangelism and missions.

Lian said...

The practical side of this - ie missions - really is the sticky bit. Mainly, I think, because the whole emphasis on the future (heaven and hell) came about more or less for practical reasons in the first place. How do we fulfill our difficult mission to make disciples? The easiest and quickest way is to terrify people of hell and/or bait them with heaven. We quickly become salesmen rather than small Christs who are obsessed with loving. We have ignored the apostle's paradigm - "the gresatest of these is love". I love the way you split those three into past present and future, Phil. Love is certainly the most difficult of the three because it is, of them all, the most continuous, the least defined. There are never results with love, only continuous sacrifices.
That, to me, is the impact of the heaven and hell issue for missions. we have to throw away completely our focus on goals, results, accomplishment and lay ourselves at the world's feet (not in worship, of course, but in service).

Aaron said...

chad, good points. i especially agree with the idea that we can quickly become salesmen trying to close the deal on a product: heaven. to do this, i think, is to miss the bigger picture and reduce the Gospel to only a small part of what it actually is.

interestingly enough, a friend of mine wrote about salesmanship and evangelism on his blog... you can check it out here...

Lian said...

I'll check that out Aaron. Here is a story I wrote a while back about the very topic:

pedro said...


Phil's development of my "faith, hope, love" theme is whre I was going. Faith, hope, and love lie at the core of justification, sanctification, and glorification, but are better practical terms to use when talking about our walk with Christ. After all, we don't talk about faith only happening in the past, love only happening in the present, and hope only happening in the future. They are, all three, bound together eternally in the present by love (which the Apostle Paul says is the greatest of the three in 1 Cor. 13). In short, living by these three is the anchor for living in the Kingdom.

I love where you guys have taken the missions discussion, and I won't add to it.

nathan Barrett said...

I just talked to a friend who is studying sin in cultural contexts at Trinity. Trying to understand what sin is and its dimensions would seem pertinent to this discussion. Hell is directly connected to sin. One sin sends you to hell - that's simple but what exactly is sin. We all know to a certain degree but it is much more complex than we realize I believe and then to add cultural context to that complexity makes it even more irritable. I believe that there is a simplicity to this but at the same time it is complex. Sin in Biblical times, in the Arab world, and according to the New Perspective on Paul is much more shame/relational oriented than the Reformation ideals of judicial/law/righteousness/guilt oriented understandings. Adam and Eve's "shame" was covered by the shedding of blood and the covering provided by God and not their attempts at covering their "shame". In discussion, how do you think this then affects a shift in our view of hell and how we present it in our evangelism and mission efforts? And how would this affect the trends set by Seeker Sensitive services that are oriented away from "sin" (which I agree with because of a misjudged understanding of sin or a definition that lacks fullness) and are heavily relational and small group oriented?