Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Questions for "Love Wins" Theologians on Hell

Recently hell has been described as the after affects of genocide in Rwanda along with “hell is the sad suffering of this life”.   By using this definition are we not subtly implying the standard default religious adage that suffering in the here and now is payment for wrongs we have done?  Was not this the default mode Jesus rhetorically challenged several times including in Luke 13:1-3?   Surely at times our pain is self chosen.   If we get sloshed, and drive while intoxicated we might or might not crash into an innocent victim and end up suffering as a result of our actions.  But is this true of all suffering?  If hell is, at least in large part what the aforementioned definition appears to describing, how can we view it as just and fair when human traffickers and drug lords live in lavish opulence while young children suffer and die of leukemia or starvation?   Did the children of Rwanda suffer through hell on earth because their sins were worse than those of us who are living in comfort and safety?   If this is the case how do we handle John 9?   On the Sabbath, Jesus passed a man born blind from birth.  Did not this man likely suffer greatly as a result of his blindness?  Jesus heals him by making mud, putting it in the man’s eyes and having him wash in the Pool of Siloam.

(see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6750670/ns/technology_and_science-science)

This is done, in part, according to Jesus to demonstrate the blind man did not suffer because of his sin or the sin of others but rather so “the works of God may be displayed”.  I love this formerly blind misfit dude and how he stands up to the religious leaders who insist he is suffering a hell for his sins. Indeed, he is not afraid to talk a little smack - John 9:27.   Is all suffering in this life us going through hell, why does it seem so random?  If not, how can we tell what suffering is hell and which is not?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Love Wins Theology, Bad Wine and the Weekend that Princess Di Died.

When world events happen it is easy to remember where we were at the time. For the rest of my life I doubt I will forget what I was doing when the planes crashed into the Trade Centers or the Challenger blew up. Another weekend I will remember was the one that Princess Diana died way back in 1997. It was this weekend that I had my initial exposure to “Love Wins” theology. I had just moved from Ohio to Michigan a few months earlier and hardly knew a soul in my new locale. I decided to become involved in a church group that had a retreat up north on the aforementioned weekend. The other people attending told me how good and cool the speaker, an intern pastor from the sponsoring church, was going to be. When he walked up to speak, my initial impression was clearly he was much more concerned about fashion than me.  To this day I have to admit his look has an uncanny resemblance to Steven Page, formerly of the music group BNL.

He began by raising his hand and stating the disclaimer that he had friends that were alcoholics.  He added that if we hung with him, would hopefully look at the Bible in a new light.  His topic was good wine and bad wine.   He stated when wine is mentioned favorably in the Bible, such as Jesus turning water to wine, that it is grape juice or “good wine”.   When spoken of unfavorably, such as Proverbs 20:1 that it is “bad wine” or fermented alcoholic wine. When he finished his presentation I was utterly shocked that a group of young adults aged 20-something had no questions about fermented drink being outlined as intrinsically evil. I decided to ask some questions, particularly:

1) How could wine be clearly labeled as good (non-fermented) or bad (fermented) when in the absence of modern canning or freezing technology a spectrum of fermentation would be present as opposed to the all or nothing scenario he presented.   Some degree of fermentation would be sure to take place between harvest to consumption so how could one possibly tell when enough fermentation took place for it to be referred as the "bad wine"?

2) The dominant theme in the Bible consisted of warnings against getting drunk as opposed to drinking alcohol in general (Eph. 5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess - Such verses were conveniently not mentioned in his presentation) If the intention was to ban all alcohol it would not be hard (as Mormonism and Islam do).  But rather does the Christian Bible not emphasize temperance rather than teetotalism?

His response was the technology to prevent grape juice from turning to alcohol was present and suggested I read Wine in the Bible by Bacchiocchi. I do not doubt that some strategies mentioned in this book to slow down fermentation were performed in antiquity, but they are clearly overstated in the referenced source. If anyone disagrees and could prove me wrong we could make millions with a new “as shown on TV” food preservation device. As for my second question he stated that again he had friends that were alcoholics.  He also asked how much I really knew about how the Bible happened and suggested that I would interpret it differently if I did.

There are many good reasons for a Christian not to consume alcohol such as a family history of alcoholism or to  give something up that is not a bad thing alone to increase devotion to God and etc.  It is a totally different thing to suggest no consumption of alcohol for as the standard for all Christians.   I did learn several things from this experience:

1) Labeling things, such as fermentation, as evil takes the blame of us and allows us to be innocent victims. This world, this creation was declared good. Evil cannot create it can only pervert. Pornography is taking of a good thing such as sex and perverting it. Cocaine addiction takes place when a substance that controls pain and could be technically used in lieu of lidocaine (notice the common endings) is perverted for our own selfish ends. When we fail to see that our human depravity is the issue by putting the blame on something that can be used appropriately or inappropriately, it becomes much easier to accuse God of not conforming to our sense of fairness.

2) When we interpret the Bible with the starting point of affirming our own experiences, we risk turning it into an idol by which we worship our own view.  Only interpreted in its entirety can it transform us.   Granted, honest people can come to different interpretations in many areas.  This however is much different than prooftexting verses to to affirm what we want them to say, and ignoring verses that contradict our opinion.    I (like most people) have friends that struggle with alcoholism, but this does not make Eph 5:18 go away. I wonder if this Intern Pastor got away with sloppy biblical methodology initially with stuff that the church has an easy time falling for  to later propose harder to swallow theological leaps such as questioning the importance of the virgin birth?

3) Toleration of sloppy Bible interpretation leads to a similar toleration of sloppy historical scholarship (more on this in the future).

4) When he asked how much I knew about how the Bible came to be it took me back a little bit. I had some general understanding of how the canonization process took place and was well aware that the Bible did not fall from the skies in a puff of fire to a single individual. I observed carefully in the future and heard this same response many times -  kind of a default talking point.  I could be wrong, but this pastor  seemed to disparage the canonization process, perhaps suggesting that direct revelation to a single individual (as is done with the Koran or the Book of Mormon) would be more credible.

I know this seems a bit tangential to the current brouhaha about Hell, but I will eventually get there.

faith for misfits

In its purest form Christianity is a religion for misfits. Think about it, its original adherents included salty rough edged fishermen (think Deadliest Catch), a political radical, a tax collector, a thief, a goon squad leader and prostitutes.  Growing up in the church,  I like many in my generation (Gen X) and generations after me, have sensed that too often we have allowed our faith to regress to a list of rules.  Most of these rules that have nothing to do with the Bible.   Some well intentioned individuals have asked reasonable questions, unfortunately I am concerned their solutions often may be worse than the original problem.   I fear that this "Love Wins" theology logical path leads to just more religion.  Religion will be defined as doing works to earn favor from God.   I do not doubt the sincerity of those I intend to critique.  As a random health care worker in the background, I witnessed the primary proponent  of Love Wins theology demonstrate admirable compassion to a grandmother who was picking up the pieces of a horrible and tragic situation.   I will attempt to share insight from my past as well as (I hope) the force of reason to address this new trend in theology.