Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Notes on Hell: the Lake of Fire

It would seem that when most people talk about hell, what they are really talking about is the lake of fire. 

So, when we talk about the eternal destiny of people, we're referencing whether they spend forever with God or in the lake of fire. Interestingly, hell gets thrown into the lake of fire!

What is the lake of fire? What is the eternal destiny of those who get thrown into the lake of fire? Who goes into the lake of fire? What does this teach us about hell?

The phrase lake of fire shows up five times in the Bible, all in Revelation.
Revelation 19:20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

Revelation 20:10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades (hell) were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

What can we surmise from these five references? The beast, the false prophet, and the devil are thrown alive into the lake of fire where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Death and Hades are also thrown also into the lake of fire. It is called the second death. Anyone's name who is not found in the book of life, along with the cowardly and faithless, are also assigned to the lake that burns with fire.

It's not clear how the lake of fire is the destination of Death and the cowardly. The author says that the lake of fire is the second death - does this mean that lake of fire is a metaphor for a reality - Second Death? Is this death a different kind of death then Death and Hades death? It must be - but what kind of death is it? And what determines if someone is cowardly? Once? The end of their life? Always? Occasionally? There is no mention of faith in Jesus Christ or rejection of Jesus Christ in these references to the lake of fire. And clearly the lake of fire is the destination of hell, not hell itself.

So what happens to the people that had been in hell?
Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades (hell) gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.

Throughout the Bible, sheol and hades, along with gehenna, have been referred to as hell. Gehenna never gets mentioned in Revelation, only hades. If hades gives up its dead, that implies that hell gives up its dead, which means that hell is not a place you go to forever. Whatever hell is, it is not a person's eternal destination. From our study, it seemed that hades was just another name for sheol - which means it was just another name for the grave. If we take into account Greek myths, hades is possibly a place where spirits have a shadowy existence.

Either way, it doesn't come across as a place of torture. Hell - if it is hades/sheol - is a temporary existence (either as a corpse in the ground or/also spirit in the netherworld). Hell is emptied through resurrection of the dead, and then hell/hades gets thrown into the lake of fire - it exists no more. [The description of Hades given by Jesus in Luke 16 does not carry enough weight to determine clearly that it is a place of torment. The parable's point is not a literal description of hades, but of how the rich ought to treat the poor.]

The people that do not have their name found in the book of life - and who are cowardly and faithless, etc. - they also get thrown into the lake of fire. One text said that the beast, false prophet, and devil will be tormented forever and ever - but the text does not say that for the people who are thrown in. Are we to assume they have the same experience as the devil? Or, does the lake of fire totally consume the people who are thrown in, and they cease to exist? The text doesn't make it clear. 

A reference in Revelation 14 says that the smoke of the torment goes up forever and ever - that of those who worshipped the beast. The smoke goes up, but does that imply the torture of the people is eternal, or just the smoke from their destroyed corpses? The text doesn't make clear.

So what is the lake of fire? Is it like lava from a volcano? Is it like the flaming Gulf of Mexico saturated with crude oil? Is it like a vast forest fire, the massive heat shimmering far into the distance? Is it like a shattered naval fleet, flotsam and jetsam burning across the littered sea? Is it like a gigantic fiery furnace?

It's interesting that in Gehenna/the Valley of Hinnom there are pools. The word for lake in Greek can also be translated pool. If the Valley of Hinnom was renamed the Valley of Slaughter, if the valley became a place of death and destruction, the pools would be filled with rotting blood and burning corpses. Is that part of the background to the image of the lake of fire? Does it imply a pool of fire? A place of judgment? Of destruction?

Here's another idea that may also give background to the idea of the lake of fire, it's found in Daniel 7:9-11
"As I looked, thrones were placed,and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
"I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire."

Here you have judgment for rebellion, a stream or river of fire which is used to kill and destroy and burn. If this judgment and destruction occurred in the Valley of Hinnom, the streams of fire would run through the Valley of Slaughter, collecting in the pools, forming a lake of fire. Interesting possibility, but nothing definitive can be declared for certain.

The other question is: do the few mentions of eternal torment in Revelation outweigh the more numerous references of fire being destructive and all-consuming? (Like in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - the imagery of which is obviously alluded to in the usage of lake of fire.) It is clear that the devil and his trio are tormented forever, but it is not specifically declared that it is eternal torment for those that worshipped the beast. Maybe it is implying that the state of destruction in the lake of fire is eternal. Second death implies similarity to first death - and if first death is rotting corpse in the ground with promise of resurrection, then second death is destruction of the body with no promise of resurrection.

Revelation is the primary source for most popular notions of hell. A lot depends on how you interpret the content of Revelation, and how you relate the context of Revelation to the rest of Scriptures. If you read what is in Revelation, in context with what else the Bible has to say about hell/hades/sheol/gehenna - you won't necessarily come up with the common versions of hell.

Jesus never talks about a lake of fire. He talks about being thrown into the fires of Gehenna - but that is something different. He talks about people going down to hades - though sometimes it is a reference to sheol. He talks about people being thrown into a fiery furnace. He says some will be thrown into an eternal fire along with the devil. There is only one verse where Jesus says someone will be with him in paradise. Does John change the image of fire from what Jesus referred to in the Gospels? We have no idea what he definitively means. Our imaginations want more clarity then the Bible provides on what happens after death.

It's interesting what Jesus has to say in the final chapters of Revelation.
22:12"Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." 
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 
16 "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

It's hard to determine what is chronological in all these visions. But following the visions of the New Heavens, the New Earth and the New Jerusalem, of God's throne issuing a river of water by which the tree of life gives forth leaves for the healing of the nations, of a city with gates that never shut, only the pure and unashamed can enter - there is this statement above from Jesus. If there is any kind of chronological semblance to these visions, it seems to imply that even in the New Heavens and New Earth, there will be "dogs" hanging around outside the New Jerusalem. 

These dogs are beckoned to enter the gates - the Spirit and the Bride and all who hear say, "Come!" Anyone who is thirsty is invited to enter - the gates are always open, the leaves of the tree of life are there for the touching.  It would seem that either these "dog's" have yet to be thrown into the lake of fire, or, this is what it means to be thrown into the lake of fire - to be always outside the gates of the New Jerusalem but never having the courage to enter. They are too cowardly.

Another way to translate torment is torture. Not only physical torture, but internal torture. Another word is vexation. To be too ashamed to enter the city where God and the Lamb fill the place with shalom and light - to hear the words, "Come!" and not believe it. It would seem that the invitation is unending. Or, the lake of fire is the destination eventually of those who will never be willing to enter.

Maybe it is that the visions are overlapping, and each one presents a new angle to the future reality of all people. All people are resurrected, all people are judged. Some are found to be righteous, others found to be wicked. The righteous are welcome to enter the New Jerusalem. The wicked are invited as well - if they are willing to wash their robes. To repent. To trust the words of Jesus. To believe Jesus.

In summary: there is nothing conclusive to say what is the lake of fire - other than it is called the second death. The lake of fire could refer to the fire of Gehenna - the Valley of Slaughter. The lake of fire could imply total destruction of whatever is thrown into it. The lake of fire could refer back in part to the Daniel vision. The lake of fire could be a way of describing irrevocable judgment. It could be similar to the fiery furnace Jesus talked about in the Gospels, or the eternal fire for the devil. The lake of fire could be literal or it could be a metaphor pointing to something else very real. The text does say that hell/hades is thrown into the lake of fire, so hell is not the same as the lake of fire.

So is there any more clarity that we can gain on who goes into the lake of fire? How does one get your name into the book of life? What is the book of life? What is the correlation between being cowardly, faithless, etc and having one's name missing from the book of life? What is the connection between Jesus and the book of life? What about forgiveness of sins, repentance, grace, and reconciliation with God? What about the teachings of Jesus and Paul - how does that connect with the book of life and being thrown into the lake of fire?

That's what we'll attempt to examine in the final study.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Six

There Are Rocks Everywhere. 

There is an odd story about the Israelite people dying of thirst as they shuffle towards Mt. Sinai. God instructs Moses to strike a big rock with this walking stick - upon which water starts to flow. Ahhh, what a refreshing story!

Rob Bell observes that Paul summarizes that story by saying Jesus is the rock. What???

And what does this story have to do with the overall book about heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived? In short:
Heaven is full of surprises, and people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.

There you go. What do you think of that idea? Do you agree? 

Rob reflects on how Paul writes about Jesus:
Jesus, for these Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along. This is, of course, a mystery, which is exactly the word they used for it. (148)

It's a mystery how Paul can see Jesus in the Moses-rock story. But then as Rob sees it: Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere. (144)

Just as baffling as it is to see Jesus in the rock, so it is to imagine God in the flesh. Rob writes:
Here's where the claims of the first Christians come in. They believed that at a specific moment in the history of the world, that life-giving "Word of God" took on flesh and blood. In Jesus, they affirmed, was the word, that divine life-giving energy that brought the universe into existence. The word that gave life to everything and continues to give life to everything, they insisted, has been revealed in fullness. (146)

It's surprising to see God in Jesus. It's surprising to see Jesus in the rock. It's surprising to see what Jesus did when he walked the hills of Israel. If the religion scholars back then were surprised at the teachings and activities of Jesus, why shouldn't we be surprised that there are more surprises awaiting us?

What's the implication of this? Where is Rob going with this?
As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn't come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted what ever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created and name him. Especially the one called "Christianity." (150)

Whoa. Does this comment from Rob surprise you? Do you believe that God has more good surprises up his sleeve? Can Jesus still surprise us today? Are Christians the only ones that know anything about Jesus? Are we the only ones who know the truth about the universe and the way the world works? Does Jesus show up in the world outside the bounds of Christianity? Could Jesus surprise you - much like he surprised the observant Jews all those years ago?

Rob puts it like this: Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures. (151) Think about it - this is our Father's world. Jesus has been given the authority and responsibility to overcome evil with good, to make everything all right. When the work of Jesus in his world is finished, he will hand everything back over to God. If this is God's world, if it is Jesus' Creation, then of course Jesus is present yet transcendent.

Again - where is Rob going with this? He goes to the well-known and oft-quoted Evangelical verse in John's Gospel: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." What [John] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through [Jesus]. (154)

This is where a lot of Christians will resist the development of Rob's proposition. Rob agrees that Jesus is the only way. There is only one way to God, and it is through Jesus. He writes: What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. (155) I can agree with that. But then Rob points out: People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. (158) Does this statement unsettle you?

Rob opens his chapter with an unusual story of how a pot-smoking friend was saved by Jesus. Rob states that he has heard many unusual stories that after awhile point to his observation: people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. What to do with that observed reality? The surprise of how Jesus worked out salvation in those people ought to bring us joy but also remind us of the mystery involved.

Jesus is Lord - so he can bring about salvation however he wants, even if it goes against our understanding of how we thought he was going to do it. Right? Can we definitively know who will be joining us in heaven? How can we for sure know who is in and who isn't? Is there value in going public with who is going to hell and who isn't? Is it enough that only Jesus knows?

Are you okay with there being a diverse way of people coming to Jesus? Do Muslims have to convert to Christianity? Do atheists have to embrace religion? Do the mentally-handicapped have to articulate orthodox doctrines? Does Jesus have the right to work in His world however he chooses? Even if it surprises us?

What we see Jesus doing again and again - in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him, living like him, and trusting him - is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work. (159) Does that make you uncomfortable? Why?

In the end, Rob is working to establish the idea that just as Paul saw Jesus in the rock, so we can see Jesus everywhere - in every culture, in every religion, in every nation. We can see Jesus, but we don't control Jesus, we don't have a hold on Jesus, we don't have any special claim on Jesus. Jesus is the one with the claim on us. Jesus is our Lord - he is the one with the ability to save, and surprise.

If he surprised us once with the incarnation, and again with crucifixion, and again with resurrection, and again with ascension, and again with the Spirit, and again with the calling of Paul, and again with the salvation of Gentiles... well, does Jesus have any more surprises for us?

What is the fate of every one who has ever lived? We know what we read in Scripture. We know that there is a variety of interpretations. We know it is in God's hands. We know of our calling to love and serve and go. And we know that God is full of surprises. Jesus is the only way, and people come to Him in all sorts of ways. Don't they? What does that mean for your faith if Jesus still pulls off surprises?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God? Covenant

You have big questions for God. 

When you look at the world and the way it works, you wonder what God is up to. 

Why does God intervene sometimes, but not other times. From our perspective, it all seems so random.

The Bible is a collection of stories about God and his work in the world. The two parts of the story are called the Old Testament (or the First Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures) and the New Testament. In the Old or First Testament, we've been looking at the five big stories that Israel told about God and their relationship with him.

These are raw, honest, compelling stories about God. They're not cleaned up, they're not edited for propaganda, they're not fairy tales. They are rooted in reality - they reflect how people really act and live and think and react. They're about God dealing with the world as it is really is, and with people as they really are.

The first big story of the Hebrew Scriptures is Creation. The second big story is Covenant. The others are Exodus, Kingdom and Exile. In the story of Covenant, we learn how Israel understands where they came from - how God first initiated a relationship with them. Israel traces their ancestry back to Abraham and Sarah - you can read about them in Genesis 11-25. Fascinating stories!

How did Israel understand God and his relationship with them and Abraham? It's important to notice that God chose Abraham. It wasn't anything unique or special about Abraham, but God made a decision to choose one man, a family out of whom he would build a nation. God intended to bless the world through a nation, a nation specially devoted to him. Abraham would be the man from whom this nation would come - a man God would bless and make a blessing to the world.

When Abraham was first introduced to God, he was a wealthy rancher in the region of Babylon. A moon-worshipper, he was fully immersed in the pagan culture and thriving economy. But God inserted himself into Abraham's life - calling him to leave everything behind and head to the Promised Land. And what do you know, but Abraham believed God. He took his wife and possessions and headed for Canaan. Abraham followed the promptings of a God he'd never met before, a land he did not know, for a future that wasn't guaranteed.

At this point of the story Abraham and his wife Sarah are already old, and without children. It took a lot of guts to believe that in their old age the could conceive and have a son who would be the initial fulfillment of the promise of a nation as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But they believed. And that made all the difference. Sometimes you have to believe something first in order to see it. 

God chose Abraham. He chose him and initiated a covenant relationship with Abraham. It wasn't because Abraham was deserving or special. God made a promise to Abraham, putting in place the parameters of their relationship. God promised to bless Abraham, to bless the world through the nation that would come from Abraham. God chose to do this in the world, and by it God promised to be loyal.

God chose to be loyal to Abraham and his descendants. If you read through the rest of Genesis, you will find God being loyal to people that are quite undeserving. Isaac played favorites with his sons. Jacob played favorites with his wives and sons. Jacob's sons would become guilty of atrocities and gross abuse.  Yet God kept his promise to build a nation through the descendants of Abraham. God chose to continue his work in the world through one man, one family, one nation. A family of real people who commit real sins and devastations. God bound himself up in loyalty to very, very, very imperfect people.

The big story of Covenant is Israel's story about how God chose them for a special relationship, about how God chose to be loyal to them. God promised blessings for obedience - that's the great part of this covenant relationship. But this kind of relationship also comes with curses for disobedience. There has to be consequences for Israel's unfaithfulness and disloyalty. Because God interconnected himself with the people of Abraham, God used blessings and curses to move his people forward. Unfortunately for God, despite his amazing promises for blessing and bounty, the people drifted towards disobedience with as much speed as sand pours through the fingers. 

In Creation we learned that God created a good world, a good world in which people become deceived, and consequently bring curses down upon themselves. We see this played out in the Covenant story, when God chooses to bless this good world through the real descendants of Abraham. God makes a covenant relationship with people who are capable of great good but also terrible evil; people that God blesses, but then is forced to curse. People that are a blessing to their neighbors, but then people who become a curse upon the region.

If Creation is the start of the big stories that Israel tells about God, then Covenant is the heart of the story.

Covenant describes the relationship that God has with the world through Israel. It's this understanding of the story that helps us understand Jesus and his message to Israel - and to all those who would believe. To those that believed what Jesus taught about God and Israel and the world, they were called sons of Abraham. 

To those that believed Jesus, they were promised to be included in the the story of Covenant made with Abraham all those years ago. The radical nature of this implies that non-Israelites, pagans, barbarians, strangers and foreigners of faraway lands - whoever believed the teachings of Jesus could be included in this great work of God in the world. To all who believe, they can be called sons and daughters of Abraham. 

If you believe what Jesus taught, if God has made you a son or daughter of Abraham, if you are part of this Covenant relationship, then you find yourself part of an enduring relationship with God. God chooses to be loyal to you - no matter what. He is loyal to you when he blesses you in your obedience, and he is loyal to you when he curses you in your disobedience. God is loyal to you in the way that a good Father is loyal to his children, a father who rewards obedience and disciplines for disobedience.

What is God doing in the world? He is working through real people to bless the world, to bless his good yet cursed world. God is loyal to the world, he is loyal to his creation, he is loyal to those who believe him. God does not give up on you. He chose you, and he is loyal to you.

The question is not so much what is God up to in the world, but what are you going to do with what God is doing in you? God can bless the world through people - can he bless your world through you? 

God does not let sins go unpunished, he must bring about justice to those that are sinned against. God brings curses upon those who sin against themselves and those around them. Sooner or later your sins will find you out. God curses so that we will abandon our sins and repent, to turn around and love our neighbor. God curses to the third and fourth generation, but he blesses to the thousandth generation. God brings a curse in order to bring about an honest confession of sin and repentance. God blesses in order to further his good work of rescue and restoration in the world.

Do you have a relationship with God? What seems accursed in your life? What do you need to repent of? What do you need to confess? In what are you rebelling against God? Are you being stiff-necked and stubborn towards what you know God would want you to do next with your life?

The big story of Covenant is about how God works in the world through the sons and daughters of Abraham. God has his work he is doing through people. When people open themselves up to His way, they become the kind of people through whom God can bless. When people close themselves to God and His way, they shut themselves off to the blessings God wants them to receive.

With all the accursed wars and violence and evil that permeates our world and communities and families, we are desperately in need of more people who will let God bless through them. God wants to bless the world through you. It's what God did through Jesus. It's what God wants to do through those who follow Jesus today.

Sometimes you have to believe something first in order to see it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Notes on Hell: Valley of the Son of Hinnom

When Jesus talks about hell, he uses two different words: hades and gehenna.

We've explored the two possible meanings of hades - that Jesus is referring back to the Hebrew idea of sheol, and that Jesus is tapping into the popular cultural beliefs about the afterlife (ie. Greek and Roman tales of hades). It's my observation that Jesus uses both meanings of hades, depending on the point he's trying to make.

With gehenna, we explored the use of the word in context - it seems to be a real place - associated with the idea of judgment. In a previous note we observed that gehenna is Greek word for the Aramaic word for the Hebrew word Valley of Hinnom. So what is this valley and why is it used by Jesus as a place of judgment? What is this hell that Jesus refers to?

If you go to your Old Testament you'll find several interesting references to this Valley of Hinnom. First in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16 we are introduced to the valley, it's a sort of boundary, rather innocuously located at the southern shoulder of Jerusalem. (See also Nehemiah 11:30)

But then in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles we are introduced to a Valley of the Son of Hinnom where kings of Judah are burning their sons and daughters as a sacrifice to the local gods. Not only that but the Valley is a place for sorcery, necromancy, obsession with the dead and knowing the future. It becomes a very evil place.

In 2 Kings 23:6 we read about King Josiah trying to clean up this accursed valley - one polluted by his father and grandfather. "And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech." King Josiah had mixed success. His sons did not follow in his steps, nor did they listen to the prophet Jeremiah - who prophesied doom and bloodshed, judgment and destruction for this idolatry and murder."

In 2 Chronicles 28:3 we read about King Ahaz, the great-great grandfather of King Josiah and his introduction of Molech worship in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (Ben is Hebrew for Son): "and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel."

In 2 Chronicles 33:6 we read about King Mannaseh, the grandson of King Ahaz and the grandfather of King Josiah: "And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger."

This is evil stuff. I encourage you to read the whole chapter, read these verses in context. The kings were leading their nations forward into an idolatry that would bring economic havoc on the poor, vile religious prostitution upon women and preying men, association with political entities that subverted Israel's devotion to Torah, and desecration of the Temple, God's holy dwelling place amongst his people. God and neighbor were defiled. Moloch's name sounds a lot like the Hebrew name for king. A perversion of what a true Israelite king was to be doing in the name of God.

So now we know a bit more about the ugly history of Gehenna, of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. What we also need to learn about is why it became a place to be cast for judgment. The prophet Jeremiah is the one to confront the kings of Judah, to turn them from their wicked ways and unveil to them the consequences of their sins. Three different prophesies against those that do evil in the high places of Topheth in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom:

Jeremiah 7:31-32 "And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere."

Jeremiah 19:2, 6 "...and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you.
 6 therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter."

Jeremiah 32:35  "They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin."

Read these verses in context, read the chapter (the link is there for your convenience).

A couple of observations: 
Jeremiah renames the Valley of the Son of Hinnom the Valley of Slaughter. It's a place of judgment for Moloch worship, where bodies will be thrown, their corpses will rot in the sun - Babylonian arrows, swords and spears dripping with blood. The nation would be judged - and another nation would be used to do the judging.

There must be consequences when a king and a nation thumb their nose at God, they sacrifice their children in the fires, when the rich indulge in gross luxury while the poor have their noses ground into the dust. How does God turn Israel around? After a few hundred years of sending messengers announcing the need to repent, to return to God and Torah, the LORD had certainly gone out of his way to make his plans known. And still God was ignored. And so God used Babylon to bring an end to the disgrace Israel had become.

We learn that Potsherd Gate led down to the Valley of Hinnom. Some contend that in Jesus' day Gehenna was the town garbage dump. It's become a popular characterization for that valley, but it is unsubstantiated. The legend goes way back to the seventh century, but it can't be verified as true for first century Jerusalem. 

Potsherd Gate would indicate that somewhere in the region of the Hinnom Valley was a dumping place for potsherds. Pottery was used for most cookware and dining. When a jar of clay cracks and is no longer useful, it is cast out through the Potsherd Gate, in the general direction of the Gehenna. We can't verify whether the Valley of Hinnom was the city dump, but we can verify the legacy of that accursed place, the vile stories of burning children as sacrifices, of the Babylonian slaughter, of the judgment.

Becoming familiar with these stories in Kings and Chronicles, and of Jeremiah's sermons regarding the Valley of the Son of Hinnom helps add context to Jesus' use of the Gehenna. Jesus said people were in the danger of "the gehenna of the fire" if they didn't quit being angry and lusting. This is different then going to hell because you don't believe in Jesus.

Interestingly, the teaching on anger and lust are connected to Jesus' teaching on murder and adultery - killing and sex, this is what the Valley of the Son of Hinnom had become known for. Jesus also directed his threats of "the gehenna of the fire" towards the Pharisees - he even calls them sons of hell, or literally "sons of gehenna" or more literally: "sons of the valley of hinnom!" What were the Pharisees doing that induced Jesus to so vehemently denounce their work? It was their leading people astray from God! Which is exactly what the kings of Judah had done with their Molech worship.

Jesus' teaching on hell is rooted in his teaching on Gehenna. Rather then guessing what Gehenna means, we can go to the Old Testament to put the valley in context. Gehenna was a real place with a real history with a real accursedness. To be thrown into that valley was another way of referring to God's judgment brought by the Babylonians in the fifth century. And Jesus had another empire in mind, that would be used by God to judge Israel. Rome was the new Babylon.

Jesus could see where the nation was headed. Their political, economic, and religious leadership were headed towards a clash with Rome that would result in destruction, devastation, slaughter. In 66AD Rome initiated a siege of Jerusalem that resulted in annihalation of many citizens. By 70AD the Romans prevailed, the Temple was razed, and the Valley of the Son of Hinnom once again flowed with blood and bloated corpses.

Jesus came as a prophet, just as Jeremiah did, to turn the nation away from destruction, back to God. It was Babylon for Jeremiah, and Rome for Jesus. And both times the words of the prophet were ignored by the masses. But not all. The remnant that believed Jeremiah survived the slaughter, and endured into the Exile. And the remnant Jews that believed Jesus were the first and second generation Christians who heeded their Lord's words to both forgive their enemy and flee the slaughter. Gehenna was much more about the political, economic, religious and national judgment of God upon Israel then it is about a comprehensive teaching on hell.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Notes on Hell: Gehenna

There are four basic words in the Bible that form our understanding of hell - sheol in Hebrew, hades and tartarus in Greek, and the Aramaic word gehenna. (Click here for notes on those words.) The KJV translate these words as hell. When you explore these words in their original language and cultural context, they seem to all have different nuances. What is gehenna and how is it different from the other words?

Listed below is the references where gehenna is used by Jesus according to Young’s Literal Translation.

Following each given reference will be a commentary on how gehenna is used in this context.

Matthew 5:22 
but I -- I say to you, that every one who is angry at his brother without cause, shall be in danger of the judgment, and whoever may say to his brother, Empty fellow! shall be in danger of the sanhedrim, and whoever may say, Rebel! shall be in danger of the gehenna of the fire.

This first reference is found in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In this particular pericope he is discussing the Torah teaching on murder. Not only will murder put you in danger of the judgment, so will being angry with your brother without cause. What are two examples of the judgment? the Sanedrim and the Gehenna of the Fire. So what does this tell us about gehenna? It's a place of judgment for those that murder and are angry without cause, comparable to that of the Sanhedrim (the 70 elders of Israel, the ruling council for observance of Torah). Since there is not much of a difference between the words "Empty Fellow!" and "Rebel" - they are mere examples of being angry with your brother without cause; it's hard to argue that there is much of a difference between judgment with Sanedrim and Gehenna of the Fire.

Matthew 5:29-30
`But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna. 30 `And, if thy right hand doth cause thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.
This second usage of gehenna is also used by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, this time in his teaching on adultery. Looking at a woman lustfully is equated as adultery. How serious is Jesus about his disciples and Pharisees in accepting this teaching? He uses hypberbolic language to capture their imagination. Lust is about imagination, and so Jesus gives them images of gouged out eyes and hacked off hands as preventative measures for lusting and committing adultery. Jesus argues that it is better to use an eyeball or a limb then to have your whole body thrown into gehenna. Jesus isn't using literal language here - amputation doesn't stop adultery. Neither does the threat of gehenna. But Jesus promises that there will be judgment on the men who oppress women through their lusting and adultery.

Matthew 10:28
`And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna.
In this third use of gehenna Jesus is instructing his disciples just prior to sending out the twelve to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick. Part of his instructions include a warning about impending persecution. He tells them to not be afraid of those who will persecute them. 

Here's how Jesus' logic goes: don't be afraid of those who persecute. IF you were going to be afraid of suffering, be afraid of God who can destroy your body and soul in gehenna. But God cares for you, so you don't have to be afraid of God destroying you in gehenna. Therefore you don't have to be afraid of those who can kill your body. What do we learn here about gehenna here? It's a place of destruction of body and soul, that God is the one that sends people there. And that Jesus' followers have nothing to fear about gehenna.

Matthew 18:9
`And if thine eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee; it is good for thee one-eyed to enter into the life, rather than having two eyes to be cast to the gehenna of the fire.

This is another reference to gehenna by Jesus, similar to his usage in the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, instead of adultery being the context, it's being the cause for a child or young disciple to stumble. How serious is Jesus about people not being a cause for stumbling? First he says it's better for you to have a millstone hung around your neck and being cast into the depths of the sea. So the judgment of gehenna of the fire is compared with judgment of tossed into the chaotic sea. It's not a description of two different kinds of judgment, but a graphic attempt to make the same point. Do. Not. Cause. Kids. To. Stumble.

Matthew 23:15
`Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye go round the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and whenever it may happen -- ye make him a son of gehenna twofold more than yourselves.
Matthew 23:33
`Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?

In this powerful sermon against the Pharisees, Jesus declares seven Woes upon these religious leaders of Israel. It seems that he is purposefully drawing upon the imagery of the Old Testament Valley of Hinnom. You can read about it some in Jeremiah 7, 19, & 32. The old name of the landmark was Valley of the Son of Hinnom, south and west of Jerusalem. And in the one example, Jesus says that the Pharisees, by making proselytes, are making foreigners a Son of Hinnom even more than themselves. And in the second example, the idea of judgment is clearly linked with the idea of gehenna, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. Reading the prophet Jeremiah's words to Israel give great context about what is the nature and purpose of gehenna. That is next week's lesson!

Mark 9:43
`And if thy hand may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee maimed to enter into the life, than having the two hands, to go away to the gehenna, to the fire -- the unquenchable --

Mark 9:45
`And if thy foot may cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into the life lame, than having the two feet to be cast to the gehenna, to the fire -- the unquenchable --

Mark 9:47-48
And if thine eye may cause thee to stumble, cast it out; it is better for thee one-eyed to enter into the reign of God, than having two eyes, to be cast to the gehenna of the fire -- where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched;
The usage of gehenna here is an expanded teaching of the same material found in Matthew 18:9 about causing children to stumble. In Mark's version of the teaching, the threat of gehenna and to the fire is repeated three times. Jesus, in this case, doesn't want anyone to doubt how serious he is about this issue of causing children to stumble.

Jesus does something interesting here - highlighting the connection between gehenna and fire - with the the fire, the idea of it being unquenchable. This is an obvious allusion to Isaiah 66:24, which is quoted in part in Mark 9:48. The description of judgment in Isaiah 66 matches the kind of judgment that Jeremiah prophesies will happen in the Valley of Hinnom, gehenna. Jesus is not attempting to give literal descriptions of what gehenna is like, but rather link the kind of judgment that will come down upon those who cause children to stumble - the judgment will be like that which God brings down upon Israel through the nation of Babylon as prophesied by Isaiah. And we know from history that Rome was used by God to judge Israel, much like Babylon had been almost six hundred years earlier.

Luke 12:5
but I will show to you, whom ye may fear; Fear him who, after the killing, is having authority to cast to the gehenna; yes, I say to you, Fear ye Him.
This singular usage by Jesus in Luke's account is similar to that of Matthew 10:28, but here used in a set of warnings and encouragement to his disciples in the midst of the crowds of thousands who gathered around Jesus.

James 3:6
and the tongue [is] a fire, the world of the unrighteousness, so the tongue is set in our members, which is spotting our whole body, and is setting on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by the gehenna.
James, the brother of Jesus, is writing to Hebrew Christians about the dangers of the tongue. Like his brother, James knows how to use graphic language to capture imaginations and make his point. Everyone, especially teachers, will be judged for their use of the tongue. How many times have our words brought punishment on ourselves? The tongue can be a powerful tool for good, but it can also be a pervasive weapon of destruction - both for our own bodies and those around us. James effectively makes his point in his use of gehenna.

In all of these uses of gehenna, it is not obvious that Jesus is referring to an afterlife. The word gehenna is clearly connected the idea of judgment, but the idea of judgment is not obviously tied in these verses to an afterlife event. In context, Jesus makes a connection between actions now and the resulting consequences to come in this life. Just as the Valley of Hinnom became a real symbol of judgment in the lifetime of those who heard Jeremiah preach about it, so many of Jesus' listeners were around when Rome made the Valley of Hinnom once again a place of judgment.

An exploration next week will examine the Old Testament references to gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom. This will help us keep Jesus usage of gehenna in context. To be sure, Jesus was serious about people changing their actions, about fueling their imagination with graphic details to compel them to repent and act righteously. The threat of gehenna did not come across to those first readers like the threat of hell is used in our modern age. The threat of gehenna meant something different then. And we'd be wise to consider what the threat of gehenna meant then so that we can better understand what it is to mean today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Five

Dying to Live. 
Or, What Happened When Jesus Died On the Cross?
These are the themes of the chapter, the first is the title, the second is the key question.

The book is about heaven and hell and the fate of every who ever lived. What happened to Jesus on the cross, and what we believe about Jesus and what happened on the cross often become the key components of whether we end up in heaven or hell. So it's kind of important for us to examine what did happen on the cross, according to the Scriptures - and consider what we ought to believe about it. And how we ought to live in light of it.

In this chapter, Rob first explores how the New Testament described what happened to Jesus on the cross. Or, what Jesus did for us, or what God did for us, through the cross. Then Rob talks about resurrection, and then connects it to crucifixion. This leads to a summary of what it means for us today.

Rob opens with a story of seeing a cross hanging around Eminem's neck at a concert. What did this mean? It was a comeback concert of sorts. Was the cross a symbol - representing the death of the old Eminem and the arrival of the new? Rob is pointing out that the cross has come to mean many things - thus we gotta go back to the Scriptures to see what the original writers insisted happened on the cross.

The first idea he explores is that of animal sacrifice. The Hebrews, along with almost all of the other religions in the world, included animal sacrifice as part of their worship. God gave specific instructions to the Hebrews for their animal sacrifices which set them a part from the other nations. But the Jewish Christians saw in Jesus the end of animal sacrifice. In the Hebrews, a letter in the Bible to Jewish Christians, the writer says: Jesus "has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." (123)

If your religion, if your way of relating to God, if your way of pleasing God and atoning for (or covering over) your sins had been tied up in animal sacrifices, it was a very radical notion to believe that what happened on the cross through Jesus means no more slaughtered lambs. This would open up a new way to relate to God. Instead of through butchered bulls, it was through a human, Jesus, that we could find favor with God. His death on the cross, his blood poured out as an atoning sacrifice for the world. This was less about the hassle of slitting goat necks and more about how to relate to God.

I think Rob highlights this example of what happened on the cross because it is central to our understanding of atonement. It's how many religions viewed atonement - through animal sacrifice. It's how the Hebrew people understood it. And most of the early Christians were Hebrews. But this isn't the only way that people talked about atonement, of how Jesus covered over our sins. They use other language - language that is connected to this sacrificial event, but it also points in new directions.

Rob points out what Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians: "that through the cross God was reconciling 'to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.'" (125). So now we have two metaphors to describe what happened on the cross - Jesus is the end of the sacrificial system, and he is the one who reconciles us to God.

Rob then takes us to another one of Paul's letters where we hear language about justification. We learn that what happened on the cross resulted in being "justified by grace through faith in Jesus." (126) It's courtroom language to describe the effects of Jesus's sacrificial death on the cross and his reconciling us to God.

In another of Paul's letters to his friend Timothy, he writes that Jesus has "destroyed death" (126). He notes that John writes that "this is the victory that has overcome the world." (126). These are war and battle metaphors to describe what happened on the cross. And then there is Paul writing to the Ephesians that "We have redemption through his blood." (127) This is an economic term, added to the usage of the military term, and the legal term, and the relational term, and the religious sacrificial term.

"So, back to the question: What happened on the cross?"

Obviously Rob is pointing out that different metaphors and terms were used to describe one event. All the ideas mentioned in Scripture inter-relate. Rob is wanting us to become familiar with all the terms. Why? Because in some Christian circles there is what he thinks is over-emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement. This emphasizes that on the cross Jesus was a substitutionary sacrifce for us, paying our penalty of death so that we might live with God for eternity. Of course this is true, and it is an important theory of atonement, but it's not the only way to describe what happened on the cross.

So why are there different explanations of what happened on the cross? Rob is going to insist that those first Christians, as they preached about Jesus, about his death and resurrection, that they used different metaphors to try and help people understand what happened. They used metaphors from the sacrificial system, for the economic system, from the legal system, from the military system, etc.

Rob says that different ages and cultures of Christianity have emphasized different metaphors. The early church, being mostly Hebrews, used the sacrificial metaphors heavily for obvious reasons. The author of Hebrews is able to go all the way back to Torah to connect how Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system God set up long ago. But then, according to Rob, the church shifted to the "victory in battle" (128) metaphor, emphasizing that Jesus had conquered death.

So now, in our age, when we don't do animal sacrifices anymore, and through medicine have conquered death in ways, is there another metaphor from Scriptures that we can highlight that will resonate with our culture today? Well all of them can still relate in some way, and that is the point. Actually, Rob goes on to say that Jesus is the point.

Rob transitions from his summary of what happened on the cross to teach us about what happened because of resurrection. He will argue that resurrection is "a symbol of elemental reality." (131) This is not a commonly held perspective. In fact, Rob declares that for those first Christians, it wasn't the miracle of resurrection that amazed them, but what resurrection represented. Rob insists that resurrection is "not a new idea." (130). That'll make some Christians gasp!

He points to nature, the turning of leaves, the changing of the seasons. "Death gives way to life. A seed has to be buried in the ground before it can rise up from out of the earth as new life" (130). As Rob explains it, the resurrection of Jesus wasn't a stumbling block to most people. Most people, so it seems, had no problem believing in resurrection because that is "how the world works." (131). So, then, what is the value in resurrection, for Rob?

Rob uses the storytelling of the author of John's Gospel to help explain the meaning behind resurrection. We know that in John's Gospel different events are marked as a sign. Rob takes us through the different signs that make up the storyline of John's Gospel. The seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The way John tells the story, it is very compelling. Each of the stories associated with the signs is fascinating. But then there is one more sign, an eighth sign - Jesus being raised from the dead. What does this mean?

Rob connects the seven signs of John's Gospel to the seven days of creation. If there is an eighth sign, what day is that then? It's "the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation." (133) Resurrection itself wasn't the point - it was to point to something bigger - something God was doing in the world through Jesus. The stumbling block wasn't about whether you believed in resurrection or not - the stumbling block was whether you believed that "God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus's resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything 'on earth or in heaven' just as God originally intended it." (134)

Part of the point Rob wants to make is that cross and resurrection is not just about people, it's not just about us having a relationship with God. It is that, but it is more than that - it's a God centered movement for all creation. We are saved from sin and death, but the story is bigger and grander than that. The cross and resurrection are about what God is doing in the world - and people who respond in love are part of that work - but it is not only about people.

When Rob referred to the resurrection as a symbol of elemental reality, this is part of what he's trying to get at:
...the cross and resurrection are personal. This cosmic event has everything to do with how every single one of us lives every single day. It is a pattern, a rhythm, a practice, a reality rooted in the elemental realities of creation, extending to the very vitality of our soul. (135)
When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus' living, giving act on the cross, we enter into a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires. (136)

Cross and resurrection as a pattern for life. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him. To repent of our sins, to "leave behind the old ways." (136). We die to our self so that Jesus can pour new life into us. Our letting go of pride, the need to be right, rebellion, stubbornness makes room for what Jesus has to give.

"When we cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we're like a tree that won't let its leaves go. There can't be a spring if we're still stuck in the fall." (136)

Rob seeks to connect the spiritual realities of the cross and resurrection together, and then to connect them to the elemental realities of life: "Lose your life and find it, he says. That's how the world works. That's how the soul works. That's how life works when you're dying to live." (136)

The theologian in me wants to summarize Rob's chapter using clearly defined theological categories. What is Rob's theology of atonement? Salvation? Sin? It should be obvious at this point that Rob is not writing to scholarly theologians.

He is writing to cynical individuals who have deep questions about reality, about how God and Jesus fit into our post-modern world of technology, science, medicine, and violence. Rob is seeking to connect these skeptics and searchers with compelling elements of the Gospel, bypassing the oft contentious arguments about science vs. religion, are miracles real, and is the Bible a piece of propaganda?

Is this chapter highly controversial? Yes. Does it leave many theological questions unanswered? Yes. Does it cause conservative Christians to squirm at Rob's explanation of the elemental realities of the cross and resurrection? Yes. Does it cause liberal Christians to squirm at his insistence of the reality of the cross and resurrection? Yes. Does Rob create a compelling bridge for cynics with profound questions? Yes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God? Creation

You have questions for God. 
And about God.

Where can you go for answers?
Or better questions?

The History Channel can be an interesting source. Your buddy at work can be a good sounding board. Maybe another Christian you know who you like. But there just isn't any substitute for actually opening up your Bible and reading it.

There are plenty of people out there who can pick apart the Scriptures, pointing out all the violence, conflicting stories, and legalistic tomes. By not taking the Scriptures very seriously, it's easy to mock them or disregard them. But if you are interested about what you can learn about God from the Scriptures, there is hope. There is a way of reading the Bible that allows you to take the stories seriously, to take your own life seriously, to take your questions seriously.

This series of posts is designed to help you get to know your Bible better - and God. By taking the stories seriously, in context, it will help us navigate our way through our questions. Questions are good. Finding answers is hard, but worth it. You'll know how much you want better answers by how hard you're willing to look. And keep looking.

The Christian Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. If you want to get to know God, you've got to start in the beginning. There are 39 books in the OT, and it's not always the easiest literature to read - some of it is over three thousand years old. But to get us started with the stories we find there, I've summarized them into five big stories. These are the stories that the Israelites passed down to us through the ages: stories of Creation, Covenant, Exodus, Kingdom, and Exile.

When we start at the beginning of the Old Testament (some call it the First Testament) we find ourselves reading the book of Genesis. In the first eleven chapters we find some unique stories that reveal to us how Israel viewed their God and the whole universe in which they found themselves. The big story of Creation is made up of smaller stories about the origins of the universe, an accounting for evil in the world, God's judgment for wickedness and rebellion.

In our post-modern era, we read this Creation stories and either a snicker or we close the book in bewilderment. With all we've learned through science about the galaxies and our Earth, about anatomy and social sciences, is there anyway that these stories in Genesis are true? We don't have to pit science against religion! Here's a fascinating piece below on how vast and grand is our universe:

First things: these Creation stories in Genesis are Israel's stories they told about God and the universe. Three thousand or more years ago, as they sat around their campfires under the Milky Way, they told and retold the stories of where they came from.

The stories you tell are powerful - and these stories in Genesis are compelling. The human body is an amazing, complicated...what? Creation? Machine? Something rings true when we acknowledge that there is something unique and gifted about the human being. We were created - specially designed with a purpose. We are not just biological machines. The vast cosmos - the best theory we have besides a Creator is the Big Bang. Either one takes faith. A story about a worldwide flood and the spread of languages - those stories teach us about how the Israelites understood God's work amidst evil people and nations. We still wonder - will God deal with evil societies, evil nations, evil corporations?

Second things: we can learn about God from these Creation stories. They are the stories we have, passed down through the years, about who God is and how he works in the world. We may not always like the stories, but they are what we have to work with. And they work. Unless you want simplistic answers for life and God.

When we think of the Big Story of Creation, here are some things we can learn about life and God:
The stories teach us - One God created sky, earth, sea, animals and humanity – and it is all good.
Amidst pagan nations that believed in a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, this was a radical notion. The other gods are "no-gods" compared to Israel's God. Creation did not come from the warring factions of Canaanite warrior gods. Creation is not a senseless roar of chaos. Israel's story of Creation is radically refreshing once you read it in context. One God, who creates as a gift, who declares it all good. That's a good story to live by.

The stories also teach us - Humanity is capable of goodness and rebellion - we bring curses upon ourselves and the world.
People are not just a mass to be herded and conquered. God created a man and a woman - and declared them to be good. He gave them good work to do, work that would cause the world to flourish. The fruitfulness of humanity would make for a blossoming world. Isn't that a great story? But how to account for life as we know it? It's as if this good world is cursed? And these first stories reveal how we bring these curses upon ourselves. God gives instructions for blessing the world, and the first humans rebel. Rebelling always leads to corruption. We know this to be true still today. We have something good, and then we ruin it. And yet God can still bring good out of it.
That's another good story to live by.

Some characters we read about in these first eleven chapters of Genesis, in this big story of Creation:
Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden - temptation, blaming, shame, judgment
Israel passes on to us stories about reality, about how people when given something good, still have a way of giving into temptation and abusing the gift, of blaming others when things go wrong, of holding on to shame and letting it subvert our life, of how we judge others unfairly. We can argue how scientifically the Garden of Eden story is untrue, or we can observe how the Garden of Eden story with Adam and Eve is still true.

Cain & Abel: East of Eden - anger, crouching sin, murder, judgment
Israel preserves a story about two brothers - the first brothers - and their relationship to each other and God. We'd like an inspiring story - instead we get a raw one fueled by all to common anger. Anger doesn't always make much sense, and it rarely makes things better. The crouching sin gets passed on to the next generation, but becoming more extreme. The death promised to Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit was experienced first by their son. The sins of the parents do get passed on. Cain was exiled to life East of the Garden of Eden, in the wilderness. We still know what it's like to wreck our life, to see others get banned for their sins. This story of Cain and Able is still true, isn't it?

Noah & Nimrod: A Good, Cursed Earth - floods and towers, remnant righteous and mass rebellion, intervention, judgment.
An ark full of animals makes for great images in the newborn's nursery, but it's really a terrible story of judgment. God regrets having made humanity. Israel tells the story that God started over again with Noah - a direct ancestor of Israel. We can focus on the scientific data of a real global flood, or we can explore what it meant for Israel to retell this story of Noah and the flood. Nimrod and the tower? We still build towers? We still seek to transcend languages so that we can collaborate to build bigger and more amazing structures. And it's still often done with no regard for God - or in defiance of him. Some stories are still true...

Here is a link to the sermonnotes for some more information and study-questions.

To read the big story of Creation requires you to submit yourself to the text, to the cultural context in which it was written. To get something out of it, you must first learn what those first audiences got out of it. It's not easy to glean wisdom from the Bible. But then it's not always easy to get wisdom from life. Sometimes we want our lessons to come to us conveniently. Life doesn't work that way. And neither does learning about God from the Bible. It's hard work, but it's good work.

What are the questions you have about the Creation stories?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God?

Most everybody has questions about God.

Part of growing up is learning to ask better questions.

When there are big questions about God, - who is he, what is he like, where is he in the world - Christians would obviously point to the Scriptures for some answers.

Christians commonly refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Old Testament. This is to distinguish it from what we call the New Testament. We consider both Testaments to be Holy Scripture, authoritative for our life. Those two Testaments are our primary documents for discerning the nature of God and his work in our world. There are other ways to learn about God, but they all flow from what is revealed in the Scriptures.

Not only do most people have big questions for God, they also have a low regard for the Bible. It's common these days to distrust the Scriptures. There is a lot of fuzzy thinking about the origins of the Old Testament, and lots of suspicion about who wrote the New Testament, why it was written, and how it is often used today to control people. Which all adds to a general abandonment of reading the Bible to learn about God. And this makes it real hard to know anything about God.

Fortunately there are better ways to think about the Bible.

One helpful way is to start with the Hebrew Scriptures and think of them as Israel's big stories about God. Whether you believe the stories to be true or not is beside the point. The Old Testament is a record of stories compiled over many centuries, stories about Israel and their relationship with God. It's not propaganda - some of the stories are pretty embarrassing towards God and Israel. It's not barbarian fiction - there is plenty of archaeological evidence to back up events and places. It's not ancient religious prattle - this is sophisticated poetry, compelling narratives, and intriguing compilations of laws and regulations.

By approaching the Old Testament as Israel's stories about God, it allows us to read the stories at face value. It's not about pitting them against science or history or modern notions of religion. It's allowing the stories to speak for themselves and reveal to us what they believed about God and his work in the world. 

There are several different ways to summarize the big stories of the Old Testament - I've focused on these five:

Each story connects with the next, with specific people taking on significant roles. Fascinating characters who, when you are honest, kind of remind you of people today. Though the stories are very, very old, and contextually there is often some work we have to do to understand ancient Sumerian, Canaanite or Babylonian culture, people are people. What we learn about God and his interactions and instructions to people back then will often seem to have a very pertinent application to our life today. 

This series of posts will help you connect the dots on people and events you may be familiar with in the Bible. If you don't know much of anything about the Bible, this will be a helpful introduction to the big themes and stories that can still capture our imaginations today.

What are some of the big questions you have about God and the Bible and Christianity and Faith?