Love Wins: Part 8, The Good News Is Better Than That

Chapter 7 of Love Wins is entitled "The Good News is Better Than That."

A big theme in this chapter, and the part I like the best, has to do with our image of God. What is God like?

I think Bell is right. This is the question beneath all the other questions. This debate isn't really about heaven or hell. This debate isn't really about limited or universal reconciliation. No, at the end of the day, when we finally get down to the bottom of the barrel, there's a single question underneath them all.

What is God like?

I've seen this play out in so many different forums. As have you. We like to think we are talking about the bible or doctrine or tradition but what we're really debating is rival visions of God.

And, according to Bell, a toxic vision of God is why many ultimately reject Christianity. A view of God who, on the one hand, "loves" you but who, on the other hand, will torture you for all eternity in hell. Bell on this point:

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating.
Psychologically crushing.
We can't bear it.
No one can.

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.

And so there are conferences about how churches can be more "relevant" and "missional" and "welcoming," and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to "reach out" and "connect" and "build relationships" with people who aren't part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?

Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if you God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Here's my take on this. And this might offend some people. But this is what I think. I think if you've really thought about hell--and I mean really thought about it--you have some serious reservations about attributing that vision to God. I'm not saying you are a universalist, just that you'll get where universalism is coming from. You might be an annihilationist, or a conditionalist, or a hopeful universalist, or simply a traditionalist who has some doubts. But at the end of the day we are all wrestling with the same thing. We are all struggling with a vision of eternal torture and the confession that God is love. And the two don't fit.

And if you don't get this, aren't at least sympathetic to the impulse behind a book like Love Wins, then I don't know what to say. There isn't much to say. Our sensibilities are too different. Worlds apart in my experience. And while that might sound defeatist, believe me, I've been around this block a few times.

When I think of hell, in all its glory, I have an experience of such overwhelming grief, horror and sadness that theological conversation is just halted. Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with you. I've stopped. I can't continue. And if you ask what's wrong, all I can do is walk you back to edge of the abyss. To have you look again. To look harder. To look again at all that pain. To hear those screams. And to know, with icy dread, that it will never, never, never end.

At the edge of that abyss I fail. My heart stops. And I have nothing else to say.

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90 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 8, The Good News Is Better Than That”

  1. "We are struggling with a vision of eternal torture and the confession that God is love. And the two don't fit"

    I learned something last weekend visiting my mother in a nursing home where, for the first time, we've all given up hope that she will ever get well enough not to need the help a nursing home offers. I learned that if you really love a person and cannot offer help that you wish that you could enter into their pain and helplessness. 

    I understand that side of our faith--God entering into our hopelessness out of love for us--at an experiential level now that I could not access before. But it poses a question: Why can't GOD help? That requires an explanation or one is left with a misfit just as big as the one you note--God loves you and with respect to God you are in danger of hell...

    Is the view that "unregenerated human life is an affront to God's holiness that must be overcome before God's love can be extended to us" a theodicy? If so, then by eliminating hell we must confront the earlier misfit that hell replaces. Thelogically speaking it would be, "damned if you do; damned if you don't."

    If Campbell deals with this later, I'm sorry to bring it up.

  2. Starkly and strikingly put Richard.

    On the one hand, I am really not that interested in my own emotions as a determinative factor of my theology and therefore my view of 'who God is'. On the other, it's hard to operate outside a context and one that will inevitably include emotions, thoughts and feelings.

    I too am VERY interested in the the notion of the ONLY question actually being "What is God actually like?" and that once an attempt has been made to honestly address this that ALL other issues will fall into place...

    The very real danger then, however, is the Feuerbachian error of merely making God according to our own sensibilities, parameters, needs and outlook. Theology, as has been noted on this site before, is after all inevitably and inescapably biography, or rather autobiography written large.

    Currently, I would describe myself in this particular regard as an annihilationist and yet I hold this doctrine very lightly as I fully acknowledge that I might have judged it wrong.

    I have more than enough about God that I truly love to allow Him in His majesty and transcendence to be able to do and be things that are either beyond my understanding or are, indeed, beyond my acceptance.

    He is who He is and I love Him. End of.

    I don't need Him to be ANYTHING at all of my own desires and expectations - I want the full shebang, warts and all - or NOTHING at all.

    I fully acknowledge that this is, by definition, my own, personal view and is also, therefore, NOT something I am advocating for others. It's hard enough working out my OWN faith with genuine fear and trembling without getting involved in anyone else's!!!

    Richard - as always - thanks for addressing the issues at the very heart of the issues. Brilliant. Stimulating. Thought-provoking and VERY inspiring on a day where I have been greatly in need of some inspiration...  

  3. It's not only the concept of Hell that repels me. It's the idea that I absolutely have to make a decicision in this life with limited information that will determine whether I go to Hell for eternity. It raises all sorts of confusions which I went into here...
    www.humblewonderful.blogspot.com/2011/09/i-trust-in-god.html
    Why is an eternal God so bound by time as to have to end their saving activity with my lifes end? Isn't the threat of Hell to encourage immature confessions exactly the modus operandi of a fake god?

    What do you think though of the theology (which I didn't engage with and find hard to) that we are all fit for Hell, everyone of us? So we can quit criticizing Hell for being over the top punishment not because it isn't eternal torture necessarily but because there's nothing anyone does to especially deserve to go there. It's horrible but It's not punishment so much as just the way we roll. It's like every fallen leaf is compost - no malice intended by nature.

    It just seems insanity to me that God keeps making more and more of us with the expectation/plan to send almost all to Hell. I'm not sure the above theology adds any quality difference to the question of how this can be a God of love, but It's a "defense" of Hell I've heard a bit.

  4. "When I think of hell, in all its glory, I have an experience of such
    overwhelming grief, horror and sadness that theological conversation is
    just halted. Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with
    you. I've stopped. I can't continue. And if you ask what's wrong, all I
    can do is walk you back to edge of the abyss. To have you look again...To look again at all that pain."

    You can say the same thing about life here and now, depending on your situation and how you were born.  Many days my only "hope" is for annihilation.  And this is due in no small part to the existence of evil and the lack of justice in the world.  Evil is every bit as inexplicable as hell. 

    No wonder people came up with the idea of a "holy" and "righteous" God!  Who would want to share "heaven" with Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin?  Or even my step-mother?

  5. Regarding the role of emotions in theological reflection...

    As a psychologist I actually think emotions are quite determinative in theological reflection. It's just that no one like to admit that. So that's one of the things that, I think, makes this blog unique, I take emotions as legitimate starting places for theological reflection. I think theological reflection should include all these things--emotion, cognition, and behavior. 

    Orthopathy ("right feeling") is just as important as orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In fact, I'd argue that it all starts with orthopathy. Our affections are primary.

  6. In The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (which is a psudeonym - I think the real author's name is Robin Parry) argues that scripture is filled with rich imagery of hell, not all of which can be literally true. Some of it clearly points to ultimate, final redemption of all. Some doesn't. He argues that, if we are going to have to interpret all of this stuff anyway, why would we do so in a manner that is inconsistent with the broader and stronger theme of God's love? I think he's looking at the same problem that you are, Richard, but describing it from a textual standpoint.

  7. The very first conversation I ever had in which I began to doubt the traditional view of hell that I had grown up with was with a group of friends a few years back. I wasn't exactly one of the primary contributors, more like an occasional speaker who mostly watched and listened. I'm glad I did, because one of my friends challenged our concept of hell by stating that she believed, with every fiber of her being, that if people really believed in that kind of hell - really - and they also believed that God is love - really -then they would be doing either one of two things: 1) They would be out there desperately attempting to bring the gospel to every single peson they could find, never resting or wasting time for anything else in life at all in order to save people from that hell; people that God loves from that hell, or 2) They would be curled up in a corner somewhere, absolutely wrecked and overcome with horror for all the people they have known and know, along with all the others they have never known, that will suffer forever. At least, that's the language that sticks out in my mind; her actual words may have been different, but the point is that same thing.

    When I heard that, I was rocked to my core. She was right, as far as I was concerned. And faced with that logic, I was faced with two options myself. Either I was tragically and critically missing something vital in my relationship with God so as to understand or appropriately feel for the fate of all those people, or  I actually didn't really believe in those conditions: that God is love, or that hell is real. My experience has taught me that constantly searching for a new level of understanding that holds the key to all my doubts is idolatry. My heart and the Spirit tell me that God is love. And the more I meditate on that, the more convinced I become that I'm not sure what hell is, but it sure as, um, hell, can't be what we in 21st century North American churches believe it to be.

    Richard, this was excellently handled. Thank you for the bravery to do this, and thank you for helping me continue to face this issue in my own life.

  8. You are 100% right, it's a view of God behind so much hell talk. Whether hell is annihilation, temporary, literal, or eternal I do not know. But I know hell starts here in this life, and the church hasn't done a good job of being characterized by your byline:  "To embrace faith is to 'kiss a leper,' to make a leap, as over a chasm, from one world into another..." The western church isn't known for "kissing lepers." Even in the literalist churches that make a big deal out of hell, there's not so much effort made toward walking the extra mile, lending, or being inconvenienced for the "Samaritan." In many of these churches, their talk about love seems more masturbatory than functional. Our liberal non-literalist churches, are often entrenched in a love affair with bureaucracy, too socially neutered to take solid positions, talk about love but remain unwilling to be personally inconvenienced with the "Samaritan."  So in this regard, hell has a foothold in many churches, even in those screaming the loudest warnings about hell from the pulpits - now thats ironic!

  9. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement with Bell's work.  Not sure if you saw the "Justice" post on JesusCreed yesterday but they had categorized Bell's efforts as "ethics controlling doctrine" as opposed to "Chan and Galli letting doctrine control ethics."  I think your post illustrates that Bell's ethics were being driven by his fundamental doctrine of who God is as revealed in Jesus.  

    Link: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/11/17/justice-david-opderbeck/#comments

  10. "What is God like?"

    There are two kinds of people, believers and unbelievers.  Unbelievers are told to believe; nothing more.  Believers are told to submit to the Holy Spirit, nothing more.  Could it really get any simpler?

    "We are all struggling with a vision of eternal torture and the confession that God is love. And the two don't fit."

    So, why do 'we' keep struggling with them?  It moves the question from what 'we' do not want (either believe or submit) to what we do want (control).

    According to Hebrews, without faith it is impossible to please God.  Faith is believing what He has said; not figuring it all out to one's satisfaction.  That is pride.

  11. "God" might be OK with that, but he'd need to do some real work on my head, and it would have nothing to do with how good or bad I had personally been, either with or without mercy or forgiveness -- or purification. 

    Do you not understand how justice completely breaks down under this paradigm?  In the real world we inhabit, the victims are just SOL, both here and up there.  So now that they're dead, Saddam and Osama are "purified", and I am supposed to be good with that? 

    Some folks make mistakes.  Some are even "bad".  Then there are those who are truly evil.  I think that notion (degree of fairness/unfairness) is supposed to be implanted in every human soul by God.  So I have read.

    It simply is not enough to say that "God is love". What is to be done about EVIL??  And more importantly, the countless victims it has created?  How to redress their grievances?  You may wish to someday have a "purified" Charles Manson for a neighbor, but I do not.

    I believe this is why the Catholic church invented Purgatory.

  12. There is a theological conundrum, to be sure. Is something good because God demands it? What is primary, a vision of God or a vision of the Good? And which trumps?

    I'll admit that I haven't spend too much time thinking about this issue. I think mainly because it assumes a location where we can step back and 1) objectively define God and the Good as independent of each other and 2) objectively define their ordering. Such a location doesn't exist. More, notions of God and the Good are so intertwined that you can't tease them apart. Nor can you set them out in an order.

    In short, the minute someone sets out to analyze the ordering of "God and ethics" the game is often already over. Presuppositions are already so well in play at that point that the resultant analysis is simply going to converge on the author's worldview. The best you can do, as the post you point to suggests, is to keep it all fluid and dialectic. Use "God" to critique "the Good" and "the Good" to critique "God." The key is motion, keeping the criticism moving forward, never letting it settle down.

  13. I for one have always admitted it, sometimes even pleading it!  In this regard we agree 100%.  And I think that if more "people of faith" as well as academics and scientists would admit that they start with a set of assumptions every time they open their mouths, it would be much easier to reach a consensus on many topics and issues.

    Assuming this is a worthy goal. 

  14. One of the things that causes the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (my tradition of origin of which I am no longer a part) to be considered heterodox is their belief in Annihilationism. Which meant for us that Hell was limited in duration and ended up with everyone and everything there being completely burned up. Most within seconds, although some (e.g. Hitler, Satan, etc) might suffer a bit longer.
    What I find interesting is that even though I was born and raised with this belief about Hell I still had (and have) the reaction you describe above. When I think about the snuffing out of a life, about all those millions of people who have suffered so much overwhelming grief, horror and sadness in THIS LIFE just being annihilated. No redemption, no reconciliation, no recompense for their suffering, just nothing, nothing, nothing. At the edge of that abyss I also fail. My heart also stops. And I also have nothing else to say.

  15. You've pretty much captured my thoughts. Before I grew to love God (and, hand in hand with that, reject cookie-cutter Hell), I was scared to death.

  16. I do think that hell functions, for many Christians, as a sort theodicy. Psychologists have studied a notion called "just world belief." And lots of religions have this notion, though it seems also to characterize many non-theists, that virtue will be rewarded and vice will be punished. That moral symmerty will prevail in the end, that we will all "get what we deserve." A crude form of karma.

    The monkey wrench in this idea, from a Christian perspective, is the notion of grace. That God is love. Something other than a strict moral accounting is in play. As Bono of U2 once said, grace isn't karma.

    But if that's the case, you still have the theodicy issue, how the evil in the world will be handled, and victims honored, if we don't, in the end, get what we deserve. This is one of the reasons I've been drawn to universalism: it has a strong view of hell and punishment but allows grace to win in the end.

  17. As for the traditional viewpoint on Hell. All I can say is thank God I at least escaped having that baggage thrust upon me as a child. I have a big enough Theodicy problem as it is without having to deal with that as well. That's just twisted.

  18. "...but he'd need to do some real work on my head..."

    You hit the nail on the head (no pun intended).  If would require a lot of work on our heads and hearts to be OK with it.  But that's what's going to be so great about heaven, everybody's going to be different!

    "Do you not understand how justice completely breaks down under this paradigm?"

    Don't misunderstand me, I am not assuming that God's "purification" will be akin to a nice warm bubble bath.  I don't doubt but what it will be agonizing, for them AND for us.  I Cor 3 says as much.  I think its presumptuous on our part to assume God can purify us to his satisfaction but that couldn't purify Hitler, Stalin, Manson, or bin Laden.

    And, yes, I think it would be very interesting to have a redeemed and purified Charles Manson as a neighbor.  Have you ever had the experience of running into someone who was a bully or a jerk in school but came to Christ as an adult?  What an amazing testimony!  Why wouldn't you want to hear all about it?

  19. I learn from you even when my question is not--my fault!--understood. You're too kind...

    I still think this is worth noting. The lack of fit that I see behind the need for God to enter into our suffering is that--apparently--God seemingly can't just take the suffering away, an affront to God's power. Reformed theology--including Luther's version that Douglass Campbell addressed--offers an explanation of why hell is necessary. But on reflection Lutheran/Reformed theology functions as theodicy, in that... 

    if we are deserving of hell, then presumably God is off the hook for not eliminating the suffering/evil in the world--which would otherwise look like an affront to God's power/sovereignty.That was the "misfit' I wanted to bring to your attention. Lord knows, you don't need anything more to think aboput, but it is an interesting thought that two versions of theodicy seem to be in tension.  

  20. I read a blog recently that said 6 billion people will die in the next 100 years. This alone pushes me towards some type of universalism. No percentage of the saved sooths such knowledge.

  21. "He is who He is and I love Him. End of.  I don't need Him to be ANYTHING at all of my own desires and expectations"

    But in the context of this discussion, WHAT/WHO do you love?  What is it about him that inspires your love?

  22. "a toxic vision of God who, on the one hand, "loves" you but who, on the other hand,
    will torture you for all eternity in hell."

    I had terrible nightmarish conflicts over this for many years.  Christians didn't seem to get it - they'd say "But you're all right - you've (enter some synonym for conversion)." 

    They thought it was about personal insecurity over my eternal destiny.  It wasn't: it was this very question -

    What is God like if he does THIS? 

  23. it's funny to me is that god created this world, and I would say he created perfect as a place of rest for him.
    although before he created he had a rescue plan created in weakness in mind. just because of the possibilities of choice.
    think of possibilities( choice) as the front window of a brand new car gets hit by a rock stays out in the sun and fractures all over the place.
    until you can't see out of that once brand new piece of glass.
    if we look at missing the mark of righteousness in such a way.
    we might come to understand. that when we look at god loving kindness it becomes a fractal, no matter how well we think we see we still see our perfect circle. until we put it under the microscope. and we see all the microscopic jagged edges.
    that are all too similar to our neighbors.
    I think most of this like to deal with hell in rejection because were so poor at exercising love.
    to the point of law.(doctrine)
    god's people fractured out so bad they crucified him.
    how did god deal with that type of abuse.
    to me richard were so broken we got no business doing anything other than asking each other will help when trying to take up the divine nature.
    I wonder why paul said now abide faith hope and love.
    and so bless us all on our journey.
    because God is faithful to his words no matter what i or anyone else says.
    first and foremost we are to be the kingdom builders. and there's nothing wrong with saying someone I'm not sure.
    I think we better learn to love a little bit better. before we start looking through our fractured glasses and deciding how god is going to judge his creation.
    because I don't even wanna judge myself anymore.

  24. This conundrum is a wall I keep banging into when conversing with Christians - If Good is defined by God doesn't the sentence God is good become nonsensical (good by what standard). If God defines good aren't you just worshipping Might and Power?
    I'm not just point scoring with these questions I'm actually interested that as you say there is a sort of floating tension between the concepts of God and Good or an intuitive smashing of the distinction. God is known to both be good and God by a sense of being home and loved by the believer is the best form I have found it in as I can express it.

    For me these questions got me as a "born-again" young man to an existential agnosticism. I answered them not by putting a universal morality before a universal God but by putting a personal responsibility to serve the good as I saw it first of all before universal good or God. That doesn't preclude my submission to God if that is what seems right and good. But no submission or belief relieves me of my responsibility; I'm responsibile for my submission. I can't sign away my moral agency.

  25. Thanks for this continuing series discussing Rob Bell's "Love Wins."  I have not read Bell but I am thrilled with his take on the Gospel. What he says in chapter 7 is spot on. What God is like is definitively revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And that face of God revealed to us in Jesus is of the One who has always been for us and never against us.

    Jesus comes to the misfits, the ostracized, the poor, the “sinners” and eats with the “unclean,” touches the untouchable and by doing so declares what has been true from the foundation of the cosmos: that God has forgiven them always--it is the default condition of how God views them. No preconditions of confession and repentance are necessary.

        The New Testament scholar, E. P. Sanders, summarizes this well:
    [Jesus offered sinners] inclusion in the kingdom not only while they were still sinners but also without requiring repentance as normally understood, and therefore he could be accused of being a friend of people who indefinitely remained sinners [cf. Jesus and Judaism, 206].
    The only hell that exists, and has ever existed, is the living hells experienced by countless billions on the Earth since the beginning of time. It is that hell that God takes so seriously and passionately that he enters into this world as Jesus to take (the Lambkin who takes away the sin of the world) those hellish experiences away from all of those who lives were defined and deformed by that hell. He takes away the pain and godforsaken despair of each and everyone and removes it from our experience. It remains hidden in him and in turn he pours out indiscriminately to all the all-bountiful life currently hidden in him. He did it by descending into the unspeakable, terrible abyss of godforsakenness that we cannot even approach to look upon for a brief moment.  There is no longer time or space left for godforsakenness.

    All who have suffered loss, torment and despair from this hell on earth will experience a new birth. A new birth that is far more than a psychological conversion experience. It is new birth that is a true resurrection; a resurrection that is beyond receiving an imperishable body but brings all space and time into a new beginning.  All of the innumerable factors that have defined our present life (genetics, circumstances of life, random events) that allocate to some a relatively good life and many others a hell on earth will be brought into rectifying judgment of God to remove them from our history (personal and collective) and give everyone the full benefit of the all-bountiful life that is YHWH among us.

    This all may sound fantastical but is not more so than what physicists are, to their astonishment, beginning to see. That the past can be changed, that the universe is malleable and plastic like a quantum hologram that in a “twinkling of an eye” everything can be transformed into a new reality where all the former hells are taken away and forgotten and what remains is the wellspring of the never ending unfolding of a new creation from the Big Bang of Jesus’ resurrection. All things made new, not by almighty power but by the powerless Lambkin dying on a Roman cross.

  26. It wouldn't be a "purified" anyone, it would be someone who had been made completely new. 

    What is to be done about evil is to completely annihilate it, destroy it, make it as though it never was.  Cleanslate just posted a vision of where the entire creation knows, experiences, and is capable only of the love, the grace, and the all-bountifulness of the Lambkin.

  27. Francis Thompson, poet and drug addict, on Hell?:
    "All which thy child's mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for the at home;
    Rise, clasp My hand, and come!""Hound of Heaven"Blessings!

  28. I generally operate on the assumption that all religion/belief is either a human invention to create in us hope vs. despair -- or else it's magic.  In the circles in which I was reared, your thinking is heresy, and your soul would be aimed at flames.  And yet, to me, just now, you do make some sense.  I think it's because of your reference to quantum mechanics, something I can objectively relate to.

    The vision you present is compelling.  Internally consistent, even logical.  Awe-inspiring, in fact.  However (isn't there always one?), it doesn't answer the question I have had since I was four years old.  The first question I will ask if the vision you present here is true, when confronted face-to-face with my maker.  I really do not think it is too much to ask, even if no one has ever been able to give me a suitable answer:

    Why?

  29. I am about 3 years in recovery from "Angry Bifurcated Schizo Homicidal Zeus-Figure Syndrome" (otherwise known as ABSHZS).  I was discussing universalism with a friend the other night and made the argument that even the Christians who put the road to salvation at the most narrow end of the spectrum still believe in infant universalism. If this is the case, then why wouldn't many people, if they really, truly thought about the gravity of their view on hell, feel that it would be the moral and correct thing to do murder all children before the "age of accountability?" 

  30. I've mentioned this before. When I asked an arminian theologian why he believed in free will - especially a free will with little scriptural support, yet so important as to explain hell and all earthly suffering - he replied that, without free will, God is a monster.

    This post seems to support a similar line of thinking. Why does universalism reject an eternal hell? Because with an eternal hell, God is a monster.

    There is, of course, the alternative that God is simply not there.

    So help me out here. As responses to theodicy, both free will theology and universalism just seem like wishful thinking to me. Especially when the biblical sources of Christianity have to be "finessed" to make these concepts work. When scripture and human experience indicate a God who seems monstrous to us, isn't it simpler to rethink our presumption of God in the first place? 

    What is it that compels us to hold on to belief, when scripture is only something to be constantly reinterpreted (and supplemented) in order to avoid the problem of pain. Is it the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Believe me, I've asked myself many times over the years whether I've experienced such a witness, and my answer is repeatedly "no". 

  31. The world population just reached the 7 billion mark this year. We can probably assume that only a tiny percentage of those alive today will still be alive in 100 years, and a very large number of people who aren't even born yet will die within the next 100 years as well. 

    I think your number is too low by billions! 

  32. To both: Jesus didn't mess with any kind of philosophical approach.  He just said, "You already know what is good: you already know to give your child bread and not a stone that will break his teeth; you already know to give him an egg and not a scorpion." 

    Jesus doesn't make it hard to work out what is good - if it nourishes and benefits, it's good.  If it harms or hurts, it's bad.  Simple.  Then he says that's how our heavenly father operates, by giving good gifts. 

  33. This very well captures how I, too, often feel: "Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with you. I've stopped. I can't continue. And if you ask what's wrong, all I can do is walk you back to edge of the abyss. To have you look again."

    But, while I *often* feel that way, it isn't always true. And it isn't always true for you, either, is it, Richard? I mean, sometimes you'll have words to speak -- other than walking the person to the abyss. Sometimes you'll give reasons (other than that tradtionally nasty doctrines of hell are too bleak) for your views, explain things, etc.  

    In my case, I find it emotionally and spiritually exhausting to be dealing with Team Hell.  And it's when I get too exhausted that your words that I quote above are exactly how I feel.

  34. I certainly won’t presume to be able to answer the question as to “Why.”  But perhaps I can offer some food for thought in that direction.

     First, I should disclose that I do not identify myself as a Christian. If being a Christian means belonging to a church and participating regularly in such a community; then I haven’t met that criterion for a very long time.  So I am not constrained by the charge of heresy. I try to see things from the perspective of the outsider, especially of those who find it difficult or impossible to believe.

    The only thing that prevents me from being an atheist is the dereliction of Jesus’ godforsaken death on the cross.  If there is a God then He must be the Crucified One. An almighty god is grounds for disbelief and certainly not someone you can trust. The holy (as in not being able to stand the stench of a sinner kind of holy), sovereign god is not the one I see in the crucified Jesus. What I see is a God who not only befriends sinners and makes himself open to and approachable by them but also takes full responsibility for all the sin, death and harm suffered by His creation.

    Sovereignty is for the aloof cosmic potentate with a cosmic plan and issuing divine fiats. Responsibility is for the creator who by an act of self-limitation created a space and time for something other than God-self and by doing so took a great risk, with the bulk of the consequences of that risk falling on the creation.   All the death, the random chaos of natural forces, the countless victims of evolutionary natural selection, the gross inequities of life; all the sh*t that makes us cry out “why!”  

    How does he take on that responsibility? He does so by taking the sins, yes the hells of this world from us. He is unstintingly selfish in that regard. He demands that all of the infirmities, consequences of sin and death be solely his.  He claims sole possession of them.  He only is worthy to bear them and take them from the full span of the time and space of the universe. Yes, that small powerless Jesus hanging on a Roman cross two thousand years on a planet located in the outskirts of a galaxy that is one among 100 billion.  And in exchange he only gives. He descends into the depths of absolute death, a place where no self-respecting, almighty, “holier than thou “god should be and pours out his life creating a well spring of all-bountiful life giving energy that not even the almighty power of death can withstand.

    There will be a moment, the last moment, when the veil is pulled back, the light turned on and all of time and space will be brought into a new singularity where all things will have a new genesis and all the risk and harm we suffered in this creation will be hidden from our view and experience--only the Lambkin on the throne of YHWH will know it.

  35. cleanslate - this comment is one of the most beautiful things I've read in a while!  Thank you.

  36. Richard,

    Thanks for your post.  All too often we refine the art of Job's "miserable comforters."  Some years ago, while listening to a weeping and dying Vietnam combat veteran confess he had killed a child, I determined not to try to figure out anyone's eternal destiny, Heaven, Hell or God's justice.  I am still trying.  But for me now, theodicy is the Accuser's work.  Continuously squaring that religious circle is hard as Hell.  Too hard.  It is not pastoral and loving.  It is only helpful in showing us that it is not helpful.  

    Blessings!  

  37. I appreciate so much your thoughts.  Have you ever felt as if you are in the midst of formulating a new idea -- something profound-- but you cannot quite yet articulate it?  That's the way I feel after reading your posts.

    It may jell soon and I can express here on another "Love Wins" chapter (I have read the book twice).  Or it may show up in my own (*crickets chirping*) blog.  But you have gotten my mind racing.  Thanks!

  38. Interesting that some view hell as an answer to theodicy.  Jurgen Moltmann posits that the resurrection is primarily an answer to theodicy in "The Coming of God" and in "The Crucified God."

  39. All I can say is, thanks Richard. Thanks for putting into such simple words what envelops my mind and heart in every moment. For those who can't see this I can only walk away... there is nothing left to say.

  40. "Believe me, I've asked myself many times over the years whether I've experienced such a witness, and my answer is repeatedly "no"."

    Perhaps, in reading this article and the responses to it above, you just did experience it. I know I did.

  41. I'm pretty sure a lot of people don't actually think about it. We're sheep. We believe what we're told. We're manipulated by fear by others who have been manipulated by fear. Not all humans are philosophers. :/

  42. Thanks Sam I'm glad I was able to contribute something of value. I struggle with this--finding the words-- but even more than that finding the energy to overcome my own self-doubt. Yet, and it happens infrequently, something lights the fire under me and for a brief time I am transported beyond my self and my own native pessimism (realism) about the human condition and the state of this world. Being on the outside for a very long time, outside the gates so to speak, the only residual aspect of the Gospel I hung on to was the crucified Jesus hanging on a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem next to the the city garbage dump Gehenna--the ultimate outsider. There in the enveloping gloom of my depression was the faint light of Golgotha that could not be extinguished. It prevented me from extinguishing myself on several occasions.

    I check yourblog regularly and I was researching and preparing a response to your "Winding Up or Down" post. But I lost heart and gave it up. Maybe the fire or wind of the free blowing Spirit will come again my way. Please do continue your posts on your blog, I for one read them and others do too. We just need to let you know more often that we are there.

  43. An atheist friend said, "If God is good, we have nothing to fear. If God is bad, we're doomed. If God is non-existent, we'll never know. We'll be dead."

    Interestingly, this man had faith in God's goodness, but doubted his existence. It's ironic that many Christians do the opposite.

  44. No. I experienced an emotion (which I do not equate with the supernatural) of frustration at the absurdity of belief.

  45. Im mostly content to live my life basing my sense of good on appeals to the obvious consequences.
    I feel a bit dirty using it to argue tho because obvious (like normal or natural) can feel like a cheap rhetorical trick. Outside of conversation though intuition and "simple" observation is a "good enough" approach for making my decisions.

    What I often bump into is the idea that "good" is not just hard for us to guess (due to our fallen natures) but completely arbitrary depending on Gods commands. So it was good for Abraham to sacrifice his son until God changed his command.

    Back to Hell this means that some Christians respond to appeals to the obvious wrongness of Hell by saying that if God sends you to Hell it can't be wrong even if youre a baby or a saint or a repentant believer. It's like Nixons comment "when the President does it its not illegal."

    The implications of that theology frighten me.

  46. Beau, I understand your frustration for I have experienced it myself. Until we are convinced otherwise (not by others, but by our own heart and reason), any belief that makes no sense to us IS absurd.

    The funny thing is though, we all believe something. Who's to say whose beliefs are absurd and whose aren't? One man's (or woman's) heresy is another man's beautiful truth.

  47. WE are to say whose beliefs are absurd! And we do - all the time - whenever someone else's beliefs affect us negatively.

    I could give you a long list of ways that belief affects me negatively, but I am by no means in the minority. 

    On one end of the spectrum, how do you feel about the suicidal beliefs of the 9-11 perpetrators?

    On another end, how do you feel about the beliefs of politicians who try place unscientific lies into our children's classrooms, to support their creationist agendas?

    What's alike about these beliefs? They are based on "faith", not evidence. 

  48. Augustine insisted very strongly that infants who died unbaptized went to eternal hell and that became the position of the Church for centuries, confirmed in big councils, etc.  To not think they went to hell seemed to function for Augustine as a sign that one didn't take Original Sin seriously enough and that one was likely guilty of Pellagianism.  I'm not sure how the church managed to walk that all back (it must be a fascinating tale), but, yes, it seems that most current Christians don't even go for Limbo for unbaptized infants (which became a possibility), but put these depraved (by Original Sin) and *completely* unrepentant little beings right into heaven!

    As a universalist, I often find myself talking up the infants -- largely b/c that's where a lot of Christians, at least in my experience, at least nowadays, seem to have the same sensibilities that I do.  Only for many of them, they viciously turn on God's little ones once they get older -- and less cute.

    I too have wondered why, given these views of hell, killing little ones wouldn't be the kindest thing one could do for them.  Ken Himma, a philosopher, has written on the related issue of whether traditionally nasty doctrines of hell would render it wrong to have children in the first place.  The paper is "Birth as a Grave Misfortune: The Traditional Doctrine of Hell and Christian Salvific Exclusivism."  I have it in pdf if you'd like an e-copy sent.  (To me, this calls to mind these lines from Bob Dylan: "You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled / Fear to bring children into the world / For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed / You ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins.")

  49. Beau, I am not telling you to believe anything that does not make sense to you. If it is absurd to you then by all means reject it. I wouldn't expect you, or anyone else, to do anything but that. In fact, I would consider anyone who does not reject that which is absurd to them to be only acting under the threats of religion. Faith is not meant to make you frustrated and depressed, but to give you peace and hope. 

    I wish you nothing peace and contentment.

  50. I don't know if the good God exists. That knowledge is beyond my direct experience. But I do know from direct experience that seeking him is better than bowing to despair.

  51. I would wish despair on no one. But I don't think despair is a necessary alternative to God. Certainly not in my experience.

  52. If we are unintended by-products of an indifferent universe, soon to die, we must live lives without hope. All we are, all we love and all we have will soon be lost forever. Many can live hopeless lives quite cheerfully. I cannot.

  53. "It's ironic that many Christians do the opposite."

    So true. Which is exactly why I no longer call myself a "Christian." I do not doubt His existence, nor do I doubt His goodness. I am so much more content and at peace now as a "heretic" then I ever was trying to be a good "Christian."

  54. A good argument here, that almost all the references to "hell" are misreferences and mistranslations, owing more to the words they were translated  into. Sheol,  Tartarus/Hades and Gehenna.  Would have been far better to translate Sheol into the words "the grave" than into the Greek/Norse "Hell"  Which seems to be the same usage "tartarus/Hades" have in the NT. They don't seem to be buying into the whole Greek Cosmology of Hades but using it in essence as they would the word Sheol, or "Grave."  And Gehenna is the most inteteresting to me. As in this case it might be that we don't take the word (Valley of Hinnom) literally enough. 

    Andrew Perriman makes a convincing argument that Jesus warnings of avoiding Gehenna or the "Valley of Himmon" are very literal: "The judgment of gehenna is meant to evoke Jeremiah’s horrifying vision of the dead thrown from the walls of the city into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem."   http://www.postost.net/node/379
    So this suggests that In short that warnings of "Gehenna" is referring to the upcoming judgement of Rome against Jerusalem, after which Jerusalem was destroyed and some Josephus records that "no fewer than six hundred thousand were thrown out at the gates" of the city... he doesn't say where, but it is likely either into the Kiddron or into the Valley of Hinnom.

     Other research and thinking that seems solid to me is here: http://fromdamascustoemmaus.com/questioning-hell/

  55. The universe is an amazing (and also dangerous) place to live. It isn't indifferent, it just is. Forgive me, but I think that to worry about whether the universe "cares" for us is vain and more than a bit childish.
     
    Christians are conditioned from birth to worry about forever, to worry about what imaginary fate awaits us after death. We don't need heaven or hell to give our lives meaning. We provide our own meaning. Think of time as a dimension, like length, width, and depth (it is in many ways). We will always have this time, now, the present. The chance to live and love, right now, at this moment, is yours, and no future person or event can steal this moment from you. Why bind your hope to what happens after you die? That is not your time; you won't worry about it then, why worry about it now?
    Our experience of time is an illusion, really, as is our sense of "I". Your consciousness is not the same "person", that existed in your body 10 years ago. (In fact, your body's cells have all replaced themselves, more or less). You aren't really even the person you were a moment ago.

    Christians are conditioned to believe that good and moral living comes from God. Knowing that I evolved taste buds, doesn't make the apple taste less sweet. There is joy and love to be had in life now, today. I don't need to imagine some perfect, divine apple, to enjoy an apple today. I don't need to imagine a perfectly good and moral being, to know that the world is a better place when humans look out for each other, love each other and relieve each other's suffering. Taste is great; love is better. I don't need God to know that loving other people makes life worth living. 

    Some Christians have this strange idea that nonbelievers must live in a purely selfish, every-man-for-himself worldview. Some Christian's have this bizarre notion that a "Darwinian" worldview is purely selfish. Well, in the first place, biological evolution isn't selfish, it just is. And in the second place, though we do observe "Nature, red in tooth and claw", we also observe forms of altruism throughout nearly every ecosystem. The taste of an apple makes perfect evolutionary sense; the love that I feel for others, first in my family, but easily extended to the rest of humanity, makes perfect evolutionary sense. If we didn't love each other, we wouldn't survive.

    But unlike the Christian and the bible, nonbelievers don't live their lives according to the "The Origin of Species". Science is a way of understanding the universe, but it's not a rulebook, and it's not there to bring us false comfort. Living and loving is up to us; there are plenty of good reasons to do so, none of them imaginary. 

  56. "In many of these churches, their talk about love seems more masturbatory than functional. "

    "Masturbatory" - What an original and brilliant analogy. Saying "we love people" because it makes them feel good to say it... without actually "loving" people. I wonder if they'll only do it until they need glasses? ;)

  57. That is a most worthy goal Sam - well said. 

    Sadly though, most "people of faith" (as well as academics and scientists) would never "admit that they start with a set of assumptions every time they open their mouths" because that would be to admit to the possibility that they might be WRONG. And THAT notion is completely unacceptable to "faithful" people. It's always the OTHER guy that's wrong... not them.

    I sense a great discontent within you concerning the arrogance of those who must always be "right," for I feel it too. The reason I hate "religion" is because its intention is not to unite mankind (though it usually hides under the charade of that claim), but to divide us into the "right" and the "wrong," the "good" and the "evil," the "believers" and the "unbelievers," those who are "God's children" and those who are not. It is a system of superiority - seeking to separate those who are "better" than the rest and make them proud for being so. And the reason I love Christ's teachings (not the religion of "Christianity") is that he stressed just the opposite - that we are all "good" enough. Rather than conforming to the “Christian” mindset of considering ourselves better than others, Christ calls us to come out from among them and be the equal of our fellow sinners.
    And I am so much happier being the equal of my imperfect fellow human beings than in trying to be their better.

  58. "You may wish to someday have a "purified" Charles Manson for a neighbor, but I do not."

    I understand your concern my friend. But how would you feel about having a "healed" schizophrenic, or a "healed" Alzheimer's sufferer, or a "healed" autistic child as a neighbor in heaven? If those are acceptable to you why not then a "healed" Charles Manson? Is one mental disorder more "evil" than another? Or are some "broken vessels" just beyond the potter's ability to mend?

    To assume that a "Charles Manson" does not deserve (or is beyond) the healing power of God, but that Sam does, is nothing but arrogance and a personal view of superiority, not to mention a lack of faith in the abilities of God? And I highly doubt that you consider yourself better than most... but apparently, at least, better than Charles Manson.

  59. Jim, you say so many things that resonate with me. You have so well extracted Christ from religious Christianity, and discarded the chaff. What I wrestle with is that one's religous biography is so bound up in one's family biography. Often the family system operates in the same way as the religion with which it is enmeshed.

  60. "Why can't God help"
    I resonate with this, when someone you love is in dire need, my thought is "God could be doing more"  Sometimes, knowing that something is "a mystery" isn't enough.

  61. Presumably, you believe the argument
    you've presented here is true. But how can it be true if we are so
    easily conditioned, if we create our own meaning, and if time, self
    and consciousness are all illusions? To me your line of thinking
    gallops breakneck into the darkness and will end very badly indeed.




    On the other hand, I hope in the good
    God. Truth is real, we exist and are significant, life is meaningful
    and the future bright.

  62. "He is who He is and I love Him. End of"

    We can only love that which is loveable. To worship God we first must judge him worthy. If God is in fact a cosmic sadist, I hope to find the strength to hate him with all my heart. I hope the same for you.

  63. Patricia, I am so glad that my words may be an encouragement to you. I do not ever want anyone to think that I am attacking them when I express my disenchantment with organized religion. It is the "religion" which I reject... NOT the people who are simply seeking to know God but have been caught up in religion's "requirements" for doing so. My heart goes out to anyone who is living under the intimidation of the "church" rather than the peace of God's promises. It is the "church" which claims to represent God, but it was He who sent His son to dispel that myth.

    I think I understand what you are saying concerning one's religious and family biographies being bound up with each other. Sadly many families ostracize their own members if they should ever express disagreement with their religious beliefs. Luckily for me, my own family never did anything but accept me unconditionally, though our beliefs do not always mesh. It was my former church "family" which decided that I was no longer welcome when I began to question their teachings. Oddly enough, it is often those who most loudly claim to be open minded who turn out to be exactly the opposite.

    I hope you have found great encouragement here on Richard's site. He, and many who comment here, have an insightful gift to simplify and look deeper into the questions of faith which plague so many. And I would heartily encourage you to trust the goodness of God rather than those who claim to represent Him. 

  64. Keith I would love to read that paper.  If you're so inclined, my e-mail is joshuasphilosophy@gmail.com.  Much appreciated!

  65. Well, maybe we'll continue this in another venue. If we keep replying, we'll indent this conversation out of existence!

    Until then ...

  66. Ok maybe one more thought. I just noticed that you said my "thinking gallops breakneck into the darkeness and will end very badly indeed."

    I'm not terribly concerned about how I end at the moment. It's enough to know that I will end. But, I'm curious, going back to Richard's subject in this post: Since you think I'm going to end very badly, in your worldview, does that mean that Love doesn't Win?

  67. Tracy Witham: it poses a question: Why can't GOD help? That requires an explanation or one is left with a misfit…

    Meg: when someone you love is in dire need, my thought is "God could be doing more"

    There is always the same assumption underlying this question, and that assumption is:

    “God” could do it, because “God” is all-powerful – therefore “God” is choosing not to.

    This is an assumption that is not supported by YHWH’s behavior in the biblical witness.  

    Jesus, the image of God, the only way we know what God is like, died helpless on a cross, unable to scratch his nose, without even a place to set his foot.  This is not an image of an all-powerful God.  

    Then how can he do anything, and especially how can he overcome death and evil, how can we be secure in that, if he doesn’t hold ultimate power?

    Once again, we have to return to the primary image of God – as Jesus on the cross.  What is he doing there, and what is the result?  I see this as the life of God flowing out into the world – freely.  It all flows out abundantly until there is none left, and Jesus dies, entering into the lowest, darkest place, the place where God is not.  His life flows out and out and fills pain, twistedness, sickness, evil, even death.  There is so much life coming from him that the flood starts rising and as it does, it lifts all it meets.  Because Jesus has gone so much lower than any creature could ever go, he rises first; it is in fact Jesus’s own death that brings about his resurrection.

    This is not a piecemeal process – a few miracles for the lucky favorites – it is a wholesale flooding with life of the whole creation.  

    This gushing river of life, this all-bountifulness, is what we can rely on, it’s the reason we can be secure that death and evil will be abolished.

  68. I recognize now that I should have called the way hell helps address the misfit between God's purported all-surpassing power and the perpetual suffering in the world "apologetic." "Hell" addresses a seeming a lack of power to deal with evil, rather than provides a rationale--at least any deep rationale--for why evil is part of God's world. 

    I hope that I'm not correct in this, as "hell" is a very bad thing to plug a theological hole with. Yet, pretty clearly, if one does inquire about the affront to God's power set up by evil, the role of hell in some theological traditions does help...

    Which leaves me wanting to know more about alternative theological traditions. I'm familiar with Lewis'--from George MacDonald--framing the work of Christ as turning the worst of human acts into the best. I'm guessing that Moltmann gives that framework a thorough treatment--very worthwhile, if so, and even more interesting if not... I'll give it a read.

    Thanks!

  69. Hi Elephile,

    Some great thoughts--thank you. 

    Clearly there is a tension between the existence of God and the existence of evil in all biblical traditions. And you thoughts are an interesting way to address that. But i will tell you that in visiting my mother a week ago I did not see "[God's} life flow out and fill" my mother's pain in a helpful way. What works in the abstract can seem pretty feeble in the face of the suffering of someone you love and want to help. In a concrete frame of reference like that a person seeks a concrete form of help. When it is no where to be seen, and one is part of a community of faith, there is a misfit between hope and reality.

    But your view  merits further thought, on my part, which I will give it. Perhaps you mean to suggest that human suffering is dignified by God's having stepped directly into it, among other things?   

  70. To me, the question that I think is really behind this kind of concern is, “Why didn’t Jesus’s resurrection immediately bring about the New creation?”  In my view, Jesus’s death and resurrection set a process in motion that inevitably will result in getting rid of suffering, evil and death.  That process is still going on. 
    Jesus went so much lower than anything in the universe that the rising flood of life raised him first.  The way I see it, it has been rising ever since.  Paul said the dead would rise before the living at the last trumpet – the dead are at a lower place than we, the living, are, so the rising flood reaches them before us.  (This, of course, is only an analogy.) 
    There is always a misfit between hope and reality; as Paul said, you can only hope for what you don’t already have.  But I do think that when we are in that new reality, with no suffering or death, it will not feel as though we waited for it: the suffering will not just be healed from then on, all suffering and harm will be healed, right from the moment it started.
    It is natural for us to want bad stuff to be fixed straight away.  Jesus felt that, too, and healed people, etc. – but he didn’t do any of those individual miracles after his resurrection.  His death and resurrection is the BIG fix, and doesn’t leave anyone or anything out.
    >Perhaps you mean to suggest that human suffering is dignified by God's having stepped directly into it, among other things?
    That’s not how I would put it.  I don’t see any virtue or benefit in suffering anywhere in the creation.  What we can say is that by stepping directly into, he has shown how seriously he takes it; it is not something to be waved away, it is not an illusion, it is a threat to the creation, an enemy that must and will be destroyed

  71. “if one does inquire about the affront to God's power set up by evil, the role of hell in some theological traditions does help”

    But God is love, not power, and the concept of hell is certainly an affront to his love.

  72. Hi Jim, I have found a lot of encouragement here, and you're certainly a part of that. I'm glad your family genuinely loves and accepts you. For me, it's a little more complicated with my family of origin. Systemic scapegoating doesn't need a theological reason.  

  73. With all do respect, I think more people like you need to retain the "Christian" descriptor. I realize that it puts you in a category with many people you'd rather not be associated with, but it also makes you stand out in that crowd. "Christian" simply means Christ-follower, and no matter how much I dislike the stereotypes that follow me around when I call myself one, I can break them better by keeping the term. I *am* a Christ-follower and I want to show others that you can be follow Jesus, openly and blatantly, without subscribing to the myriad constructs that cripple the Church today.

  74. Ali, I completely understand your position, and on one level I agree with it. But because the term "Christian" is  synonymous with "a member of the Christian religion," which I do not subscribe to, I cannot in good conscience call myself one. Like you I consider myself a Christ-follower - as best as I can accomplish that difficult yet beautiful task. If the definition of "Christian" truly meant only "Christ-follower" then I would agree with your position. But since it too often lumps together so many disagreeing denominations and varied doctrinal positions - none of which I agree with - why would I want to label myself as such? I wouldn't and don't. Because the world too often sees "Christians" as declaring themselves as "better" than the rest of mankind, and as a group which is trying to convert everyone else to their way of thinking, I must separate myself from them. I refuse to support any theology which essentially declares that some of us are God's children and the rest are not, and the "Christian" religion is one of those.

    If the "church" (organized religion - the "traditions of men") is "crippled" - and it is - perhaps there is a good reason for it, and time to let it die. At the heart of most religion is the desire to divide mankind rather than unite it. And sadly "Christianity," as practiced by the "church" today, is no exception, and is in fact a prime example of this.

    Interestingly enough, if a stranger were ever to ask me what my theological position was (and this rarely happens) I would initially call myself a "Christian" if only to simplify my answer for their easier understanding. But any discussion beyond that cursory inquiry would find me rapidly diverting from what most "Christians" consider is "proper and acceptable" theology. To be perfectly forthright I would have to reply to that stranger's question with something like, "well I consider myself a Christian - as in Christ-follower - but most Christians would call me a heretic." 

    Again, I would welcome the title of "Christian" if it meant only "one who follows Christ." But the connotations associated with it have long since become so much more - close-mindedness, judgmental attitudes, intellectual superiority, the "chosen" people of God, hell for everyone else, etc., etc. And again I do not want to be associated with that mindset.

    Thank you for your respect and sincere concerns.

  75. Thanks for your response. Your position makes complete sense and I sympathize. That's how I felt for the longest time, and to some extent I still do. But I think I'm coming to realize, a la G.K. Chesterton, that my "heresies" are much closer to orthodoxies than I initially thought. The divisive, condemning religion that you and I reject is the same kind that Christ rejected from the Pharisees. Which implies that truly orthodox Christianity is something else entirely from what the Church thinks it is.

    *But* - and I think this is a key point - Christ also taught in the synagogues and worked from within the social-religious constructs of his age, as flawed as they were. He recognized their value, so long obscured by corruption, and tried to draw it out. Tradition and religion are not inherently evil or divisive; we have made them that way. They are tools that can be used for our benefit, if we use them correctly.I actually agree that the Church should be allowed to die, but only because it needs to be reborn, as it has many times before. This is actually what I love about Christianity: that it is never wholly static. New generations come along and take up the torch, re-discovering the heart of the Gospel and making it relevant in new ways, while letting the older generation - so increasingly irrelevant and ineffective - die out. Chesterton points this out in "The Everlasting Man" - he calls it "The Five Deaths of the Faith". To quote:

    "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave... superficially and externally it often did get killed; nay, it sometimes wore out even without getting killed... it was said truly enough that human Christianity in its recurrent weakness was sometimes too much wedded to the powers of the world; but if it was wedded it has very often been widowed. It is a strangely immortal sort of widow." 

  76. "my "heresies" are much closer to orthodoxies than I initially thought. The divisive, condemning religion that you and I reject is the same kind that Christ rejected from the Pharisees. Which implies that truly orthodox Christianity is something else entirely from what the Church thinks it is."

    Well said Ali. I couldn't agree more. Thanks for your beautiful insights. Hopefully, in time, you and I and others like us will be able to get rid of the stereotypes which plague the "Christian" religion, and show that being Christian - following Christ - is not "what the Church thinks it is."

    Take care, Jim

  77. I see I'm two weeks late to this discussion, so maybe no one will read this. I'm sorry; I just discovered this site, and I've found the conversation very intriguing. I can't resist adding my 2 cents, just in case anyone is still  following it.
    I read somewhere that mothers who have been "knocked out" during labor and so missed the pain, often have trouble bonding with their newborns. I don't know if this is true, but it illustrates for me that there can be positive value in suffering: bitter medicine for spiritual health, or the kiln that fires raw clay into fine porcelain.My husband was an abandoned child and suffered much in his youth. He became wise and mature far beyond his years, and capable of truly Christ-like love. Admittedly it doesn't always work out that way; maybe some cooperation of the person with the process is necessary. A relative of mine who had a difficult youth, was very caustic and judgmental until her 70s. Then she developed very painful neuralgia, and during the remaining years of her life she gradually became much more gentle and kindly.I look back over my own life (I'm 64) and everywhere I see God's loving fingerprints. So many circumstances that hurt and seemed harmful at the time, somehow were transformed into blessings. Right now I'm in deep grief over my husband's death, yet I see God's comforting and I can sense myself becoming more gentle (which is something I never have been, quite the opposite!).I read God's promise that someday He will "wipe away the tears from all faces," that there will be "no death or mourning or crying or pain," and I think He also is eager to see an end to all suffering. Yet, for the time being, He can use it in our lives, make it work for our good, if we'll let Him do so.I guess that's why I balk at the idea of eternal, hopeless hell, because then the suffering would have no redemptive, healing purpose. I rather like Lewis' picture of hell in The Great Divorce: that souls can leave, if they are willing to let go of self-worship and learn to love. I don't know if I BELIEVE in universal salvation, because what if a person persists forever in refusing all God's calls to love? I can't see God as a rapist! But I do pray for everyone to be safe in heaven in the end, and I wonder:As finite creatures, are we really capable of resisting the divine Lover for all eternity? If He keeps on and on reaching out to us, however stubborn we are, won't we be won over someday? The biggest chunk of ice will melt eventually if the sun keeps shining on it.

  78. Losing your husband must be terrible – it’s my worst dread.  I’m glad you have been feeling some comfort; but as I see it, the comfort you feel is a small mitigation for something that God considers an enemy.

    Your husband’s suffering was something that he managed to rise above – but what if there had been nothing to damage him in the first place?  What if he (and everyone else) were born with the capability of Christ-like love?  What if your relative had not been made caustic and judgmental by her experience, or by her genetic code, or anything else, and also hadn’t experienced neuralgia?  

    Some of us are born without the ability to empathise, love, or connect with others: the extreme cases are called psychopaths, or sociopaths, and they can never learn to be gentle, kind, or altruistic.  They simply need to be healed.  But then, don’t we all?

    So: what if no one was damaged or deformed, physically or emotionally?  What if no one died, or suffered, or was bereaved?  

    That is the scenario I look for in the New Creation – that the only one who will have suffered, died, or experienced loss will be the Lamb.  

    The fact that death, pain, bereavement and tears will be no more tells me that God is not OK with them; they are not the way he gets that ultimate reality, and I think you are saying that, too.  He gets it through taking it all himself, and not leaving any for us, the creation.  That, I believe, is what the cross is all about.  All these things will be (or will have been) *taken away* from us – not just stopped “from now on”, but truly taken away.

    A note on whether the “divine Lover” forces us against our will:
    Do you remember what happened when Jesus went to bring Jairus’s daughter back to life?  Do you recall him getting the girl’s permission to raise her from death?  Nor do I.  Dead people are unable to give or withhold consent.  Jesus simply took her hand and said, “Young lady, get up”.  The miracles Jesus did were not only individual kindnesses, they were also signs of how God does things on the big scale.

    The creation – the universe – and all of us in it, is dead or heading for inevitable death.  He comes along and says, “My beloved creation, everyone and everything: wake up - have abundant, overflowing life!”.

  79. "When I think of hell, in all its glory, I have an experience of such
    overwhelming grief, horror and sadness that theological conversation is
    just halted. Words fail me. And if you keep talking I can't go on with
    you. I've stopped. I can't continue."

    Amen . . . that's all there is to say. Thanks for putting my heart into words.

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