Last post of 2013

Just want to say thank you to everyone for reading, sharing, commenting and all-round contributing to the blog this year. I have had my eyes opened to many things and you have all helped massively as I work my way through these and other issues that have arisen over the last year. It’s not been without its rough spots, and I haven’t always gotten it right but learning from your mistakes is all part of life. I’m not sure where I will end up in 2014 regarding my blogging but I look forward to continuing engaging and building relationships with everyone.

Happy new year 🙂

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People hurt – why I support SCCL

Stuff Christian Culture Likes (SCCL), a Twitter account, Facebook page and website run by Stephanie Drury, has been a revelation for me. It has shown just how deep bigotry and misogyny (to name two) runs in churches and Christian doctrines. Posts about rocking worship, dates with hot wives and pastors spending millions on mansions, is usually my cue to pour a glass of Baileys. They may seem like harmless statements, but when Mark Driscoll posts about wives being submissive and Jesus being a pansy, you suddenly realise how the church grossly misrepresents Christ and these seemingly harmless statements aren’t quite so harmless.

It’s abuse, plain pure and simple. Abuse isn’t just about the physical, being taught doctrines about your religion so that you fall into line and comply with whatever you’re told (usually out of fear for the repercussions)  is psychological abuse. Stephanie describes herself as a survivor of many abuses, I only know about being bullied at school which was bad enough. The church has and continues today to make every effort to downplay these abuses and cover them up. Stephanie ensures they don’t get away with it. SCCL does so much more than that. It’s a place where people can come and share their experiences, express hurt and pain and vent anger and begin the healing process. This simply can’t happen in the sterile environment of the church where you’re not allowed to be angry and labels every criticism as cynicism. Churches simply don’t understand that people need to grieve, grieving involves anger and anger is raw and rarely rational. People need to go through this stage to even begin the process of forgiving; SCCL allows people the space and doesn’t put a timetable on it.

This raw emotion can make the SCCL Facebook page a very hard page to read, and emotions sometimes overflow. The attacks on other people do get quite personal which is why I can understand (to an extent) the push back Stephanie and the site members get. There is a line between calling someone out on something and just outright abuse, and sometimes that line is crossed.  You can say “what you just said was unkind” but saying “I’m not a kind person” is a very different statement entirely and that is the line. If you’re dealing with something like homophobia, then crossing the line can be even more devastating because of the power that word has. It’s not always easy to see the line and people don’t always see the difference when they are on the receiving end of the criticism.  More often than not, the line is crossed by members of the Facebook group rather than Stephanie herself which does raise of the question of how much responsibility does Stephanie bear for that? To start banning people would be to treat them as they have been treated in the past which completely defeats the purpose of the site existing in the first place. Ultimately it comes  down to personal responsibility (which the internet is not known for) and ensuring you act in love not malice. Doesn’t always work but I much prefer the line be crossed and it all get very messy than it simply be swept under the carpet and ignored.

The biggest injustice is the silence not being able to have a voice. SCCL provides that. They give each other strength, help each other up. It may not look like it if you’re the subject but then the question you should be asking is “why am I the subject?”It’s a shame places like SCCL have to exist separate from the church, it’s just another example of how the church utterly fails to really engage with the complexities of people; it would much rather people be quiet about it. I have perpetuated this myself by remaining quiet and letting others (like Stephanie) fight the battle instead. I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. I’ve been battered for trying before. SCCL has made me look at myself and it’s not comfortable. My favourite saying used to be “you don’t fight to win, you fight because it’s something worth fighting for” People are worth fighting for.

So what do I do now?

To read an interview with Stephanie, check out http://mikeduran.com/2013/10/interview-w-stephanie-drury-of-stuff-christian-culture-likes/

The is and is nots of evolution

The subject of evolution has defined many debates and discussions since Darwin released his theory. Many scientists accept it as true whilst others raise questions. This isn’t really any different to most scientific theories but evolution is one that seems to directly challenge the doctrine of creation. Indeed, the likes of Professor Richard Dawkins pitches evolution (and indeed science) against creation and Christianity and some Christians do this as well.

Reading through some of these discussions, there seems to be some confusion over what is meant by evolution, what it is and what the theory of evolution is based on. There are also statements concerning evolution being incompatible with Christianity. These can cause a lot of friction and heated debates, especially when those who are studying the subject identify statements made by those who are not so knowledgeable. Their statements are just wildly inaccurate, and those who are trying to work their way through questions of compatibility get caught in the middle.

Speaking as a person who is caught in the middle, the aim of this blog is to try and provide some definitions and a framework within which we can work in when having these types of discussions. I’m not looking to say whether the theory of evolution is true though I will be commenting on the evidence that supports it. With this in mind, lets start with looking at the usual place for definitions; the dictionary.

 

  1. The process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth.
  2. The gradual development of something:
    the forms of written languages undergo constant evolution
  3. Chemistry the giving off of a gaseous product, or of heat:
    the evolution of oxygen occurs rapidly in this process
  4. [count noun] a pattern of movements or manoeuvres:
    flocks of waders often perform aerial evolutions
  5.  Mathematics, dated the extraction of a root from a given quantity.

 

Origin:

Early 17th century: from Latin evolutio(n-) ‘unrolling’, from the verb evolvere (see evolve). Early senses related to movement, first recorded in describing a ‘wheeling’ manoeuvre in the realignment of troops or ships. Current senses stem from a notion of ‘opening out’, giving rise to the sense ‘development’ [1]

 

With the exception of definition 1, which I’ll come back to in a moment, all the others simply mean ‘change over time’ in various contexts. First we had state a, now we have state b. Changes in species have been observed albeit in smaller organisms. Some viruses have evolved to now be resistant to most anti-biotics which I will refer to later.

Now definition 1 is generally what is meant by the theory of evolution. The view that life on earth has evolved from something to what it is now over a long period of time (note that it has to pre-suppose the existence of something to evolve, it offers no explanation for where that came from, a point to which I return) At this point I need to bring in the concept of common ancestry. I will be quoting definitions from chapter 5 an article by Dr Allan Harvey [2] The parts I am quoting are in italics:

This is central to what scientists usually mean by “evolution.” Common ancestry (or common descent) means that life has branched out, so dogs and wolves are distant cousins, dogs and cats are more distant cousins, and if you go back far enough dogs and fish, or dogs and trees, had a common ancestor. You can put humans in the family tree as well – related to chimpanzees, more distant from other mammals, and so forth. This says nothing about how or why this occurred, merely that life has branched out in this way. Sometimes people distinguish between evolution as “fact” and as “theory,” and the distinction is between common ancestry as the “fact of evolution” and the “theory of evolution” that tries to explain how it happened. Many people don’t appreciate that the evidence for common ancestry is overwhelming. It might have been reasonable to question it 50 years ago when it was just based on things like fossils and anatomy, but now DNA technology has provided powerful independent confirmation.

For a readable overview of common ancestry, I recommend The Language of God by Francis Collins, former director of the human genome project [3]. Coming back to the fact that viruses have evolved, another definition involves the mechanisms behind this:

This refers to specific natural mechanisms (first proposed by Darwin, although in a primitive way because genetics was not yet understood) that cause species to change. Genetic variation is the fact that (due to mixing of parental genes and to mutations) children have different genes and different traits. Natural selection refers to the fact that the traits will make some children more likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations. This is clearly correct on some scales, as it can be directly observed (for example, the evolution of bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics) or studied at the level of individual traits (for example, a recent study traced the evolution of lactose tolerance in humans as milk-producing animals were domesticated in different societies).

So now that we have established some definitions (change over time, common ancestry, evolutionary mechanisms) lets look at what is meant by the theory of evolution:

Mechanisms account (physically) for common descent. This is typically what scientists mean by “the theory of evolution.” We know these mechanisms produce changes in species, but do they account for all the evolution (in the common ancestry sense) that has happened through the history of life on Earth? Most biologists, including most Christians working in these areas, would say “yes,” but it is certainly not as 100% established as the previous meanings. It is very important to note the word “physically” in our E-4 definition. When we say the mechanisms account for what happened, that is at the physical level – it says nothing about whether this is nature acting by itself (of course for a Christian there is no such thing as nature acting by itself!) or whether God is working through nature. Essentially it brings together the 3 established previous definitions of evolution and offers a theory to explain them.

The last sentence of the previous definition brings us onto the world view known as Evolutionism:

I use that term to refer to a meaning that is not science at all, but rather an ideology that sometimes masquerades as science. This starts with the philosophical position that natural explanations exclude God. Since science has produced these natural explanations for life, those with this ideology claim to have pushed God out of the picture. Of course these metaphysical conclusions are not science in any way – those who advocate this meaning are simply pushing atheistic philosophy, and it is wrong to try to claim it is a result of science. The age of the earth is a different question and the evidence for which will not be found in biology.

We need to take extreme care to be clear in what we mean when talking about evolution. Are we referring to changes over time, the theory of evolution, or the evolutionism world view? They are 3 very different things. Regarding how this fits with the Christian faith, there is no conflict since the central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised again. How does it fit in with the Genesis creation account? Well that’s a massive topic for another time and beyond the scope of the purpose of this blog. Before winding up, I think we need to touch on what is meant by a scientific theory. In common English usage, “theory” means something like “guess” or “hunch”. It means something speculative, uncertain. In science, however, the meaning is almost exactly the opposite. In science, a theory is an idea that has stood the test of time. This difference between the common usage and the scientific usage of the word is a frequent source of confusion for non-scientists. In science, a theory is a well-tested idea – an explanatory framework that makes sense of the current facts available, and continues to make accurate predictions about the natural world [4].

The theory of evolution, regardless of whether we think it’s true or not, is a scientific theory; it is not a religion and it is not a worldview. Many Christian scientists have no issues with the theory and do not see it as being in conflict with their faith, Francis Collins being one [5]. In short, evolution is a mechanism, God is an agent and a designer; the 2 are not in conflict. On that note, I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes from the late Stephen Jay Gould about how evolution is neutral [6]:

Darwin himself was agnostic (having lost his religious beliefs upon the tragic death of his favorite daughter), but the great American botanist Asa Gray, who favored natural selection and wrote a book entitled Darwiniana, was a devout Christian. Move forward 50 years: Charles D. Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils, was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes. Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation: G. G. Simpson was a humanist agnostic. Theodosius Dobzhansky a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.

 

References:

[1] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/evolution?q=evolution

[2] http://steamdoc.s5.com/sci-nature

[3] The Language of God. Collins, Francis. Pocket Books; New edition edition (21 May 2007)

[4] http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-basics-evolution-as-a-scientific-theory

[5] http://www.evidence2hope.com/apps/videos/videos/show/16318342-francis-collins-the-language-of-god

[6] http://www.stephenjaygould.org/reviews/gould_darwin-on-trial.html

If God was all the superheroes

Stand firm then, with the Batmans belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the Superman breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with Iron Mans shoes the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up Captain Americas shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the Magneto helmet of salvation and Thors hammer of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I love God 🙂

Violence, atheism and yes, religion is a problem

I posted an article from TheGayChristian.com which was titled To the militant atheist from a religious progressive [1]. The general gist was that the aggressive nature of militant atheists being aimed at all Christians in light of the religious right wing is simply unjustified. The article argues that the opposition to the religious right is shared. An atheist responded to this on my Twitter and it’s their comments I’d like to address since its hard to fully in the 140 characters Twitter allows you. They said;

“”1) You won’t ever be taken seriously using the term ‘militant atheist'” – Do they self-detonate or use any violence”

“”2) “Why the aggressive attitude towards me” – B/c your backing of the Christian faith gives the Religious Right their power”

As far as I can tell, they see all religions as dangerous and identifying as a Christian is the same as supporting the religious right which they see as a particular problem. They also see atheists as being peaceful and non-violent. These are serious claims being made about Christianity and atheism so lets start here.

Christianity has a blood soaked history with the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries, Salem witch trials and the like. These events are deplorable and roundly condemned by everyone including Christians. There’s no point denying they happened or had nothing to do with Christianity. But simply saying something was done in the name of something doesn’t mean that it is. Jesus’ stance on violence being used in his name is pretty clear. When one of his disciples took a sword and chopped off a centurions ear during Jesus’s arrest, Jesus rebuked them saying ““Put your sword back in its place,” “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52) . Luke goes on to say Jesus healed the ear (Luke 22:51). One of his famous teachings is turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) Many of the justifications used today to carry out violence is taken from the Old Testament, which ironically is quoted more than anything by atheists in their critique of Christianity. That’s not to say the New Testament doesn’t contain anything about using violence. Luke 22:36-38 has Jesus advising the disciples to take swords with them. Some commentaries have it as Jesus referring to the sword in a spiritual sense, others see it as Jesus advocating self defense in the face of mortal danger. Debates over passages have raged for centuries and it’s not always easy. Lets not mask the fact though, that many atrocities have been committed in Jesus’s name and I very ashamed of that fact.

September 11th 2001 is an event that is very often cited by people during discussions about religious violence. Richard Dawkins cites it as the event that radicalized him and compelled him to write The God Delusion. He couldn’t see how an atheist would ever bulldoze Mecca, Chatres, York Minister or Notre Dame [2] . Many Christians, and indeed atheists, have pulled him up on this, citing the reigns of Stalin and Pol Pot. Stalins target was the Orthodox Church of the day [3]. He saw them as a threat that needed to be neutralized; not too different to the views of some atheists today. Some say “but it wasn’t his atheism, it was his communism that led him to do this” First off his communism espoused atheism and second, you’re still left with an atheist wiping out his enemies like the Christians did; something Richard Dawkins couldn’t see happening . Incidentally Stalin and Pol Pot were listed first and second in a recent article about atheists who have given atheism a bad name [4]. Moral philosopher Peter Singer and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser have realized that atheists are far from innocent;

Lest we be charged with a blinkered view of the world, atheists have also committed their fair share of henious crimes, including Stalins slaughter of millions of people in the USSR, and Pol Pot’s creation of the “killing fields” in which more than a million Cambodians were murdered. Putting these threads together, the conclusion is clear; neither religion nor atheism has a monopoly on the use of criminal violence [5]

I must state as with the Crusades, just because someone says they do something in the name of something doesn’t mean that they are. Atheism does not inevitably lead to violence or is inherently violent. This brings me onto the notion that all religions are violent. It is a common tactic to lump all religions together, compare them to the most extreme sides of it then proceed to dismantle religion on that basis; a perfect example of a straw man [6]. Over the last few years, this type of approach has largely been abandoned with author Sam Harris presenting the obvious problem to this line of thought in an essay;

While I have no doubt that the Amish are mistreating their children, by not educating them adequately, they are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings. [7]

Indeed not and Richard Dawkins, albeit a bit late, has conceded just as much;

There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse [8]

It needs to be said that there are many Muslims who are appalled by the acts of violence carried out in the name of Islam; but what about the charge that by being a Christian, I am supporting the religious right. You may not be familiar with the term religious right but I suspect everyone knows about Westboro Bapstist Church. This is the church led by Fred Phelps which blames natural disasters on acceptance of LGBT people and pickets funerals of soldiers. This is probably the face of religion that many regard as the norm and may be the only face they see. Indeed, during the writing of this, the commenter who inspired this responded back explaining how he sees the religious right causing damage within politics and the decisions they want to make which excludes everyone except white males and those they agree with and do so purely because they think they have the truth. As he put it to me; being religious zealots, they inherently believe they’re God’s chosen people. That’s all they need. It makes a lot of sense; see one group claiming to be chosen people of God doing damage, you’re not likely to trust another group claiming the same no matter what else they say.  Tim Keller, author and Christian apologist, admitted that religion is part of the problem with the world, or more accurately exclusive truth claims cause problems. He outlined the way religion causes division and conflict:

1) Gives you a sense of superiority as you have the truth and see others as not having it

2) Separation, you don’t spend time with others of different beliefs as a result

3) Because you don’t know them, so you caricature them which leads to

4) Passive oppression and then

5) Active oppression [9]

This is very indicative of the Pharisees and right wing Christians (indeed many Christians regardless of being right wing or not) are doing something similar today; but to say that because I also identify as being a Christian therefore I’m giving these people power is absurd logic. I’m sure many atheists would be offended (and rightly so) if I suggested that because they are atheists, they support what Stalin did. They would distance themselves and say “we’re not like that” Exactly, and I would totally agree, so why would you then think that I am like the right wing you so actively oppose purely because I’m a Christian? Some atheists are upset at being compared to Richard Dawkins never mind Stalin. It’s lazy and ignorant thinking to suggest to associate with a worldview means supporting the views of everyone who claims to hold that worldview. Within any religion or movement, you will have people who take an extreme view which does not reflect the majority; or indeed the reflect what that movement stands for. Humans seem to find ways of killing each other, no matter the worldview involved. If someone wants to criticize a view by showing its darker side, they probably won’t have to dig too far.

Interfaith is a word I think we are going to hear more of as people look to engage with people of different faiths, to find a less combative way forward. I’m not sure whether helps or harms that cause. I wanted to address the points made to me, but it’s come across as rather negative. If you’re reading this then I’ve obviously decided to post it anyway. But I see acknowledging that both sides have made mistakes can help us move forward; burying the past means we can’t learn from it. It’s time look forwards and ask “how can we work together?”

This is my challenge to me.

 

References

[1] http://thegaychristian.com/?p=1203

[2] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 90)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Stalin#Religion

[4] http://listverse.com/2010/06/05/10-people-who-give-atheism-a-bad-name/

[5] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 91)

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

[7] http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/the-problem-with-atheism

[8] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 91)

[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9fmKSwuoDE#at=565

 

First published 30th July 2013

Hell…and whatnot

There are many theologians and scholars who have studied the subject of hell far more than I ever could. I’m not going to even try and into enter the discussion at their level, but I think it’s important to make sense of it at whatever level we’re working at. This blog is my attempt to do that, so it probably offers more questions than answers and may not always make complete sense. It’s a question that I have wrestled with for a long time and have been asked about by others. Like many Christians, I’m heavily indebted to these theologians, especially N.T Wright so you will see him quoted a lot in this; might as well go with the best. So, here we go.

When we think of hell, we probably have Dante’s Inferno [1] and the nine circles of hell in mind. But does the Bible actually describe hell like this? At first glance it would seem that way:

The punishment of the wicked dead in hell is described throughout Scripture as “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44-49), a place of “torment” and “fire” (Luke 16:23-24), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), a place where “the smoke of torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11), and a “lake of burning sulfur” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). [2]

Seems pretty clear cut about the fire. Like with anything in the Bible though, context and genre is important and we need to understand what the context is to understand what the author intended. This is when the discussion ramps up in intensity and disagreements ensue. There have been a variety of view points on this and Tom Price from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, offered his own along with the views of John Calvin and Martin Luther in a recent talk:

Tom Price: Hell is not a place with a high thermal output. It is figurative description of a terrible tragedy of life apart from God

John Calvin: We may conclude, from many passages of scripture, that eternal fire is a metaphorical expression

Martin Luther: It’s not very important whether or not one pictures hell as it is commonly portrayed and described [3]

N.T Wright has expressed similar views regarding hell being the result of humans saying we don’t want our lives to be defined by worshiping God, we want to do our own thing.  Hell would be divorce from God once and for all, and saying that we want to stop being an image bearing human being [4]. Looking at Genesis, this is the definition of being human, to bear Gods image and if we don’t want to bear his image, we don’t want to be human. This inevitably raises the question of what does it mean to not be human? We’re still working out what it means to be a human being. This is making the decision to go to hell very much ours; it’s not a case of God sending us it’s a case of us going of our own free will. In C.S. Lewis’s words; “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way[5]. God does not force himself on us, he won’t force us to stay somewhere we don’t want to be. Tom in the same talk suggests that it might actually be more painful to be in Gods presence for those who don’t want to be there. This would then make hell an act of mercy on Gods part, which is not something I’d considered before now.

I’m not suggesting that we can do what we want then decide when the time comes, it does seem that where we ultimately end up logically and naturally flows out from how we live here. What we do on this earth matters and not just actions, but our relationship with Christ. I’m also not saying that our actions earn our way into heaven. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith but there’s some very high level discussions going on as to what that means. Some critics would say “oh you’re saying your beliefs are the only way to get to heaven” No, I’m saying if you reject Christ and don’t want him in your life, why would you want to spend eternity with him? I cannot and will not make judgements on where people will spend eternity, that’s something only God can do; I am merely asking the logical question based on aspect of what heaven is.  I don’t think it’s as simple as Christians go to heaven and everyone else doesn’t; or that good people go heaven and evil people don’t (though what measure of good and evil we are using is a valid question) There is a theological view called Universalism, the basic premise of which is everybody goes to heaven, regardless of whether they are a Christian or not, regardless of what they do or not. An argument for this is outlined below:

People ask me if Hitler will be in heaven. I ask, “which Hitler?” Long before Hitler was a mass murdering dictator, he was a terrified boy being savagely beaten by his father while trying to protect his beloved mother. That Hitler will be in heaven. [6]

The current thinking with many Christians is that heaven and hell are equal and opposite destinations and where you go is determined when you die. This seems to make no sense in light of the resurrection, it shows we will be bodily raised and renewed and that the earth will be renewed and joined with heaven; and that process has started now. What we do here matters. So what is heaven? Again to quote N.T. Wright, once we die, we go to like a lay-by waiting for this day to come; the main point is what happens then. Death is not the end, not even life after death is the end, it’s the “life after life after death” [7] that should be the main focus. He expands on this more fully in his book “Surprised by Hope” So where will he spend eternity? I honestly don’t know, as I said earlier I leave such judgements to God. Is hell even eternal? It seems Jesus had something interesting to say about that:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV)

What does Jesus mean by perish? Perish seems to suggest an end, a point where we will cease to exist. Regardless of where we end up, we all die so he doesn’t seem to be referring to physical death on earth as it is now. He could mean that our bodies will not get renewed so we don’t come back physically so our bodies will perish but a part of us (usually referred to as a soul) will continue on; but  he doesn’t say “unless you repent, you will suffer and burn for all eternity” He was addressing the question of people being punished for their sins, but it is curious what he says about what will happen. Paul seems to express similar things in Romans; For if you live according to the flesh, you will die (Romans 8:13) What does Paul mean by this? This opens a whole other conversation about what is meant by death in the Bible.

But that’s heavy for enough for one blog.

 

References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferno_%28Dante%29

[2] http://www.gotquestions.org/hell-real-eternal.html

[3] http://www.oiccu.co.uk/index.php/mp3-reader/items/131.php

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vggzqXzEvZ0

[5] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis146406.html

[6] http://leavingtheflock.com/2013/08/13/a-very-brief-argument-for-universalism/

[7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZC6tbgpsl4

God and punishment – do these things go together?

People like justice when they feel they are entitled to it, but when those who have wronged them are not punished appropriately, they feel wronged themselves.  Viewpoints on judgement, justice and mercy seem to change a lot when we are the ones who are guilty. We suddenly like the idea of mercy, but are averted by the ideas of justice and punishment. When we talk about God, according to the Christian faith, God will punish the guilty.  Most people do not have a problem with that when it is aimed at other people. We seem to get very angry though, at the thought that God might judge us and find us guilty. Some Christians react this way. As Adam Barr put it; “A God who disciplines does not accord with many people’s theology. We would prefer God cajole us or, better yet, ignore our sin[1].

Being a child growing up I used to do many things wrong and being grounded by my parents and having to do extra chores used to be the penalty for that; not being allowed out to play just sucks! If God does still punish us, what does his equivalent of being grounded and getting extra chores look like? Or is something else going on with the way God operates?

There are some that take the view that God does not punish us at all, that it was all taken care of on the cross. Does this mean that God now overlooks all the evil committed and we are all saved when the new heaven and earth are put in place? By no means, and Jesus was quite clear when he spoke to his disciples;

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Jesus is very clear that unless we repent to God, we will perish, but he does not say exactly when that will be. Jesus is talking about those who do not repent, so if we do repent, does that mean we are free to do whatever we want?

Freedom is a very odd thing because real freedom is not what many think it is. Real freedom is not being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want and (in some cases) whoever you want. That is not freedom, that is anarchy and when anarchy breaks out, you actually have a loss of freedom. We, as Christians, are not suddenly given carte blanche to do what we want, we have been given 2 very specific commandments; Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-39) Now some very atrocious acts have been carried out under the disguise of love and they are rightly shown for what they are; abuse. Rachel Held Evans is doing a fantastic series on this which I highly recommend reading [2].

Coming back to the view that God does not and wil not punish us at all,  another problem arises; God cannot ignore our sin and be a God of justice. Mercy always comes at the expense of justice – a punishment is due but mercy is extended instead. The cross is seen as God’s way of extending his mercy through justice by taking the punishment for us [3]. There is a story that’s often told to help illustrate this;

2 men were friends were friends since childhood but ended up in very different circumstances; 1 becomes a judge, the other ends up as a criminal. Years later, the friend who became a criminal is in court facing charges and the judge is his childhood friend. The judge wants to let his friend off but he must enforce the law. The punishment for the crime is a fine. The judge fines the man then takes off his robes and attire, steps down to his friend and pays the fine for him.

The whole concept of justice is here; an act has been committed that has broken the law, and someone has to be punished for that act in order for there to be justice. Derek Flood has written a book called ‘Healing the Gospel[4] which challenges this view about what happened on the cross, but I will come back to this later.

Some have cited events like the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haitai as examples of God’s punishment on a sinful world. They take the stance that God will punish us for our wrong doings here and now whilst we are still on this earth. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God sending “natural disasters” to punish various groups of people, and so from this perspective, this makes sense and has Biblical precedent. They did wrong and God sent punishment down on them. It makes sense, but there are 2 stories in the Old Testament that call this approach into question.

In Genesis 18, God wants to see if the reports of Sodom are accurate but Abraham starts asking if some righteous people are in Sodom, will God spare the city. Abraham starts at 50 and works his way down to 10, and each time God says he will spare Sodom. To say the natural disasters are Gods punishment is effectively saying everyone in the affected area were sinners beyond saving and Jesus in Luke 13 is quite clear that no sin is worse than others.  The other story from the Old Testament that deals with God sending punishments is the Book of Job. Job experiences huge tragedy in his life, but this was not punishment for things that he had done. Things that happen to us are not necessarily as a result of anything we have committed. The whole book is essentially Job debating with his friends whether what’s happening is a result of Job doing something wrong and God punishing him. Job’s friends were keen to try and convince him that these incidences were indeed punishments for a sinful life, but Job was having none of it. In the end God steps in and is not pleased with Job’s friends. God is unhappy that Job’s friends were telling lies about him, about Job being punished for something he had done.

Citing biblical precedence is not always the move. The disciples once asked if they should call down fire from heaven because Elijah did and Jesus rebuked them for it (Luke 9:52-56)  Coming back to Luke 13, Jesus is quite clear that without repentance, everyone will perish, but Jesus does not say when. If God loves the world so much that He gave his Son, why would He deliberately inflict pain on it? I just do not see how we can talk about God comforting those affected if He was the one that deliberately sent the disaster. This applies to many issues where people suffer, not just natural disasters. So if God does not punish us whilst on this earth but does not simply let things go un-noticed, what does that leave us? For that, we need to take a look at the cross.

In the course of writing this, I was listening to Derek Flood about his book Healing the Gospel. In the interview [5] , he talked about penal substitution and atonement. Shortly after, I found an article by Jeremy Myers looking at a similar subject. In it he wrote;

God is not an angry, wrathful, bloodthirsty being who wants to torture and kill people when they disobey Him, but Jesus came along and convinced God to pour out this wrath on Himself instead of upon us.

Was there a substitution that took place? Absolutely. But it was not us for Jesus; it was rather our sin for His righteousness. He took our sin, and in His own body, on the cross, condemned sin, destroyed death, and rose victoriously from the grave, because of His—and God’s—great love for us. [6]

The cross is not the end, it was a huge step forwards to bringing in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-3) and there is a wider discussion about what happens when we die. If sin is the root of the problem, then it makes sense that Jesus took our sin and destroyed it, but what is sin? Many see sin as an act and that means punishment and discipline, punishment that Jesus took for us. But we are still left with a God who needs to punish someone. So what if sin is a disease? Most of Jesus’ ministry was about healing the sick. He gave new commandments, but it is not a case of “if you do not follow these, I will punish you”. Derek Flood gave a brilliant analogy:

For years a doctor tells one of his patients to quit smoking. Every time he sees him he is still smoking. One day the doctor has to tell the patient that he has lung cancer. The doctor does not criticize the patient but sets to work helping the man to either cure him or comfort him

God wants to restore us, He does not want anyone to perish, as 2 Peter 3:9 says. There is still much pain in the world though. Has God stopped working in our lives since the cross? I would like to say that He has not. Many Christians have testimonies about God restoring and healing them using their own experiences as evidence. C.S Lewis once said;

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” [7]

Some people have to learn very harsh lessons from the choices they make and the choices made by others, but if Jesus taught us anything, it is that we are not to focus on ourselves, but on others. Life itself is hard enough and God does not want to add to it. Essentially, life has become God’s method of discipline, but I need to be clear by what I mean; I am not saying God allows things to happen to teach us a lesson – parents don’t always stop their children from doing anything remotely dangerous, they understand they have to learn for themselves, but they do not deliberately put their child in harms way to force them to learn. God does not send hurt on us to force us to learn, life is going to send its share of hurt, but God allows it because He designed us to learn and adapt. As we adapt, we become more disciplined so God is not disciplining, but installing discipline through how life is. When we are going through pain, God is there to comfort and support us.

I realize that I have not gone into what Hell is; is it a real place of fire or just somewhere where God is not? Do we go straight there (if we’re bound for there) or do we wait in a “lay-by” until the final resurrection? [8] Whatever happens after this life, how we view the cross and punishment directly influences how we view God. This and the subjects touched on above are so vast and complex that they can not be done justice in one blog, and certainly not by me, a lot of the concepts that are raised go over my head. As a Christian though, I still have to face these questions and God guides us at the level we can handle, and learning about God is always fun and rewarding.

References:

[1] Taken from RZIM Canada (https://twitter.com/rzimcanada)

[2] http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/abuse-mary-demuth

[3] Michael Ramsden, God of Love God of Judgement, [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYUCvHoXuH4] (last viewed 8th April 2013)

[4] Flood, Derek (2012) Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, Cascade Books

[5] http://www.beyondtheboxpodcast.com/2012/10/healing-the-gospel-with-derek-flood/

[6] http://www.tillhecomes.org/substitutionary-atonement/

[7] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis103466.html

[8] N.T. Wright, Rethinking life after death [Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZC6tbgpsl4] (last viewed 12th April 2013)

 

Originally posted 13th April 2013