Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Confusion of Choice

Choice leads to slavery, not freedom. At least, it most certainly can, and our ability to choose, or the necessity of choice, may mean that we are to be pitied more than it means we are free. Ever wanted to smack the dude in line in front of you at Subway because he is taking forever to decided between flat-bread, Italian Bread, Honey Oat, Parmesan/Oregano, Sourdough, or go with the wrap? Have pity, he is enslaved to choice. He cannot figure out which choice is best, and so he stammers and holds up the line.

Those who love to trumpet "free will" love to revel in the fact that we can choose. Pelagius, that ancient heretic, said that man was able to choose between good and evil by his own will. Man could choose good or man could choose evil, and if you take away that choice, you take away freedom. Man becomes a robot if he isn't free to choose. Our choices determine who we are, after all.

What if I told you that the opposite were true? What if I said that the dilemma of choice could be the best indication that we are a broken, pitiful people? What if I told you that the problem of choice demonstrates, better than any philosophy I know, that man is a finite, confused being?

Augustine is Pelagius' better. He triumphed over Pelagius by Scripture and by reason, but not in the way that many today would think. Augustine saw what Pelagius couldn't, that is, choice is not the ultimate qualifier of whether or not the will is free. Indeed, choice indicates that something is wrong with the will. Freedom of the will must excel simple choice, freedom is greater than the ability to choose. Choice indicates a shattered mind, not a whole one.

Man, when faced with a "moral dilemma", must make a choice. Augustine taught that, if we were perfect and unfallen, then there would be no "choice" to make. If it is 32 degrees outside, and I say that you may go outside with a coat or a t-shirt, a wise man takes a coat. It isn't a choice, it is obvious. If I tell you that for lunch, you may have rat poison or you may have a T-bone steak, you would certainly choose the latter over the former. Freedom, then, lies not in the power of choice, but in clarity of thought. The fact that we are traumatized by moral choices means that we do not see clearly, we cannot tell what the ultimate good is, so we stammer and stumble.

I think of this when someone says that we are "free" to choose or reject God's Son, Jesus, then they insist that it is this very choice that makes them free. This is like saying freedom consists in the liberty of shooting one's brains out with a shotgun or not. Man doesn't reject God and the gospel because man is free and is mighty to choose, man rejects God and the gospel because he is a suicidal maniac who cannot tell right from wrong. Man doesn't need to be free to choose, man needs to be freed from the shackles of madness that make evil choices appealing in the first place.

Freedom does not lie in the ability to choose. Freedom comes when choice is married with proper affections for that which is good. If God would only fix our wicked hearts, choice would vanish and we would be free to act unfettered. Why? Because anything other than holiness would simply be unthinkable, or if you must, a non-choice.

Oh God, rid me of my choices by shackling me to the good and true. Free me from inaction by showing me the path most pleasing to you. Unite my divided soul by the beauty of your truth. Let anything other than what glorifies you be a non-choice in my sight so that Christ may receive the most glory. Amen.

He Has Conquered Me

I will tell you that I have been conquered by force. God made war on me, He broke down the walls of my stronghold, He smashed down my gates, and then He killed me in the ruin of my own tower. All my fortifications were in made in vain with the Lord of Hosts appeared, and when He did appear, I threw my idols over the wall. Except for myself. I would not give up myself, and in the end, He would not turn back until He had me.

But the Lord of Hosts did not destroy me as a man might destroy another. For the Almighty did not only have the power to force me on my knees, He brought with Him the power to break my will and change my heart. The weapons that overcame were not simply threatenings, but they were weapons of truth against which no self-deception could stand.

My tower was constructed of lies I had spun. I had compared myself to others and judged myself good. I had done a few kindnesses and thought myself generous. I showed favor to some, and I judged myself loving. And thus my bulwark was constructed by my vanity, and I deemed my works unassailable by God or man. I was a good man.

First, there came a herald of God's law. All the commandments, all ten of them, seemed just save one: Love the Lord God and serve Him only. All the others, I fancied I could keep and confessed that they were good. I would make war on thieves, liars, and adulterers. I would honor my parents. I would not covet another man's gains. But I would not kneel to this King. His glory was no better than my own splendor. And so I strutted about my castle and hurled my insults at His majesty.

Then, the herald came again. I read that this King said that my lustful looks were adulterous, that my anger was the fountain of murder, and that I should give up my coat to anyone who asks. I knew that this was going too far. No one could live as this man demanded. He was a tyrant, and I must keep him out at all costs. His tyranny extended to my very thoughts, into my own soul and person, and I knew that I willed to do none of the things He said I must do to be good. So I hunkered down for war.

At last, the King came as his own herald. He wore no armor, and He had no fear. The first thing I saw was that He was already bloodied with battle, but not battle against me, but a battle fought on my behalf. His image seized me, as did His selflessness, and I saw in Him everything that I was not. My fortress of comparison could not stand against Him. I could compare myself to any man, or so I fancied, but certainly not this One.

When He spoke, my tower began to shake and come undone. He spoke to me of love and hate, of sin and of righteousness, of good and evil. He showed me the glory of his Father, and he opened my eyes to what it is to be holy. My towers of self-righteousness fell, my barred gates of excusing myself crumbled at his words, and I was laid without defense in the dust.

The King slew me that day with His truth. His love undid me. His justice was perfect. I no longer wanted to be King. I cast off my own delusions of self-righteousness. I no longer wanted to be free; I wanted to be ruled by this King. I begged, in dust and ashes, to be his servant. He took my hand and lifted me on my feet; he embraced me; he forgave me my transgressions against his majesty; he clothed me as his own brother.

I am sickened that I ever lived in that tower I had made. I am so grateful that the King broke me to pieces. I am so happy that Jesus defeated my tyranny and placed me under his rule in place of my own. Every time I think of it, I am conquered again. Long live the King!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Evolutionary Conundrum

I am no evolutionist because I believe it to be silly. I know that my believing this leads some to think that I am very silly because I think this way. To those who think so, let them be consoled in the knowledge that I evolved this silly, stubborn mindset and that I am merely trapped inside my own DNA. This way, I will merely be a slight evolutionary throw-back instead of something to be despised.

Since I am on the subject of my own silliness, I have a thought that I would like to interject for study. It is a real dilemma for me in my backwardness, and no doubt my unsophisticated thoughts here will be a delight for the more evolutionarily enlightened. But I have noticed that mankind seems to be going backward on the evolutionary climb and not forward. If I believed in evolution, this would greatly worry me

I have noticed that we seem to regard ourselves, and other species, as making "progress" in evolution. First of all, I am not certain as to how this is measured. Perhaps this is my mistake. But if the point of evolution is to make certain that the species remains viable, prolific, and avoid extinction, then I believe we have taken a bad turn in our march upwards on the evolutionary chart.

It seems to me that insects are doing better than we are. After watching the Discovery Channel, I realized that bugs and creeping things far outnumber our species. The ants alone are a marvel of the random process of evolution. They defeat human beings in every conceivable category. They are more numerous, they breed faster, and they cooperate within the hive with one another far better than humans. Yes, it is true that we can step on any ant as we please, but they are in no real danger for all our stomping. We could not get rid of them all even if we tried.

If we go back even further "down" the evolutionary chain, I find that bacteria are even more successful than the bugs. Bacteria are everywhere, virtually countless in number, and are able to invade human colonies and wipe them out. Visit any hospital and you will see that I am telling the truth. This is why they have hand sanitizer virtually everywhere in the place. Bacteria are everywhere, and they cannot be stopped. We can only hope to contain them.

So I conclude that if evolution is true, humans have been cheated by chance. We should have remained bacteria. We would be more numerous, more viable, and much harder to ultimately get rid of. I can't help but wonder why we didn't remain contented with the evolutionary marvels that we were. Why did we, by chance, become so big and easy to wipe out?

In the end, I must conclude that evolution is a cruel mistress. It must be that Evolution chanced us to become what we are out of a cruel sense of humor. You see, Evolution evolved us with a brain so that we could reason in order that we might realize, "Oh drat, we should have remained bacteria."

Maybe, if we are lucky, we can go back to being ooze.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Our Loves, Our Idols

I have many loves in my life, and I am certain that you do as well. I love my wife, and I love my children. I love my family, and I love my friends. I love my health, and I love to eat. I love to play, and I love to read, and I love to think. I love to run and to walk and to drive. I have many loves.

I do not love them all equally. No one can. We must love one thing over another, and sometimes one thing will take priority over another. Everyone feels this tension in life. Do I stay in my chair and read this book, or do I get up and throw baseballs with my son? Do I watch my favorite show, or do I go with my wife to Wal-Mart? Do I save my money, or do I go in debt with a newer car? All of these things boil down to love and priority.

But there is one love and priority that lives above the rest. In our souls, things clamor for attention. All our loves are potential tyrants, potential idols. The struggle over love and prior can tear a soul apart, unless above this clamor for attention from our lesser loves we can hear this: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).

Our first love is our God or it is our god. Our first love is the Savior or the destroyer of our soul. Every day, I have to take inventory of my loves. My first love must be my God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Are any of my lesser loves coming between my soul and Him? Is it my wife? My children? My job? My pride?

Some might think, "Wait, if my children get between myself and the Lord, I must sacrifice my children." Oh, how wrong that is. How very wrong. The child is not the problem. Nor the wife. Nor the job. What needs to go on the altar is you. It's me. They are so beautiful, my wife, my children, and my job. They are such gifts, and they cannot be loved or appreciated enough. What needs to die is the idolatrous heart that exalts them above God, that demands from these beautiful things more than they can be expected to give.

Oh wicked hearts that demand something from this world that it was not made to give! It is like a thief that demands $1,000 dollars from an innocent, and then murders him because he is too poor to comply. How much should one love one's wife? She is a treasure from God, a reflection of His grace, she is in his image, and a sure sign of God's kindness. She cannot be loved too much for what she is, but she cannot be loved for what she is not. She is not God; she is from God. If you try to make her be the source of happiness, you will murder who she is. You will be an insane idol maker like a man who carves a stone and says to it, "Protect me! Shelter me! Love me! Provide for me!" It is an affront to both the stone and the God who made it.

Instead of sacrificing the wife or the kids, we must put to death our sinful desire to elevate them to places that they do not belong. We may think we love things better by worshipping them instead of God, but in reality, we love them less. It is as if my wife said, "I love you because I believe you are the President of the United States!" And I say, "But I am not the President." She may snap, "Yes you are, now act like it!" And I say, "But beloved, I am not he." And she says, "Then I do not love you at all! What a dissappointment you are to me!"

See the violence we do to others in our idolatry? Is it any wonder that our idols grieve and anger our God? Not simply because it is an affront to his dignity, but also because it does violence to his creation.

Let us order our loves rightly. Let us offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God that we might love as we ought. Let us agree with Augustine who wrote, "He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake." And finally, let us heed the exhortation of John, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Sweet Death

I was stillborn. I was dead and yet still dying. I was dead to love. I was unfeeling. My death throes sent me grabbing for any sliver of pleasure I thought might hold me up, but I sank down in the dark with fists that could not hold the happiness for which I longed.

I was born blind. Slivers of light would dart across my eyes, but I could not tell from where they had come or where they went. So, I cursed my darkness and swelled with hate.

I was born ignorant. My thoughts could not grasp the truth, and I raged that there was none to be had. No food for my starving mind, only ceaseless thoughts that could not satisfy my famished, dead, and dying soul.

I could not taste. All of life soon became bland, even the sweet pleasures I stole became tasteless in my mouth. I wasted because I could find no savory food.

And then I saw you, my God. You offered me your body, and so I took it. I ate your flesh and drank your blood. I felt and tasted your love between my teeth. I saw the truth of my death and my life in your death and life. I put my hands in yours and felt the nails pierce my skin. At last, my misery died there with you in your embrace, and so I finally began to live.

Monday, March 21, 2011

It Really is This Simple

I fear that many Christians make Christianity far more complicated than they need to make it. Christianity is about Jesus of Nazareth, period. Christianity is about who Jesus is, what he claimed, and ultimately, it is about whether or not he rose from the dead.

Let's take the last one first. Did Jesus rise from the dead after having been crucified? If the answer is no, then Christianity is a total waste of time. This is not simply conjecture, it is what the apostle Paul taught. He wrote, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins...if in this life only we have hoped in (the resurrection of) Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).

It breaks down like this:
1. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, preaching Jesus is worthless.
2. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, your belief in Jesus is worthless.
3. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, you lie about God when you tell people he did.
4. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, Paul is self-admitted liar.
5. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christians are pitiful.

It really is that simple. Christian, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, do something else.

However, if Jesus did rise from the dead, then that is spectacular. People don't just get up from the grave after being dead for three days. And, as Paul goes on to write, "In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead" (1 Cor. 15:20). It is in this resurrection from the dead that Jesus' teachings and and "Christ" title are validated. Again, Paul writes that Jesus was "declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4).

Technically speaking, crucifixion is not that awesome. Lots and lots of people were crucified in the first century. However, rising from the dead is a marvelous feat to say the least. Since Jesus rose from the dead, it means that he merits an audience. We ought to listen to this man and what he taught because he alone has the answer to death. He is only one to defeat it.

So ask yourself, if you are a Christian. Is this what defines you? Is this what your co-worker would say defines you? Do they know that you do what you do because Jesus conquered death? Do they know that you obey Jesus because you believe him to be both Lord of all Creation, Conqueror of Death, and Savior of Mankind, and that you believe this because he rose from the dead?

Or do they think that you are simply a moralist? They probably know about your "do and don't do" list, but do they have any idea how you got that list? Do you implicitly or explicitly impose that list onto others without speaking of the resurrection of the dead?

What I mean by that is this: When someone advocates a cause or behavior that you know is not pleasing to the Lord, is your first impulse to declare yourself against it, or is your first impulse that you need to speak about Christ's resurrection? Because if you say what you are against wihtout giving the foundation for why you are against it, you are going to hang yourself out to dry at best, and at worst you will become a moralist.

So talk more about the resurrection of Jesus and the fact that he has the power to grant eternal life. Then, having talked about that until you are certain that everyone knows you are obsessed with it, you may then proceed to unpack why you are for or against certain behaviors.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How a Nuclear Power Plant Works

I am fairly certain that the average person knows next to nothing about how nuclear power plants generate electricity. I would also hazard to guess that the average person's research into the matter probably goes no further than the education that they have received watching Homer Simpson at work. That's okay. Until recently, that's about all the working knowledge I had of nuclear power as well. Today, I will give to you, free of charge, an elementary education on how nuclear power plants produce electricity, and shortly, why the plants in Japan are in such big trouble.

First off, nuclear power plants do not work by magic, and they are not powered by glowing goo. In reality, a nuclear power plant produces power by heating water and making steam. I know that is a little bit of a let down, but it is nevertheless true. Nuclear power plants are simply glorified coal plants. They make electricity the same way, only coal is replaced by uranium pellets.

So here is the very simplified, layman's description of how this works. Uranium pellets, which are generally no bigger than the width of a dime, are put into rods and bundled together. These uranium pellets get hot naturally by nuclear fission. By naturally, I mean that uranium naturally "fizzes" all the time. The atoms in it are unstable and fling off neurons, which strike other atoms of uranium which causes those atoms to split and fling off neurons. This process causes heat to be generated, a lot of heat. The difference between a nuclear power plant and an atom bomb is the amount of uranium in the pellets. Nuclear power plant pellets are enriched 2-3%. Bombs are enriched to 90%. In short, a nuclear power plant has less "neuron flinging" than a bomb. That's a good thing.

So theses uranium rods are inserted into water, they get really, really hot, and they make steam. The heat they make is monitored, and if they get too hot, another kind of rod can be inserted into the mix that catches flung neurons. This rod is called a "control rod" and is usually made of zirconium. (The same stuff a fake diamond is made out of.) This control rod serves to cool the uranium's heat generated by slowing the process of nuclear fission. If flung neurons are like little bullets, then the control rod is like a bullet proof vest over the uranium. If the uranium starts getting too cool, the control rod can be lifted. So these rods, combined with the liquid that the uranium rods are in, serve to cool the reactor core down. The control rods, however, do not really "cool" the uranium, they only serve to slow down the reaction. This does lead to cooling the reaction chamber, but it doesn't take away the heat already present.

Simply put, a nuclear power plant works by putting hot uranium into water, which then evaporates and pushes a turbine. The steam cools, turns back into water, and then is re-introduced to hot uranium. Neat.

So why is it that the Japanese facility keeps blowing up? The answer is that uranium gets hot. Really, really hot. After the earthquake/tsunami, all power was lost at the plant, both regular power and back-up power. Despite the fact that the control rods were inserted as a precaution during the earthquake, there was no power left to pump in cool water. The control rods do slow down the reaction, but they cannot vent the heat by themselves. This heat will eventually damage the control rods themselves, which means the nuclear fission will heat up again, and then all bets are off. To compound this problem, as the control rods fail, the water that is present gets so hot that they start popping off hydrogen atoms. This turns water into hydrogen, and hydrogen has a tendency to blow up. (Oh, the humanity!) If it blows up the reactor, then all that radioactive material goes up with it. Not good.

So the Japanese are pumping salt water into the reactors now to try and cool the uranium. Let's hope it works.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Of Sin and Hell

Sin and hell have this in common: they are both terrible things. However, they are terrible in different ways. Sin is terrible because it is rebellion against God. Hell is terrible because it highlights how awful that rebellion is. Without hell, we would not understand the grievous treason that it is to shake our collective fist in the face of the Almighty God.

In my series of posts on the doctrine of hell, I have tried to demonstrate that hell is a real place, and that it is a just place. The horror of hell lies not in the mere fact of its existence, but in the fact that it must and should exist. If there is to be any sort of cosmic justice, then we must have a place where iniquity is punished to the proper degree. Hell is that place.

Dear reader, if you are not in Christ Jesus you are most certainly going to hell when you die. Everyone not found in Christ Jesus at the great day of God's judgment will forever suffer in that place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. Your life is even now precarious. You could perish this very day and your soul would be required of you. It does not matter what you think of me, or of your justness, or of your wisdom, or of your own righteousness, you will certainly perish if you are not found in Christ. Your sins will weigh you down. You will not stand before God guiltless. You will surely die in your sins, if not for Jesus Christ. "Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it," says Jonathan Edwards. He is certainly correct.

You must, if you have any vestige of conscience, admit that you are a lawbreaker. You have sinned, and your sin will damn you. The reason you have sinned is because you have a corrupted heart. Your own sin has flung open the doors for your own death and damnation. No other witness will be required but your own deeds. Your stolen pleasures, your lusts, your lies, and your thieving will bear witness against you. Every thought of your heart will be laid bear; every action will be examined; every word you spoke will be judged.

A converted soul will see that sin is heinous and should never exist and that hell is just and must exist. The fleshly, self-flatterer will say to themselves that sin is not really that bad and that hell is heinous. The regenerated, born-again soul will see it in the reverse. If you are a Christian, then you know this is true. This is precisely why you cling to Christ in the first place. He is the only one who can save you from your sin. We have a Savior who is come to save us from our sin. He isn't come first to save us from hell. A converted soul will first realize that they must have deliverance from sin. A converted soul will see the truth of their rebellion and see that they need a Savior from sin.

If you are reading this and do not agree, know that I have written this in hopes that you will be awakened to the danger that you are now in. If you are reading this and do agree, then it is my hope that you might be awakened to the danger of those souls around you. Their only hope is Christ Jesus. Pray for their awakening, and pray that you might be bold enough to speak the truth to them in love.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Prayer is Flesh-Killing Work

Prayer, real mountain moving prayer, is not something that comes naturally. It is certainly not easy. This is evident in request Jesus' disciples made when they asked, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). If prayer is so easy, then why did the disciples have to ask Jesus to teach them to do it? Take heart, then, if prayer does not come easily for you. It doesn't come naturally as some pretend that it does.

First, the very nature of prayer is pride-killing because it is God dependant. Prayer is the act of asking for something you feel unable to provide for oneself. It follows then that if you are a talented, self-assured, self-confident person, you will not be naturally inclined to pray often or fervently. Pride is the enemy of genuine prayer because pride causes us to under-estimate our need and over-estimate our ability. Is your prayer life sporadic and less-than desperate? It is probably because you are proud.

The second reason that our prayer life is listless is because prayer is not meant to be for our own sake. At first glance, that statement may strike you as completely wrong. After all, if you were convicted in the last paragraph that you were indeed too proud to pray, and you asked God to humble you, is this not for your own benefit? Consider first the words of James, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3). So, if you ask God to cure you of pride so that you might become a person of prayer in order that you may simply soothe your own conscience for being a bad prayer or so that you might consider yourself a better Christian, then you are asking for God to kill pride to build pride. What folly! The purpose of humility is to make us better servants of God and others. We must be a praying people in order that we might be a serving people. We do not become good prayers that we might boast in our praying.

Let me illustrate what I mean. When we read James' warning, we naturally and rightly think that he is speaking of a selfish prayer where someone might simply want a newer car, a better job, or a pretty wife just because he isn't content with the car or job or wife he has. That is an easy selfish prayer to spot. But think of this, when you pray for yourself, do you pray because you are aggravated that you failed your own standard or because you failed God's standard? Are you more upset that you failed yourself or that you failed God? And in your heart, are you hoping that God will make you better so that you will feel better about yourself or because you long to be a self-denying servant like Christ? Are you more concerned with how your failures effect you or others? Examine yourself before the Lord and see if you aren't praying to boost your own self-image instead of the Christ-image in you.

Your prayer ought to be born out of a self-despair but a Godward hope. Ask yourself a few simple questions: Can you convert a single soul? Can you kill a single sin that plagues you? Are you strong enough to beat down your own selfishness? Can you keep your children alive? Can you keep your spouse faithful? Can you pray as you ought? Do you have the strength to love as you should? Can you help your friend in sickness? Can you lend them your might? Can you heal the broken hearted?

We can't do any of those things. Before we can really pray, we need to realize how impotent we truly are.

But then we must ask more questions: Can God convert a single soul? Is He mighty to save or not? Can He destroy the sin that plagues you? Is He strong enough to beat down your selfishness? Can He keep your children alive? Can He keep your spouse faithful? Can He pray for me when I cannot pray as I ought? Does He have the strength to love? Can He help a friend in sickness? Can He lend them His might? Can He heal the broken hearted?

We then, are we not praying? Isn't it because we are altogether selifsh? Prayer is flesh-killing, pride-destroying, Christ-exalting work. Please pray for yourself, friend. Not so that you may boast in how awesome you've become, not that you would ever say that out loud, but so that Christ Himself might shine through you for His glory.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Of the Fall of Man

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker (1); but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state (2); in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners (3), not by constraint, but choice (4); being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin (5), without defense or excuse(6).

This is the third article of the 1833/53 New Hampshire Baptist Confession. This article, if embraced by the world, would be sufficient to change the world. I cannot think of another religion that teaches that man is totaly depraved, or as the confession puts it "all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil."

If such is the very basic nature of mankind, then something much more radical than self-esteem, self-help, or personal examination is called for. What we must have is a Savior, or we we will certainly be held "under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Doctrine of Hell, Part 2

In yesterday's part one on the doctrine of hell, I pointed out that the Bible teaches that hell is a place, that hell is a place where justice is meted out, and that hell is a place that God Himself created. Hell is a good place, though it is quite terrible. It is good because hell is a just place. Hell is where sin is punished exactly as it ought to be punished. The failure to understand that hell is a place where justice prevails is, perhaps, one of the primary reasons we shirk the doctrine of hell altogether.

Though we are all sinful and selfish beings, we all have an innate sense that there is something called "justice." We may, and often do, disagree as to what justice might look like, but we have a keen sense of "fair" and "unfair." This is why the idea that a loving God would not send anyone to hell simply falls flat on its face, even in a cursory examination. We understand that crimes deserve punishment. If an infamous criminal came before a judge, and the judge said, "I'm going to let you go because I am too loving to punish the guilty." We would immediately protest. The families of the victim of the criminal would be especially upset. How could God get away with being less just than a human judge?

So then, I do not think that the idea that a loving God would not send anyone to hell is really a very serious argument at all. It could be that this objection really comes from the idea that hell is too harsh for the crimes committed. This, in my opinion, is a much better objection. How can God punish for eternity something done in a finite time? Also, how can God punish someone in hell simply for failing to believe that God exists and/or that Jesus Christ is the Messiah? Do people really deserve an eternity of agony for not capitulating to God? And if they do, doesn't this make God some sort of tyrant unfit to be worshipped or served?

These are excellent questions, and these questions are why feathers get ruffled by the idea that Ghandi might be in the same hell as Hitler. Christians ought to take time to work through these questions for the sake of their own sanity, and for the sake of those who would sincerely like to know how we could believe such a thing. The Bible teaches, quite clearly, that if Ghandi died a Christ-rejector then he does go into the same hell as a Christ-rejecting Hitler. How can this be just?

First, we have to recognize that rejecting Jesus of Nazareth is not the same as rebuffing the friendship of just any other person. Jesus is the Messiah, the perfect representative of God on earth, for in Christ "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Colossians 2:9). God is not like our neighbor. Here is a partial description of what God is like from the Westminster Catechism:

God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, not deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory, in by, unto, and upon them: he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things.

Follow this simple logic. God is the fountain of all being. God is good. Therefore, all the good that we enjoy comes from the fountain of God's being. Let me break down what that means for us.

Because God is the fountain of all the good we enjoy, we are experiencing a gift from God when we love, kiss, eat, sleep, hug our family members, hold our spouse, and play with our children. Every happy thought, every joyful tear, these are all little drops of pleasure that had their source in the mind of God. When we reject Jesus Christ, and by rejecting Christ we reject God, we are rejecting the source of all of those things that are good. We are trying, in our rebellion, to get at the streams of joy without having to love the fountain from which they flow. This is pure folly and the root of all evil. What this does to us is it demonstrates that we are, in this condition, unfit for good things because we do not love the most wonderful thing of all: God Himself. Secondly, this folly cuts us off from enjoying the good things of life as we should.

Here is how rejecting God sullies the joys that we do have. Imagine a clear mountain stream. As it flows, it is crystal clear, it is cold, and it is refreshing. It will even remain liquid below freezing temperatures because it is moving. For some strange reason, we decide we love the water but hate the stream. So, we dam off a little section for ourself. The water is stilled. We play in it, but we soon find it is muddied. If we leave it alone, it freezes. As it sits alone, it also begins to stagnate. It is no longer refreshing, clear, or safe to drink. So what do we do? We curse the stream and blame it for our lousy water.

Hell may be described as a place where people go who hate God. There, they are cut off from the stream of God's goodness. Hell is a place where all of God's favor is withdrawn, even the muddy pools of our own making. God is the source and rightful owner of even the waters we muddy. For the rejection of Christ, God has decreed that we are to be cut off from the fountains of His goodness. So then, hell is partially the agony of remembering the sweet taste of stolen waters that we are no longer allowed to enjoy, and it is partially the consuming hatred of the Being who refuses to share this water on our terms.

This is why Ghandi, if he died in rebellion to Christ, goes to the same hell as Hitler. Ghandi enjoyed his muddied version of peace and equality, but if He did not love the Prince of Peace, then he cannot keep it. Hitler loved authority. But if he died not loving the Sovereign God, then he cannot keep it.

Do we still worry about Ghandi? We shouldn't if we believe in a just God. God will give Ghandi exactly what he deserves, and so it will be with Hitler. The punishment will be neither too great nor too little. It will be perfect justice. All who look on the punishment of hell will marvel. They will marvel at the folly that put people there, and they will marvel at the justice meted out in that place.

On the last post in this series, I will look at why the outright denial of hell belittles the salvation found in Jesus Christ the Lord.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On the Doctrine of Hell, Part 1

Recently, there has been a great imbroglio on the internet over the doctrine of hell. I do not wish to get into the specifics of that particular brouhaha in this post. However, there are a few things that need to be said regarding our understanding of eternal punishment and of the reality of hell. Christians need to understand this doctrine if they are to understand themselves, their neighbors, and most of all, the glory of God manifested in the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is not unusual for Christians to be uncomfortable with the idea of hell. The idea of neighbors and family being in eternal torment is not an easy thing to stomach. We would rather talk about heaven. Or, we would rather talk about the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins on the cross. But there is a disconnect in our speech and thought if we speak of "heaven" or being "saved" if we do never think about hell. What is the alternative to heaven? And what, exactly, are we being "saved" from?

First, we ought to think about hell as a place. Though we might be shy about it, Jesus certainly wasn't. Jesus spoke of hell as a place "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). The book of Revelation describes it as a place where "the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name" (Rev. 14:11). When you compare the Revelation passage to the passages in the Old Testament which teach that burnt offerings are a pleasing aroma to the Lord, you have a very difficult teaching about the purpose of this place called hell.

Secondly, one ought to consider how hell even came into existence in the first place. The catechism we teach our children here has these questions and answers:

Question #1: Who made you? Answer: God made me.
Question #2: What else did God make? God made all things.

If God made all things, then it is certain that God made hell. Satan is not the ruler of hell. He is not there with a pitchfork dunking the wicked in pots of boiling oil. Hell is a place where Satan himself will be tormented for his crimes. Hell is a place that Satan dreads. God created hell as a place where perfect justice would be meted out to all those who hate Him and His decrees. So then, hell is not a bad place. It is a terrible place. It is an awful place. It is even a horrific place. But it is not a bad place. It is a place where we will behold, for the first time, true justice.

It has been said that hell was only created for Satan and his angels, and I think due to the misapplication of this verse: "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). The problem with this understanding is that God never does anything as an afterthought. He didn't suddenly come to the realization, "Oh my! There sure are a lot of human beings who hate me as bad as Satan does. What shall I do with them? Oh yes, I'll put them into hell with the devil then. What a great idea!" Rather, the meaning here is that rebellious people go to hell with Satan and his angels because they are like Satan and his angels.

Finally, it is my understanding of Scripture that hell will not be uniform for everyone. Jesus said, "The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows" (Luke 12:47-48). I take this to mean that hell will be a more wretched experience for some than others. I confess that I do not understand how that will be, but I trust that it is the truth. Every being in hell will have a different experience of that place, but all there will be as miserable as they can be. Conversely, I believe that there will be different experiences of heaven as well, but that all will be happy.

In the next post on the doctrine of hell, I will write about why an orthodox understanding of hell helps us to understand the grace of the forgiveness of sins through the slaughter of God's Son. Really, there are no more epic topics which we, as human beings, may discuss. I hope that you will give me the chance to explain the Biblical teachings on these things.