Monday, February 23, 2015

Not heretical, not wacky

Conditionalism (its name derived from the concept of conditional immortality) is a set of beliefs about final punishment that denies the traditional understanding of hell - specifically that God will torment the unsaved forever.

Admittedly, there are many belief systems 'out there' that deny hell and yet are not biblical. This is not the case with conditionalism.

The doctrine of hell is, in my understanding (I believe God gave me this understanding), unbiblical. For this reason I choose to bring it into the light to be examined as effectively as I can.

I do not claim to know beyond a doubt that conditionalism is the 100% correct view on final punishment. It is a view that has more biblical support than the traditional view and that is why I hold loosely to it.

Am I alone? Is it so crazy, is it so heretical to believe that perhaps we've gone astray in some of our doctrine? Read the following excerpt to find out who else holds these beliefs:
"A growing host of respected biblical scholars now publicly question the traditional notion that God will keep the lost alive forever so he can punish them without end. These include such luminaries as F.F. Bruce, Michael Green, Philip E. Hughes, Dale Moody, Clark H. Pinnock, W. Graham Scroggie, John R. W. Stott and John W. Wenham. 
These men represent evangelical Christian scholarship at its best. They recognize that Scripture must judge all traditions and creeds, not the other way around. They realize that most of the church was wrong for centuries on doctrines far more fundamental than the doctrine of hell, and they understand that it would be presumptuous to suppose that the majority might not have erred on this point just as it did on others. 
J.I. Packer rightly notes that "we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition,... even 'evangelical' tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scripture." 
John Stott reminds us that "the hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform." 
The growing evangelical rejection of the traditional doctrine of unending conscious torment is not propelled by emotionalism, sentimentality or compromise with culture but by absolute commitment to the authority of Scripture and by the conviction that a faithful church must be a church that is always reforming."1

1 Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell, p. 21. InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Eternally separated - a myth?

It was so strange.

Even after all my studies and research, I still assumed that the phrase "eternally separated from God" was in the Bible. And it wasn't just the concept; I have heard that phrase so many times and have said it myself many times. I had even thought it was a 'safe' way for those who still wanted to believe in hell to feel that they were expressing their doctrine while still being biblical.

Well, guess what I couldn't find in the Bible?

This post has been a long time in the making. It was probably a year ago when I was writing or researching a topic and decided to look up "eternally separated" to get a clearer idea of what the Bible was saying with that phrase. It disturbed me how it sounded like a conscious state of being. 

And, as you have probably guessed, it was not to be found.

Now hold on. If you are familiar with judgment verses then 2 Thess. 1:9 will come to mind. Certainly that clearly says some will be eternally separated from the Lord. Or does it?

The NASB translation reads: "These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord...". Some translations (like NLT) say 'separated from' but the actual word there in the original language is just the preposition 'apo' basically meaning 'from'. The word 'separated' is not there at all.

There is a similar situation in Romans 9:3 where Paul says, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren...". That word 'separated' is italicized in honest translations, indicating that the actual word is not there. Again, it is just the preposition 'apo' meaning 'from'. 

It is not evil or unreasonable to assume that 'separated' is implied in these instances. However, since the actual word 'separated' (for example, chorizo, in Romans 8:35,39 - "who will separate us from the love of Christ?") is not used in the original language, it should not be inserted with careless certainty.

There may be a very solid reason the word separated is not used. It may be that the Bible doesn't teach eternal [conscious] separation; and that God does not intend to cause people to exist in an eternal conscious state for the sole purpose of torturing them forever. God and His people over here and the lost over there. Separated. But that isn't what the Word says.

2 Thess. 1:9 may mean just what it says. Certain ones will be punished in the age to come by being destroyed - never to see the face of the Lord again.

This corresponds to the parables of Jesus, when he described how certain ones would be 'thrown out' (Luke 13:28, Matt. 22:13), or when He will declare, "Depart from Me" (Matt. 7:23, 25:41). As God is the giver of life and the source of it, if He casts from His presence, there remains nothing for that one except death (destruction). How could a mere mortal survive without the life that comes from God?

Immortality is a gift from God alone. If that one does not receive the Life from Jesus, then that one's mortality is realized in full.

Now, beyond eternal considerations, there is a very real separation from God that can happen in the life of a person in the land of the living. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God..." (Is. 59:2) "Remember at that time you were separate from Christ... without hope and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:12). Someone who dies having rejected Jesus is already "separated from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18).

This clarification of separation from God may seem trivial or even imperceptible to some. However, if 'eternally separated' implies consciousness, then it is misleading concerning the nature of God's judgment. And that, in my estimation, is a big deal.

If you use the phrase "eternally separated from God" when you teach others, please study it out for yourself in the Bible. If it is not there, please consider removing that phrase from your vocabulary for the purpose of sound doctrine. (If it is there, please let me know straight away!)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sound doctrine

How important is sound doctrine?

I have received some criticism about making 'too big a deal' out of the possible error of the traditional doctrine of hell. It has not been a popular topic of discussion among Christians. I realize I am biased because of my extensive investment through study, but I actually thought believers would show some concern. I expected them to be like the Bereans....

"...these were more noble-minded... examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."  - Acts 17:11

After all, we are told to:

"Examine everything carefully..."  - 1 Thess. 5:21


"Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching."  - 1 Tim. 4:16

There is a significant reason for those who teach to be extra diligent: 

"...teachers.. will incur a stricter judgment."  - James 3:1

We must be vigilant of those who are "...teaching as doctrines the precepts of men."  - Matt.15:9 (see also Mark 7:13)

Those with spiritual authority have a weighty responsibility to "...speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine."  - Titus 2:1

He must "...hold fast the faithful word...that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict."  - Titus 1:9

As believers, we must all be "...nourished on the words of the faith and of sound doctrine..."  - 1 Tim 4:6


"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort... for the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine... and will turn their ears away from the truth, and will turn aside to myths."  - 2 Tim. 4:2-4

So, what is the way to obtain and hold sound doctrine? Know the Scriptures and know the One who gave them to us!

" have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." - 2 Tim. 3:15-16

As for studying about final punishment and judgment (including "hell" which is a word that isn't even in the original language, but has become such a common concept in Christianity) it is important because it was considered "an elementary teaching" and "a foundation" of belief. (See Hebrews 5:12 and 6:1-2)

Now that we see how clearly sound doctrine is promoted and commanded in Scripture, let's take some advice from Paul on how to deal with opposing views:

He teaches us "...not to wrangle about words, which is useless... handling accurately the word of truth... avoid worldly empty chatter... refuse foolish and ignorant speculations... they produce quarrels... we must not be quarrelsome, but be kind... with gentleness correcting those in opposition." - 2 Tim. 2:15,23-25

If the Church is in error on a major doctrine (as we have been in the past, before the Reformation), shouldn't we actually make 'a big deal' out of that? Yes, it will be unpopular, but we should be more concerned with truth and alignment with God than with human precepts made powerful by tradition.

So again I exhort you: "Examine everything carefully!"  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jesus has come to save your soul

I am reading an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking book by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Jew and evangelical pastor who spent a total of 14 years in Communist prisons. He began the organization Voice of the Martyrs. He wrote several books, including Tortured for Christ, but the title of the book I am currently reading is The Oracles of God. This is where I came across the statement: "Jesus has come to save your soul." (p. 47)

Jesus has come to save your soul.

This true statement brings about a question for me. Perhaps you have asked it yourself. Jesus has come to save us from WHAT exactly? The answer could be a multiplicity of dangers, really. But rather than imagine the possible consequences of all our sinful choices, I would like to dive straight to the heart.

Jesus has come to save you from 'hell' (eternal conscious torment).

Jesus has come to save you from sin [and its consequences].

These two possible answers are what I imagine would result if we boiled down the responses of believers to the question, "What does Jesus save us from?". You may have recognized that the 'consequences' of the second option could be said to include hell, but if we rule out option one then it would cease to apply to the latter.

(I meant for this to be a quick point. In my mind it was quick and briefly understood - but here I go again with so many words!)

Jesus has come.
Jesus has come to save.
Jesus has come to save your soul.

The Word says from the foundation of the world, Jesus was already marked to die His gruesome, humiliating and torturous death as a ransom for sinful humans. As we turn this Great Sacrifice over in our minds, we are amazed that the Father would allow for this unfair exchange - His perfect Son for the dirty rags we are. Why did He die for us?

Did He really die to save us from a fate that He created? The eternal fire was prepared specifically for Satan and his angels (Matthew 25:41)Unmistakably, God is the author of the lake of fire. Did God set up eternal torment in the lake of fire so that He would have to turn around and kill His Son to save us from it? This is just another reason I do not believe in the idea of forever torment. Again, it would be contrary to God's character and purpose to offer up His Son to a violent death to save His people from His own creation - the so-called hell of eternal torment!

The eternal fire that is also called the lake of fire and the second death is what I believe to be a great purger of sin. If you are 'all' sin, like Satan, then you will be completely destroyed. (see the study "Everyone will be salted with fire" )

So now we turn to consider sin.

Is God the author of sin? No, God did not author sin nor has it any part in Him. Now this I could see Him rising up against.

Sin as the blot on His people, sin the great destroyer - the agent that brings about death and ruin. Once ruined, always ruined, right? No. God said no, I will cleanse them Myself with the most powerful action the earth has ever seen: the shedding of the holy Lamb's blood as a ransom payment for sin, all sin, once for all. (Rom. 6:10, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 9:15)

Jesus indeed has come to save our souls. He saved our souls from sin. When the power of sin is broken, Satan loses all his so-called power. He is nothing, really. When sin is defeated and taken away, so the consequences of sin also disappear: evil, death, destruction and all its sufferings and sorrows. Gone forever. All is made new.

Be glad and rejoice! Jesus has come to save your soul from sin!
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  - John 1:29 

"He has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself."  -  Heb. 9:26

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The wrong end of truth

Just now as I was reading through a Bible study by a 'universalist' believer, I realized that quite possibly I have been concerned with the wrong end of truth. This particular author articulated some very convincing arguments about how the Lord will destroy wickedness (as opposed to the wicked) and abolish sin (as opposed to the sinner) with His refining fire. Essentially, purging each of His creations until all are made new. The writer proved this by stating that Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost.

And so, as I thought over the arguments, I mulled over several 'technicalities' that I could hold up and against those assertions. However, as I thought over the heart of the matter, I was very pleased with the author's conclusions. The scriptural evidence for all being saved is at least as strong as the evidence for eternal torment. The real question is: what is God's heart in all of this? I'm not sure about you, but it rings so true that God our Father, who allowed His Son to die for the world, would make a way to redeem His people. All of His people.

But here I go on a tangent. It would be ridiculous to begin to defend the universalist position after what I just came to. I've come to an understanding, but is it possible to communicate?

God is obviously not about the technical, academic, point-by-point argument for one doctrine over another. We miss the heart when we try to define truth. JESUS is the truth. His purpose will stand. He will accomplish all He has in His heart and without fail. What a sad event for us to miss the boat that Jesus commands. Faith and trust lift us into His boat and we must abide and submit to ride along with Him.

But what about discovering a specific truth - what about judgment of the wicked? Can we know what will happen to them? To us?

It seems apparent that God has left several doors open in different areas of 'doctrine'. Have you noticed that?

An example is free will vs God's sovereignty. There is plenty of 'scriptural evidence' on both sides of that debate to keep it going until Jesus returns. Do you think that is an unfortunate failing of the Bible? To be unclear about salvation? What about 'once saved, always saved'? Many debates there. 'Do you need to be baptized to be saved?' There are many doctrines and points of belief that Christians argue over and defend with passion. Many times these arguments cause divisions. Should we think that these divisions are a shocking result to God? No doubt our divisions cause Him grief, but He must have allowed for all these positions.

He knew we would be tempted to grab our position and hold to it and defend it.

He opened several doors for our belief about judgment of the wicked. The most common including eternal torment, annihilation and refining redemption. Ask yourself, why did He do this?

I believe He did this to test us.
"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."                                          - Hebrews 4:12

As we grab on to doctrines and hold tight and begin to love them more than people - or even hurt others with our defenses, then we expose ourselves in God's sight. His word judges our thoughts and intentions.

Perhaps more important than the technical rightness of a doctrine, is our response to what we believe God is telling us. What we believe is a test itself. How we respond to what we believe is a test. The test is a judgment. God's word judges the heart. Jesus is the Word. Jesus is the Truth. He knows our hearts already, but His word can pierce into our very souls and expose our thoughts and intentions - our very hearts.

So, I am finding that instead of trying to convince people that what I have found is 'the truth'. I need to live the truth and live in Jesus and do what I can to encourage others to do that very thing. They don't need to believe what I believe - they need to be IN JESUS.

Also, I need to stop judging people for what they believe about hell, and let God's word do that. I've seen that my sin (judging others, pride, wrangling about words, etc.) will never bring God's light into another's life. And, after all, that is what Jesus has called us to be: lights.

Father, help me to be a light of encouragement. Please take judgment out of my heart. Give me the power and courage to live what I know to be true in You. May I know You more.

Friday, February 6, 2015

To be in error is a dreadful thing

"To be in error is a dreadful thing, but it is even worse to embrace truth for the wrong reasons: because it is convenient, because it is pleasant, because it is profitable, because it is socially acceptable. God wants us to love the truth. It is the water of life He offers us. Don't adulterate it with pollutants.
Love truth for its own sake, and it will come to you."

 - Richard Wurmbrand, "The Oracles of God", p. 16