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Money

A Spiritual View of Wealth and Poverty

A recent fluff piece in my local paper carried the headline: Newest Millionaires Say 16 Million Dollar Win Has Changed Their Lives. No one, I think, will find this very astonishing. But reading the article that followed I realised something important. I realised that I no longer envy winners of lotteries. On the contrary, they fill me with a sort of spiritual unease.

Analysing that unease, I find myself thinking of Leo Tolstoy. In 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Literature went to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. History seems to have forgotten Prudhomme and the “lofty idealism” which the Nobel committee declared itself to be recognising in awarding him the prize. Tolstoy was also nominated for the award but was passed over because of his radical religious and political views. That did not sit well with everyone. Following the decision, Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish artists and critics who were scandalised that he had not won. But critical opinion had no discernible influence on the committee. The very next year, 1902, Tolstoy was passed over again.

Tolstoy’s feelings about all this are well-known: He was relieved not to have received the award because of the hundred thousand dollars that came with it. “It has saved me the predicament of managing so much money,” he wrote of the second snub. “Such money, in my opinion, only brings evil.” [1] In fact, the prospect of winning troubled Tolstoy so much that upon his third nomination—and aware that this time he was favoured to win—he wrote a letter to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer, entreating him to do everything in his power to ensure that he did not win.

Why did Tolstoy think money might bring evil? I think he was afraid that by gaining money he would risk losing something of immeasurably greater value than money—aware, as I think he no doubt was, of the complicated relationship between material and spiritual goods.

Few people today will immediately appreciate the point. There is a widespread assumption that material goods are always good and the lack of them is always bad. Surveying the distribution of wealth in our world, for instance, we observe what appears to be a notorious injustice. There are good people who are poor and bad people who are rich. And what is more: The bad people are often rich because they are bad—having gained wealth through greed, dishonesty and exploitation. For theists this seems to pose a riddle. If an all-powerful and all-good God superintends the universe, why does he permit this obvious injustice?

Aquinas, who considers the question, cautions us to identify and avoid the operating assumption. Neither poverty nor wealth are good or bad in themselves. Everything depends on the associated circumstances. God, suggests Aquinas, can punish with poverty and reward with wealth as is commonly supposed. But Aquinas suggests that God can also punish us with wealth and reward us with poverty. And the idea, while counterintuitive, is easily reasoned out.

Consider two parallel cases,

A. John is greedy by nature and succeeds in amassing enormous wealth. Thereafter, all his energy goes into guarding and increasing that wealth. Perhaps he also finds himself surrounded by flatterers and gold-diggers. He accordingly becomes suspicious of everyone and trusts no one and does not have any true friends. Plausibly, too, all manner of hedonistic indulgences tempt him—drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex and prostitutes, extravagant but vacuous parties. It does not occur to him to give to the poor, or else it does occur to him and by consistently ignoring the deliverances of his conscience he grows morally callous. His wealth, moreover, blinds him to spiritual truths—to the good of humility, virtue, compassion, chastity, prayer. He develops an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. He does not have occasion to reflect on his finitude and mortality but it remains a fundamental truth about him that he is finite and mortal. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment.

B. David is greedy by nature but fails to amass any wealth; he lives, in fact, a life of poverty. Flatterers and gold-diggers see right away that they have nothing to gain from him and so have nothing to do with him. Anyone who does continue to associate with him perceives some intrinsic good in him and the association brings this good to his attention and provides him with an opportunity to cultivate it. If there is pleasure in his life it is of a simple sort and obtained through having a grateful, frugal heart—a tasty walnut, a visit to the sea, a beautiful bird on his lawn. His plight, moreover, primes him to develop compassion for his fellow human beings and fosters in him a spirit of stoicism, forbearance and patience. He does not develop an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. On the contrary, he is acutely conscious of his finitude and mortality. At some point his suffering may even goad him into wondering at the ultimate purpose of his existence—which in turn may lead him to God. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment. 

There may be a third scenario in which poverty is either man’s downfall because it leads him into a life of crime. And there may be a forth in which wealth is either man’s salvation because he eventually discovers the good of philanthropic generosity. But recall: Aquinas is not arguing that wealth and poverty are good or bad ipso facto. That is precisely the point he is arguing against. Everything depends on the associated circumstances.

Why, if that is so, did Tolstoy abhor the prospect of sudden wealth? I think it is because when we think carefully about poverty and wealth it is clear that wealth entails a more serious moral and spiritual risk than poverty. If we are wealthy we have a moral obligation to be generous. “If you have two coats in your wardrobe,” Saint Ambrose of Milan admonished his Christian reader, “one belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat.” [2] But human nature is corruptible and there is every chance that we will ignore the plight of the poor and grow morally callous as a result. We will also need to resist the indulgences and distractions which wealth brings in order to obtain spiritual goods. And again, there is every chance that we will fail. The point was made by Jesus himself. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [3]

And there can be no doubt that Tolstoy had already reached the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy [4] and discovered a truth about spiritual goods that the modern world seems to have forgotten. God does not enjoin us to seek them because he is a puritanical miser who begrudges us worldly pleasure. He enjoins us to seek spiritual goods out of generosity: Because they are intrinsically and infinitely better than worldly goods. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things he has to give. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” [5]

Ben Mines is a Christian Apologist and author based in Auckland, New Zealand.

—————————————————————————

[1] Quoted here on the website for the Intercultural Institute of Languages.

[2] Quoted in The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path by Robert E. Barron.

[3] See Matthew 19:24.

[4] See here. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, organized human needs into a now-famous hierarchy where basic bodily needs sit at the bottom, social and intellectual needs sit in the middle, and spiritual needs—self-actualization, transcendence—sit at the top. Each need is built on the one below but true human fulfillment is realized only when one reaches the top of the hierarchy where spiritual goods are obtained. Interestingly, near the end of his life, Tolstoy went far beyond refusing literary prizes. He sought to renounce his own wealth, both inherited and earned, as well as the copyrights to his own works.

[5] See John 10:10

Five Practical Reasons for Apologetics


Do we really need five reasons to do apologetics? Isn’t it enough that God commands it? 1 Peter 3:15:

“but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

Discussion over! We don’t need five reasons! God says it so that settles it, right?

Yes, God’s command is all that we need, but just saying we have to defend our faith (otherwise known as apologetics) is not helpful at all. What does it mean to defend the Christian faith? What does that look like today? As we begin the new year, I would like to give five reasons why apologetics is critically important for every Christian, no matter who or where you are. My hope is that by showing you how apologetics is useful, you will be encouraged to prepare yourself to defend your faith, the gospel of salvation in Christ.

To Share the Gospel

The first practical reason to do apologetics is to help with sharing the gospel. The apostle Paul in his first letter to the believers in Corinth wrote:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Co 9:19-22).

Paul is explaining that for him, to win people to Christ, he had to approach them on their own terms when sharing the gospel. He knew that if he did not present the gospel message in terms that the unbeliever could understand, his message would not reach them. Paul was speaking into a culture that did not understand the Christian message, but rather sought to stomp it out. Our societies are not much different, general knowledge of what christians believe is declining and the volume of objections against the christian faith is increasing. If it is necessary for missionaries to learn the language and culture of the foreign country in which they are serving, is it not also important for us to learn the language and culture in our own country?

For us to be able to share the gospel today, we must be able to communicate it in a way that other people can understand.

To Answer Objections

However, it is not enough to explain our faith in a culturally relevant way. We must also be ready to answer the objections they have, to make a defense for what we believe. Many christians are afraid to share the gospel with unbelievers. What would happen if they said that Christianity is just a fairy tale? What if they argued that God was just invented by people who wanted power? These also used to be my fears. Nonetheless, when I realized that there are good answers to these objections, my confidence grew, and I felt able to share the gospel. God uses us as ambassadors for him, to clear away false teachings and arguments that people use to reject God. Ravi Zacharias defines the process of answering objections in this way:

“Pre-evangelism is sort of – the Australians like to put it something like this: Bush clearing, clearing the obstacles so the listener can take a direct look at the cross of Jesus Christ. In a pluralistic society – a secularized society – in an almost hostile environment now towards things sacred, it is important how we do this and where we do this.”

To Defend the Public Image of Christianity

Clearing away the objections people have against our faith is also good for the reputation of Christianity in society. The public image of Christianity has been tarnished over the last few years through scandals in the church and is often perceived to be more against things than for them. When people think of christians, they may be more likely to associate us with hard-nosed opposition to homosexuality and abortion (the latter implying we are anti-feminist and as such against women) than with love and service for the needy. Not only that, but news, media and entertainment pillory christians on a regular basis. They communicate, contrary to reality, that christians are narrow-minded and hateful because we follow the Bible and have conservative/orthodox beliefs.

Knowing what we believe and why it is true therefore, helps us to counter false representations of the faith. The truth of Christianity is not shown to be false because christians are sinful. Christians are imperfect but that is not the point – the point is that Jesus is perfect. We must not get the two mixed up. Further, when we defend our faith to those outside the church, we must communicate the truth with love and respect.

Without love and respect, we will do more harm than good.

People will not remember anything from what you have said if they do not feel respected. Apologetics, however, is not merely an outward facing venture, it also has applications for the body of Christ.

To Combat Apostasy

Answering objections against our faith also helps to keep ourselves and others from leaving the faith. Studies by the Barna research group have shown that many young people are leaving the church.

“Based on interviews with 22,000 adults and over 2,000 teenagers in 25 separate surveys, Barna unquestionably quantified the seriousness of the situation: six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone [given up Christianity]. Despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most 20-somethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that” (Ham, Beemer, 2009).

Some of the reasons why they leave are as follows:

  • Shallowness. One-third call church boring, about one-fourth say faith is irrelevant and Bible teaching is unclear. One-fifth say God is absent from their church experience.
  • Anti-science. Up to one-third say the church is out of step on scientific developments and debate.
  • Doubters. The church is not a safe place to express doubts say over one-third of young people, and one-fourth have serious doubts they’d like to discuss.

The tragedy in all of this, is that there are good answers to these doubts. If only those who left the church had known about the answers for their questions, some might have stayed.

Knowing why what we believe is true and being open to discussing it creates a safe environment in our churches and youth groups where doubts can be raised, and doubters answered. However, there is also another use for apologetics within the church.

To Fight False Teaching

We are not only called to care for those who may want to walk away, but also to combat those who spread false teaching. The Apostle Peter, speaking of the challenges of false teaching warned:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)

False teaching requires an answer, but to be able to answer it, one must first know what one believes, why it is true, and how to defend it. This brings the tools and methods of apologetics together with what are more traditionally known as Theology and Doctrine.

Summary

In closing, I would like to return to the passage quoted at the beginning of this article:

“But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

To defend our faith is our privilege and joy, an opportunity to talk about the hope that we have in Christ. People have questions and doubts which hold them back, so if we want to share Jesus with them, we must also show them respect by doing our best to answer their questions.

The more I have learnt about what I believe and how to defend it, the more I have discovered that sharing my faith is one of the most exciting things I can do. As we begin a new year, I hope and pray that you too would discover the joy of sharing the good news of Christ with your friends and family.

David Billing is a Data Analyst. He was born in New Zealand and now works in Europe. Reading, current-events, playing computer games, anything sci-fi related, listening to music, and cracking dry jokes (especially puns) are among some of his favorite things to do.


Ham, K., & Beemer, B. (2009). Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing Group.

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Review: The RZIM Academy Core Module

The RZIM Academy Core Module, developed by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, is equipping people from more than 135 countries to confidently engage with the tougher questions directed at the Christian faith. Nearly 12,000 students have taken this course, which is entirely online and uses a learning structure designed by Oxford University. Students are encouraged to interact with each other through a moderated online discussion forum. Here they are challenged to respectfully engage with those outside and inside the Christian faith. In this review I have given an overview of what this course will equip you with, and what I have personally learnt through completing the course myself.

Course Overview

The Academy Core Module comprises of 2-3 lectures every week, a weekly quiz, forum posts and assignments. Each week new subjects are released to the online learning platform. The lecturers are world class theologians and apologists, (Ravi Zacharias, Amy Orr-Ewing, Vince Vitale, John Lennox, and Alister McGrath to name a few) who teach on many topics. These include: The problem of evil, the resurrection, morality, worldview, other religions, and the new atheists.

Ravi Zacharias explains the need for bridging a questioner’s head to their heart. To do this one must first understand the questioner behind their question. One must understand their worldview. This means a large percentage of the module is dedicated to teaching the Christian worldview. It teaches that the Christian worldview, rationally provides answers to humanity’s four major questions: Where do we come from? (Origin), What does life really mean? (Meaning), How do I differentiate between good and evil? (Morality), and What happens when we die? (Destiny). Students also learn how to understand and compare the Christian worldview with differing worldviews.

If the solid course content isn’t enough to challenge you to equip yourself with this resource, here are two more great incentives for taking this course. These are, once finished you will be invited into RZIM Connect, a global online home for the RZIM family. Here you can join the Core Module alumni group which gives you continual access to all of the learning material. And for the avid student, the RZIM Academy also offers topic specific courses upon completion of the Core Module. At the time of writing these, they were: Why Suffering, Islam, Bible, Science, Engaging the Modern World, and What Does it Mean to be Human?

What I’ve Learnt Personally

As a mother of two young children, I found the course time manageable and extremely rewarding.  We learnt early on that the most important part of apologetics is the apologist themselves. The first section of 1 Peter 3:15, a verse used widely in apologetics, tells us to, “set apart your heart as holy unto the Lord”. This taught me that you can have all the answers but if Jesus is not placed first in your heart, your defense for Him will be shallow and meaningless. Our ultimate goal is to point people to the person of Christ. We need to be ready to defend Christ and share our hope and faith in Him; however, who we are in Christ is our strongest witness to the world. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been it’s inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out”.

Final Word

The RZIM Academy Core Module will provide you with plenty of answers. It also may challenge you to step outside your comfort zone, to rise up and be a powerful witness for the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, I believe it will deepen and strengthen your faith in Christ as it has done for me. I highly recommend taking some time out of the sometimes constant busyness of life to focus on equipping yourself to engage with a culture that is drawing further and further from our wonderful saviour Jesus.

This course has monthly intakes. Click here for more details, course start dates, or to sign up.

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Thoughts on the Christmas Child: Myth or Miracle?

‘What Child is This?’ is a favourite Christmas hymn. It is based on the poem The Manger Throne by William C. Dix and sung to the tune of Greensleeves. The combination of religious lyrics and a 16th Century folk tune result in a powerful song evoking a sense of expectancy and awe over the scene of a baby born in a stable in the Middle East more than two millennia ago. The wonder, the questioning that must have dwelt in the hearts of those who were part of and involved in the birth story of Jesus is expressed well in the words of this song. This was an extraordinary event at the end of a line of extraordinary events that involved angelic visitations, a miraculous conception, prophecy, and a moving star from the east that guided three gift bearing visitors from far off lands.

Engaging with people on the problem of evil

Guest article written by Michael Otto about the talk given by Christian Apologist and Author, Mary Jo Sharp, titled: “Encountering the Problem of Evil in Everyday Conversation.” Mary Jo was keynote speaker for the 2018 series of Thinking Matters – Confident Christianity Conferences.

The Simulation Hypothesis

The concept of a computer simulation is familiar enough to the modern reader. It is a model world built by a computer scientist to test his or her theories of meteorology, the spread of diseases, economics and so forth. The proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis begins by supposing that there are no limits to the development of this technology: It may be that our scientifically advanced descendants will be able to build and run simulations that replicate life on Earth with exhaustive accuracy—digitally reconstructing not only the atomic composition of every object on Earth but also the neurological structure of every human brain. And this, they suggest, has the unsettling entailment that the postulated simulation might include a simulated but conscious version of you and me.

Thoughts On Why The Holy Bible Is Worth Reading

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

The Argument from Consciousness: Conclusion

This is my fifth and last post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness—the basic form of which should by now be familiar. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be reduced to the physical. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with these mental properties implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause.

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 

 

Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/ten-foundational-verses-for-eternal-punishment-in-hell/

[2] https://www.epm.org/resources/2014/Jun/18/will-unbelievers-be-annihilated/ This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/bradley-on-hell – particularly Point 3. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

 

 

Thoughts on Christmas and one tough question

 

I love this time of year. We decorate our homes with tinsel, nativity scenes and snow globes. And of course, the tree!

Christmas is a time when most families come together to share gifts, stories, laughter and love. For others it is a bittersweet time, or even a painfully lonely time. Despite the rampant commercialism, encroaching secularism and yes – the stress – Christmas day still points to and commemorates one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

As Christians it is a time we can unashamedly share the Good News of Jesus and have reason to invite people to Church. Despite the prevalence of gifts and delicious food and all those jolly men in red suits, the foundation of the Christmas celebration in western culture is still Jesus’s birth and because of this our conversations can more easily turn to God and the true meaning of Christmas. The conversations can be light and friendly or, because our current culture questions everything, we can find ourselves faced with some tough questions about our faith. One of the most asked questions and possibly the hardest to answer is:

“But if God is so loving, how could He send people to hell?”

I’ll be honest, the first time someone asked me this question, I fell silent. It was a question I personally struggled to find an answer for. The biblical concepts of an all-loving God and the terrifying descriptions of Hell were too incongruent. With a primary focus on our Loving God in current sermons and writings, I began to wonder if Hell did actually exist and if God really would send people there.

Yet, although Hell has largely disappeared from current Christian conversations, it has not disappeared from the Bible. There are many verses in the Scriptures that forewarn of it. Jesus warned of Hell more than He discussed heaven.1 Despite its awfulness, biblical authority won and I could not deny Hell’s existance.

To find some clarity on this tough doctrine we can look at three attributes of God. First, God is Holy – perfectly pure in a way we can barely imagine from our earthly perspective so marred by sin. Sin can be described as a corruption of good that affects both the natural realm and our internal selves – damaging our character and spirit by turning our focus inward, rather than outward in worship to God. It is as impossible for sin to exist in God’s Holy presence, as it is impossible that a tissue can survive a burning flame. God hates sin and all it does to humanity.2 Rebecca Manly Pippert put it well in her book Hope has its reasons,

Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’3

Second, God is Just. There will be a time when He will set things right and complete justice will prevail. He is also just, in that He will never force us into a relationship with Him. If we spend our lives denying God, refuting Him and refusing Him, it would not be just for Him to force us to then live eternally in constant fellowship with Him.4

Third, God is Love. His love for humanity is all encompassing, and incredibly patient. Although we sometimes wish He’d quickly rid the world of evil, His love for us means He is waiting for as many people as possible to turn to Him.5 I’m personally grateful He waited for me! The evil in the world is a result of our having free will. We have the choice to love God and follow His ways and we have the choice to deny Him and follow our own ways. It follows then, that when we die, our choice to be in relationship with Him, or not, would also be honored. It would not be a loving or just act for God to force us to be with Him for all eternity. There has to be a hell, a place of complete separation from God, for those who don’t choose Heaven.6

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’

God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there and that is the greatest tragedy. God didn’t just reach out for us, He came down as one of us. Down into our messy reality to save us from our sins and give us a way up and out. Love came down in the form of a baby boy who would one day make the ultimate sacrifice to change the world and bring hope and the offer of life beyond all we could imagine. He still offers us the hope that there will one day be no more suffering, sickness, death and destruction and that one-day every tear will be wiped away.7 So in our response to the first question, we could also sincerely ask,

“Why would you not choose Heaven?”

References:


  1. There are many verses where Jesus explains about, warns against and describes Hell, for example, the sobering Matthew 25:31- 46. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is interesting to me that the Rich Man does not ask to be let out of Hell, he seems resigned, but he does want his family warned.

  2. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985).

  3. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has It’s Reasons (Harper, 1990)

  4. Jo Vitale – apologist with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, quoted from Just Asking, during a podcast titled: How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?

  5. 2 Peter 3:9

  6. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (Penguin Random House, 2009), Timothy Keller goes into more depth on this topic in Chapter 5 – How can a loving God send people to Hell?

  7. Revelation 21:3-4 “And behold I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”