Rob Bell, Hell, and a Few Definitions

The internet has been abuzz this weekend with news of megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book synopsis released by the publisher states that Bell is “arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” In other words, he appears to be openly professing his belief in universalism, the belief that everybody ultimately goes to heaven regardless of what they believe.

To help you understand the position of universalism, it might be useful to describe a few positions held by theologians on the subject of how a person receives eternal life. Here are some definitions that you should know:

Christian exclusivism holds that a person can only receive eternal life through explicit belief in the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. In other words, in order for a person to go to heaven they must believe in Jesus alone.  Most traditional evangelicals hold this position

Inclusivism is a position that argues that Jesus is the only one who provides salvation, but people who adhere to other religions can be saved if they respond appropriately to whatever truth they are given. For example, a sincere Muslim who worships Allah in a manner consistent with the values of Jesus could actually go to heaven. Inclusivists do not always believe that hell is non-existent or empty. Instead, they hold that explicit belief in Christ is not necessary to escape it. Interestingly, the famous 20th century writer C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist — if you read the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, you’ll see what I mean.

Universalism is the belief that everybody goes to heaven regardless of what they say, do, or believe.  Universalists deny the existence of hell, believing that every person ultimately goes to heaven. They generally argue that the sacrifice of Christ was so extensive as to eliminate eternal punishment for everybody, regardless of their beliefs or acceptance of the Gospel.

Bell is being accused of holding to universalism. His book has not yet been released, so we need to be cautious about assuming too much based on the publisher’s synopsis. However, if he does indeed hold to universalism, it would place him outside the boundaries of traditional Christianity.

Why?

Jesus believed in hell. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to believe in it. Look at passages like Mt 10:28; 23:33; Lk 16:19-31. He clearly believed that hell was the necessary punishment for those who sinned against God.

Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished forgiveness, but belief is necessary for salvation. Read John 3:16-18 again if you haven’t in a while. Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished salvation, but only those who believe will receive it. Those who disbelieve are condemned. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 describes the penalty of “eternal destruction” for those who do not believe in the Gospel.

Finally, salvation is only found in the name of Jesus. I take Acts 4:12 to mean that a person must actually believe in Jesus for salvation.

How can He be loving and yet still allow people to spend eternity apart from Him? It comes down to the sacrifice of Jesus — in His love, God gave His only Son on behalf of humanity, to take the punishment for our sin so we don’t have to bear it. He extends to everybody the opportunity to believe — those who respond to God’s revelation in creation and in their own conscience are apparently given more knowledge leading to the truth (see Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-33). If they reject what God has provided, they are held responsible (Romans 1:18-32). Either way, God is proven just because He has given ample opportunity for men to believe.

If there is no such thing as hell, then Jesus’ death was either just a terrible tragedy or (even worse) the result of a cruel God punishing His only Son for no good reason. If there is no hell, it’s hard to say what we’ve been saved from.

In addition, God is now waiting for the day of judgment so that more and more will come to know Him — he doesn’t want men and women to perish, but to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Peter 3:8-9). His patience demonstrates His love.

What are your questions and thoughts on this issue? How would you answer a person who believes in universalism?

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Aren’t All Religions Really the Same?

Today while I was on campus I had a conversation with a Muslim man about the differences between Christianity and Islam. He kept returning to the idea that in his opinion all religions are basically the same. We’re told to do good things, be nice to people, and trust God for eternal life. In his view, then, it doesn’t really matter whether one is a Muslim or a Hindu or a Christian or a Buddhist or a Jew; everybody operates on the same principles.

This is an argument I am hearing more often, even in Christian circles. In an attempt to skirt the religious conflicts that have dominated the first decade of the 21st century, many people are simply surrendering the idea that any group could possibly be right while another is wrong. It’s believed peace can be purchased at the cost of absolute truth claims.

I’m about to state something that will seem obvious to some and offensive to others (and yes, this post is a bit more serious in tone than the dating ones of the past month):

All religions are NOT the same.

To say that they are the same is to deny the very concept of truth. Honestly, it’s a philosophical position that adherents of every religion ought to find offensive. Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Jews claim to believe different things on very important subjects. To take Christianity as an example:

-Christians claim that Jesus is the unique Son of God, a divine man (John 1:1; Col 2:9). No other religion believes that. If Christians are wrong, then Jesus really is a liar or a nut, since He claimed deity (John 10:30; John 8:58;  Mk 2:28). As C.S. Lewis very famously stated: “You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”

-Christians claim that eternal life is obtained through belief in the work of Jesus, NOT through reliance upon our own works (Eph 2:8-9). Islam, on the other hand, holds that salvation is obtained through a person’s works — Allah determines if the good outweighs the bad and judges you on that basis. This is a fundamentally different belief system. Can’t we at least agree that how a person receives eternal life is at the very foundation of a belief system? Whoever is wrong is essentially consigning their adherents to eternal torment.  That’s a pretty important difference.

Morality is only one component of a religious system, and it’s not the most important component. To say that all belief systems are the same because they all preach some similar morals is like saying that CO and CO2 are the same thing because they contain similar elements. But in practice one of them will kill you.

You can argue that Christians are wrong about God. You can argue that Muslims are wrong. Or even that both are wrong. But you simply can’t argue with any consistency that they are the same. That’s just a silly position to take.

Don’t buy into the misguided belief that there are no significant distinctions between religions.  Not only are there differences, but the differences have eternal ramifications.

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Answering Your Dating Questions (Part 3)

Today’s question is:

How do you feel about asking a girl out through a text message or a Facebook post?

Um…the Bible doesn’t talk about this.  But I’ll give you my personal thoughts. I am a big fan of asking her face to face, for a few reasons.

First, if you text or post on her wall you are likely to communicate fear. Be bold, my friend. Man up. Take heart. Start off on the right foot and approach her face to face, with the confidence you wish to demonstrate.

Second, electronic messages are prone to miscommunication. It’s harder for her to tell if you’re asking for a date, or just to hang out with friends. It’s harder for you to tell if she doesn’t want to go out with you, or if she really has an appointment with her cat’s pedicurist. In person you can clear up the confusion.

Third, you probably don’t want to start your relationship that way. For a couple of reasons. When you tell your kids the story of your first date, do you really want it filled with words like “lol” and “t@yl”? I think not. Also, you don’t want to be that couple who plans parenting strategies through FB wall posts while you’re sitting in the same room.

Now, that having been said, there might be some extenuating circumstances that require you to ask her out via text or Facebook:

-Is she a secret government agent working under cover? If so, talking to her face to face during the day could endanger the lives of thousands of innocents. Plus, she’s probably tough to find anyway. Texting is your best bet.

-Is she trapped inside a computer video game like Kevin Flynn in Tron? In that case, there’s really no other way to communicate. Of course, you’ll have a hard time setting a date anyway unless you climb in and join her in there.

-Is she at least 50% cyborg? Are you? I have little doubt that in this situation electronic communication is more efficient. She should be able to read your meaning clearly in binary format, actually.

Questions for you: Are there other extenuating circumstances that might make it okay to ask a girl out via text message or Facebook? Do you have any other thoughts on this? Please let me know!

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Special Post: Will Christians Judge the Angels?

I received an email from one of our student leaders asking about 1 Corinthians 6:2-3:

Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?

What does it mean that Christians will judge the world and the angels?

In the context Paul is making an argument that believers ought to avoid taking one another to court. He hinges his argument on the idea that Christians will be given the privilege to judge the world and even the angels — if they can do that, why can’t they work out small disputes among them?

This is a tough passage to figure out, since there is not a great deal of information in the Scripture about how Christians will be involved in the future judgment.  Here are a couple of thoughts, though:

-We know that rebellious angels (i.e. demons) will eventually be judged and cast into the Lake of Fire (Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4; Rev 20:10). Satan and the angels who followed him are destined for eternal torment, and when Jesus returns to establish His kingdom He will judge them. It seems that Paul is indicating here that believers will have some part in that judgment, at least to the extent that we affirm the judgments of Jesus.

-Christians will have an opportunity to participate with Christ in the judgment of the world, particularly the judgments of the nations and unbelievers. For example, in Matthew 19:28 Jesus tells the disciples that as a reward for their faithfulness they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel. In Revelation 20:4, Christians who have been faithful through the Tribulation are clearly given the chance to sit on thrones with Jesus and judge the nations. Paul seems to be telling us that all believers have at least the possibility of assisting Christ in His final judgment.

In the final analysis, Jesus is really the judge of the world. Any judgment granted to believers is simply delegated authority. We have no authority to overturn God’s judgments, but He might rely upon us to judge as His representatives.

What does that mean practically? We ought to be competent now to make good decisions on His behalf, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, there is no need to go to court and ask a human authority to mediate between two believers.

I hope this helps a bit.  If you have comments or questions feel free to let me know!

(Oh, and by the way, angels don’t really look like Raphael’s painting above. They are much scarier.)

Answering Your Dating Questions (Part 2)

Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s a great day to be answering your dating questions. In the comments to the previous post, Tyler asked a great question, which I’ll summarize like this:

What can I do if I am in a dating slump and can’t seem to meet any potential dating partners?

I definitely feel your pain, Tyler. I actually experienced a three-year “slump” when I was in college. It extended for about a year after I graduated. Even though I’ve been happily married for more than ten years, I still remember the discouragement and frustration I felt with the whole dating scene.

So how can you handle this well, and continue to walk with the Lord through it? A few thoughts:

First, continually remind yourself that dating is only one aspect of your life. And it’s not even the most important aspect. I know how hard this is to remember when you’re lonely and discouraged. I also realize that this advice sounds like something married people say without remembering how hard it is to be single. However, it’s critical to remember that your primary purpose is to know Jesus (Phil 3:7-11) and to tell others about Him (Matthew 28:18-20). That means that the value of your life is not determined by whether you have a date or a girlfriend, but by how faithfully you are pursuing Jesus in any circumstance.

I joke sometimes that I finally met my wife when I stopped looking for her. That sounds silly, but I do think that once I began to pour my life into a purpose other than finding a date or a spouse, I probably was a bit more secure in Christ and consequently attractive to a potential wife. Marriage should be a great chance to serve Jesus together, so take the time now to pursue Him even if there is nobody by your side. Engage in community with others, expecting nothing in return.  Serve those in need, a valuable exercise that will both remind you of your own blessings and take your mind off of the dating stuff for a while.

Second, pray regularly for your future spouse. Do you believe that God cares about your dating life and desires to meet your needs? Again, I know that’s often a tough concept in the midst of a dating slump.  But God does care, and is more than able to meet any needs you have in every area of your life (Phil 4:11-13; 19; 2 Cor 9:8). If He desires you to get married, He’s already working on it.

Third, don’t be afraid to go out on dates even if you’re not in love yet. I think one of the biggest mistakes young adults make is waiting until they think they feel certain about a person before going on a date. Tyler, you made the comment that you can’t find anybody interesting anywhere, except for those who already have boyfriends. That immediately made me wonder what you’re looking for. Right now I’m aware of several young women who are lovely, godly, and a great deal of fun to be around — but nobody is asking them out. It’s hard to believe that there is just nobody interesting out there in your relational circle. If that is really true, I’d be interested to know where you’re spending your time. Perhaps you need to reconsider your standards — are they rooted in God’s values, or in your own? And then just ask somebody out on a date; you don’t have to be in love or be certain of marriage yet. It’s just lunch, not a wedding proposal. Neither my wife or I felt certain on the first date, but we grew in love over time.

(This doesn’t mean walking up to random strangers and asking them out — that is a bit creepy. But after meeting somebody and having one or two good conversations, why not?)

Finally, be willing to wait on God’s timing, even when it’s hard. Is there anything unbiblical about internet dating? No. I’ve known people who have met their spouses that way, and sometimes it works out great. But before you go that route, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you approaching it with an attitude of desperation, or an attitude of trust? Do you expect that there is a treasure trove of eligible women online but not among the real people you see every day? It’s possible that you will end up just as disappointed by your online matches as you are with the people you know in person — they’re still just people.

It might require a difficult shift in perspective, but I’d encourage you to pray and wait until you are ready to view dating as an extension of your walk with Jesus. Once you have that perspective in mind, you’re ready to pursue a relationship. God’s timing can be tough, but it’s always good.

Hope this helps a bit.  If anybody has further questions or comments, please let me know!

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Answering Your Dating Questions (Part 1)

Yesterday my wife Shannon and I gave our semi-annual dating talk in college class.  If you missed it, feel free to download it on the website (http://www2.grace-bible.org/downloads/sermons/sermons.asp).

At the end of the talk we took a few questions from students, but we didn’t have time to answer all of them.  For the next few weeks I’m going to post answers to some of the leftover questions, as well as some common questions we’ve received on this topic over the years.  Feel free to post follow-up questions or even new questions in the comments section.

One question we received yesterday that comes up frequently:

Is it okay to enter a dating relationship if I’m not interested in marriage?

I’m assuming here that you don’t mean that you never intend to get married, but that you simply know ahead of time that you aren’t interested in marrying the particular person you are interested in dating. I’m also assuming that we’re talking about a young adult here, a college student or older.  My answer might vary if I were talking to high school students.

The Bible does not directly address your question, but in evaluating this situation I would ask a couple of questions:

-Do you really already know that you would never marry this person? If so, why? There is something attracting you to him or her, whether good looks or a great personality or some other trait. Few people (if any) enter a relationship certain of the future outcome, but you seem to already know that the relationship will not end in marriage. That makes me wonder if there is some factor disqualifying this person from consideration — perhaps he or she is not a Christian or has some negative character traits.

-If the person is disqualified from being a future marriage partner, then why do you want to spend so much time with him or her in a romantic way? I suppose there could be a variety of reasons for this — perhaps you get something out of the relationship (fun, affirmation, pleasure, etc.) or perhaps you feel you are positively contributing to the other person in some way (helping his/her self-esteem, sharing the Gospel, etc.). If you are dating the person to meet your own needs with no intention of marriage, isn’t that a bit selfish?  You want to squeeze the fun out of the relationship even though you know you will eventually break up. On the other hand, if you are in it to help the other person, do you think he or she will really appreciate your generosity after the break-up? There are numerous ways to encourage and build another person up without engaging in a long-term romantic relationship.

It seems that this is a relationship destined to cause pain for one or both parties in the long run. You might feel that you can remain objective and avoid falling in love, but are you sure the other person can? Are you even truly sure that you can?

Shannon and I used Proverbs 3:3 as our overarching principle yesterday: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” It’s just tough for me to see how it is kind or truthful to enter a relationship with another person knowing for certain that you intend to end it after your needs are met.

As young adults, you are at the stage of your life when dating ought to have a purpose — to determine whether the other person is a suitable marriage partner, and to see if you are one as well. You don’t need to know on the first date, or even on the 50th date, but the relationship should be making progress in that direction, in my opinion.  If it’s clearly not going that way, it’s probably best to end it now before causing further pain to yourself and the other person.

Do you have other thoughts on the subject? Any other questions you’d like to see us address on here?

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