“Questions matter,” says Tim Challies in his review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Indeed, questions do matter. Part of the reason that the orthodox evangelical crowd is so hot under the collar about Bell’s particular questions is that they have no control over who is asking or how the questions are asked. This is something entirely new for the institution of church, a very controlled environment where only certain preapproved people are allowed to ask or answer doctrine-threatening questions in an official, representative manner for all of the rest of the people. For the entirety of church history, there have been three dynamic shifts in the question-asking, question-answering environment. Other important events occurred along the way, of course, but for the sake of this blog, I am noting what I consider to be the top three.
The first shift was somewhat gradual, with the egalitarian groups of believers, who considered each other as equally gifted, holding equal positions of authority, gradually being persuaded or forced into a larger, more stratified church model where the same few dozen big-shots were making important decisions about what others were allowed to discuss. Leaders found approval not in their sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading but in their not being timid about elevating themselves over others or their level of cooperation with the current leaders. This dynamic is covered in more detail in my youtube series on Religious Tolerance. It was during this time period that any talk of the Amazing Hope was forcibly removed from believer’s gatherings. The Dark Ages soon followed.
The second shift took place quickly compared to the first, over the course of a few generations, mostly because the Spirit’s leading could no longer be silenced due to the invention of the printing press. Martin Luther posted the 95 Thesis and the Reformation was under way before the institutional church had a chance to react. Of course, they did cry heresy, but they were unable to contain the spread of information, like a God-ordained virus. Any effort to suppress or refute Luther’s claims only served to further Luther’s agenda. Thankfully, not all of Luther’s ideas and practices were embraced, just the ones that mattered. Luther makes Bell look like an altar boy in the morality department, not that it really matters, though. If God can speak through Balaam’s ass, He can speak through anyone, even me. Anyway, people learned that salvation is by grace through faith, and that this faith is the gift of God, not something that can be earned.
Unfortunately, somewhere between the second and third institutional church shift, people fell back into old patterns of thinking. They gave lip service to salvation by grace through faith, but they also gave a list of steps one must complete in order to be saved. This group of believers opposed that group of believers’ list, as to exactly what our part in salvation may be, while other groups of believers even claimed that people could lose their salvation. If you are wondering to which group of believers you belong (assuming you believe at all), check your church’s website or statement of faith. It will tell you exactly what hoops you must jump through in order to be considered part of the “family” and it will also tell you what severe consequences await should you not get this thing right by the time you die.
The third shift is happening now. Really it has been happening all along, only no one knew it, because anyone who dared speak up about it was quickly labeled heretic and put out of the church. This is still the standard approach in most congregations, but something else happened that the institutional church never expected, something that if they had known ahead of time they still would not have been able to prevent. Something remarkably similar in potential to the printing press, that is, the internet. Social media. The ability for people to easily and anonymously access information. We are living during a pivotal time in history. God is turning the institutional church upside down and inside out, shaking it to see what falls out and what sticks. The wineskin is bursting with Good News that really is good. People are remembering Who God is and what God does, how His plan of the ages involves calling out a “firstfruit” people for Himself, and that this firstfruit harvest is just the beginning of the entire harvest. The year of Jubilee is on the horizon – out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.
These concepts may be found in the scriptures if people take the time to look past the modern translation and tradition and study the Greek and Hebrew. But there are those who would like to snuff out this light that threatens to shine brighter than church buildings and programs and paid positions of authority and power. Among them is Tim Challies, who says, “Now here’s the thing: aion and aionos [sic] definitely can mean ‘age’ or ‘period of time,’ they also mean ‘eternal.’ The word’s context helps us to determine its meaning.” Why is Challies concerned with assigning the meaning eternal to aion? Because that is where one can make or break the case for the majority of eternal torment proof texts. If it turns out that these are more accurately translated age or age-abiding, then the eternal torment doctrine very nearly deflates altogether. Challies intends to convince readers to accept that aion is eternal by threatening to pull the rug out from under the idea that God will give us immortality – implying that we will die or cease to exist if aion does not mean eternal. He reasons, “So if we assume that these words primarily mean “age” or “period of time,” what happens when we apply that definition to John 3:16 where aionos [sic] is used? For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have life for a period of time.” Challies adds, “Not as encouraging, is it?”
Here I begin to wonder why it is that people so learned in scripture, so practiced in studying the Word, can miss something so obvious. We are promised immortality (athenasia, meaning no death) and incorruptibility (aphthartos meaning non-deteriorating or non-aging condition). We are promised life that does not end (ouk estai telos, meaning no end, literally translated not shall be finish). And there are plenty of other reasons to believe God has good things planned for us that do not include death or suddenly being snuffed out of existence once the age ends. Challies’ arguably knee-jerk assertion is easily refuted, because not one of these ideas rely on the word aion. We don’t need aion in order to live forever, we need the life that Jesus gives, in whatever manner He intends to give it.