Pierre Brassau is a famous painter. A famous monkey painter, that is. One unsuspecting art critic wrote about the paintings, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”
Sometimes people see what they are told to see.
When Chan examines Philippians 2:9-11, he sees what the doctrine of eternal torment tells him to see “that there will come a day when Christ returns to reclaim His creation, and everyone will acknowledge this […] none will be able to deny it.” Although Chan’s assessment is accurate, it is inadequate. It sucks the worship right out of Paul’s words. Paul is actually providing commentary on a quote from the prophet Isaiah in this passage. Isaiah writes, “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear (swear = an oath, an act of allegiance).” Paul directly applies this to Jesus, the Savior of the world. The message is loud and clear, that everyone will not only worship (bow = an act of worship) Jesus, but everyone will swear their allegiance to Him. This is the strongest language possible in the Hebrew and Greek.
People might swear to on their mother’s eyes or to God (even though they shouldn’t) when they are trying to convince someone else that something is true, because they can think of no one better or nothing higher by which to swear. Here, God swears by Himself. Essentially, God says, “I swear to Me…” Anything that God swears obviously can’t be revoked, because God is the One Who swore it, He does not lie, and no one can undo what He does. Nevertheless, the statement “…will not be revoked”, is there for the benefit of the reader who, for whatever reason, might try to weasel his (ah-hem, Chan) or her way out of the obvious meaning of this passage.
Chan appeals to the ending of the book of Isaiah, a contextual difference of twenty-one chapters, where dead bodies are scattered everywhere, to justify his less than stellar reading of God’s promise, that everyone will merely “acknowledge” and/or “not deny” that Jesus is Lord. This interpretation leaves room for the doctrine of eternal torment in that the unbelievers grudgingly admit to what is already obvious to everyone. I encourage readers to go through Isaiah, chapter by chapter, and notice all of the ups and downs there. I concede that it doesn’t seem to end well for all those dead people. And since all of us die, then it appears as though things don’t end well for us, either. Thankfully, death is not the end. That’s what the Good News is all about.
Do you remember the Good News, Chan? The angels announced it, “Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people – because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord […] upon earth peace, among men – good will.” And what is this Savior’s mission? In Jesus’ own words, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
So, does the end of the book of Isaiah nullify the sworn oath of God written earlier in the book?
If eternal torment in hell is the doctrine in question, and the end of Isaiah supposedly supports this doctrine, how is it that God’s enemies are portrayed as dead carcasses? Shouldn’t they be writhing in agony or something?
The truth is that most of Isaiah was written to people other than us, during a time of political upheaval. If you read it from beginning to end, the tone swings from hope to destruction back to hope, over and over again. Isaiah addresses Israel’s current situation, but he also has these moments of supernatural clarity, in which he attempts to address ideas that most likely blow his mind. You have to consider the day and age in which Isaiah was living, the cultural environment, and what was considered “orthodoxy” during this time. There’s this tension in Isaiah’s writing between what he knows by his own experience and upbringing, and what God is revealing to him. The book of Isaiah is an unnecessary game of tug-o-war between Israel’s exclusivity as God’s “chosen” people and Israel’s redemptive role in the Plan of the Ages, between Israel’s passivity or participation in this plan in contrast with the other nations, and between the idea that all other nations will ultimately be subject to Isreal or the idea that all other nations are ultimately equals with Israel and Israel just happens to be first to find out what God is doing. Amidst all of this, God SWEARS something THAT CANNOT BE REVOKED.
If God decides to bless everyone, then do the chosen lose their “better-than” status? We see the same tensions in Christianity today, between those who believe God only chooses some, period, and those who believe God only chooses some now. It’s like Israel all over again.
Let’s suppose that Chan is correct in his interpretation. What are the implications? We must throw out 1 Corinthians 12:3, “no one is able to say Jesus is Lord, except in the Holy Spirit,” otherwise, people are becoming believers without the Spirit of God (an impossibility), furthermore, God is damning these new believers to eternal torment in hell. Theologian Albert Barnes, who believes in eternal torment in hell, says:
It cannot occur, or even happen, that anyone will acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah who is not influenced by the Holy Spirit. The meaning is, not that no one has physical ability to say that Jesus is Lord unless aided by the Holy Spirit, since all people can say this; but that no one will be disposed heartily to say it; no one will acknowledge him as their Lord; it can never happen that anyone will confess him as the true Messiah who has not been brought to this state by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
How does Chan address this and the numerous other problems that arise when “every knee will bow, every tongue will confess” is minimized and deemphasized? Chan could write a whole book on this topic alone. Or he could just be aware that there are experts out there who rave about theological monkey paintings.
Next blog in this series: If God Swears, Then What About…