In Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, chapter three, entitled “What Jesus Actually Said about Hell,” Chan writes, “[...] if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against it.”

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Obama Is Fat, in order to examine Chan’s argument accurately, it is first important to establish whether Chan’s argument is valid and second, whether Chan’s argument is sound.  Notice the words “if” and “then” in Chan’s claim: “[...] if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter, then He would have had to deliberately and clearly argue against it.”  This is a classic example of an argument in formal logic, a conditional statement – if this, then that.

In the previous blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Obama Is Fat, I examined the validity of Chan’s conditional (if/then) statement and concluded:

The point is, if Jesus’s regular practice was to withhold, veil, or hide knowledge, why should we agree with Chan’s assumption that Jesus “would have had to deliberately and clearly” impart knowledge?

This is not to say that Jesus never said anything to contradict chapter two of Chan’s book.  I’ll get to that after we are done examining the validity of Chan’s conditional statement and the soundness of it, as we slowly but surely make our way through the dark and not-very-hopeful book, Erasing Hell.

Today, I would like to continue in examining the validity of Chan’s argument.  In order for an argument to be valid, the “if” part of the conditional statement, the premise for the argument, must justify the conclusion of the argument.  The premise doesn’t have to be true in order for the argument to be valid, but the conclusion must agree with the premise.  I have already demonstrated that Chan’s conclusion does not necessarily agree with his premise.  Next, I will demonstrate that the premise is so vague that it is impossible to decide whether the conclusion agrees with it.

Chan’s premise, once again, is: “if Jesus did not agree with the view of hell presented in the last chapter…”

What is the view of hell presented in chapter two of Erasing Hell?  I give a more thorough analysis in the blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Abomination, but I’ll offer an abbreviated version of it here:

Chan’s bullet points about the first-century Jewish view of Hell are:

1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.

2. Hell is described in images of fire, darkness, and lament.

3. Hell is a place of annihilation.

4. Hell is a place of never-ending punishment.

There was a large sect of Jews, mentioned many times in the New Testament, who did not believe in Hell at all.  In fact, according to the first-century historian, Josephus, Sadducees believed that “souls die with the bodies.”  They did not believe in the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, or rewards or penalties after death.  Francis Chan includes this small note in the notes section following chapter two: “The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in an afterlife, certainly wouldn’t have believed in hell.” Why does Chan not include this in the body of the chapter, since not everyone reads the notes sections of books?  If the chapter is supposed to represent the first century Jewish view of Hell, why is this important information not given it proper place within the chapter?

Furthermore, among first-century Jews were the ordinary people, the crowds that congregated to hear Jesus, but were not included among (and even shunned by) the Sadducees or Pharisees.  The New Testament and other non-biblical records give us glimpses of them from time to time, but their beliefs are not as explicitly explained.  This people-group that outnumbers all the religious sects combined, are not represented at all in Chan’s argument.  I’m not blaming Chan, because he would have to rely on assumption and conjecture to explain their beliefs, but I do think that it is worth mentioning that the majority of the Jewish population in the first century is not included in Chan’s summary of the first-century Jewish view of Hell.

In addition to the information above, it is important to notice that Chan does not offer one unified view of Hell with which Jesus may or may not agree – specifically numbers 3 and 4 of his bullet points.  If people are annihilated in Hell, they can’t possibly punished eternally.  Likewise, if people are punished eternally, they can’t possibly be annihilated.  So, how is Jesus supposed to disagree “with the view of hell presented in the last chapter” if there is no single, clear view presented?  Is Jesus supposed to disagree with all four views?  What about the “garbage dump” view?  Why is it not included as a fifth option?  What about the Sadducees?  What about all the people who did not fit neatly into religious categories?  I suppose that Chan could change the singular word “view” in his premise to the plural word “views”, and then his premise might make a little bit more sense.  And then he would also need to specify which views Jesus “would have” challenged, if, indeed, He “would have” challenged them.

In summary, Chan’s argument is not valid because:

1. The conclusion does not necessarily agree with the premise.

2. The premise is too vague, inconsistent, and incomplete.

The next two blogs in this series will address whether Chan’s argument is sound.

Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Everlasting Sneeze

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said Let Newton be! and all was light.”

Alexander Pope (1688–1744), British satirical poet.  Epitaph Intended for Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey (1730).

 

During Galileo’s childhood, the most widely accepted belief about the mechanism to explain planetary motion was that planets rode on an eternally unchanging solid crystalline sphere.  However, a supernova and a very bright comet, likely seen and remembered by Galileo, shook this seemingly firm foundation of the universe.  Between this and the “wandering planets” (two words some people use to describe any pesky little details that just don’t fit current scientific understanding), Galileo began to see the universe as a clock where motions are caused by some force.

It is no secret that Galileo’s ideas, and empirical science in general, were fiercely opposed by religious leaders.

Both in science and in religion, when someone takes the time to think ideas through, to examine, meditate upon, and imagine explanations for wandering planets, it often leads to some of the greatest discoveries mankind has known. Newton’s Mercury did not follow planetary laws, and had Newton left the idea alone, we might not have benefitted from Einstein’s subsequent laws of gravity – concepts that radically changed our understanding of space and time.  It has been suggested that Newton’s ideas about attractive and repulsive forces were inspired by his dabbling in the practice of alchemy.  This practice was frowned upon by religious leaders.  The way I see it, God knows exactly what He is doing, and if alchemy is what Newton needed in order to make his important discoveries, then God placed Newton in such an environment purposefully – so that Newton could hone his thinking-outside-the-box skills.

The same concept can be applied to pesky scriptures that don’t conform to widely accepted doctrine as well as an innate (God-given) understanding that somewhere along the way, humanity really screwed up true spirituality with religious dogma.  Orthodox Christians can look down their noses at people who read their horoscopes, go to palm readers, get involved in Scientology or mysticism.  Meanwhile, God is doing what He inevitably does best – revealing Himself to people.  Sometimes that revelation takes place through a long and difficult learning experience, a path of trial and error.

Giving people the breathing space to explore spiritual matters without condemnation is often viewed, through the orthodox lens, as condoning Satanic or antichrist activity.  But this view does not take into account the possibility that God stoops to the individual’s current level of understanding.  He knows what knowledge an individual can and can’t receive at any given season in his or her life. Furthermore, God is the only one who knows the intentions of the individual’s heart – whether his or her intent might be defined as the exact opposite of antichrist, that is, he or she may be hungry for spiritual truth, a desire to know God that has been initiated by God Himself, and may be acting upon that desire in the only manner he or she knows.  Who are these spiritual police, who know little or nothing about our Father’s timetable and method of reconciliation, to stand in judgment of their brothers and sisters?  God stoops for all of us, not just heretics and heathens.  Every one of us, every day, maybe even every hour or minute, are all in need of God’s grace.

In scientific theories about gravitation, the new “wandering planets” include extra fast moving stars, the rate of expansion of the universe, extra energetic photons.  In spiritual theories, the new “wandering planets” are not even on the table for consideration, at least not within the walls of the orthodox institutions.  I believe that God allowed a wedge to be driven between science and religion for a very good reason: so that religious people would become sick to death of religion-in-a-box and learn a thing or two from the scientific community about considering all possibilities, having the ability to admit that perhaps there have been and continue to be some terrible misunderstandings about Who God is and what God does.  In fact, this has already begun – look at the mass exodus of the human population from the institutional church.*  People will discover the significant difference between religion and spirituality.  In addition, people will discover that science and spirituality, like intellect and emotion, are both necessary in order to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  It’s only a matter of time…

 

*Read or listen to NPR’s story, “You Lost Me”: Young Christians Rethink Faith

In my fiction writing class, we were given some assigned reading over the weekend from the book The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.  As I was reading about writing characters, I was struck by the truth, the real life truth, found on the pages.  I’d like to share a bit with you, so that you will be encouraged to see people in a way you might not have otherwise.

The first thing a writer needs in creating a story is tenderness for all of his characters.  Characters are like children.  Love them, be generous, indulgent, and forgiving.  On the other hand, don’t let them get away with lying, with exaggerating, with shirking responsibility, and so on.  Characters need constant attention, reassurance, and love.  You will have to know your characters well in order to love them, and to do so you need to live with them intimately.  They must be with you when you go to sleep at night, when you wake in the morning.  Eventually, they’ll find their way into your dreams.

You can never know too much about your characters.  You know their fears, their dreams.  You know their tics.  Every character, you realize, has an imagination and memories, has suffered childhood traumas, has or has had a mom and a dad.  Every character has regrets.  Every character has secrets.  Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about.  Every character has a history, a formative past.  No character exists in a vacuum.  A character is fully realized only when he or she interacts in a social context.  At work.  At the market.  In traffic. [...]

They need to aspire and to fail.  We understand failure.  Failure is endearing.  We don’t understand whining.  The characters need to be ambivalent most of the time.  Motivation also makes characters convincing – when we know why they do what they do.  What makes mathematics interesting is not the right answer, but where the answer came from and where it leads.  What makes fiction interesting is not what the characters do but why they do it.  [...]

If you find yourself mocking a character, it’s a good idea to think harder about him and find something for which you can respect him.  Maybe the guy who seems so emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, so impatient and sarcastic and all, spends every Saturday afternoon at a nursing home singing for the patients.  They love him dearly.  He does it for free.  On the other hand, if you find yourself admiring everything about your character, it’s time to think harder about her to see what unflattering attribute will humanize her.  She is irrationally jealous of her sister, though she would never admit it, not even to herself.  She things no one notices how she never misses an opportunity to put sister down.  (Where does that jealousy come from?  When in her childhood did it begin?)  We have all learned [...] we cannot stand in judgment of our characters.  We are here to witness their behavior.  And we should remember that it is a character’s faults that make him likable.  We care about people who are scared, who act foolishly, who are driven and derided by their vanity [...]

I imagine that writing fiction, creating people with hopes and failures, who have healthy and emotionally damaging relationships, who amaze readers with their accomplishments or shock readers with their indiscretions, is a glimpse into the mind of God and how God might view us.  As the omnipotent unlimited author (to use literary terms), He sees to the very core of every character in the human story.

Apollumi is a dreadful word.  Consider the following scriptures, with the Greek word apollumi (and derivatives):

Matthew 2:13 And on their having withdrawn, lo, a messenger of the Lord doth appear in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Having risen, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and be thou there till I may speak to thee, for Herod is about to seek the child to apollumi him.”

Matthew 5:29 But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may apollumi, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.

Matthew 9:17 Nor do they put new wine into old skins, and if not – the skins burst, and the wine doth run out, and the skins are apollumi, but they put new wine into new skins, and both are preserved together.

Matthew 26:52 Then saith Jesus to him, “Turn back thy sword to its place; for all who did take the sword, by the sword shall apollumi…”

Mark 11:18 And the scribes and the chief priests heard, and they were seeking how they shall apollumi him, for they were afraid of him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.

Luke 11:51 …from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, who apollumi between the altar and the house; yes, I say to you, It shall be required from this generation.

Luke 17:29 …and on the day Lot went forth from Sodom, He rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and apollumi all.

John 6:27 …work not for the food that is apollumi, but for the food that is remaining to life age-during, which the Son of Man will give to you, for him did the Father seal – [even] God.

Acts 5:37 After this one rose up, Judas the Galilean, in the days of the enrollment, and drew away much people after him, and that one apollumi, and all, as many as were obeying him, were scattered…

1 Corinthians 1:19 …for it hath been written, “I will apollumi the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will bring to nought”…

2 Thessalonians 2:10 …and in all deceitfulness of the unrighteousness in those apollumi, because the love of the truth they did not receive for their being saved.

James 1:11 …for the sun did rise with the burning heat, and did wither the grass, and the flower of it fell, and the grace of its appearance did apollumi, so also the rich in his way shall fade away!

2 John 1:8 See to yourselves that ye may not apollumi the things that we wrought, but a full reward may receive.

Jude 1:11 Wo to them! because in the way of Cain they did go on, and to the deceit of Balaam for reward they did rush, and in the gainsaying of Korah they did apollumi.

Apollumi is associated with murder, dismemberment, uselessness, violent death, assassination, destruction, decay, failure, disgrace, withering, loss of reward, judgment, etc.  Is the work of apollumi irreversible?

Things are not always as they seem:

Matthew 10:39 He who found his life shall appolumi it, and he who appolumi his life for my sake shall find it.

Mark 9:41 …for whoever may give you to drink a cup of water in my name, because ye are Christ’s, verily I say to you, he may not apollumi his reward.

Luke 6:9 Then said Jesus unto them, “I will question you something: Is it lawful on the sabbaths to do good, or to do evil? life to save or to apollumi?”

John 3:16 …for God did so love the world, that His Son – the only begotten – He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not apollumi, but may have life age-during.

John 10:28 …and life age-during I give to them, and they shall not apollumi to the age, and no one shall pluck them out of my hand.

John 12:25 …he who is loving his life shall apollumi it, and he who is hating his life in this world – to life age-during shall keep it.

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not tardy as to the promise, as some are deeming tardiness, but is patient because of you, not intending any to apollumi, but all to make room for repentance.

Jesus is Lord of apollumi.  What apollumi does, Jesus is able to undo:

Matthew 8:25-27 …and his disciples having come to him, awoke him, saying, “Sir, save us; we are apollumi.”  And he saith to them, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” Then having risen, he rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm; and the men wondered, saying, “What kind – is this, that even the wind and the sea do obey him?”

Matthew 18:11 …for the Son of Man did come to save the apollumi.

Matthew 18:14 …so it is not will in presence of your Father who is in the heavens, that one of these little ones may apollumi.

Luke 15:4 What man of you having a hundred sheep, and having apollumi one out of them, doth not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go on after the apollumi one, till he may find it?

Luke 15:8-9 Or what woman having ten drachms, if she may apollumi one drachm, doth not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek carefully till that she may find? and having found, she doth call together the female friends and the neighbours, saying, Rejoice with me, for I found the drachm that I apollumi.

Luke 15:24 …because this my son was dead, and did live again, and he was apollumi, and was found; and they began to be merry.

John 6:39 And this is the will of the Father who sent me, that all that He hath given to me I may not apollumi of it, but may raise it up in the last day.

John 10:10 The thief doth not come, except that he may steal, and kill, and apollumi; I came that they may have life, and may have [it] abundantly.

I am very pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, someone who regularly comments on my blogs, Mary Vanderplas.  She is a former Presbyterian Minister and is now the Chaplin at Florida Hospital in Leesburg, FL.  Although we regularly disagree with one another, Mary regularly inspires me to look at things from a perspective that I might not otherwise.  Several times we have entered into discussion about apocalyptic language, and I feel that her knowledge surpasses mine regarding this topic.  In some ways, I regret starting into the Revelation blog series, since there is so much that I still have to learn (and unlearn) regarding this particular book.  Every time I began writing about chapter 8, I said to myself, “Mary should be writing this one.”  I asked Mary if she would do this, and she agreed.  I don’t necessarily agree with every word she’s written, but her perspective and insight is spectacular, and since I always enjoy reading her comments, I felt like the audience of this blog might appreciate her thoughts as well.  So here it is!

Revelation 8

Take some time now to read chapter 8 of Revelation.  I would recommend that you also go back and read the ending of chapter 6, where the sixth seal is opened by the Lamb.  After an interlude in which John presents a vision of the church in chapter 7, he returns in chapter 8 to the opening of the seals.

Well, is your heart warmed by John’s imagery?  Just when you probably thought that things couldn’t get any worse – what more could possibly happen after the coming-apart-at-the-seams of the whole cosmos (6:12-17)?! – you turn the page, only to be met by a whole new set of visions of terrible events.  What is going on here?

With the opening of the seventh and last seal (8:1), one would expect the end to come post haste.  Instead, the final seal leads into seven trumpets.  The trumpets, like the seals, originate in a scene of heavenly worship – conveying that the events are not random occurrences, but part of God’s plan for history.  Before the visions of disasters are presented, there is a pause, silence (8:1).  Likely John’s purpose was dramatic effect: a break in the action to prepare readers for the visionary fury to come – i.e., “Take a moment to catch your breath, folks, and then hang on!”  Beyond this, it was a feature of some apocalyptic traditions to have the cosmos returning to a state of primeval silence before the end.  Remember that John the prophet was writing in this literary genre and borrowing heavily from the apocalyptic traditions that were already popular in his day.  Also, in view of the heavenly scene he pictures, in which the prayers of the saints are part of the worship of heaven, it is at least possible, I think, that the interlude of silence is a divinely-instigated shushing: “Quiet, please, so I can hear the prayers of my children.”

The heavenly scene of worship reflects the worship of the earthly temple, in which the burning of incense figured prominently.  Here, in a striking image, the prayers of the saints ascend in the smoke of the incense (8:4).  The pleas for deliverance and cries for justice on the part of God’s beleaguered saints in those tiny churches in Asia were, lest anyone doubt it, “getting through.”  Indeed, their prayers were a part of the heavenly worship; and the saints themselves were intimately connected to this other world.

More striking still is that the pleas and cries of God’s struggling saints have an effect.  Notice the images John uses to convey that their prayers “shake things up” on earth:  “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5).  Viewed from the perspective of heaven, their prayers precipitate the unfolding of events leading up to the coming of God’s kingdom and justice.  Thus, in a real sense, their prayers for the final victory of God are answered – though not immediately.

John next presents the visionary scenes of disaster.  Here again, he draws from a store of images in the scriptures and the traditions of Jewish apocalyptic thought in describing his visions of what will take place just prior to the end.  The sounding of trumpets was a part of the worship of the temple and had a variety of other associations in Israel’s history, including calls to battle, announcements of victory and liberty, use in celebrating the advent of a new year, use in conquering enemies (remember the battle of Jericho and the pivotal role the blowing of trumpets played in God’s victory over Israel’s enemies – see Joshua 6), calls to communal repentance.  The sounding of trumpets had become a featured part of prophecies announcing the coming day of the Lord and conclusion of history.  Here in John’s revelation the image speaks particularly of the judgment that will come upon the enemies of God’s people and upon the whole earth.

The visionary “seven angels” designated (by God) to blow the trumpets likely reflects the traditional seven archangels in Jewish thought, though John’s interest here is confined to communicating that God’s plan for the fulfillment of history is brought about through the terrors that are to come.

The images John uses to describe his visions of the disastrous events to come may have had some connection to natural disasters in the real world that he and his listeners/readers inhabited.  What is most telling, though, in terms of what John is saying to his readers is that these images reflect to some extent the story of the exodus at the beginning of Israel’s history.  There, as you may recall, God sent a series of grievous plagues on the Egyptians for the purpose of persuading Pharaoh to repent and let God’s people go (see Exodus 7-12).  Some of the trumpet disasters here in Revelation 8 (and continuing into Revelation 9) – specifically, hail and fire, sea turning to blood, darkness, and locusts – match the plagues in the exodus story.  Thus, the trumpet disasters, like the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, are pictured by John as judgments against the enemies of God’s people as well as a means of liberation.

Think about how the churches in Asia, tiny and marginalized as they were, harassed and persecuted by imperial Rome, would have heard/read these visionary trumpet plagues.  As bad news eliciting fear and trepidation?  Possibly, I suppose, since the imagery is dire and the pictured judgment/destruction cosmic in scope.  But more likely, I think, these struggling congregations would have read them as good news, as the means of their ultimate deliverance from their Roman oppressors.  It’s a bit like going through physical therapy after an injury.  One can endure the pain, knowing that a positive outcome – namely, use of the injured body part – will ensue.  (As I write this, I am two weeks shy of finishing a course of physical therapy to rehabilitate a broken wrist.  While I am not quite ready to conquer the world – well, in a manner of speaking – I have hope.)

The issue here in Revelation 8 is the manifestation of God’s justice as history is brought to a close.  As the imagery John uses makes clear, the terrors to come are not merely tragedies but the judgments of God because of human sinfulness.  What is particularly envisioned is divine judgment of the evil empire, the punishment of oppressive and arrogant worldly power that sets itself against and seeks to destroy the church.  But evil empire acting to persecute God’s people (Pharaoh, Rome) is not all that stands to be judged.  All arrogant and oppressive earthly powers are hereby served notice:  “Time is running out.  You will not be allowed to go on forever doing violence to the powerless.  You will be judged and punished by the One whose power is incomparably great and whose authority you are under and who hears the cries of those you so cavalierly abuse.”

Eight years ago I went with a group from my denomination on a mission trip to southern Africa.  While there, we visited various local churches and church leaders with whom churches here in the United States are partnering for the purpose of helping the people of these countries with basic physical needs as well as spiritual needs.  In one of the countries we visited, the cries of the people for justice were loud and piercing.  Widespread poverty, homelessness, unemployment, even confiscation of property and imprisonment of those who dare to challenge the ruling powers characterizes life there under the rule of a thoroughly corrupt and oppressive government.  The Christians are particularly subject to harassment and abuse at the hands of the authorities; and when we met with them, they talked about and prayed for God to act to deliver their country and punish their oppressors.

It will happen, says the revelation of John.  For the people of that country, for all people in every place and time where power is arrogantly asserted and used for self-serving ends and where the rights and dignity of God’s children are trampled and their needs ignored.  The God of exodus justice will not be silent, but will act to judge and liberate.  He will hear the cries of “How long?” (6:10) and will respond with deliverance for the world.

Lest any become smug, as though the message of God’s judgment is for those other people, John’s pictures remind us that the whole creation must endure the terrors of divine judgment preceding the coming of God’s kingdom.  (This echoes Paul’s words about the whole creation suffering under the weight of human sin, subject to decay and death, and awaiting its deliverance – see Romans 8:19-23.)  There is, therefore, no room for a mentality that would exclude anyone from God’s mercy expressed as salvation or that would put anyone above God’s justice expressed as judgment of sin.

John’s revelation suggests, too, that the trumpet plagues are not displays of divine vengeance for the purpose of destruction, but rather expressions of divine justice, the purpose of which is to stimulate repentance toward the goal of restoration.  (Could this be the meaning of only a fraction – one-third – of the creation and its human inhabitants being destroyed?  See 8:7, 9, 11, 12; also 9:18.)  The terrors of God’s judgments thus reveal the heart of God for every single one of his rebellious children and (perhaps) his ultimate plan to bring every lost one of them home.

What is assured is that no earthly powers, however strong and threatening, however much in control they may appear and even be in our present circumstances – none of them will be able ultimately to thwart God’s plan to judge and liberate, to eradicate evil and establish his just and peaceable kingdom.  For it is God who is really in control, who governs our existence and guides the destiny of us all.  To use Paul’s metaphor in Romans 8, the creation is “groaning in labor pains,” and there is no stopping the bundle of new life from coming!

Sources:

Arnold, Clinton E.  Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 4, Hebrews to Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.

Boring, M. Eugene.  Revelation.  Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989.

Evans, Joseph.  “It’s Coming.”  http://day1.org/3039-its_coming.print.

Metzger, Bruce M.  Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Peterson, Eugene H.  Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination.          New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version including Apocrypha.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.