Tag Archives: heaven

Redeeming Edwards’s Doctrine of Hell: An “Edwardsean” Account

This month an article I wrote defending the traditional doctrine of hell was published in Themelios 42.2. In this article I argue that despite being subject to a serious philosophical objection, an Edwardsean doctrine of hell is defensible. In order to defend this version of the doctrine of hell I suggest we start by thinking about Edwards’s doctrine of heaven.

Here’s a bit of the article:

Among recent trends in evangelicalism, one of the most prominent has been the resurgence of interest (especially within the “young, restless, and reformed” segment of the church) in all things Jonathan Edwards. One sees this in the vast quantity of recent books, blogs, and conferences dedicated to Edwards’s life and thought. These works have done much to lift him up as a pastoral, homiletical, and theological example to be emulated. The result is that certain Edwardsean themes and theological views have begun to exert greater influence upon evangelicalism, for instance: the importance of revival, preaching in order to change religious affections, the New Testament use of the Old, and even Trinitarian theology. One can certainly appreciate the positive influence that Edwards the exemplar has had upon the contemporary evangelical church. However, one aspect of Edwards’s theology that we may want to question the value of following his example is his account of the doctrine of hell.

Many Americans are familiar with Edwards’s account of hell through his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he depicts one of the most horrific, ghoulish, and even terrorizing portrayals ever presented. In particular, his depiction of hell in this sermon is cited by many as evidence why we ought to abandon the traditional account. It has been said that Edwards’s doctrine is morally intolerable and that we should abandon it. Those who are interested in defending the traditional account and more specifically Edwards’s account have reasons for mining his works in order to find resources within it to defend not only his account but the traditional doctrine of hell as well. This essay aims to accomplish those two tasks.

You can read the rest (for free) here: Themelios

Getting Practical with Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel

Paul Writing a Letter
To see the practical implications Paul’s apocalyptic gospel in Galatians it is helpful to begin by looking at chapter 1 verse 6 which says that the Galatians are abandoning the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. We should note that verse 1:3 begins with the “grace” that the Father and Christ offer the Galatians and that in 1:6 Paul says that they are leaving the “grace” of Christ and turning to a different gospel. This inclusio of “grace” might indicate that what is contained between these two graces is what should be contrasted with the “different gospel.” If this is the case then Paul’s gospel is essentially an apocalyptic gospel, one which essentially claims that Christ has freed us from this age by addressing the problem of sin. This notion of being freed from this age is in line with Jesus’ message in the gospels that Israel’s exile has ended. It seems as though Paul is saying that Jesus who somehow addresses our sins is the one who frees us from exile which we were under and that this exile was this present evil age. Thus Paul’s gospel is in line with Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom which is about the end of exile and the reign of YHWH.

Understanding Paul’s thoughts in this passage has various implications for Christian practice. One such implication is that it calls us to question our understanding of our hope as Christians. Many Christians would say that their hope is essentially in heaven, that one day when they die they will go to heaven, not to hell. However Paul’s gospel message is that we have been freed from the present evil age. This message implies that somehow we are no longer living in the evil age but that we have entered a new age. The fact that Christians can now live in the new age should affect the way they see their lives as Christians. If we are to understand that we have hope now, and not merely after we die, then this will radically change how we interact with the world around us. If our hope is now, then our lives as Christians cannot have an escapist mentality. As Christians we must begin to figure out what it looks like to live in light of the truth that because of Christ we are now living in the age to come.

The Challenge of Jesus

N.T. Wright has written a plethora of books that span the spectrum between devotional and intense academic tomes. The Challenge of Jesus seeks to place itself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

The Challenge of Jesus

In the preface to this book Wright last out three goals that he has in writing this book. The first goal is to maintain historical integrity when talking about Jesus. The second goal is to help Christian disciples to follow the Jesus of Scriptures. The third goal is to help the next generation of Christ followers to love on mission in this postmodern world we find ourselves in. The majority of this book focuses on the first goal, and ends with two chapters that address the last two goals. This makes a lot of sense because if we are going to be able to live as disciples of Christ we need to now who Christ really was.

Wright accomplishes these goals by asking five important questions (p. 33):

1-Where does Jesus belong within the Jewish world of his day?

2-What, in particular, was his preaching of the Kingdom all about? i.e. what was he aiming to do?

3-Why did Jesus die? In particular what was his own intention in going to Jerusalem that last fateful time?

4-Why did the early church begin, and why did it take the shape it did?

5-How does all this relate to the Christian task and vocation today?

He answers each one of those questions in a separate chapter. Regarding question 1 Wright argues that Jesus was leading a messianic movement, not completely unlike other messianic movements of his time (yet also with a radically different twist.) In other words Jesus was announcing the Kingdom of God. Regarding the 2nd question, Jesus was creating new symbols of the Kingdom, the cross and the temple. By doing this he was reconstituting the people of God around himself. All of this pointed to an end of exile which was being accomplished by God in Christ. Why did Jesus die (question 3)? He died because it he believed it was his vocation to for Israel what Israel could not do and he believed that he would undergo the sufferings that Israel deserved for its unfaithfulness in other words, Jesus himself would go into exile and suffer at the hands of the enemy. This answer is related to the 4th question. The early church began because Christ was bodily resurrected, this meant that God was vindicating all that Christ has done. The exile is over and a new creation has begun. Finally the 5th question, how does all this relate to the Christian task and vocation today? Quite simply, Christians are to live as a part of new creation, as a part of this story that has climaxed in Jesus, and they are to live out the truth that Jesus really is the King and Messiah not only of Israel but of the whole world.

Like most books written by N.T. Wright this book excels in its historical portrayal of the facts. Wright certainly has done his research (this book is essentially a condensed version of Jesus and the Victory of God) and his research almost always leads him to surprising, yet orthodox, conclusions. There is no doubt in my mind that Wright gets the historical picture of Jesus right in this book. However what Wright gets wrong, in this book and may other books where he addresses the church in out postmodern setting is in the application of those historical realities. That isn’t to say he doesn’t get the overall contours right – he says “our task is to implement his unique achievement.” (182). That is absolutely right, however the ways he calls the church to implement Christ’s achievement is a little bit off. This has been said of Wright before so I won’t belabor it. Even though he warns against those who emphasize the discontinuity between the present world and the next and throw up their hands in resignation and those who emphasize the continuity between the present world and the next and imagine we can build the kingdom of God by our own hard work he definitely tends to fall a little too much on the continuity side of things. At times he sounds like he has an overemphasized eschatology. Of course he denies this, but its clearly in his writings. However if it comes down to it, I would rather someone work hard for the Kingdom of God than throw up their hands and wait for heaven to come one day. Despite this one small downside in this book I highly recommend it.

In my opinion this short book is the best introduction to Wright’s thought on who Jesus is.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for an impartial review.

Why Belief in the Resurrection Matters

In doing some reading today I cam across a brilliant passage by N.T. Wright about why belief in resurrection matters…

How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself – will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind all together (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, “until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. (Surprised by Hope, 193)

Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comport and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. (SbH, 208)

and then there is this quote…

People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present. (SbH 214)

Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 3)

It’s Easter Weekend! Its the time of year we Christians celebrate Christ’s atoning work for us on the cross and his resurrection, which we participate in through baptism into Christ. In light of the fact that it is Easter weekend I will be blogging on Richard Swinburne’s Responsibility and Atonement this easter weekend. Today on Easter Sunday I hope to show that Swinburne’s atonement is full of shortcomings.

Here are the first two posts: Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 1) and Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 2)

_____________________________________

Having laid out Swinburne’s atonement theory I would like to point out three shortcomings. The first shortcoming is about his method. Swinburne’s atonement theory is marked by a lack of interaction with scripture. He beings with certain philosophical notions and the formulates his theology in light of them. As a philosopher this is understandable, his theology will be done in dialogue with philosophy, but one would at least expect him to put his philosophical notions and scripture in dialogue with one another. Yet he does not do this, he proceeds to make theological arguments strictly in light of his philosophical positions. Even when he does use scripture, it is coloured by his philosophical positions. It is well acknowledged that it is difficult to have a neutral reading of scripture; we always bring our own philosophical and cultural baggage to the text but there is something odd when one does not even try to begin with scripture humbly acknowledging ones own biases. Because he lacks interaction with scripture and instead formulates his doctrine from philosophy it is hard to know what to make of his theological claims. This is a shortcoming in his theology of atonement.

A second shortcoming is Swinburne’s theology by analogy. We might want to ask Swinburne questions like: “does God inhabit the same moral universe that we do?” “Is our system of morality the same as God’s?” These questions highlight some important issues we must grapple with when doing atonement theology by analogy. In talking about our moral concepts and God’s moral concepts is our language univocal? That is, is our use of the word “atonement” the same for humans as it is for God? Or is it equivocal? Does our use of the word “atonement” have completely different meanings for us than God? Or perhaps is the use of the word “atonement” analogical? Namely is “atonement” for us and God similar in certain ways but different in others? Nowhere does Swinburne address this important issue. He merely assumes that the way atonement works for humans is the same exact way atonement works for God. He may or many not be correct, but he never shows why we should believe that atonement works the same way for God and humans. There are certainly good reasons to believe that it does and equally good reasons to believe that it doesn’t, but merely assuming that it does makes his account of atonement less convincing.

The final, and possibly most important, shortcoming that I would like to mention is that Swinburne’s account at times can come off as being semi-pelagian. First he has a very weak doctrine of original sin. He believes that humans are mostly in possession of a good will and that humans can in fact willfully choose on their own to do good (even though it is very difficult for humans to do this). He is overly optimistic in the goodness of humans. This is displayed by his belief that humans just “need help” to make atonement. For Swinburne humans do a part to make atonement but Jesus adds the rest for us. Thus the act of atonement is not something that God does for us, it is something that we do together. This synergistic account of the atonement makes it so that Christ’s work is a necessary but not a sufficient action for atonement. At the end of the day humans are responsible for the attainment of their forgiveness. Christ alone is not responsible. In addition to the fact that for Swinburne Christ’s work is not sufficient for forgiveness, there is another problem that touches upon some of his semi-pelagian leanings, namely that Christ’s work only restores the status quo. Christ’s work is not sufficient for justification, Christ’s work restores the balance of the “debt” owed to God. In his later chapters on heaven and hell it seems as though the atonement merely fixes the balance between God and humans but humans are responsible to make their own choices later in life which will determine their fate for eternity. Where one ends up in the eternal state has nothing to do with Christ’s atoning work, rather it has to do with cultivating one’s will and forming a good moral character. Thus once again Christ’s work isn’t a sufficient piece for salvation.

I believe that these three shortcomings; his method, his assumption of theology by analogy, and his semi-pelagian leanings make his account of the atonement hard to buy into. It is this last shortcoming which is especially damning. His semi-pelagian leanings place him well outside of what the Christian tradition has affirmed about Christ’s work of atonement.

New Creation and the Glory of God

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. -Habakkuk 2:14

This is God’s intention for his creation. The earth was created to be, a place that displays all of God’s glory.

This verse expresses the culmination of all of history. “Heaven” isn’t the end. Heaven isn’t the goal. The goal is the recreation/reformation of the earth so that it can contain the full glory of God. But catch this, God’s glory isn’t some hard to understand ethereal concept. Scripture is very very clear about what God’s glory is. Hebrews tells us that:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Jesus is God’s glory! So the day that Habakkuk (and Isaiah) is (are) predicting is actually the day when all of creation will know Jesus. That day is the day when Jesus is fully revealed as Lord. Until that day Christians catch small glances and glimpses of that coming reality. So whenever Jesus is glorified, whenever Jesus is sung about in our churches, whenever Jesus is preached about in our sermons, whenever Jesus is revealed in our love for our neighbor we catch a small glimpse of the day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Whenever anything points to Jesus we participate in that coming day.

So here is the challenge: live today in a way that shows proleptically that this day has is a reality. Live in such a way that points to and reveals Jesus, because the revelation of Jesus is the end of all things.

Church - Ocean

Heaven and New Creation

So on Wednesday of this week I was asked by our High School pastor if I have ever preached on heaven. I thought about it for less then 1/10th of a second and said “No I have not. Why?” He let me know that they were wrapping up a series on Revelation and they unexpectedly needed someone to close up the series by speaking on Heaven. I told him I would think about doing it. After engaging in some prayer and worship I felt led to tackle the challenge. I have never preached on Heaven but there is a first for everything… right?

One of the things that I am very big on is “New Creation.” That sounds vague and ethereal, but the concept begins with the idea that the world, starting with us humans, is not as it ought to be. You don’t have to look far to know this is true. In fact if you look at yourself you know this is true. You probably have believed that you “should” do one thing but actually end up not doing it. And chances are the majority of your life is like this. So the world isn’t as it ought to be, and everybody knows it. But we all hope that one day it will be as it ought to be. We all hope that one day all the wrongs in this world will be set to right. That’s where “Heaven” enters the discussion. Many of us have placed our hope in heaven. In Heaven we will escape all the bad things in this world. At least that’s the hope. But that isn’t the way the Bible talks about heaven…. in fact the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven much. There are a few references to Heaven here and there (Paul might be talking about Heaven when he talks about departing and being with the Lord in Philippians). But what the Bible does talk about a lot is new creation. New Creation is creation as it ought to be. Its the world in its perfect state. The OT is full of New Creation references (think of all the prophecies people refer to as millennial Kingdom prophecies, these are probably new creation prophecies). The NT, especially Paul’s writings, heavily focuses on New Creation. Paul is pretty insistent on the fact that the resurrection of Christ is the first act of new creation, followed by the conversion of believers. So according to Paul each Christian is a little piece of the new creation. As a Christian you are a foretaste of what is to come! You are a coming attraction…. you are a preview! You get to model it for the world to see. But more than that you are also an agent of New Creation. Jesus calls us to come alongside him as he works to make his kingdom come. When you are doing Kingdom work you are doing new creation work. Because all work that is done for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom will last. It will last for eternity. It will reverberate into new creation.

So here is the challenge: today live out the truth. Live out the fact that you are a preview of New Creation. Live in light of the fact that New Creation is coming and that you are a part of it.