Tag Archives: hell

Redux #3: Would God send Gandhi to hell? — redux

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” entries. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #3. In June of 2013 I updated a piece that had been surprisingly well-read for a long time. It was well-read again. Gandhi and hell — a perennial dilemma.

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A couple of years ago about this time, I wrote a blog post that has been one of the most-visited I have ever written. I thought I would dust it off a bit and offer it to you again, from Zurich.

Not long ago I had some surprising theological discussions at a wedding. (Pastors can be like religious flypaper). Two strangers were surprisingly interested in the afterlife! It did not seem like the usual wedding chit chat, at all. But it was stimulating!

One man was wondering about Rob Bell, who had just written his book questioning typical interpretations of what happens when we die. In the promo video (everything Bell thinks seems to be accompanied by a video) he asks the question, “Would God send Gandhi into eternal fire?”

Just a few minutes later another guest, Who had not been a part of the previous conversation, said he was impressed with Christianity above all the other world religions. He especially admired the call to love one’s enemies (I felt complimented by making it to the top of the world-religion heap). But he just couldn’t get over the idea that Gandhi might be in hell!

gandhi
Uttaranchal statue of Gandhi

Is the fear that Gandhi might be in hell the reason no one is becoming a Christian these days? Did I miss something? Why do I have only have a slight impression of Rob Bell when random wedding guests are asking pressing theological questions on a subject about which he has already made a video?

I have a lot to learn. One thing I learned, again, at the wedding is this: most people have a rather large commitment to defending themselves from any judgment. They are not putting up with a God who would send Gandhi (or them) to hell just because of Jesus. This is what the logic sounds like to me: Gandhi’s steps toward nonviolent political action — brilliantly adapted and applied by Martin Luther King, made him a secular/Hindu saint. His sainthood has been, predictably, deconstructed in a recent biography, but that doesn’t bother people that much. Everybody knows he was good and good people should not go to hell. This logic is important to people, because when they are defending Gandhi from any judgment that might send him to hell, they are also exercising the first line of defense against any sense that they, personally, might be sinful and liable to judgment. I am always amazed that people keep making this argument, especially after years of hearing how bad everyone feels about themselves! But so often another person will rise to the occasion and claim that we can be good enough to go to heaven – and if God judges us worthy of hell, that’s not a good God.

I think the question needs to be questioned a bit. Would God send Gandhi to hell?

Continue reading Redux #3: Would God send Gandhi to hell? — redux

Suddenly we were talking about hell again

Suddenly we were talking about hell. Last night after the PM, it came up again, like it often does, because that is what everybody seems to have been taught about Christianity: it is heaven or hell. People don’t really believe in heaven or hell. But they would love to be Christians.

My friend brought up Rob Bell. He’s reading Love Wins and he thinks that his guilty pleasure in the book might put him outside the faith. No it won’t. This is what Rob Bell says in Relevant magazine:

“I believe…people choose hell now. I assume people, when you die, you can choose hell. So there is no denial of hell here. There is a very real awareness that this is a clear and present reality that extends on into the future. But the real question is essentially if millions and millions of people who have never heard of Jesus are going to be tormented forever by God because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they’d never heard of, then at that point we will have far larger problems than a book by a pastor from Grand Rapids.”

I haven’t really kept up with arguments about Rob Bell. Who is it that quibbles with him about what he is thinking? It sounds like he is just like my friend, getting his head out and realizing that people have been speculating about the afterlife for a long time. These days, people are recognizing that the Renaissance/modern views that have dominated theology for 500 years may not be all they’re cracked up to be – like those views probably aren’t nearly as serious about the Bible as they claim to be.

Before I got to the PM it was hell on NPR, of all places! On Snap Judgment a twentysomething woman was telling her lack-of-faith story. It was not as if she had closed the book, she just had other things to do. I am much more interested in what this woman says about heaven and hell than what Rob Bell wrote. I’d love to introduce her to the Jesus she’s never met.

Continue reading Suddenly we were talking about hell again

Would God send Gandhi to hell? — redux

A couple of years ago about this time, I wrote a blog post that has been one of the most-visited I have ever written. I thought I would dust it off a bit and offer it to you again, from Zurich.

**********

Not long ago I had some surprising theological discussions at a wedding. (Pastors can be like religious flypaper). Two strangers were surprisingly interested in the afterlife! It did not seem like the usual wedding chit chat, at all. But it was stimulating!

One man was wondering about Rob Bell, who had just written his book questioning typical interpretations of what happens when we die. In the promo video (everything Bell thinks seems to be accompanied by a video) he asks the question, “Would God send Gandhi into eternal fire?”

Just a few minutes later another guest, Who had not been a part of the previous conversation, said he was impressed with Christianity above all the other world religions. He especially admired the call to love one’s enemies (I felt complimented by making it to the top of the world-religion heap). But he just couldn’t get over the idea that Gandhi might be in hell!

gandhi
Uttaranchal statue of Gandhi

Is the fear that Gandhi might be in hell the reason no one is becoming a Christian these days? Did I miss something? Why do I have only have a slight impression of Rob Bell when random wedding guests are asking pressing theological questions on a subject about which he has already made a video?

I have a lot to learn. One thing I learned, again, at the wedding is this: most people have a rather large commitment to defending themselves from any judgment. They are not putting up with a God who would send Gandhi, or them, to hell just because of Jesus. This is what the logic sounds like to me: Gandhi’s steps toward nonviolent political action — brilliantly adapted and applied by Martin Luther King, made him a secular/Hindu saint. His sainthood has been, predictably, deconstructed in a recent biography, but that doesn’t bother people that much. Everybody knows he was good and good people should not go to hell. This logic is important to people, because when they are defending Gandhi from any judgment that might send him to hell, they are also exercising the first line of defense against any sense that they, personally, might be sinful and liable to judgment. I am always amazed that people keep making this argument, especially after years of hearing how bad everyone feels about themselves! But so often another person will rise to the occasion and claim that we can be good enough to go to heaven – and if God judges us worthy of hell, that’s not a good God.

I think the question needs to be questioned a bit. Would God send Gandhi to hell?

Why do you care?

I think people care about whether Gandhi is in hell because they still think that good people are rewarded for their goodness with a blissful state of repose in heaven, which is “up there” somewhere (and maybe we get to fly like angels, which would be cool). And they take comfort that bad people, like Hitler (it is always Hitler) will burn in hell, as bad people deserve. They think, “While I am not as good as Gandhi, I am sure not as bad a Hitler, and I am about as good as most people I meet, so is God going to send us all to burn forever with Hitler?” I have heard this piece of logic repeatedly, and I heard a version of it as a reason not to have faith at the wedding.

Let me repeat after Jesus, “If you save your life, you will lose it.”  The consequences of thinking you can save your own life are huge. Holding on to the hope that your goodness is enough to save you is going to result in loss — at least the loss of what might be more than one’s earthly life. That’s what Jesus says, but people still think they just need to tip the scales of justice in their favor to get into heaven. So my question about the question is: If you think you are good enough, why do you worry about heaven and hell? If you are good enough, be content with the good enough you are. If you can’t be content with that, then trust God to be good for you, good to you and good in you as Jesus.

Why would Gandhi want to live with God forever?

Gandhi’s was good at being good and saving lives. His whole philosophy was about people from oppression through direct, nonviolent political action. It was so much better than direct, violent political action (which immediately followed the success of his nonviolent action, big time) that he became a saint, or at least he became the image he worked hard to portray.  In an era in which God has been banished from the public sphere, and in which there is hardly a sense of “public” at all, anyway, the endless competition of politics is all there is left. Gandhi succeeded in “saving” people without God through brilliant, moral politics. Why would he care about being in heaven with some Western, imperialistic “god?”

What’s more, Gandhi believed in reincarnation and believed he was already, at least metaphorically, living forever, in some form. He was well acquainted with the Lord’s claims and publicly rejected them: “I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there  may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus” (Harijan: 1937).

Although Gandhi did not accept Jesus according to His own introduction of himself, I believe that God will accept Gandhi according to his own sense of himself. God respects us, even if we do not respect him. If we choose to die under our own terms, I think those terms are respected for what they are: death. Though we will undoubtedly realize this choice on the way to our permanent death in some way I do not understand fully (of course!), I don’t think it includes being eternally tormented in fire. The death is permanent; that is punishment enough. So my question about the question is: If one does not care to be with God, so what? Why be concerned about Gandhi`s or one`s own afterlife?

Are you sure about your image of hell?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the previously mentioned fire, in the “pit of hell.”

I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take the dense arguing).

“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).

Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.

I am amazed that at one moment I could be singing a spontaneous duet to the bride and groom (oh yes, I did that) and then be talking about Gandhi and eternal torment the next moment. It was a my kind of evening. It also reminded me that eternity is never far away from our minds. We were meant to live with God in love and peace forever. May we not resist what we most desire out of some persistent perversity.

Would God Send Gandhi to Hell?

At the wedding last night I ran into people asking interesting questions about the afterlife! One man was wondering about Rob Bell, who recently wrote a book that questions typical interpretations of what happens when we die. In the promo video (apparently everything Bell thinks is accompanied by a video) he asks the question, “Would God send Gandhi into eternal fire?”

Just a few minutes later another guest at the reception said he was impressed with Christianity above all the other world religions – especially the call to love one’s enemies. But he just couldn’t get over the idea that Gandhi might be in hell!

Is the fear that Gandhi might be in hell the reason no one is becoming a Christian these days? I am so out of it, I had only a slight impression of Rob Bell, and I did not expect a random wedding guest to ask the pressing question Bell had already made a video about!

My chance encounter at the wedding reminded me that most people really have an investment in defending themselves from any judgment. Gandhi’s steps toward nonviolent political action, more brilliantly adapted and applied by Martin Luther King, make him a secular/Hindu saint. His sainthood was predictably deconstructed lately in a new biography, but that doesn’t bother people that much. Because when they are defending
Gandhi from any judgment that might send him to hell, they are really just exercising the first line of defense against any sense that they, personally, might be sinful and liable to judgment. I always think it is amazing, as bad as we all feel about ourselves, that we can still rise to the occasion to claim that we are good enough to go to heaven – we’re sure that if God judges us worthy of hell, he is not a good God.

Let me question the question a bit. Would God send Gandhi to hell?

Why do you care?

I think people care about whether Gandhi is in hell because they still think that good people are rewarded for their goodness with a blissful state of repose in heaven, which is “up there” somewhere (and maybe we get to fly like angels, which would be cool). And they take comfort that bad people, like Hitler (it is always Hitler) will burn in hell, as they deserve. They think, “While I am not as good as Gandhi, I am sure not as bad a Hitler, and I am about as good as most people I meet, so is God going to send us all to burn forever with Hitler?” I have heard this piece of logic repeatedly, and I heard a version of it as a reason not to have faith last night.

Let me repeat after Jesus, “If you save your life, you will lose it.”  Whatever the consequences of thinking you can save your own life might be, holding on to the hope that one is good enough is going to result in loss, at least the loss of what might be more than one’s earthly life. If you think you are good enough, why do you care about heaven and hell? Be content with the good enough you are. If you can’t be content with that, then trust God to be good to you in Jesus.

Why would Gandhi want to live with God forever?

To be honest, Gandhi’s whole philosophy was about saving lives through direct, nonviolent political action. It was so much better than direct, violent political action (which immediately followed the success of his nonviolent action, big time) that he became a saint, or at least he became the image he worked hard to portray.  In an era in which God has been banished from the public sphere, and in which there is hardly a sense of “public” at all, anyway, the endless competition of politics is all there is left. Gandhi succeeded in “saving” people without God, why would he care about being in heaven with some Western, imperialistic “god?”

What’s more, Gandhi believed in reincarnation and believed he was already, at least metaphorically, living forever, in some form. He was well acquainted with the Lord’s claims and publicly rejected them: “I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there  may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus.” (Harijan: 1937)

Although Gandhi did not accept Jesus according to his own introduction of himself, I believe that God will accept Gandhi according to his own sense of himself. God respects us, though we do not respect him. If we choose to die under our own terms, I think those terms are respected for what they are: death. Though we will undoubtedly realize this choice on the way to our permanent death in some way I do not understand fully (of course!), I don’t think it includes being eternally tormented in fire. The death is permanent; that is punishment enough. But if one does not care to be with God, so what?

Are you sure about your image of hell?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever
in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”

I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! People do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies
to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this problem (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).

“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (ps. 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s
terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.” (p. 298)

Those who do receive are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not reserved, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.

I am amazed that at one moment I could be singing a spontaneous duet to the bride and groom (oh yes, I did that) and then be talking about Gandhi and eternal torment the next moment. It was a fun evening. It also reminded me that eternity is never far away from our minds. We were meant to live with God in love and peace forever. May we not resist what we most desire out of some persistent perversity.

What about hell?: Volf and the Lamb on the Throne

During “Rabbi Time” last Monday, some people wanted to ask one of the unbeliever’s favorite questions. It often goes like this:

“What about hell? Do you think my grandma is going to hell even though she was a good person?”

We started talking about hell. I think some other people were afraid that they had wandered into a church like the one that had abused them! Were we now going to start having coercive diatribes about fire and brimstone all the time?

The dialogue made me realize that “hell” is probably a much more relevant topic than I imagine. The idea of hell messes with a lot of people’s idea of God. I think a lot of people  want a “loving” God made in their own image, who loves them as they are because he basically is them — no repercussions for my sin = love. (Of course, I don’t know what everyone wants any more than they do, but that mentality seems prevalent).

Miroslav Volf on judgment

exclusion and embraceBecause of the discomfort I felt in the meeting, I feel like offering some wisdom from my recent most-favorite book, Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf.  In that book he thinks about the apparent dichotomy between the God who loves us enough to die for us and the God who will judge us on the last day. I can’t do justice to his argument in this small space, but I thought I’d give you a good taste.

He is thinking about Revelation 19:11-16, among other parts of that mysterious book.

 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:  KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

 Now for a long quote from Volf (my emphases in bold):

 The Anabaptist tradition, consistently the most pacifist tradition in the history of the Christian church, has traditionally had no hesitation about speaking of God’s wrath and judgment, and with good reasons. There is no trace of this nonindignant God in the biblical texts, be it Old Testament or New Testament, be it Jesus of Nazareth or John of Patmos. The evildoers who “eat up my people as they eat bread,” says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put “in great terror” (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better. why not reasoning together? Why not just display “suffering love?” Because the evildoers “are corrupt” and “they do abominable deeds” v.1); they have “gone astray,” they are “perverse” (v. 3). God will judge not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.

 If we accept the stubborn irredeemability of some people, do we not end up with an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of Christian faith? Here the “crucified Messiah” with arms outstretched embracing the “vilest sinner,” there the Rider on the white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth to strike down the hopelessly wicked? The patient love of God over against the fury of God’s wrath? Why this polarity? Not because the God of the cross is different from the God of the second coming. After all, the cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception. The polarity is there because some human beings refuse to be “set aright.” Those who take divine suffering (the cross) as a display of divine weakness that condones the violator – draw upon themselves divine anger (the sword) that makes an end to their violence. The violence of the Rider on the white horse, I suggest, the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. For the sake of the peace of God’s good creation, we can and must affirm this divine anger and this divine violence, while at the same time holding on to the hope that in the end, even the flag bearer will desert the army that desires to make war against the Lamb.

 Should not a loving God be patient and keep luring the perpetrator into goodness? That is exactly what God does: God suffers the evildoers through history as God has suffered them on the cross. But how patient should God be? The day of reckoning must come, not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury. “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” cry out the souls under the altar to the Sovereign Lord (Rev. 6:10). We are uncomfortable with the response which calls on the souls “to rest a little longer until the number should be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed!” (v.11) But the response underlines that God’s patience is costly, not simply for God, but for the innocent. Wanting for the evildoers to reform means letting suffering continue….

 Does not the Apocalypse paint a different picture of the end, the one more congruent with its violent imagery of the Rider’s conquest? Is not the last vision dominated by “the throne” (Rev. 22:1) from which earlier “flashes of lightning” and “peals of thunder” were coming (4:5)? Is not the nameless “one seated on the throne” (4:9, 5:1) a perfect projection of the ultimate and incontestable warrior-potentate? If this were so, the Apocalypse would simply mirror the violence of the imperial Rome it had set out to subvert. The most surprising thing about this book is that at the center of the throne, we find the sacrificed Lamb (cf. 5:6, 7:17, 22:1). At the very heart of “the One who sits on the throne” is the cross. The world to come is ruled by the one who on the cross took violence upon himself in order to conquer the enmity and embrace the enemy. The Lamb’s rule is legitimized not by the “sword” but by the “wounds”; the goal of its rule is not to subject but to make people “reign for ever and ever” (22:5). With the Lamb at the center of the throne, the distance between the “throne” and the “subjects” has collapsed in the embrace of the triune God.

I think you can probably think of a hundred practical ways to apply clear, Christian thinking like that. Let me suggest one. Within the church (particularly Circle of Hope, where we encourage such things) there are people who are resistant to truth, love, morality and service. Our patience with them leads to repentance. We must keep the Lamb on our throne. Our persistent embrace is the flash of lightning upon which we rely. The lure of our relational truth-being and truth-telling is crucial to any change the God-opponents might experience. We might long for “apocalypse now” when it comes to the persistent unbelievers and sin-dealers, but we are constrained to leave that to God’s timing. Let’s meet the end in God’s embrace, embracing.

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