Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who've never heard?

The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”

There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.

Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term "believe" as "intellectual assent to orthodox propositions" is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.

Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.

None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”

Eternal destiny, part 3: Eternal what?

An implicit point in many discussions of the state of a human being after death, revolve around the theory that we were created with immortal souls, which live on after corporeal death. The belief is that we will all live forever, either in bliss or torment. I did not find any conclusive evidence of this in the New Testament. In fact, the majority of the passages I found speak of resurrection from the dead, not a continued existence after death. A worldview that states that we are all “fully dead” (for want of a better term) at death, but that God will, at the end of time, raise us all either to eternal life or to judgment, is just as consistent—perhaps more so—with the scriptures I read, as is a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Furthermore, numerous passages in both the Gospel of John and the epistles, seem to set up a contrast between death or destruction on one hand, and eternal life on the other. The classic John 3:16 is a good example of this. The contrast is not between “eternally conscious punishment” and “eternal life,” but rather between “perishing” and “eternal life.” “Eternal death” (my phrase, not in the Bible) is also eternal—that is, death from which there is no resurrection or reprieve. The “second death” of Revelation may be just that.

I’m not necessarily advocating annihilationism (although I find it logically compelling). As my notes on individual passages will show, I in fact came across a variety of places in both the gospels and the epistles, some of which might be taken more to indicate an ongoing punishment, and others of which seem more to suggest a finality to the punishment—rather like the contrast between life in prison and the death sentence. Both are final, complete, and irrevocable, and nothing I found in Scripture suggests anything less.

My point is that an equally-honest case can be made, either for eternal conscious punishment, or for annihilation, depending on the Scriptural passages to which one gives more weight, and no clear-cut, conclusive pattern emerges. I may decide the preponderence of evidence points one direction, and another believer may see it pointing the other way, and neither of us is conclusively on solid Scriptural ground. I cannot agree to a doctrine which attempts to clarify a point that I believe the writers of Scripture—under divine inspiration—left vague.

Eternal destiny, part 2: Begging the Question

The clearest finding I come to from this study was something I had already suspected, but I was still surprised by the preponderance of evidence that came through. This is that the concept of hell and condemnation is used in the New Testament primarily as a warning to those who claim to believe, or who claim God’s privilege. It is not used as a warning or threat to the unbeliever. Time and again, both Jesus and the writers of the epistles speak of hell in the context of calling out the oppressors, the self-righteous religious leaders (particularly as those leaders are misleading those who might otherwise follow God), and those who try to justify themselves while ignoring the core of Jesus’ teaching. Even the term “unbeliever” in context refers far more frequently to those who have consciously rejected Jesus, than to people who just don’t know or haven’t received the Gospel.

A corollary to this point is that hell is also not used by any Biblical writer as a reason for us to evangelize. In the Great Commission, and in other places where Jesus commands us to spread his word, the reason is Jesus’ authority itself (“all power is given to me, therefore go…”), not the eventual state of the unbeliever. Jesus’ message to the unbeliever was an affirmative one—come, believe, repent, follow—not a negative one of fleeing punishment. Scripture is clear that God wants people to be saved, and we may infer that their eternal state is part of the reason, but Scripture itself does not link the two. That link, while reasonable, is a creation of human logic, not a Biblical one.

I freely acknowledge that there are many dedicated believers who first came to Christ out of a fear of condemnation. This is yet more evidence that God, in his grace, uses our flawed efforts to his glory. However, to argue as some have, that we need to use the “fear factor” to reach people who might not respond to a more affirmative presentation of the gospel, is to forget what we so readily claim at other times—that it is the Spirit of Christ who draws people to him, not the effectiveness of our words. If we believe in the Spirit’s moving in our evangelistic efforts, we do not need to go beyond what is written to be effective messengers of the gospel.

So my first and most important conclusion is this: a doctrine of hell/punishment is not necessary to obedience, and it is not central to the message of the New Testament. I submit it does not rise to the level of doctrine at all.

Eternal destiny, part 1

I've already posted about my aversion to statements of faith in general, and to specific points in the commonly-accepted evangelical doctrinal statements. In the next several posts I want to take on one specific point in Evangelical doctrine that I believe is seriously misguided--the subject of eternal condemnation/hell. As the reader will soon see, I don't come out entirely in the camp of any of the major positions I have seen, in that I maintain the whole question of one's eternal destiny (particularly as a future-only proposition) is, in fact, asking the wrong question. But so much Evangelical thought is focused either on salvation as a means of hell-avoidance, sin as a thing that dooms us to hell (without salvation), and the fate of the "lost" (i.e., going to hell) as the reason for evangelism, that I don't think the point can safely be ignored.

The doctrinal statement goes something like this (this version taken from the new SOF of the Evangelical Free Church of America):

We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace.

The following posts are taken from a short paper I did on this subject in January, 2007 while I was in the process of pursuing a possible job in an international missions organization. Although the work I would have been doing was in the realm of health and development, the organization (not surprisingly) wanted to be sure my beliefs were in alignment with their doctrines, which as it turned out, they were not (I didn't get the job). Specifically, in the view of a statement that contained the above text, I was asked my position regarding the eventual state, both of the unbeliever who rejects Jesus consciously, and of those who never hear the gospel and therefore die "unsaved."

Not having fully studied the issue before (I have for a long time felt, as I said, that it was the wrong question to be asking), I committed to do a study of the Biblical texts for myself before answering. I did a complete survey of the New Testament, specifically looking for any text that seemed, to me, to be relevant to the subject. I'll post my annotated list of texts when I figure out how to do so, but I'll get the content up first.

As I said, my methodology here was simply a complete survey of the New Testament. In one or two cases I also referred to the Greek roots of a couple words. When I did this I used the Nestle Greek text, and Young’s Analytical Concordance as my principal references. I deliberately did not consult with any theological references or commentaries for this paper. I chose to do this, not because I do not respect others’ study, but because I believe it is important to approach a Scriptural question first and foremost by allowing the Scripture to speak for itself. I operate under the assumption that key Scriptural concepts (and consequently doctrines) must be derivable from Scripture itself. I do not presume to be superior to church fathers or traditions—but on the other hand I feel it is crucial to remember that nothing but Scripture itself carries Scripture’s authority. In the next three posts, I'll lay out what I found.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Biblical Literalism according to Wright

I have been reading N.T. Wright's book "The Last Word -- Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture." This is a good read, shorter than usual for Wright, that discusses a number of issues surrounding Biblical inspiration in what I believe is a very healthy light. My quote of Wright in this post, while it links to an online article, is also in the text of this book.

I wish Wright went a little further than he has done in his analysis of the historical perspective on Scriptural authority. He does offer a great deal in explaining the ways in which the church fathers throughout the last twenty centuries saw that authority in a variety of lights, none of them much like the current perspectives of either "liberal" or "conservative" Christianity. However he appears (and I qualify this by saying I'm only about 2/3 of the way through at this writing) to completely hop over the synonymization of the concepts "authoritative scripture" and the "word of God," which concepts, as I have previously argued, ought not to be conflated. I had hoped that the evolution of this conflation would be part of his history and it is not.

Nevertheless, I came across a couple of very interesting passages today (pp 68-74 for those who have the book) in which he informs us that even the term "literal interpretation," so hot among fundamentalists in the past century and today, meant something very different to the 16th-century reformers, and before them, to medieval theologians. Medieval scholars saw four different "senses" in which to interpret various parts of Scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral (Wright is not advocating this structure, in fact he points out potential error in it). In medieval usage, "literal" meant the original meaning of the words as actually written (same Latin root as our words "literature" and "literary"), as opposed to any other means of interpretation. As Wright points out, the "literal" interpretation of one of Jesus' parables does not mean that we approach the events of that parable as though they actually happened (which is what would mean in modern English if we took the parable "literally"). Rather, we accept that the writer is representing that Jesus told a parable--a story that may or may not be factually true but illustrates the real truth Jesus was trying to convey.

This sense, for the reformers, put them at odds with Catholic theology in that, to the Catholic interpretation, the literal sense of Jesus statement "this is my body" provided the foundation for the dogma of transubstantiation, while the reformers argued that the literal interpretation (remember that Wright says "literal" means "the sense that the first writers intended" rather than our modern definition of the word) recognizes that the text is relating truly a metaphorical statement by Jesus.

Obviously this difference in approach could be applied all over the place--so that a "literal reading" of the Genesis account of creation could be as the poetic narrative of God starting things out good, and humans jealous of God screwing it up, rather than justifying the seven days, the talking snake (apologies to Bill Maher), and other things that create so much heartburn in cosmological circles.

As Wright states, ". . .we need to note carefully that to invoke 'the literal meaning of scripture,' hoping thereby to settle a point by echoing the phraseology of the Reformers, could be valid only if we meant, not 'literal' as opposed to metaphorical, but 'literal' (which might include metaphorical if that, arguably, was the original sense) as opposed to the three other medieval senses (allegorical, anagogical and/or moral). This is one of those many points at which the later appeal to the rhetoric of the Reformation needs to be scrutinized rather carefully. Today, when people say 'literalist,' they often mean 'fundamentalist.' The Reformers' stress on the literal sense by no means supports the kind of position thereby implied."

I'm not suggesting that literalism in any form is necessarily a biblically-derived concept anyhow--although in its medieval sense I think it has a lot more going for it than in the modern sense of the same word. But it is important to understand how terms of art have evolved before going off half-cocked about what some historical authority is saying.