Can We Talk (Hell/Eternal Damnation Edition)?

I mentioned in the previous post in the “Can We Talk” series (Complementarian/Egalitarian Edition)? how I believe in the value of dialogue. I also introduced the concept behind this series:

Over the past couple of years, I have seen the idea of “orthodoxy” applied to issues I’m not sure it should have been. I have seen well-intentioned Christians say that other well-intentioned Christians are not in fact Christians because of their views on things like hell, gender roles and the like. So let’s explore some of these issues together. I’d like to propose a topic in the briefest way possible and let you help fill out the discussion. I’d like us all to listen and learn from one another. Maybe you’ll find your own position strengthened as a result, and maybe you’ll be persuaded to another view. Either way, it is a valuable exercise to to listen to one another.

In other words, we might think of this series as the online, interactive version of those “Four Views” books.

There are lots of important but not ultimate issues in Christianity. Your understanding and practice of God’s intended gender design matter; in family, in “church”, at work. They matter and they are important. But they are not ultimate. You can be Complementarian, Egalitarian, somewhere or nowhere in between and still be a Christian. This is not an issue on the defining edge of orthodoxy. There are issues of orthodoxy which define who is an who is not a Christian. The Deity of Jesus/the Trinity are some primary ones.

But we have a tendency to promote other views to the level of orthodoxy. We hold all kinds of views on which we believe those who disagree simply cannot be Christian. The problem, of course is that the people over on the other sides of those same issues probably view it as orthodoxy as well and they’re just as suspicious of your salvation as you are of theirs. It is vital that we think through our positions consistently in the light of God’s revelation. We should know and understand what we believe. We should know and understand the core of our belief. We must know which lines are borders and which ones are not.

Which brings me to a quick disclaimer, then today’s topic. First, in the context of this series, asking whether or not some topics are defining issues of orthodoxy is not an expression of my opinion on these topics. These are simply heavily-discussed topics upon which people sometimes place rather heavy dogmatic value. For some, to disagree is to disbelieve. It never hurts to take fresh looks at such issues.

The topic of “hell” and/or “eternal damnation” has often been a contentious one. No one likes to consider that they may spend eternity in a lake of fire. No one would wish any such thing on their loved ones. The notion of hell has also often been tied to questions surrounding the extent of the atonement. Believing in Universalism necessarily affects your view of hell. Some have argued that hell is not only literal but eternal. Others argue that, though there is indeed a literal hell, it is not eternal. At some point, God will simply wipe you from existence. Still others have argued that hell was never meant to be taken literally while others argue that God will one day win every one in to His family. Some slip in the snide notion that if you need the threat of eternal damnation to do good, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

As you can see, this topic is deep and wide and we could chase lots of interconnected doctrinal rabbit trails together. Let’s talk it out. Here’s some questions to get us started (feel free to add others and don’t feel it necessary to answer every question in your response):

  • Do you view this as an issue of orthodoxy (must someone believe this to be considered a “Christian”)?
  • Can you believe in a non-literal or a non-eternal hell and still be considered “orthodox”?
  • Do you believe in a literal, eternal hell?
  • Do you believe that Annihilationism is a valid biblical position?
  • Is Annihilationism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • Do you believe that the Bible’s teaching on hell is meant to be understood figuratively?
  • Is Universalism a valid biblical position?
  • Is Universalism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • How does your view of hell relate to your idea of justice? Of grace? Of love?
  • What questions am I missing?
  • What do you think?

 As always, please be respectful. I can’t wait to learn from you.

Why Saying “America First” Is Not Compatible With Christianity

The American experiment is predicated on the notion of the peaceful transfer of power. We just underwent one such transition. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore on a Bible to stand on behalf of others and gave an address. An inaugural address can tell us a lot about what a new president values.

A new president can tell us a lot about what we value (even though he lost the popular vote in a landslide).

Trump’s speech was simply an extension of his campaign rhetoric promising us that we would win and that, from now on, it’s going to be “America First”. We’re going to put up a wall, we’re going to turn away refugees and immigrants, we’re going to tax companies that build things out of the country. In short, we’re not going to be pushed around any more and gosh-dangit, it’s about time we thought of ourselves. As Trump said:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

I wrote the other day about how Christianity is always political. Our faith informs and fuels our politics. Every election season, Christians confound one another trying to convince each other that certain political positions that automatically mean you’re not a Christian. And, of course, if you only took your faith as seriously as I do, we would vote the same.

Part of the difficulty, of course is that, for many, Christianity also means being a patriot. We have adopted this sentimental notion of the “good ol’ boy” who loves his Momma, loves his truck, loves his guns, loves God and his country. To be a Christian in America, for many, means being an American, and being proud to be an American. There is a good section of our country that believes that America is a “Christian” nation and that to be Christian inseparably means supporting America.
But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? For example, Trump’s message is unbiblical at best, anti-Christian at worst. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Despite that the fact that many people claim to have voted for Trump out of sincere Christian convictions, he proved on Inauguration Day that he not only misunderstands Christianity, he stands in direct opposition to many core Christian convictions. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Let’s think about it.

During the campaign, Trump promised his supporters that, under his leadership, America would “win” so much that: “You will be tired of winning. We will win win win.” Every candidate promised to help get their country ahead. But “winning” in Trump’s world seems to be a zero-sum game. In other words, for us to “win”, someone else must lose. Trump has proven that he is not the forgiving type. He has admitted to holding grudges and promotes getting even with others.

The Christian understanding leads us to pursue the “flourishing” (shalom) of all. In other words, we win when others win. This is part of the reason why God tells His exiled people to seek the betterment of their captive cities (Jeremiah 29). Christians win when others flourish. But this is not what Trump means by “We will win win win.” He has already shown that, if Mexico is unwilling to pay for our wall, then we will punish them. Winning for Trump always means beating someone else. This is simply not in line with a biblical approach to dealing with others.

Christianity is, at its core, “other-centric”. It requires that we consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). Paul tells the Romans that if they want to compete, they should out-honor one another (Romans 12:10). Jesus tells us that the path to true greatness is through humbling ourselves and putting others first (Matthew 20:16) and just in case we’re unclear, Jesus clarifies that greatness lies in serving others (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Yet, Trump promised to put “America first” and this is exactly what many of his supporters wanted him to say. Even many of his Christian supporters. But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? Let’s unpack this a bit for a minute, speaking in the context of a presidential inauguration, to Americans, the contextual implication of putting “America first” equals the same thing as saying: “Let’s put ourselves first (even at the cost of excluding others).” “Let’s put ourselves first” is simply the plural of “ME FIRST”.

But Christianity requires us to put others first. Christianity is simply not compatible with the sort of nationalistic patriotism. Christians in America seem to be at a perpetual crossroads. Will we influence the American culture more than we let it influence us? Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion that, despite the best efforts of many Christians, American culture tends to win:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

Christians must separate themselves from a culture which promotes self-service. Christians must regain lives of sacrifice and the practice of service. God is love and far too often, no one would know it by watching us. What will we show a watching world? Will we buy in to a nationalistic patriotism that’s simply flag-wrapped selfishness or will we follow Jesus into servanthood seeking the good of others?