Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is Hell Real?: The Difference Between Emergent Agnostic Doctrine & Orthodoxy

Below is some rare honesty and clarity from the Emergent Church.  Since its conception, Emergents have prided themselves on ambiguity, doubt, dialogue, and mystery to the point that the best Emergent writers and thinkers seem to be those who wax eloquently but say virtually little.  To the Emergent mind, asking questions is more important than answer them.  Questions create conversation.  Answers quench dialogue.

But consider a recent article published in New Wave Magazine, an online Emergent publication, written by John Shore called Is Hell Real? What Are We, Six?.   As the title suggest, he is no fan of the idea of eternal punishment, or even the question.  The timing of such an article is no doubt tied to the publication of Rob Bell's very controversial best-selling book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived in which he denied eternal punishment and promoted a type of postmortem universal salvation.  After all, love wins and God gets what he wants right?

After arguing that the question, "is hell real" is the wrong question, Shore writes:

So, to state something so obvious I should be embarrassed to type it: No one has any idea — none, zero, zilch, nada, void, total blank — what happens to anyone after they die.

Could be heaven awaiting. Could be hell. Could be a Dairy Queen; could be a dentist’s waiting room; could be a six-room ranch-style igloo; could be interplanetary pinochle tournament.

No. One. Knows. It’s. Not. Knowable.

Seem clear does it not?  The answer is a form of Emergent agnosticism.  We simply do not know?  But what about the Bible?  Doesn't it clearly establish the existence of hell?  Shore says no:

And if at this moment you’re inclined to grab your Bible, stop yourself. It’s not in there. You can pretend the Bible tells you what happens to people after they die, but you wouldn’t be fooling even yourself. Paul enjoins us to give up childish things, and you can’t get more childish than pretending the Bible is a magical window that lets you see beyond life. It isn’t. It doesn’t. You can’t. Trying to use the Bible as proof of what happens after we die is like trying to use a telescope to row a canoe. Wrong instrument. Wrong purpose. Only results in you still haplessly floating about.

The only thing we know for sure about what happens to us after we die is that in this life we don’t, can’t, and won’t have any idea what happens to us after we die.

At least we know where he stands, but Shore offers no support for his argument here.  We are told to stop ourselves from pointing to clear Biblical texts that make the existence of hell a reality, but the author does not even try to explain any of them.  The concept and belief in hell did not appear in the sky, but from a written text.  How does Shore explain the many texts of Scripture that suggests that hell is real?  Is it childish to take them seriously?  Apparently.

But that begs the question then?  If life after death remains an unknown mystery, then why did God create the universe with this mystery?  Why did God not clearly tell us what happens, who gets in or out (whatever that may mean), and whether or not there is a heaven or a hell?  Shore's answer:

If while wandering around the inside of an art museum I come across a door that’s solidly locked shut, what do I do? Well, if I’m emotionally immature, I might wrestle with the door’s handle, or maybe fall to the floor and try to peer beneath it. I might throw a tantrum because I can’t get into that locked room. I might squat beside the door, fold my arms, and determinedly try to imagine everything inside the room. There are all kinds of ways I might waste my time outside that door.

But if mature, I will simply assume that those in charge of the museum know what they’re doing, and for whatever reason don’t want people going in that room. And that would be good enough for me. So I would turn away from the door, forget about the room, and go back out into the museum, where all that wonderful art was waiting to enlighten and inspire me.

I think locking the door between this life and whatever is on its other side is God’s way of telling us to get our butts back in the museum.

In other words, asking about hell, throwing tantrums, and arguing about it is childish.  Refusing to discuss the issue (except to call everyone a child of course) is the mature thing to do.  Let's get back to the museum, he says. And you know what that means:

I think keeping the afterlife a complete mystery is God’s way of telling us to pay maximum attention to the life we have on this side of the door. That the ever-fluid now of our life is where the action is. As clearly as he possibly can, I think he’s telling us to with full and focused consciousness be in our lives. To love our lives. To believe in our lives. To trust that within every single moment of our lives is virtually everything that we could ever want to know.

From the very beginning you knew that this is where the game would end.  To Shore and most Emergents, postmodern Christians, and progressive liberals the question (and our seemingly obsession with it) reveals the real problem with traditional Christianity.  We become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good (anyone else that the Johnny Cash song stuck in your head?).  Focusing on what happens after we die takes our eye off the ball of the here and now.

But this line of thinking is sophomoric and has been used by liberals for centuries.  For though it sounds good on the surface, it is really a false dichotomy.  Seeking to understand, to know, and to anticipate life after death does not make one no earthly good, but the opposite.  This is the point that C. S. Lewis made in Mere Christianity:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues.  This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.  It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.  If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.  -134.

He's right.  One cannot deny that the belief and assurance of heaven/hell has not been a historical crutch for Christianity, but an asset.  Certainly there are those who have abused orthodox eschatology and avoided the needs of the world today, but throwing out the doctrine for a number of bad eggs is not the right answer.  Such a response is childish in that it is a reaction to others, not to the text of Scripture or to the gospel.

But perhaps we should change the equation.  As Lewis suggests, avoiding the question of heaven/hell or even denying it does not make one any more earthly good than affirming their existence.  Why?  Because without the assurance of consequences/rewards in the afterlife, what we do here doesn't really matter.  After all, if it is childish to think of real life after death, what does it matter what we do in real life before death?  If what we do now has no eternal consequences, then why does it matter what we do today?  In other words, we can become so earthly minded that we are of no heavenly good.

The rejection of heaven/hell, or at denying that we can know nothing about them has serious consequences not just on our doctrine and theology, but our actions here and now.  The gospel affirms both.  Life here matters right now.  And life after death matters and thus God has clearly revealed what life after death is like and how we may get there.  It is critical that we are faithful to both.  Yes salvation does affect our eternal state, but salvation isn't just about that. Salvation is liberation from our idols, redemption from our sins, regeneration from or old selves, reconciliation with God and others, and restoration to a life of joy, contentment, peace, and satisfaction in the here and now and the then and there.  The gospel is a both/and.  It is about both life before death and about life after death.  To turn to agnosticism about either life here or life after death does not solve our problems, it only complicates them.

So is hell real?  Yeah.  Even a child knows that.

John Shore - What Francis Chan (And His Ilk) Get So Terribly Wrong About Hell (Part 1)
John Shore (Next Wave Magazine) - Is Hell Real? What Are We, Six? by John Shore  (Part 2)
John Shore - Give ‘Em Hell

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 1 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 2 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 3
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 4  
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 5

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 1
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 2 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 3 

For more on Erickson:
Blogizomai - Where to Begin?: Calvin on the Starting Point of Theology - The Knowledge of God & the Knowledge of Man
Blogizomai - Wherefore Art Thou Theological Giants?
Blogizomai - On Special Revelation: Dreams, Visions, Theophanies, and the Word of God
Blogizomai - Where is the Gospel? Charles Hodge & the Insufficiency of Natural Theology

For more:
Theology - MSNBC Takes on Bell . . . Or At Least Tries Too
Blogizomai - Freud's Wish Fulfillment: Why Atheism Can't Explain Atheism
Theology - Driscoll:  Hell is the Wrath of God in Effect  
Theology - McLaren and McKnight:  Conversations on Being a Heretic 
Theology - Piper on Hellless Preaching
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