White Horse Inn Blog

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Heaven, Hell & The Theology of Rob Bell

Not having read Rob Bell’s book yet (it’s on the way), I can only respond to what I have seen and heard: his own statements in interviews and the quotes from pre-publication copies carefully and thoughtfully reviewed by Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung. [UPDATE: Mike has received his copy of Love Wins and has written a more in depth review here].

On the merits of the case so far (as much as I’ve heard), I’m inclined to dismiss this latest critique of hell as warmed-over liberalism.  I’m not being mean and sweepingly judgmental here.  Seriously, read Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Albrecht Ritschl’s The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, not to mention other works by Wilhelm Herrmann, Adolf Harnack, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop John Spong, or Brian McLaren, and you have the basic gist.  

That basic scheme goes like this: God’s only attribute is love; his holiness, righteousness, and justice have to be adjusted to this central dogma.  Human beings are not deserving of God’s wrath, but only of his encouragement and empowerment to improve.  Jesus Christ is primarily a moral teacher, who invites us to share in his vision of creating “a kingdom of ethical righteousness” (Ritschl’s phrase, basically from Immanuel Kant). Since there is no divine justice to satisfy or wrath to propitiate, the cross cannot be represented as a vicarious substitution of “the Lamb of God” for sinners.  Since there is no objective condemnation, there can be no objective justification.  Since everyone is a child of God, there can be no adoption.  The church is merely the community of volunteers for the kingdom-building enterprise.  Heaven and hell are as subjective as sin and redemption: it all depends on what you make of your life right now. Yale’s H.Richard Niebuhr captured the essence of liberal religion in this fine description: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”  

However, the initial impulse to pass over Rob Bell’s book is thwarted by the fact that he is a professing evangelical and his views are indicative of a growing trend.  He is not a professor at Harvard Divinity School, but senior pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church.  No doubt, he’s reacting to popular images of heaven and hell that have little connection or analogy to our world as we know it.  Where Jesus and Paul speak of “two ages”: “this age” (under the reign of sin and death) versus “the age to come” (under the reign of righteousness and life), the popular imagination of many Christians for over a millennium has been closer to Plato’s “two worlds”: the upper realm of disembodied souls and the lower realm of embodied and historical existence.  In this view, salvation is ultimately the release of the soul from the prison-house of the body, while in the biblical view salvation is completed when we are raised bodily unto everlasting life.  In that day, the vertical boundaries between heaven and earth disappear, as is evident in the Apocalypse.  There are many issues that conservative evangelicals need to address in order to weed the garden of low-grade paganism, but they are far less serious than the high-grade paganism that drives moderns to fashion a deity who is other than the one we actually encounter in the pages of Scripture. The biggest issue that the latest controversy reveals is not really whether hell exists.  To be sure, we need to challenge the latest examples of Scripture-twisting with respect to the clear teaching of Jesus himself on hell.  However, there are even larger questions that denials of hell such as Bell’s raise.  Who is God?  Who are we?  What is our relationship to God? For what can we hope?  What do words like “sin,” “redemption,” “Jesus Christ,” “kingdom” mean in the biblical drama?  It’s not just a matter of tinkering with a traditional doctrine, but with the very meaning of God’s grace and justice in the cross of Christ.  Everything is at stake in this question, especially given the underlying dogmas that Rob Bell, from what I’ve already seen, allows to control his thinking on this subject.

Listen to a special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn featuring a discussion of the Rob Bell controversy and featuring special guest Kevin DeYoung:

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Biting The Hand That Feeds Us?

Comedic web blog, Cracked.com, posted an interesting piece on the limitations of web for religion.

It’s safe to say that God doesn’t live on the Internet. Where cathedrals, temples, and houses of worship succeed in providing the sensation that God might feasibly hang out there, websites fail miserably. The translation from stone and stained glass to ones and zeros is clumsy at best, partially because so many of the websites are built by volunteer designers and partially because those designers insist on building websites as though no website has ever existed in the history of the Internet. To their credit, most of them seem to grasp importance of holding on to the short attention spans of accidental visitors, but they don’t have a really solid plan for applying that information.

At a time when some evangelical leaders are talking about ditching the local church altogether in favor of on-line spirituality, it’s refreshing.  Ironically, it’s people like Sherry Turkle, a professor at no less than MIT, who warn about how the Internet is changing the way we exist as human beings—even throwing out the term “Gnostic.”  By contrast, in The New Christians, Emergent leader Tony Jones relates how his best friend is an “uber-blogger” he’s never actually met in person.

Some Christians surf the net not only for vitamin supplements but for their meals.  All of this makes sense in an evangelicalism that is already disposed toward treating the physical aspects of reality as merely “external” (like a coat you can put on or take off) in contrast to the inner realm of the Spirit.  But as Christians we believe that the Word became flesh.  We aren’t looking for out-of-body experiences, but for the God who still descends to us, binding us to his Son through such mundane matter as preaching, water, bread and wine. And like these means of grace, the communion of saints is also a tangible, earthly, embodied reality.  They are my brothers and sisters: not ideas, resources, or bloggers. It’s a family dinner, not a drive-thru meal.

But does that mean that there’s no place for the web?  Not at all, as long as we know its limits.  I’m glad there are highways when I want to get downtown, but I don’t take Sunday strolls along it.

Imagine concentric circles.  At the widest, you have the rapid exchange of ideas and information.  Of course, there’s nothing better than the Internet for that one.  I often go to Wikipedia for quick data on a person or date in history, but I’d never allow my students to cite Wikipedia as a source in their research papers.  That’s because a research paper is more than information.  The next ring in on my concentric circles is for informal get-togethers with brothers and sisters in Christ, including conferences.  But the bulls-eye is the Lord’s Day gathering of the covenant family, beneath the pulpit, at the font, and at the table.

All of this reminds me of that stanza in T. S. Eliot’s “The Rock”: “Where is all the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and all the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Information is good.  Resources can set us on a wonderfully new track.  But what we’ll always need most—in spiritual as well as domestic terms—is a good bath, a good meal, and a good word from our Father, in his Son, by his Spirit.  Nothing beats that.

[Correction: the title of Tony Jones' book in this post was corrected at 11:30 a.m. on March 9th]

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The Bandwagon of My Own Uncertainty

Continuing on with the preaching theme this week, here is a great YouTube clip featuring Taylor Mali from Def Poetry Season 2 on our being “the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since, you know, a long time ago!”

Sadly, the “tragically cool and totally hip interogative tone” that he mocks here occupies too many of our pulpits and public speech about God.

(ht Jason Stellman’s Creed, Code, Cult)

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The Sermon and the Academy Award

UPDATE: Another great meditation on the connection between The King’s Speech and the act of preaching from our friend William Willimon over at The Christian Century. What a gift Willimon is!

An interesting reflection from the Lutheran Church of Canada (ht Gene Veith’s Cranach Blog) on how the Academy Award winning motion picture The King’s Speech parallels the Ministry of the Word.

As is often the case, Martin Luther explains it best: “If we hold the Word of God in high regard, then we would be glad to go to church, to listen to the sermon and to pay attention. But if you look more at the pastor than at God; if you do not see God’s person but merely gape to see whether the pastor is learned and skilled, whether the pastor has good diction, then you do not have eyes to see the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…. For a poor speaker may speak the Word of God just as well as he who is endowed with eloquence.” Of course, this recognition does not excuse pastors from their duty to become better preachers, trained in the art of rhetoric and public speaking. But Luther does well to remind us where a congregation’s focus should be in the midst of preaching: on God and not the pastor.

God speaks to us through pastors. “Would to God,” Luther writes, “that we could gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word and that the man addressing us is a scholar and a king.” For it truly is the “King’s speech” a pastor is trying to communicate. And we, clergy and laypeople alike, must listen attentively to hear what He says.

Read more.

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Keller on Hell

In light of the recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s recent book on hell, The Gospel Coalition has posted a nice article from Tim Keller on the importance of hell. The conclusion is outstanding:

The doctrine of hell is crucial-without it we can’t understand our complete dependence on God, the character and danger of even the smallest sins, and the true scope of the costly love of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is possible to stress the doctrine of hell in unwise ways. Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God’s active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.

We must come to grips with the fact that Jesus said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter put together. Before we dismiss this, we have to realize we are saying to Jesus, the pre-eminent teacher of love and grace in history, “I am less barbaric than you, Jesus–I am more compassionate and wiser than you.” Surely that should give us pause! Indeed, upon reflection, it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamations of grace and love are so astounding.

Read the rest here.

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New Video From Ken Jones

Did you miss Ken at the CrossLife Conference with Steve Camp in south Florida? The video of his session, “Who do men say that I am?” is now online!

Video streaming by Ustream

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Not Lost in Translation–Amen!

This year the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation are going through “The Great Commission” and its implications for the church’s mission in the world. The upcoming March / April 2011 issue is titled “For You, Your Children… and All Who are Far Off.” Throughout the past few centuries there have been missionaries going to many remote places in the world bringing the Gospel to every “tribe, tongue, and people.” Quite often these men and women take the time to learn the language of the peoples and do the hard work of translating the Old and/or New Testament into their own language.

Lest we forget, all of our modern translations were at one time handed over to our forefathers in the faith and I am sure there was much praise and rejoicing. With the passing of time and the availability of the Bible to Western Christians we take for granted the blessing it is to have God’s Word in our own language.

As a reminder of this blessing take a look at this video that documents the delivery of the New Testament to the Kimyal people of Indonesia. To God be the glory for the good things he has done!

“’I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.’ Let them give glory to the LORD and proclaim his praise in the islands” (Isaiah 42:7, 12).

The Kimyal People Receive the New Testament from UFM Worldwide on Vimeo.

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A Picture of Mercy?

The New York Times published a post today on their “Lens” blog titled “What Does Mercy Look Like?” For obvious reasons this title piqued my interest enough to follow the link and to “see mercy.” The post is a response to a book by James Whitlow Delano where he asked photographers from around the world to send him photos that, to them, embody the word “mercy.” This project was a result of the author’s experience of his sister’s death and the hospice care she received, which was in his words “merciful.”

Mercy or being merciful is not a foreign concept in the secular world. Non-Christians can be merciful simply due to the fact that they are created in the image of God. Despite the fact that mankind fell into sin and depravity with the fall of Adam (Gen 3) that does not mean that unbelieving men and women do not carry with them some vestiges of the imago Dei, such as being merciful that can manifest itself in everyday “secular” life. Therefore, a book and photographs such as this can be a great opportunity to see that merciful desire (fallen, depraved and sinful as it may be) play itself out in ordinary human life.

The blog highlights 15 photographs included in the book, and to be honest many of them are puzzling as to why that particular photographer would choose that photo to image mercy. As Delano commented, “Everyone’s interpretation is absolutely different. I didn’t challenge. I didn’t ask. If you say that’s mercy, that’s all I need to know.” Delano continues, “Sometimes it’s hard to see the mercy being shown.” As nebulous as a definition seemed to be for these photographers and as elusive for Delano to see, Christians have a very firm definition when it comes to God’s mercy and his grace. The amazing thing too is that we have been given “pictures” of God’s grace and mercy towards his children in the cross and the empty tomb of the Son of God, Jesus Christ revealed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture. Moreover, Christ instituted two sacraments that are visible signs and seals for us to see the promise of the Gospel. As Christians this is the true portrait of God’s love, grace, and mercy that always need to be at the forefront of our minds.

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Tullian on Accountability Groups

Tullian Tchividjian, the pastor of Coral Ridge PCA and a good friend to White Horse Inn posted a great piece about accountability groups yesterday on his blog. Here’s the teaser, but be sure to click through and read the entire thing!

Reminders Are More Effective Than Rebukes

Are you tired of being told that if you’re really serious about God, you must be in an “accountability group?” You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where you and a small group of “friends” arrange for a time each week to get together and pick each other apart–uncovering layer after layer after layer of sin? The ones where all parties involved believe that the guiltier we feel the more holy we are? The ones where you confess your sin to your friends but it’s never enough? No matter what you unveil, they’re always looking for you to uncover something deeper, darker, and more embarrassing than what you’ve fessed up to. It’s usually done with such persistent invasion that you get the feeling they’re desperately looking for something in you that will make them feel better about themselves.

Well, I hate those groups!

[Read more]

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Prayer Request for Egypt

For the purpose of security the names and positions of the Egyptian Christian leaders have been removed.

Earlier this morning, I was privileged to participate in a conference call facilitated by the Lausanne Committee with evangelical leaders in Egypt. The recorded call will be made available shortly at the Lausanne website.

We heard especially from [Leader One] who related the exhiliration of Egyptians in the wake of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak and his 30-year “emergency rule.” The peaceful revolution that evolved in Tahrir Square was “something we never dreamed about,” said [Leader One]. “Egyptians cannot themselves believe that we now have a new country: a free country with free elections.” He said that for the last 30 years “it has been very tough.” Christians were not allowed to build or repair churches without permission and were watched closely in their regular ministry.

Seething beneath the public reports of peaceful protest were three weeks of violence, as daily police security was virtually non-existent, according to [Leader One]. There are about 1200 evangelical Protestant churches (over a million members) and early on in the Tahrir Square revolution, according to [Leader One], he and other evangelical leaders submitted an appeal in support of religious freedom (not for or against the regime).

He said he is leading a meeting tomorrow with 50 evangelical leaders to consider the best way forward. He asks for prayer for those in military government to make good on the promise of democratic reforms, including a more inclusive government. At this meeting a committee will be formed, including Christian lawyers and judges, to offer suggestions for revising the Egyptian constitution. Of special concern is Article 2, which identifies Egypt as Islamic: a key source for laws that have restricted religious freedom. [Leader One] hopes that the article will be either eliminated or changed to include other religions.

[Leader One] observed that on February 1, Coptic and Catholic leaders weres still publicly supporting the Mubarak regime. On February 9, [Leader One] invited Protestant leaders and issues statement supporting the Revolution: asking for religious freedom and human rights for all. “Not as evangelicals,” he added, “but as Egyptians: we want to help with the new country.” He encouraged Christians to participate in the revolution: “Go to the demonstrations as individuals, but not as religious leaders.” One of the highlights was the spontaneous support of Christians who set up a human shield on Friday to protect the Muslims during prayer, with Muslims then doing the same for Christians at Sunday worship. [Leader One] hopes that this reflects more than momentary solidarity for religious freedom. Muslim supporters of the revolution know that Christians—especially evangelicals—were there with them in the Square.

Of course, the main concern now is the Muslim Brotherhood. [Leader One] related that Christians have been living in fear of a take-over by the group the past 20 years. However, it became clear over the last month that they were one of the forces, not the principal force, in the revolution. Officially suppressesd by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has tried to control parliament through elections. However, there is confusion even within the movement. Some want to take advantage of the revolution and current instability to rise to domination, while others seem willing to participate in a democratic transition. It’s too early to judge, according to [Leader One].

[Leader Two] underscored these cautions. “Outsiders should not be naïve that Egypt is now a free country with respect to religious freedom,” he said. “It will not necessarily become easier to share the gospel with Muslims or for Muslims to follow Christ. So we need to be careful about what freedoms we’re talking about. People will be free to make their objections against the government, for strikes, etc., but we will face a period of unrest as people adjust to freedom. My plea is that people won’t rush in naively to do things that make things more difficult. Pray for Egypt. There has been no decrease in the role of Islam.”

Another Egyptian Christian leader [Leader Two] pointed out that Islamism is still very much at the heart of Egyptian identity. “It’s not like the collapse of the Soviet Union with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he warned, “where the ideology collpased and then the reigme collapsed.” Islamic ideology remains firmly entrenched. “Many of the Muslim young people in the Revolution would not like the Muslim Brotherhood.” However, he noted the Gallup report that 99% of Egyptians said that religion is “very important” to their daily lives and the majority religion “doesn’t distinguish between religion and civil states.”

As for Muslim Brotherhood penetration into the army now in charge of the transition, [Leader Two] has some concern, since the Brotherhood has certainly infiltrated the powerful labor and trade unions. “There is no distinction in Islam between religion and states, so the Muslim thinkers who may want to have a state that is not based on Sharia are going to have a great difficulty and the Muslim Brotherhood will exploit that. So we’re in a very delicate situation.” Christians living in Western democracies shouldn’t naively assume that religious freedom will simply emerge as a consequence of the revolution. Rather, he encourages fellow Christians to pray “for a ‘second miracle’ in Egypt”: namely, a new constitution that enshrines religious liberty.

Given the potential for similar grassroots movements in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and perhaps even Syria, the eyes of the Middle East—as well as the world—will be on Egypt in the coming months and even years.

Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah prophesied “an oracle concerning Egypt”:

Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them….In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering…and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance’ (Is 19:1, 19-21, 23-25).

Amazing, isn’t it! The two nations identified most closely in history with the oppression of Israel—Egypt and Assyria—will be saved from their oppressors by calling on the name of Israel’s King. Throughout the New Testament, of course, calling on the name of Yahweh is identfied with calling on the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:21 and Rom 10:13, citing Joel 2:32). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

This prophecy was not fulfilled before Christ’s birth. Nor was it fulfilled in the remarkable revolution in Tahrir Square. It was fulfilled when the Word became flesh, died, and was raised to the seat of all authority and power. Even now, people from every tribe and tongue are being drawn by the Spirit onto that highway through the gospel and our prayer is that Egyptians in growing throngs will come to the Savior who alone can guarantee liberation from the oppression of death and hell.

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