Rob Bell and Hell in My Life

The controversy of the week in the Christian blogosphere regards Rob Bell and his apparent leap into universalism – (not surprising to me given the Wheaton and Fuller pedigree). I had never heard of Bell until last week, maybe because I don’t much care about celebrity preachers in general. What has been interesting to me is watching the reaction of people that I follow to Bell’s position, from the “left” and “right” theologically. But this post isn’t really about Bell or the reaction to him as much as it is about my own experience with the doctrine (and reality) of hell.

I had a period of apostasy that lasted for about eight years. During the last year of that time I was consistently worried about the possibility of death and an endless eternity in hell. This fear was part of what God used to bring me back to Him. For some folks, the gracious message of love and forgiveness, new life and cleansing, is what draws them back to the faith or to Christ for the first time. For me, the fear of hell was very real and very terrifying. It spurred me on more than the idea that I could be forgiven, which I always took as a given.

Removing the concept of hell from our lexicon is removing an effective means of spurring people to salvation. It is also a gigantic and terrifying lie. If hell is a reality – and if we take the Scripture seriously it most certainly is – then we may be condemning people to that very place if we backhandedly assure them that they need not worry overmuch about the possibility of spending eternity there, because in the end everyone is saved and “love wins.” That is something I would not want to stand before God and explain on the Last Day.

The Petrine Office

This is me thinking out loud. The prominence of Peter in the New Testament is striking, but it does not mean what the modern RCC says it means. So what does it mean? I’m not sure. The famous passage from Matthew 16 says:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It looks to me like Jesus is addressing Peter, not everyone. Peter features prominently in the Gospels and the early part of Acts. He is given a lot of attention. His post-Resurrection restoration by Jesus is portrayed at length. Why? Why the focus on him?
Peter was flawed, he was not infallible, he made mistakes.
He was not in charge of the church in Jerusalem.
Paul says Jesus appeared to him first of all.
A party in Corinth claimed to be of him.
He led the church in the earliest days.
Peter was the rock, the leader of the early Church, but it was leadership in council, a conciliar model. He was not even first among equals, but one of perhaps a triad of leaders.
I believe that he did go to Rome.
The NT cannot possibly lay obedience to the See of Rome on believers as a necessity.
Jesus built the church on Peter in some sense.
The gates of hell did not prevail in some sense.

“Love is a Flattering Mischief”

So says Izaak Walton when discussing the marriage of John Donne:

for love is a flattering mischief, that hath denied aged and wise men a foresight of those evils that too often prove to be the children of that blind father; a passion, that carries us to commit errors with as much ease as whirlwinds move feathers, and begets in us an unwearied industry to the attainment of what we desire.

Our Short Sale

Last week we closed on a short sale here in Virginia. Our house sold for about 158,000 dollars less than we paid for it. It lost that much in 4.5 years. Some lessons learned:

* The sale took about six months to complete. The process restarted at least once and the closing date was extended a few times.

* The banks are government-sized bureaucracies. The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. You aren’t dealing with a person, but a system. One side was pushing along a foreclosure while the other was working with us on the short sale.

* We had to stop making our payment in order to play this game. Although our payment really was killing us, you can’t do anything until you fall behind. The bank only works with those who quit paying. For us, this was no huge loss as we wanted out of the house and had a good situation to get into on the other side. It made eminent sense for us to do this, but it’s not for everybody.

* We maintained our homeowners policy on the property and continued to pay utilities throughout the six months. The house was well-maintained and I think that helped us, although I’m not sure.

It is good to be free as Mr. Gallagher said!

A Theology of Space Travel 1.6

Anglican, Arian and later Baptist scholar William Whiston authored A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original to the Consummation of All Things. In it, he argues that it seems absurd that our vast universe is made only for the use of man, as on page 71:

But then as to the consequence, that therefore the Creation is no farther to be extended, or at least not so far as here it must otherwise be, to the Sun and Planets; nay, with the most to the inumberable Systems of the fix’d Stars; ‘tis to me so natural an necessary, that methinks ‘tis perfectly needless to go about the Proof of it. That so vast and noble a System, consisting of so many, so remote, so different, and so glorious Bodies, should be made only for the Use of Man, is so wild a Fancy, that it deserves any other Treatment sooner than a serious Confutation; and one may better think silently with one’s self, than with due deference and decency speak, what naturally arises in one’s Mind on this occasion.

If ‘tis an Instance of, or consistent with, the Divine Wisdom, to make thousands of glorious Bodies for the sole Use of a few fallen or rebellious Creatures, which were to live for a little while upon one of the most inconsiderable of them! To create an innumerable Multitude of Suns and Planets, and place them at prodigious Distances from us and from one another (the greatest part of which were never seen till the late Invention of the Telescope; and of such as are visible, the Sun excepted, the single Moon, as despicable a Body as it is, in comparison to the most of the others, is much more beneficial to us than they all put together) for the mere Convenience of one little Earth! If ‘tis wise and rational to make the Sun more than 220,000 times as big as that Globe it was to serve, only that it might be plac’d above 80 Millions of Miles of Miles off (for in a nearer Position it would have scorch’d and burnt, instead of warm’d and invigorated the Earth) when a small fiery Ball plac’d near us would have done as well! To make a vast Number of Planets (every way as capable of Creatures of their own) only for the Sake of us on Earth…

He also believed that the universe contained other beings who might have a different nature than our own on pages 93-94:

I cannot imagine that God is peculiarly fond of any particular Parts of the material Creation, or any more a Respecter of some Inanimate Bodies, than of Persons. He no doubt equally makes use of them all, according to their several Kinds and Capacities, in the Service of the various Species of intelligent Creatures, and in the bringing about the great Periods of Nature, and the Decrees of Heaven; which as they are in great measure unknown to us, so may they regard rational Beings very different and remote from us and our Concerns.

If we duly reflect on the infinite Nature, and unlimited Perfections, of the Divine Being, the Creator and Original of all Things; as well as on the Number, Vastness, and Glory of those his Works which are within our View, we shall see Reason to confess, there may be Millions of nobler intellectual Beings interposed between Man and God; and the whole World might be more reasonably suppos’d made at the Creation, and for the sole use of any one Species of those, than of Mankind. If therefore we be unwilling to be our selves excluded from a Share in the Intentions and Designs of Heaven, let us not exclude any other rational Creatures from the same; but be willing to suppose that as this Earth was form’d in six Days for the Sake of Man, so were the rest of the heavenly Bodies, form’d at other proper times for the Sake of other of God’s Creatures; for whom Providence ought to be allow’d to have taken a pro-portionable Care, and made a suitable Provision, as we our selves find has been done with regard to us and our Affairs.


New Theory of the Earth, From its Original to the Consummation of All Things. By William Whiston, M.A. London: Mr. Boyle’s Head, 1755.

As One Who Laments His Mother

I had one of those experiences in reading the Scripture today where a verse jumps out as if you had never read it before. I was in Psalm 35 and David says:

I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;

I went about as one who laments his mother, bowed down and in mourning.

Since I lost my mother about six months ago, this acknowledgement of the grief involved in mourning a mother struck me. David knew the feeling, as we all will eventually if we outlive our parents.

Posted in meTagged

Queen Elizabeth on the Scriptures

She wrote this in probably 1576 or later in her copy of the Epistles of St Paul:

I walk many times into the pleasant fields of the Holy Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodly green herbs of sentences by pruning, eat them by reading, chew them by musing, and lay them up at length in the high seat of memory by gathering them together, that I, having tasted thy sweetness, I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.5

A comment by that old blogging personage Daniel Silliman on one of the articles in my previous post says:

The early American Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, for example, believed there could well be intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe, and dealt with the jurisdictional question by supposing it possible that God’s dealing with humans and revelation in human history might be, ultimately, for the purpose of benifiting or educating the aliens. He imagines in the Triparadisus that the apocalyptic, world-wide conflagration might teach “moon men” about the sovereignty of God, for example.

This peaked my interest and so I found Mather’s work in question, the Triparadisus. In it, Mather writes about a conflagration of the Earth:

If the Satellit of this Earth walking in her Brightness, have any Reasonable Inhabitants, we know not what Refelections they will have, at the Beholding of what is done to this Globe, when they see GOD hath enkindled a Fire, & it hath devoured the Foundations thereof. Nor know we, how dire, how dismal, how doleful a Spectacle This may be to any other Planetts, if there be in them any Rational Spectators, of what Appearances may now be discovered here. [The Third Paradise VII]

A footnote from the editor says:

The belief in lunar inhabitants was not entirely new in Mather’s time; it had been popularized in Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone. William Whitson even thought it presumptuous for man to conceive of himself as the whole focus of God’s creation and contended that there are millions of nobler intellectual beings out there in the solar system (New Theory, pt. I, pp. 71, 93).

Once again, this shows theologians of an earlier age having no problem with the idea of intelligent life existing outside of humanity on Earth. In this case, it is one of the uber-Puritans, Cotton Mather showing that these beliefs bridged the Protestant/Catholic divide.
The Threefold Paradise of Cotton Mather, An Edition of “Triparadisus”, edited by Reiner Smolinski, University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 1999.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.4

Scott sent me a good link that ties in to the corpus of information I am assembling on a theology of space travel. The initial article kicking it off is an interview with Douglas Vakoch the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI.

NCR: You have a background in comparative religions. How does this help you in your work?

It helps when I consider the societal impact of detecting and communicating with intelligent life beyond earth. As you look at where the responses were coming from when people started taking this question seriously in the past 50 years, much of it was from Catholics. After Sputnik in 1957 there was a lot of speculation about the possibility of other beings that can go into space. Early discussions about extraterrestrial intelligence included consideration of their moral status. The Catholic response was to create typologies based on the Genesis story. Are there other worlds where there was no original sin? How do salvation and redemption work and what is their scope?

Vakoch references a strand of tradition that is much richer than I thought. Reflection on other life in the Universe stretches back through Church history, although somewhat obscurely. The blog linking to the article says:

Vakoch is a humanist among the technocrats. His job is to figure out how we might communicate with intelligent aliens out there, if and when they might one day show up. I am not sure just why NCR decided to interview him. He did not have much to say about religion, except to raise the question (he did not suggest an answer) whether these aliens have original sin and are therefore in need of redemption. I am sure that this is indeed a question that would preoccupy Christians. Perhaps NCR was fantasizing about yet another dialogue center within the Vatican bureaucracy, after those for dialogue with non-Catholic Christians (the “separated brethren”), Jews, adherents of non-Judeo-Christian traditions, unbelievers—perhaps a Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Extraterrestrial Brethren (very separated ones indeed).

A comment on the blog leads to my next post…