July 31, 2013

Jerry Walls Responds to my Question on Hell (@rachelheldevans)

Jerry Walls is taking a turn in Rachel Held Evan's "Ask a..." series, and he is answering question on hell, free will, and possibility of postmortem repentance. I raised a question about a surprising, if not disturbing, passage in Revelation that portrays the torment of hell as taking place eternally in the very presence of Christ. Here's the passage from Revelation 14:9-11:
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, "Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name" (NRSV, the italics are, of course, mine).
Here's my question:
Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place "in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?
Here's Walls' response:
Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him. So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.
So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.
Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29). But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.
David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  
As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff). The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power. But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.” If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).
I'll begin by saying that Walls raises a couple of interesting points I've not considered before. First, he's right that fire is often an symbol of God's presence, which is fascinating (and troubling!) when applied to the image of "the lake of fire" (Rev 20:14). Might the lake of fire be the very consuming fire that is God himself? Should we be thinking of Hebrews 12:29? Second, I'm not read-up on the Eastern tradition that makes no distinction between the light of God's glory and the fire of hell, though it is initially both compelling and satisfying. It certainly resonates with all the Lewis I've been reading this year.

In the end, I think Walls' suggestion that we need to understand God's presence in two ways is on target. This surprising passage appears to mean that, while a person can be spatially near to Christ, physical proximity is not joyful intimacy. Two people can be in one another's presence and still a rift stand between them. In fact, the physical nearness of those against whom we are opposed may even cause our anger and frustration to burn with heightened fury. Lewis holds this tension in balance in many of his works. For those who love Aslan, his presence is unspeakable joy; for those who hate him, it is a terror. Nearness to Christ is not necessarily love for him. Nearness can inflame antagonism. As Orual, who stood unseeing on the threshold of heaven, blind though she had entered the gates of the home of the gods, full of fiery hatred, for him. 
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NB: You may be interested in Robert Mulholland's assessment of this passage in Revelation, which sets it in a Jewish context and resonates with Walls' reflections. Also, be sure to head over to Rachel's blog and read the rest of the questions and Walls' answers.

July 15, 2013

Flames of Holy Love: Or, Why I'm a Methodist (#AndCanItBe)

This is John Wesley. And this vision of Christianity is why I am, and will remain, a Methodist.
"Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.' It is not only `the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one. `Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise,' they are all comprised in this one word, love. In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: The royal law of heaven and earth is this, `Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.' The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end. One thing shall ye desire for its own sake, -- the fruition of Him who is all in all. One happiness shall ye propose to your souls, even an union with Him that made them, the having `fellowship with the Father and the Son,' the being `joined to the Lord in one spirit.' One design ye are to pursue to the end of time, -- the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity. Desire other things so far as they tend to this; love the creature, as it leads to the Creator. But in every step you take, be this the glorious point that terminates your view. Let every affection, and thought and word, and action, be subordinate to this. Whatever ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun, whatever ye think speak, or do, be it in order to your happiness in God, the sole end, as well as source, of your being."
"Here is the sum of the perfect law, the circumcision of the heart. Let the spirit return to God that gave it, with the whole train of its affections. -- Other sacrifices from us he would not, but the living sacrifice of the heart hath he chosen. Let it be continually offered up to God through Christ, in flames of holy love. And let no creature be suffered to share with him; for he is a jealous God. His throne will he not divide with another; he will reign without a rival. Be no design, no desire admitted there, but what has Him for its ultimate object. This is the way wherein those children of God once walked, who being dead still speak to us: `Desire not to live but to praise his name; let all your thoughts, words, and works tend to his glory.' `Let your soul be filled with so entire a love to Him that you may love nothing but for his sake.' `Have a pure intention of heart, a steadfast regard to his glory in all you actions.' For then, and not till then, is that `mind in us, which was also in Christ Jesus,' when in every motion of our heart, in every word of our tongue, in every work of our hands, we `pursue nothing but in relation to him, and in subordination to his pleasure;' when we too neither think, nor speak, nor act, to fulfil `our own will, but the will of Him that sent us;' when, `whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do,' we do it all `to the glory of God."' 
These sublime words are excerpts from Wesley's sermon, "The Circumcision of the Heart" cited in this form by Wesley himself in his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (6). We often think about sanctification and growth in holiness in negative terms, but Wesley gives us such a magnificently positive vision of the holy life. For Wesley, holiness is not about checking off the commandments; it is nothing more or less than the enjoyment of God. The essence of holiness is enjoying God. Holiness is a heart full of God's love, a heart that aims to do nothing except for God's sake and for his pleasure. When our hearts are so consumed with the beauty and glory of the holiness of God, everything else will be in its proper place. May the God of all grace grant us this: that we may love nothing but for his sake and that our hearts may burn with the flame of his holy love. 

July 12, 2013

Entire Sanctification in the Early Church (#AndCanItBe)

I've often heard that John Wesley's emphasis on Entire Sanctification (or Christian Perfection) was not only the result of his reading of scripture (it was!) but of his reading of the early Church fathers also. I've not had opportunity to research that claim in detail, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was reading Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and discovered a quote that sounded like it was straight of a sermon by John Wesley. Here's what the second century Bishop of Smyrna wrote: "For if one be in this company he has fulfilled all righteousness, for he who has love is far from all sin" (III:3, emphasis added). The company of which he speaks are those who have faith and love for God, Christ, and neighbor, and this folks, says Polycarp, are far from all sin, not most, all.

There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: "Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin" (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that both Polycarp and Wesley are happy to describe the believer's deliverance from sin in terms of "all sin". They both, of course, get this from 1 John 1:7, "the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love. 

Third, lest we think such holy love means anything goes, Polycarp and Wesley would agree that holy love produces a life that honors God. We've already seen that for Polycarp the love that is far from all sin is also love that fulfills all righteousness. Likewise, Wesley insists that, "Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.' It is not only `the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one" (Plain Account, 6). For neither of these men does love mean lawlessness. To the contrary, love means holiness. Those who love God will love God's law and keep his commands. So, holiness is not primarily about what we do; it is about who we love. But if we love God, we will do what pleases him. Holiness does not consist in obedience, but obedience always accompanies holiness.

I'll conclude by saying that while Entire Sanctification is often treated as distinctive to Wesley, it should be plain that this is not the case. The core themes of Wesley's doctrine of sanctification were present in early church, and Wesley saw his emphasis on the doctrine of Christian Perfection as a recovery of that biblical truth taught by the apostles and the fathers. This brief comparison of his views with those of Polycarp expressed in his letter to the Philippians is part, though certainly not all, of the evidence that Wesley was right to see his work as standing in continuity with the ancient Church.
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N.B. Thomas A Noble's recent book, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfection, devotes a chapter to the topic of Christian Perfection as taught by the Greek and Latin fathers (chapter 3).

July 11, 2013

6 Things You Should Know about the Antichrist

I'm leading an adult Bible study on First John this summer, and last night we came to John's first use of the word "antichrist", which is, of course, always interesting. It is  interesting because "antichrist" is a word that carries a lot of baggage, and because someone is always speculating about the identity of "the Antichrist", whether it's Hitler or Henry Kissinger or the Pope. And we can expect a fresh round of such tomfoolery when the new Nicolas Cage vs. the Antichrist movie shows up in a theater near you. Given the exceeding sensationalism associated with last days theories, here are six (yes, six!) facts about the word "antichrist" and the way it is used in the New Testament. 
  1. The English word "antichrist" is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek word antichristos. The prefixed preposition anti- does not necessarily indicate antagonism in Greek. It often carries the idea of substitution. Christos is a Greek word that means Messiah or anointed one. Etymology is not definitive for accurate translation, but it does shed light on the scope of a word's potential range of meaning. 
  2. Contrary to popular belief (and to the surprise of many), the word "antichrist" does not occur in the book of Revelation. 
  3. The word "antichrist" does occur five times in the New Testament, though only in the books of 1 John and 2 John. 
  4. In one of those five occurrences, John uses the plural form "antichrists" (Greek antichristoi). So, whoever is meant by this word, there is more than one of them. John even speaks not of a few but of "many antichrists" (1 John 2:18).
  5. John also speaks of the coming of these "many antichrists" as a past event: "now many antichrists have already come" (1 John 2:18).
  6. While John does not explicitly rule out the possibility of any future antichrists, neither does he predict the appearance of a future arch-antichrist. 

July 10, 2013

Will it go to 11? Calvin's Birthday and What You Should Know

Today is the 504th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, and, like him or not, Calvin is one of those people whose impact on world history would be difficult to overstate. Like many, I object strongly to his notions of unconditional election and meticulous sovereignty. Nevertheless, I've learned a lot from Calvin and the theological tradition that still bears his name. In honor of his birthday, there are a few posts making their way around the web that will give you a little introduction to the life and ministry of the Genevan Reformer. If you are keen to know a little more about why Calvin changed his original plan to remain in Geneva only one night or how many different groups wanted to execute Servetus for heresy, head over to The Gospel Coalition for "9 Things You Should Know about John Calvin" by Joe Carter. For a glimpse at Calvin's views on worship and the Eucharist, head over to Seedbed for "10 Things You Should Know" by Ben Espinoza. Careful readers will, of course, notice the disagreement on how many and which things we should know about Calvin. But Calvinists and Wesleyans have never agreed on matters relating to the affirmation of points, whether it's 9, 10, or even 5. Why should we expect anything different now? The thing I'm wondering about is whether anyone will go Spinal Tap and write us a post that takes it all the way up to 11. 

July 3, 2013

Society of Evangelical Arminians has come to Twitter; Follow: @ArminianSociety

You can now follow the Twitter handle @ArminianSociety to get updates on new posts from the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA). Be sure to visit the SEA website, and if you've never been to the SEA site, be sure to browse the many free resources on Arminian theology. Unfamiliar with SEA? You can find out more on the "About Us" page. Here's an excerpt:
The Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) is an association of evangelical scholars and laymen who adhere to Arminian theology and are united in order to glorify God, edify his people, protect them from error, and foster the proper representation of our magnificent God to the world by lovingly and respectfully (1) promoting and advancing sound, biblical Arminian theology, and (2) refuting Calvinism and diminishing the number of its adherents, through the concerted, strategic effort of Arminians networked through the society for the accomplishment of these goals as well as (3) mutual encouragement, support, and growth in the truth of God’s word. 
If you agree with the Society's Statement of Faith and desire to engage issues related to Arminianism and Calvinism with charity and respect, you may also want to join SEA. If so, see the last paragraph on the "About Us" page for information on how to become a member. Soli Deo gloria.

July 2, 2013

Free Wesleyan-Holiness Resources! @OfficialSeedbed #andcanitbe

Seedbed has just announced a new partnership with First Fruits Publishing to release a number of classic Wesleyan-holiness works and other resources in electronic format for free. Did you catch that? Free books! The First Fruits collection can be found here. The collection includes the second edition of Kenneth J. Collins' now well-known Wesley Bibliography and a number of works by Henry Clay Morrison, Robert Coleman, and Howard Snyder. One of Seedbed's goals is to cultivate renewal in Wesleyan-holiness theology, and if you want resources on the holiness movement in America, Seedbed is quickly becoming the go-to place for both previously hard-to-find historic materials and new resources in a variety of media formats. It looks like there are more resources to come as a result of this partnership including some academic journals and audio recordings. You can read the full details in the Seedbed press release