”Where do we get our ideas about judgment and hell?’ (part 2)

‘But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.’ Romans 2v5

Jean-Paul Sartre in his play ‘No Exit’ tells the story of three people who find themselves trapped in a room. Desperate for love, each seeks love from another but all are continually frustrated by the end. Of course, for Sartre, the play is an outward expression of his belief that ‘hell is relationships.’ Not the type where people argue and fight – it is that too – but rather, the dissatisfaction and discontent of love frustrated.

In the last post we considered how people may imagine Divine judgment as God wielding a big stick and condemning people to hell in a ‘Dante’s Inferno’ type pit. While some extracts of the Bible support the idea of hell as a hot place – see Rich man and Lazarus  – the overriding intention seems to be to identify an environment that is alien to human existence. A spiritual location that is separate from God and His benefits. Not a prison as such but a loss of access to the stimuli of God’s creation.

This idea of hell in which humans are unable to interact with and enjoy physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experiences is more akin to ideas about separation from God’s goodness. In The Rich Man and Lazarus (see link above), the unkind landowner finds himself in hell because he lacked generosity to Lazarus who begged at his gate. The man’s request that Lazarus cross from heaven to hell so he might have some water elicits this response:

‘a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

There we have it! A description of Hell: a place outside of God where people no longer have access to enjoy the things they once had in their life. Moreover, the things they took for granted. A place quite different to the fiery Underworld in which devil and demons torture prisoners with glee.

”Where do we get our ideas about judgment and hell?’ (part 1)

And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.’ (Jude 1v6)

For many people, this picture is how they imagine hell. A dystopian existence in an overcrowded pit where there is barely enough room to move let alone take a breath. A world where God is considered a sadist with people consigned to the fiery depths of Dante’s Inferno. But what does this say about the human perception of God? Moreover, the way we have judged ourselves in advance of any meeting we may have with the Divine?

Years ago, at university, I went to see the course leader asking for a reference. Now, I can’t remember how it happened but I left his office with the task of writing my own reference. Anyway, struggling to write anything that didn’t come across as self-effacing or deprecating, I returned to him three days later with my reference. Reading it, he replied:

‘Not bad but you’re far too hard on yourself. ‘

With reflection it seems the strict judgments we place on ourselves are because only we know the truth: the things we say about others; the lies we tell; our pride and refusal to take responsibility when we do wrong; and the good that we omit to do. Things that we condemn ourselves with, believing we are truly deserving of whatever judgment comes our way.

But is this how God really is? Yes, the scripture verse (above) speaks of judgment but there are just as many in the Bible that speak of God’s grace such as from the book of Isaiah (1v18) where God implores the guilty to:

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Evolution – Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Monkey?

Ever since I was a boy growing up in Christian circles, my Christian friends and colleagues have not just been against the emerging consensus on evolution, but actually afraid of it. I have always found it interesting to ask, “Why ? Just what is at stake? Why do we seek to make enemies out of people who pursue rational truth?”

It is important because if a faith pins its credibility on a version of truth that is gradually, systematically, and emphatically disproved, then it will lose its foothold on the landscape of the people. When we put on blinkers and deny general revelation (creation), in defence of a narrow defensive interpretation of specific revelation (the Bible) then we lose traction with the minds of people God loves. To cling to a seriously outmoded way of thinking is to repeat the history of the Galileo incident. We just end up looking silly.

That means the greatest truth that we have, the truth of God in Christ, becomes hidden under a bushel – a big pot covering our light, made of denial, ignorance and an insistence that no good thing, especially knowledge, can ever emanate from anyone other than us. The world is blind and has nothing to say. So what are they (we) afraid of ? I am not being obtuse – I really do mean afraid. This is a question of fear.

The first problem is probably (I’m guessing) the truth of the bible. Everything seems to hinge on literal facts instead of transcendent truths. If we can’t take it at literal face value then the whole thing unravels like a badly made sweater. This, I believe is sad and unnecessary, and also unhelpful.   Evolution does nothing to undermine the truth of the bible, it merely illuminates it. It requires nothing to be rewritten, but requires certain things to be continually re-read and re-interpreted in the light of more empirical facts. That is very different. All scientific fact does this – it shines a light on what God has done and shows us how He did it.

Faith and knowledge walk hand in hand but they are not the same thing. The Bible doesn’t give us certainty about the way the world works, it serves a different purpose. When it is used wrongly it starts to fail in its more important purpose. It cannot point people to God if it has been discredited and it is discredited if it used for the wrong purpose – a double tragedy.

That is the history of the debate since perhaps the 1925 Stokes Monkey Trial, and sadly it continues today. The way, the truth and the life comes into disrepute through insecurities about our own interpretations of text and faith which compel us to defend the wrong causes. The truest story we know is the story of ourselves. We ought to address it honestly, in partnership with those that seek to understand it scientifically, and bring what we bring, the light of Christ, to the whole world.

Evolution and Origins – the Beauty of “Both-And” (Evolution part 2)

The issue of faith versus evolution is so old that one college professor told me recently he was “bored stiff” with it. The basic issue is the unhelpfulness of dualistic language – did we evolve, OR were we created? Contrary to popular belief , Darwinism and natural selection theory doesn’t say anything very much about how life started, so the binary language is misplaced. More and more people are beginning to realise that the displacement of God by Darwin is wholly mistaken.

We can bring it down to the individual level to see what I am getting at. I believe that I was physically “created” at a particular moment in late 1962 (it was a very cold winter), emerging into the world 9 months later. It was a physical act (we don’t need to elaborate too much!) and a known biological, scientific process. It is process we increasingly understand and can even partially artificially replicate and sometimes fix when it goes wrong. Longstanding evils like infant mortality rates and stillbirths are much less common than they were.

At the same time, as a Christian I believe was also created by God. There was a time when neither I  nor my physical body existed at all, and a single moment when both suddenly did. God formed me (Jeremiah 1:4-5, Isaiah 44:2, Psalm 139:13, Galatians 1:15), and knew me from that time, indeed from before that time. He has plans for me then, and He has them now, right down to knowing the very hairs on my head (which is not the impossible task it once was, sadly).

The point is that both of these descriptions of my origin are true, at the same time – it is not an either/or proposition. I was created BY God, granted an identity, AND formed through natural, sexual and reproductive processes. I am both a profound mystery, and eminently explainable,  at the same time. Neither explanation excludes the other, indeed they complement each other, bringing the “what” and the “why” together.

So it is with all our human origins. There will always be more and more science. In fact, this field of human knowledge is still in its infancy. But the nature of our scientific origins co-exist quite happily with the claim that God created everything from nothing. They are both true, at the same time. Each new scientific discovery illuminates what God has done through the agency of the fixed laws of the universe. What is more, suddenly the eminent scientist is now my friend and not my foe – we are now both talking about the same thing and can journey together. This is the beauty of “both-and”.

‘Are Adam and Eve responsible for bringing God’s judgement upon the world by allowing sin to enter it?’ (part 2)

‘By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.’ 2Peter 3v7

Following on from the idea of how judgement on the world has been brought about by Adam and Eve, let us take a closer look at some of the counter arguments that might be considered. Here, I am indebted to Jewish rabii and author Harold Kushner whose observation of the incident in Genesis chapters 2 & 3  which reads:

‘I can’t remember how old I was when I heard (the story) for the first time, but I can remember that, when I was still young, I found some aspects of it hard to understand or accept…Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one small mistake – pain and death. Banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule. Is God really that strict? Why did God create a tree that He didn’t want anyone to eat from?

Was God setting up Adam and Eve so that he could punish them? Was the woman ever told of the prohibition, either by God or by Adam? Why is the story told in such a way  as to make it seem that it was all the woman’s fault? What is the significance of the first humans being unashamed of their nakedness before they ate the forbidden fruit, and feeling shame immediately afterward?

And perhaps most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate of it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate of it?’ (‘How Good Do We Have to Be?’ Harold S Kushner)

In summary, it is clear that simplistic narratives about evil, creation and judgement, unravel rapidly when held up against the model of a loving God and His intentions. Not that the most profound aspects of truth can be found in the most obtuse scriptures but these need to be understood against the backdrop of an emerging humanity with its misunderstanings and misconceptions about God and the world in which they lived? Something that is problematic for every generation as it tries to make sense of those who have gone before them. A lesson we all do well to learn for as observed by JP Hartley’s in the opening lines of his book ‘The Go-Between.’

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.




Evolution 1 – What’s the Question Again ?

I have been writing about various trends of Christian thought concerning what is wrong with the world, the nature of evil. I’m going to give that rest for a while, and move on to something that is profoundly right with the universe, something I believe is incredibly beautiful, but which causes all sorts of argument, namely the vexed subject of evolution.

The idea that evolution could be true, that it might be good, and that it might even be “of God”, is for many people close to heresy or even disguised atheism. The problem with that position is a fairly basic one – evolution itself, at one level at least, is manifestly true, depending on what you mean by it.  So, if being a follower of Jesus Christ means turning your face on reality then it is no longer a coherent faith. Luckily I don’t believe Jesus asks us to do this, but we must first of all decide which question we are actually asking.

In his book “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century”, microbiologist James Shapiro makes an important distinction about evolution, arguing that three different questions exist which have been unfortunately blended into one. These are :-

(i) the origin of life, how it all started in the first place.
(ii) the evidence for an evolutionary process in the development of life, how we arrive at what we have today.
(iii) and the nature of that evolutionary change, how it works precisely.

Darwin is mistakenly supposed to have provided with a scientific explanation for all three, which is not true. They are all fiendishly complex and incompletely understood, and only the second one is actually (for most people) beyond doubt, or as I rather provocatively put it , “manifestly true”. We can see that species adapt and change over time, some of them very quickly, and some slowly.

Two points to make :

(i) we have no scientific answers for origins at all, and hence no science-faith argument.

(ii) the great mistake is to see any of these questions (and the answers!) as substituting God.

Life adapts and changes as does the dynamic universe in which we live. Our science discovers what God has done, and the inbuilt creativity in creation itself – creation reveals the nature of God, always giving, always creating.  There is even a cosmic pattern revealed in Christ – birth-life-death-resurrection – that displays the character of creator God.

The subject of evolution is actually “God-neutral”, as more and more people are coming to realise. Our debate cannot be based on simple denial, but as believers we also have the right assert what we known about God because these scientific case is not comprehensive enough to shut him out.

Necessary Evil 3

I have been arguing that the Fall, Adam and Eve’s sin, does not explain the origin evil at all.   I want to take it one stage further. A more challenging development of this argument is that it was inherent to the plan and even foreseen by God.

Firstly, Mankind was probably not created perfect ;  he had the inclination to act independently and therefore potentially sinfully, even before the first wrong moral act actually happened. That freedom of choice was inherent to the nature of the relationship God desired with mankind, and so it was genuine – it contained the capacity to sin.  That which flowed from man to God by way of worship and friendship needed to come from genuine choice, for that is God’s own nature, and the point of making us.  For it to be genuine choice, the capacity to do otherwise, to commit evil, had to be present as well, otherwise it isn;t genuine. My fellow blog writer Bob Eckhard has also tackled the issue of “Free Will” in his other blogs on this site, look them up.

Secondly the world we live in was probably never a trouble free playground to start with. The word Eden, or “paradise”, only refers to a certain part of the world, even if it ever was an actual geographical place. It is just as likely to represent not a place at all, but a state of relationship with God,. It was a time when the relationship God intended actually prevailed, represented in Genesis 2 and 3. Man’s sin meant that relationship needed to be not ended,  but  carried out in a different way, so he was ejected from the garden, and exposed to the inherent challenges of the created world (which  had already existed for billions of years before him).

As soon as that happened, mankind need to contend with the world at large, and the world as we see it today. It contains things that are both beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Subduing it to mankind’s purposes is a long and difficult labour, but is nevertheless the root “engine” of mankind’s development.  Subduing the Earth is partly what defines us, the question is, do we do as stewards, or exploiters., do we do it with God, or without him.

Yet, through that very struggle mankind develops. This is the sense in which I see “evil” , or imperfection, as necessary, and why I would argue that because of the presence of genuine free choice, the way mankind developed was more or less inevitable. To that end God always knew what the price of creation was going to be and pre-destined that Christ would come to redeem it. God knew that mankind would choose independence, and that it would take the form not just of fruitful self-governance but outright rebellion. That was not the way God created man to be, but was the result of sin gaining more and more ground in human affairs, and in the human psyche and makeup.

However, God’s commitment to mankind both outlasted the emergence of sin, and even preceded it. God predestined Christ to come and deal with the speed of sin, and that is what we witnessed 2000 years ago. But millennia ago, when the initial phase of man’s development was over and the garden a distant memory, God did not abandon man. The Bible is the story of that ongoing involvement of the creator God with his free, rebellious children.

‘Are Adam and Eve responsible for bringing God’s judgement upon the world by allowing sin to enter it?’ (part 1)

‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.’ Matthew 12v36

The failure of Adam and Eve to be obedient to God lies at the root of all Christian understanding about sin and judgement. Early in the Book of Genesis we are informed that the pair occupy a world (the Garden of Eden) that is without sin. They are also perfect in this regard being sinless themselves. But then disaster strikes when the devil – a malevolent angel who has rebelled against God – takes up residence in the Garden and tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She complies and encourages Adam to join her in this venture only for God to find out and banish them from the Garden into a wilderness of toilsome work, pain and shame. Moreover, their transgression has far reaching consequences in the error not only affects their relationship but also every other human born after them who are subject to the same statute of judgement.

Okay, setting aside the obvious questions about the devil’s presence in a perfect world and the fairness of God’s judgement, the real issue rests with the complicity of Adam and Eve in bringing sin into the world. Given the simplistic metaphor of fruit – used to describe how the Knowledge of Good and Evil was consumed by the pair – one might question whether they can be judged? After all,  having not consumed the fruit before, did they have adequate knoweldge of it to make an informed decision and the right choice?

In Genesis 3, we are told God had warned Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit and the dire consequence that awaited them if they did:

 ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it or you will die.’

Today, with the benefit of  hindsight and biblical knowledge, most Christian scholare will tell you that the ‘death’ mentioned refers to the couple’s spiritual state and not their actual physical demise. Of course, this raises an even more interesting question as to how equipped Adam and Eve were for such challenges if uninformed about the devil’s presence in the Garden and his desire to corrupt them. Moreover, the naivity of Eve who readily eats something she has been told will kill her. Persuassive words of the devil aside, might we do better to consider Adam and Eve as rather child-like in their appreciation of the dangers around them. Moreover, their inability to refrain from consuming a fruit they have been told will kill them?

To be continued….


As part of this series I have been exploring the idea that what we call evil is actually not so surprising, and indeed was part of the original plan, or at least an inevitable consequence of it.

What are the objections to this line of thinking, for I can hear them coming! :

Objection 1  :  The Biblical text is “after the event” :

To argue that Romans 5:1-5 justifies suffering and hardship is to suppose that this was always the way it was supposed to be, whereas this merely describes the nature of the world after the Fall. It should have been better and it might have been.

Well, I suppose that’s just a point of view and I have to concede it. It is certainly what most people think, and the centrepiece of masses of systematic theology. The counter argument is that man’s original creation in under blessing (Genesis 1:28) . The notion of “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin” is a fascinating thought !

Objection 2 : There’s too much bad stuff !

The idea of inherent struggle, challenge and evil in the world would work for a little bit of it here and there, but the vale of evil is so deep and so great. It doesn’t amount to good character development so much as perpetual destruction.

This is certainly true. The penetration of sin into man’s development has spread not just into the nature of society but also in his psyche. Our own sin and our fear and hatred of sin in others shapes our very civilisation and personal approach to life – it’s why you lock your door when you go out. But is doesn’t counter the view that human choice is the cause, and we can always choose differently.

Objection 3 : What about natural evil ?

This is also a good point, indeed probably an insurmountable one. Some of the things the natural world can do to us amount to more than temporary hardships that breed character. Some afflictions, diseases and natural disasters are so enormous they transcend any sense of “benefit”. Well, maybe – but the main thrust behind most human endeavour is to make life better. Overcoming our threats, even from nature, is the root cause of most of our purposeful activity.  It is an interesting meditative thought to imagine an actual, perfect world…

All of these objections frankly, stand. I haven’t found the magic answer to evil and suffering, any more than 2000 years of Christian predecessors have. However, let me say this. I fervently believe that the notion that this world and its inhabitants are not miserable failures but strivers, children of God, and people of purpose who are overcoming much and capable of much more. The idea has got legs. We do not need to see ourselves as cursed, merely dependant.

The Fall story is not about what we did, but rather a statement of who we are – contingent, dependant, partners with God, endowed with free choice.   We were never meant to act alone, and frankly, cannot do so now. We live, as one writer put it, under “original blessing” as sinners and the invitation to live in communion with God is perpetually open. The choice inherent in our creation is still open to us.

‘How should we understand God’s judgment in a broken and fallen world?’

 “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.’ (Zephaniah 1v2)

For many, God’s judgment runs something akin to the man in the picture (above) who stands ready to squash some bug under his shoe. An indifferent and wanton deity who is as ready to crush humanity as much as he is to leave it unharmed. But is this a fair representation of how the majority of people see God? Although a large proportion of believers from many religious backgrounds may assert God exists and will one day judge the world, they can no more prove this than those who are opposed to God can prove that He won’t. And of course, this does not even consider those who believe God to be a watchmaker diety who in creating earth, winds up it’s mechansim, sets it in motion and stands back as it disappears on its eliptical journey around the solar system for the next six billion years.

Now, while the idea of a non-existent or “hand’s off'” deity allows people to sidestep the issue of being accountable to God, the issue of a Day of Divine Judgment is kept alive by those who believe the Divine Creator has set out moral standards and values for humans to follow. A Creator who will return to hold everyone accountable for their actions, bringing judgement on those who are found wanting and rewarding those that are considered just and obedient.

In the following posts, we will consider some of the issues this raises for believers and sceptics in the acceptance and belief  of a Deity who holds us to account. Questions that will consider:

  • the way we imagine and understand God?
  • the human need for judgment?
  • the fairness of God’s judgement given the frailty of human recognition of right and wrong
  • the degree to which we can understand the Divine from our human perspective?
  • the way in which humanity is considered culpable for the ills of the world?
  • the notion of an actual ending of time and everything as the Day of Judgment arrives?