What the feature on Bell reveals (alongside the cover article focusing on Bell’s book in the previous edition) is the fact that if it’s a tricky business for Christians to grapple with Bell’s new look at the reality or not of hell what we can be pretty sure of is that it’s not just challenging for the church but damaging to our witness to the world.
Here is how Time summarises (inaccurately admitedly) the debate in the book.
‘Is Hell real?..He [Bell] thinks we can’t know, because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory. Some passages say only those who explicitly acknowledge Jesus as Lord will find eternal peace. Others claim that, in Jesus’ own words, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail’ and Jesus’ sacrifice means universal salvation.’
Now I don’t think Bell would want to use the word contradictory to describe Bible texts. He would no doubt prefer to describe texts that teach on heaven and hell as ‘in tension’ and should be left to sit alongside each other in such a way that cannot be resolved by us in this life.
But the damage is done when the world looks in and sees what appears to be an evangelical pastor prefering to talk of salvation as a mystery and the Bible as a book which does not speak clearly about heaven and hell. He goes so far as to say in interview with Time ‘I don’t take a position of certainty because of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.’
That Time includes an evangelical pastor in their top 100 most influential people in the world ought to be good news. The tragedy is that they include Bell because he is an evangelical who prefers to ask questions about final realities and to do so in a public way in the publishling of his book and tour.
The consequence of Bell’s position is, as the Time feature reveals, to leave non-Christians confused as to the message of the church and confused as to whether it’s possible to really know anything from the Bible which appears to be a book of contradictions. After all if a mega-church pastor revels in the ‘contradictions’ of the Bible and finds himself with more questions than answers why should a non-Christian looking in from the outside believe they should arrive at any answers.
Here’s a great article from the New Statesman that introduces us to 30 leading thinkers including eminent scientists and philosophers and asks for their reasons for faith in God.
In a follow-up article the author Andrew Zak Williams assesses their reasons for belief.
The figures are truly dire. While non-Christian faiths have grown stronger and the evangelical Christian churches flourish, the story in the Church of England has been one of almost continuous decline since the war.
So concludes The Independent newspaper in an article today.
It’s hardly surprising when a newspaper features another article on the tragic decline in church attendance in the UK. This time it’s the turn of The Independent to question whether there is a future for the church. The author of the article is certainly no friend of evangelicals (inside or outside the C of E) and prefers to use the disparaging language of ‘sects’ and ‘fundamentalism’ when referring to Christians who hold to the faith and beliefs of the 39 articles of the Church of England. The author recognises that evangelical Christianity is growing at a time when liberal, ‘doubting’, Christianity is emptying churches but chooses not to focus on that fact nor does he devote any time to the many evangelical parishes in the Church of England where the building is full on a Sunday.
Some of the stats are certainly questionable. The report claims that only 1.7 million, or 3 percent of the population, attend church once a month. In reality the figure is much higher. A 2007 study has the figure at 15 percent.
It’s clear that the sympathies of the author lie with a vague liberal Christianity when he writes
‘Having an established religion on the side not just of moderation, but tentativeness, gives this strand some extra strength. But it’s not the way faith is going at the moment.’
What he doesn’t seem to understand is that what he calls ‘moderation’ and precisely what the public recognise as a gospel devoid of any real substance and a spirituality that mirrors the world. If that is what people are seeking then they also recognise that there are plenty of other places able to offer it without the need to ever set foot through the doors of a church building. In the end Liberal Christianity kills everything it has ever touched.
A great short video designed to show that how we say things often matters as much as what we say.
A remarkable article in this week’s New Stateman magazine (thanks for the link, Lucy).
In which Brand attacks evangelical atheism, discusses his own faith and considers the design inherent in the universe. Well worth a look at the article in full but here’s a great quote.
There was a time when the universe did not exist, this we know. We also know that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. This means that something, not nothing, existed before the universe. We do not know what but there is wonder and intelligence enough to suggest that design may have been a component.
A few weeks ago I posted a copy of a letter I sent to the BBC regarding it’s decision to commission a three-part series entitled ‘The Bible’s buried secrets.’ Here is the BBC’s reply with my comments on their reply in italics.
Dear Mr Powell
Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ broadcast on BBC Two.
I understand that you felt this programme was biased against Christianity (No, I didn’t say that. I said that the BBC is biased against Christianity. My letter was a complaint that the BBC is very willing to broadcast programmes critical of the Bible and that the BBC seems willing to broadcast quite sensationalist claims about all sorts of errors in the Bible but would never broadcast programmes critical of the Qur’an), and feel there should be other similar programmes exploring other religions beliefs (that bit is right).
Whilst I appreciate your concerns, Christian programming is, and remains, the cornerstone of the BBC’s religious output (not sure how that actually addresses my concern). In addition to exploring and celebrating all the other major faiths in the UK, the BBC delivers a range of content that reflects, celebrates and debates Christiaintiy across TV and radio.
It’s simply not correct to say there are no programmes on Islam or that the BBC would not address issues about Islam. (Oh dear. It really would help everyone concerned if you had read my letter and interacted with my arguments than answer points I’m not raising.) Since the events of 9/11 there have been numerous programmes about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, extreme beliefs of some Muslims and issues about Sharia Law. (Again that’s not my point ).
On the subject of the Qur’an (at last!) Channel 4 did address academic studies that question the conventional reading of the authenticity of the Qur’an (Well not exactly. The documentary, entitled The Quran broadcast in July 2008 was a genuinely good piece of broadcasting, but a very different one from the BBC’s on the Bible. The channel 4 documentary didn’t address the issue of the authenticity of the Qur’an as you suggest it did. Rather its focus was the issue of diverse interpretations of the book. At no point did it criticise the Qur’an or suggest in any way that it might be merely a human book full of errors in the way that the BBC’s Bible’s Buried Secrets did for the Bible.)
This programme was only transmitted two years ago and no new academic work exists to warrant another film at present (You’ve got to be joking! In my original letter I gave examples of Islamic scholars questioning the origins of the Qur’an that have not been touched by any documentary maker, ever, in the UK. So why not make the programme that no broadcaster dare make ‘The Qur’an’s buried secrets’ on how a growing number of scholars are arguing that the origins of the text of the Qur’an was from pre-existing, pre-Islamic writings.)
So there we have it. The BBC is willing to broadcast programmes about Islamic extremism, channel 4 is willing to broadcast a programme on how the Qur’an is interpreted, but if this response is anything to go by the BBC still thinks it’s a good idea to give the Bible a good kicking but not the Qur’an. I wonder why?
A few years back Greenpeace produced a leaflet that went as follows:
Planet earth is 4,600 million years old. If we condense this inconceivable time-span into an understandable concept we can liken the earth to a person of 46 years of age.
Nothing is know about the first seven years of this person’s life and whilst only scattered information exists about the middle span we know that only at the age of 42 did the earth begin to flower. Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear, until one year ago, when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived only 8 months ago and in the middle of last week. Man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend the last ice-age enveloped the earth.
Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man discovered agriculture, the industrial revolution began a minute ago and during those 60 seconds of biological time modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise
He has multiplied his numbers to plague like proportions, caused the extinction of 500 species of animals, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant gloating over his meteoric rise to ascendancy on the brink of war to end all wars.
A human life in this timespan lasts a mere 18 seconds. Let’s not waste anymore precious time.
I wonder what you would say as a Christian if a Greenpeace spokesperson knocked on your door and pushed that leaflet into your hand. As you sat down together over a herbal tea I guess that whilst you would disagree on much you would want to agree on that one statement of theirs:
‘Modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise’. We would agree that human beings really are to blame for spoiling a good world.
Human beings cannot escape the fact that together we have exploited the creation – harmed and abused it – plundered its resources, and so on. But as we munched on our carrot cake together we would want to help our Greenpeace activist to think a little bit further – for we would want them to see that at the heart of the environmental crisis is actually a spiritual crisis.
1. Environmental crisis or spiritual crisis?
For the message of the Bible is that behind our treatment of this world lies a bigger issue – our treatment of God. This world has been made by God and belongs to God.
‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ – Psalm 24v1
‘For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine’. – Psalm 50:10-11
If you’ve ever hired a car, maybe on holiday or something like that you know about the inspection. To ensure that you return the car in the condition you received it before you drive off you walk around the car with the clip-board inspecting it – looking for bumps, dents and scratches.
But imagine that when you come to hire a car your luck is really in – you are the first driver of a brand-new hire car – there it sits in pristine, mint condition, and you sign off the paper work.
You enjoy your holiday and a week later you return it – but as you hand the keys back you have to confess it’s not quite the car it was. You have to admit to being a bit reckless in the way you’ve driven it, a bit careless in how you parked it because the fact is that it is almost unrecognisable as the same car you drove away.
Now the damage done to the car is a real shame, and you’ve certainly spoilt the pleasure for future users by your selfish behaviour, hopefully you’ve not damaged the car beyond repair for future users. But the man at the Easycar counter will probably have a more immediate concern because the real offense is not against the car itself it is against the owner of the car. Easycar will seek some kind of recompense.
And that is the problem behind the problem. That is why the environmental crisis is really a spiritual crisis. Human beings made in the image of God were given responsibility to rule over the creation. To bring glory and honour to God by making this good world fit for purpose – to display the goodness of God as we work it under his rule.
In Genesis 2 Adam is told to work the earth and take care of it. He is to develop the world by working it and conserve the world by taking care of it. And we have failed in our duty.
So as we look at what we are doing to our world we need to remember that our problem is not so much our CO2 emissions as our S-I-N emissions. When we damage our world by harming our environment we are sinning against God.
The BIG inconvenient truth is not that we are destroying the planet but that we are demonstrating our rebellion against God and our resistance to his rule.
As we grapple with questions of climate change and what on earth is really going on we need the creator to help us interpret the creation.
Jesus said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? – Luke 12:54-56
Today across the world millions of pounds is being spent predicting weather patterns and evermore complex models are being written to try to forecast further into the future but Jesus’ warning is that it is possible to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky and yet not know how to interpret the present time. In the Palestine of Jesus day they knew that a westerly wind meant rain was coming – as moisture from the Mediterranean sea carried by the clouds would fall on the land as rain. But southerly winds meant something different – heat from the desert was on the way and temperatures would rise. Yet without God’s word to interpret God’s world they could make no sense of Jesus.
But Jesus point is that it is possible to understand the world around you and yet miss the bigger picture – the fuller forecast. That’s why the church equipped with God’s word need to speak into the issues of our day. One church leader put it this way, – the church is ‘to understand the events of earth and seek to address them with the message of heaven’
James Lovelock and the revenge of Gaia
Lovelock is the author of The revenge of Gaia a book Andrew Marr described as ‘probably the most important book for decades’. John Gray in the Independent described it as ‘the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis’
Central to the book is the warning that our relationship with the world is a delicate, two-way or symbiotic relationship between humanity and the world.
It is a relationship that can work for good or ill. When we care for creation – the creation cares for us. Its systems are ideal for human flourishing and when we work with the world we are blessed by the world but when we abuse the creation we find that those very self-same systems act against us and so to speak creation pays us back in kind. But when we chop down a Continue reading »
Imagine you switched on the TV to find your pastor being interviewed by a member of the congregation on prime-time TV and that the interview lasted over 5 minutes and focused on the claims of Christ from the gospel of Mark! Only in America?
Tim Keller’s new book is called King’s Cross and subtitled ‘the story of the world in the life of Jesus’. The book is based on a sermon series given at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Having listened to quite a few of the sermons from the series I’m looking forward to reading the book. What’s more it would make a perfect Easter present for any willing to take a closer look at the person of Jesus.
Piers Morgan has taken over from Larry King on CNN and in his first week conducted an hour long interview with Ricky Gervais just a day or two after he ruffled feathers hosting the Golden Globe Awards show.
The interview is well worth watching not least for Ricky’s take on God. As Ricky brought the 68th Golden Globes Award show to an end he said “Thank you to God for making me an atheist,” something Piers was keen to follow up in his interview.
I guess we’ve all heard comments like this when we’ve talked about matters of faith over a pint. I thought I might make a few observations on some of Ricky’s arguments for atheism to help us to meet such comments as we come across them in our conversations.
So let’s look at three statements that Ricky makes in the interview:
1. ’Unlike religious people I look at all religions equally’
Because it’s a throw away line in an interview it’s not altogether apparent what Ricky meant by this but what seems clear is that as far as he is concerned atheism is tolerant where religion is not and one assumes by virtue of that fact a better worldview to hold.
But take a closer look and I’m not too sure how a position that says ‘all religion is wrong’ is more tolerant than the position put forward by Christians. It seems to me that both the atheist and the Christian are making exactly the same claim to exclusive truth. Christianity says there is only one truth and that is found in Christ. Atheism says tehre is only one truth and that is found in rejecting all religion as wrong. Is one position more tolerent than the other? I don’t see how.
2. ‘Christians haven’t got a monopoly on good’
I’m not aware of Christians ever claiming that they did! The crucial point I would wish to make to Ricky over our pint is not that its only Christians who can choose to be good but it is Christianity and not atheism that makes a compelling case for why we must be good.
The difference I’d seek to highlight is that the Christian has a reason – more than that an obligation – to be good because of the demands of God. The atheist may choose to be good but can equally well choose to be bad. In fact good and bad are just arbitrary labels – badges of convenience – without any reference point to ground them.
The atheist philosopher Kai Nielson once said:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational beings unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason does not decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.
So I think I would seek to persuade Ricky that atheism frees people to be as bad as they wish. Whereas Christianity has a monopoly over reasons to be good rather than being bad.
3) ‘Of course I believe in love…of course I believe in the beauty of nature’
Ricky is pretty put out by the thought that Christians claim that only they can love and once again I’d be seeking to help him understand that, as with the argument for goodness, Christians are not suggesting that only they can love or live a moral life.
The big issue though is who decides what love is and is there any rational foundation for love if we beleive that the universe is ultimately a dark and loveless place.
Richad Dawkins acknowleges;
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence. DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.
But more than anything else the purpose of apologetics is not winning arguments but seeking to win hearts and minds for Christ. More than anything I’d want to help Ricky to see that his very concern for goodness, beauty, love (and no doubt truth?) are pointers away from atheism (which explains them all away) and pointers to the God who is good and beautiful, love and truth.
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