Who would want to go on living for ever? Only He who has never grown old:
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy
That the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games included John Lennon’s Imagine was no real surprise. There is nothing in the world capable of uniting humanity like sport and nowhere is that more evident than at an Olympic games where for a few brief days politics, religion, hatred, discrimination of any sort are put to one side. Sport only works because we agree to live (for a short-time) under a set of rules and values that all sides recognise and accept. It works because someone enforces those rules; if your foot steps out of your lane, or you start before the gun, then no matter how fast you run you are out of the race. Sport only brings us together because we agree to live under a greater authority, a benign dictatorship that ensures fairness and equality for all.
The Olympic ideal is a world where we live as one, atheletes share in eachothers joys and console each other in loss. They live as one community in a village that unites the world and so the world is as one and at peace.
But such an experience is meant to teach us something much more than the benefits of sport and something to which sport is only meant to point. CS Lewis wrote of how our experiences of life in this world are pointers to another world and a greater reality and he says we owe this too to the Greeks.
Symbolism comes to us from Greece. It makes its first effective appearance in European thought with the dialogues of Plato. The Sun is the copy of the Good. Time is the moving image of eternity. All visible things exist just in so far as they succeed in imitating the Forms.
Peter Kreeft say ‘If Plato is right, everything we see is a shadow, copy, image, imitation, or sign of something unseen.’ Essentially everything that we experience in this world is an expression for a better world.
Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book, The Philosophy of Tolkien quotes CS Lewis’s words at the end of The Last Battle ‘when the whole world of Narnia dies and is swallowed up into its Heavenly Platonic archetype.’
“Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. . . . And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred enveryone like a trumpet as he spoke these words; but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling…”I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
And so what exactly are you and I are meant to learn at the end of an Olympic fortnight? That all along was only a sign of something yet unseen and something that we remember from a world long ago. There is a world to come, a world we are waiting for and a world that we have been looking for all of our lives not just in a church but in an Opening ceremony, a marathon race, a diving competition, a 100 metres race run in 9.64 seconds. When through Christ we get there we like the Unicorn will say ‘I have come home at last!’
The following is an edited section of a sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2 at City Church a few weeks ago on the knotty issue of when and in what way Jesus will return.
Maybe you remember Harold Camping, in the news last year, who predicted that Christ would come in judgement on 21st May 2011. When by May 23rd it hadn’t happened Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that Jesus would come again on October 21, 2011. Camping was wrong and no doubt there were lots of spiritual casualties too.
Something strange was going on at the church in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2v.1-2) Paul is writing to them about the coming of our Lord and v.2 the church has become unsettled and alarmed. The word unsettled has the idea of being ‘shaken from your mind’ like a ship being forced from its mooring by a storm and bobbing about in the high seas. The Thessalonians were in danger of being ‘all at sea’.
Something was getting to the Thessalonians and v.2 it seemed to be some report or prophecy saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. We don’t really know exactly what was going on here but 2 options are our best guesses.
1) The Greek word ‘already come’ can have the idea of ‘is at hand’. So the AV translation of the verse reads
be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand
It might be that they were thinking that the Lord’s Day was imminent.
2) Or it could be as the NIV translates the word the return of Christ has ‘already come’. Maybe some in the church were teaching that in some sense Christ has come spiritually. But if Christ has come, if the Kingdom of Heaven is powerfully breaking in, why were Christians still suffering so much?
Either translation could be right but if we don’t know maybe we don’t need to know the exact form of the error. Paul’s answer in v.3 seems to answer either way.
But Jesus is not coming yet v.3-4?
Now this is where it all gets difficult. Leon Morris wrote ‘This passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline writings and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to extravagant speculations.’
What do we make of Paul saying that Jesus cannot come until evil gets worse and a certain man of lawless is revealed?
Does this mean Jesus can’t come back today?
Essentially 2 options are open to us. It could be that Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians doesn’t relate directly to us because he was thinking about something that happened in AD70.
1) a prophecy fulfilled in AD70
In 169BC the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies’ captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in the most appalling way. He erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed of all things a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. Many saw this as a fulfilment of a prophesy in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which he describes ‘an abomination that causes desolation.’
But Jesus insisted that although this might have been a fulfilment in part Daniel’s prophecy awaited a further fulfilment. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus tells us that Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem. In AD70 the Romans defeated the Jews the armies entered the temple carrying the emblem of Caesar into the temple and offered sacrifices to their gods. So could the rebellion Paul is prophesying in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the same event? When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians it was still only 50AD and so the timing works. There was still 20 years to go before the destruction of the temple.
Now if the man of lawlessness is Caesar then what Paul says to the Thessalonians in one sense he is not saying to us. To them he is saying something like ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled …Jesus has not come….and he won’t yet come because the Romans haven’t invaded Jerusalem yet..the man of lawlessness is still to come.’
But that wouldn’t be what he is saying to us. To us he’d say ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled because Jesus has not come…but do understand that he could come at any moment because everything that needs to happened has happened.’
So that’s option 1 and the problem with it is that every commentary I read rejected that interpretation for a number of reasons that space doesn’t permit us to discuss. Perhaps the key one is that a number of books of the Bible that are almost certainly written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – especially Revelation and the book of 1 John — still expect the coming of the man of lawlessness or the Antichrist as he is also known. John writes in 1 John 2:18 ‘this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming.’
2) The lawless one is yet to be revealed
If the man of lawlessness was not revealed in AD70 that would mean that what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians he is also saying to us (v.7) that the secret power of lawlessness, evil and opposition to God will be at work in the world until at the very end of history but then there will be one final embodiment of evil who will trigger the return of Christ. God’s plan and timing will decide when the arrival of the man of lawlessness will trigger the return of Christ and at that time the man of lawlessness will be utterly defeated.
Now if you are a suffering Christian somewhere in the world today (like the Thessalonians) then that is of great reassurance. Paul is saying ‘don’t be surprised by the presence of evil. There will be evil in the world right up until the day the Lord returns but God is in control.’
Could Christ come back today?
Firstly, we should admit that these verses are so difficult and Christians disagree on their exact meaning that whatever view we hold we should hold provisionally.
That means that if it is possible (even if we think unlikely) that everything that needs to happen has happened then we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. Wayne Grudem in his chapter on eschatology in his Systematic Theology asks ‘is it possible to be ready for something that we think unlikely to happen in the near future?’ Certainly he says ‘Everyone who wears a seatbelt when driving gets ready for an event he or she thinks to be unlikely.’ The point is because we can’t be sure what will happen, because we don’t know for sure whether this prophecy has been fulfilled, either way we need to be ready.
Many of us have never been personally affected by war and we barely stop to think about the sacrifice of our servicemen around the world. This short video, put together by St.Helen’s Church, gives a powerful insight not only into the realities of war but also what Christians should be remembering this Remembrance Day.
Jim Packer writes for all those who fear that heaven might just be a bit dull:
I have written with enthusiasm, for this everlasting life is something to which I look forward. Why? Not because I am out of love with life here—just the reverse! My life is full of joy, from four sources—knowing God, and people, and the good and pleasant things that God and men under God have created, and doing things which are worth while for God or others or for myself as God’s man. But my reach exceeds my grasp. My relationships with God and men are never as rich and full as I want them to be and I am always finding more than I thought was there in great music, great verse, great books, great lives and the great kaleidoscope of the natural order.
Jelly-Roll Morton sang of Jazz, “The more I have, the more I want, it seems”—and there are 1,001 things (including Morton’s own jazz) about which I find myself saying just that.
As I get older, I find that I appreciate God and people and good and lovely and noble things, more and more intensely; so it is pure delight to think that this enjoyment will continue and increase in some form (what form, God know, and I am content to wait and see), literally forever.
We cannot visualise heaven’s life and the wise man will not try. Instead, he will dwell on the doctrine of heaven, which is that there the redeemed find all their heart’s desire: joy with their Lord, joy with his people and joy in the ending of all frustration and distress and the supply of wants.
Often now we say in moments of great enjoyment, “I don’t want this ever to stop”—but it does. Heaven, however, is different. May heaven’s joys be yours and mine.
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.
It was AW Tozer who said ‘What comes into a person’s mind when they think about God is the most important thing about them.’ Nowhere is that statement more obviously true than in chapter 4 of Bell’s book ‘Love wins’. It is in this chapter that he is at his most controversial and it is his doctrine of God that enables him to consider the possibility that perhaps in the end all will be saved.
What comes into Bell’s mind when he thinks about God is that ‘God is love.’ For Bell that is God’s essential attribute and it shapes the discussion of the chapter.
There is no talk in the chapter for example of God’s holiness and Bell’s decision to single out one attribute to which all others must eventually give way (why else the title of the book) leads to his tentative conclusions that for God to be God almost requires the final salvation of all.
Does God define himself as love above all else?
The book of 1 John is so instructive for us on this matter for in it we find two statements from John about God’s very nature. God is love John tells us in chapter 4 but God is light we are reminded in chapter 1. God in the scripture reveals himself as a God of love but not a God of love only, also a God of holiness. God’s punishment of sin is an outworking of his holiness. If God’s holiness must give way to his love we find ourselves ever-closer to the position of Bell. The problem for Bell is that Jesus never does this and neither do the New Testament authors.
So what happens when one attribute of God is singled out in this way?
Well with his doctrine of God clear in his mind Bell turns to his doctrine of salvation.
Bell does not give us a lot of Bible in this chapter but he does choose to quote Paul and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
Given God is love and given what therefore God wants ‘will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?’
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?
And Bell is absolutely right to recognise that the God of the Bible does get what he wants. We are reminded time and again in scripture that God’s plans and purposes are unstoppable.
In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.
This God doesn’t give up. Ever.
What has the church taught?
So if we only get this life to choose heaven and hell in this life by the response we make to God. If it really is ‘One or the other, forever.’ Then Bell logically concludes ‘God in the end doesn’t get what God wants’
No wonder Bell leaves the door open to what is sometimes called post-mortem salvation. The idead that after death given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state?
Now Bell realises that this will sound heretical to many ears especially coming from a bible-believing evangelical. So it is important for him to establish that his view has a history. It has no such pedigree amongst evangelicals and his abuse of a Martin Luther text in his book to suggest it does is something that has been highlighted by a number of critics notably Carl Trueman. One can only hope that for the sake of integirity it is removed from any future editions.
So with no history of evangelicals adopting such a view Bell turns to the ancient church fathers
Beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who bleive that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.
Bell cites Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysaa and Eusebius in support of his views. It was certainly the case that a number of the fathers held that punishment in hell that was restorative.
Here is an extract from one scholar on the view of the early church on the doctrine of universal salvation:
Early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation.
What brings God glory?
But we find ourselves returning again to the major note of Bell’s book. If God is love then everlasting punishment cannot bring God glory.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.
God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts
If Bell is right on this point then one has to ask could it bring glory to God for Satan to be in hell. If eternal torment does not bring glory to God then how can the torment of angels, created by God as good creatures, bring God glory? Surely Satan given enough time will choose life and does not God’s own glory demand it.
Of course those of us who seek to affirm that God is love but God is also holy see God’s glory made manifest in the salvation of some but also the condemnation of others. Paul in Romans chapter 9 writes:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.
For Paul God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect justice as an expression of his holiness in the punishment of sinners. God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect love in the salvation of sinners. Both reveal God’s glory. One should not be set over the other. Heaven and hell together manifest God’s glory, wisdom and power.
What then do you have to believe to be a Christian?
For Bell ‘you don’t have to believe it [eternal hell] to be a Christian.’ Clearly he regards it as no heresy to believe in a hell in which punishment is finally restorative and he may be right. And if heresy is understood as a denial of the gospel on a par with a rejection of the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection or the trinity he I guess has a point.
But it’s crucial to remember that Bell is asking for a lot more than that. He is asking for this minority view to have an equal place at the table. To be considered a valid option alongside traditional interpretations despite the weight of Biblical evidence against him.
To shun, sensor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
But the tone of the book goes even further. Surely Bell, in presenting his own views in the way he does is not actually arguing that his view is one of a number of valid options but really the only view that presents a true picture of the God of the Bible and the view that alone brings glory to God!
God’s love means human freedom to choose heaven or hell
So will hell eventually be empty? Bell certainly is hopeful but he is not dogmatic. In a sense neither he nor God can decide. For it is the choice of every individual, even in hell, to choose.
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides the possibility.
So is Bell a Universalist?
If God is love but human beings have a real freedom then it’s a question he can’t answer. It’s a question no-one can answer.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.
If Bell is not a universalist he should be
The more I’ve reflected on this chapter of the book the more I think that Bell ducks the question in his conclusion and the more unsatisfying I find his final position..
1) Bell has maintained that God wills the salvation of all and he rightly asks can God’s will fail. Surely his will cannot fail.
2) Bell has maintained that the torment of souls in hell cannot bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t
3) Bell believes in the sovereignty of God. Surely such a God knows the end from the beginning. Surely Bell believes, therefore, that God would only make a world in which his will could be finally done.
4) Bell, wisely, is unwilling to be counted as a dogmatic universalist. He cannot find definitive proof in the Scriptures for universal salvation nor can he work out how God will ensure his will is brought to pass. But his doctrine of God should make him an optimistic universalist.
How God’s will will be done he does not know that his will will be done he should be ready to affirm.
‘Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to get to heaven’ or ‘what happens when you switch off before the end of the story Jesus is telling.’
We don’t spend enough time thinking about heaven so any book that devotes 40 pages to the subject is a good thing, or at least should be. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a book that wants to take a fresh look at the Church’s understanding of heaven and hell. The promotional video that kicked off a huge debate did so by raising a variety of questions that Bell sets out to answer in the book.
Bell’s claim is that the church has got heaven and hell wrong and that it is time to set straight the story Jesus came to tell and to reclaim it.
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
I’ve decided to start my review with the chapter on Heaven. Why? Well it’s the longest in the book, easily the best chapter in the book.and also the least controversial. There are still serious problems with even this chapter 3 of which are highlighted below.
How should we think about heaven?
Bell starts by questioning the evangelical understanding that he inherited as heaven as somewhere else; as somewhere other-worldly, disconnected and unrelated to our present lives. In the chapter he challenges two big assumptions evangelicals carry around with them.
Heaven as somewhere else.
Heaven as something else. Something unreal. ‘harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.’ Heaven as a never-ending church service!
Bell turns to Jesus and his encounter with a rich young man in Matthew 19 . The man asks Jesus a great question ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
Bell is curious as to why Jesus doesn’t simply tell this man the ‘gospel’. Why doesn’t he call on him to repent and believe in Jesus but rather say ‘if you want to enter life, obey the commandments’
He suggests that maybe Jesus bottled it and ‘blew a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity? (p.29)
But here is Bell’s surprising conclusion:
When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t’ asking about how to get to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do. (p,30)
Jesus, Bell suggests, is not interested in heaven as much as he is concerned to teach about ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’ Continue reading »
The best is yet to come said John Wesley of heaven.
Here are 14 quotes from Packer, Paul, Edwards, Lewis and others to help think great thoughts of our future.
Hearts on earth say in the course of a joyful experience, “I don’t want this to ever end.” But it invariably does. The hearts of those in heaven say, “I want this to go on for ever.” And it will. There is no better news than this.
JI Packer (b. 1926)
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:20,21
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
Apostle Paul, Colossians 3:2
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) Continue reading »
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