Tag Archives: End Times

#233: Does Hell Exist?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #233, on the subject of Does Hell Exist?.

Pope Francis was in the news, quoted by a liberal publication in Italy as having stated that there is no hell.

The Roman Catholic Church immediately did damage control, issuing a statement to the effect that His Eminence was misquoted.  Yet it seems he must have said something which caused the interviewer to extrapolate this notion, and that raises a question that has vexed believers and theologians and deniers for generations, at least:  what is the nature of eternal punishment?  In short, is there a literal Hell?

It sounds very nearly like an heretical question, the sort of notion that would have you dragged before an inquisitor once upon a time.  Yet the fact is that it’s not a new issue, and proves to be one that has been hotly debated even among conservative churchmen for most of the past century.  There are a lot of layers to it, and it’s worth considering.

Let’s start with definitions.

The first issue is what we mean by hell.

The word itself conjures images of a flaming abode where people are tortured eternally by demons.  This, though, is not its biblical nor its historical sense.  Our English word was once the rough equivalent of the Hebrew word “sheol”, the place where the dead in some sense go, sometimes rendered “the grave”.  It is not dissimilar to the Greek concept we call “Hades”, which was originally “Hades’ place”, the realm of the god of the dead, implying that people who died in some sense continued, but weren’t really alive as we would understand it.  We could continue the debate of exactly what the ancients envisioned, but it may have been something like that almost-awake state we sometimes experience when we have a vague awareness of the world around us but cannot fully understand or interact with it.

But doesn’t the Bible tell us that hell is a place of torture?  Not exactly.  It speaks of the afterlife of the lost, and of the punishment of fallen angels, but it doesn’t give us entirely clear answers, only images.  This makes some sense, if we recognize that whatever the nature of the afterlife it is completely outside the experience of every one of us still living, and thus the best we can be told is that it is something like something familiar to us that is different–and Young’s Theorem (my father) states, Things that are not the same are different.

Jesus frequently said that for those who did not come to faith, the afterlife was like Gehenna.  We have created images of this place “where the worm never dies and the fires are never extinguished”, but Gehenna, or literally the Valley of Hinnom, was a real place:  it was for centuries the garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem, where composting waste supported a proliferation of creatures feeding on it and the production of methane created spontaneous fires.  The message is that if you miss heaven, it’s the equivalent of being tossed in the garbage.  It is of course a metaphor; it doesn’t really tell us what hell is like as a physical place, or even if it is a physical place.

Similarly, Jesus spoke of being cast into the outer darkness.  This, though, was generally contrasted to the other image, the image of being invited to the wedding feast.  We thus again have a metaphor, on one side being included in this wonderful party, and on the other side being locked outside in the cold and dark.  It in that sense tells us what hell is like by analogy, not what it is like in any physical sense.

Doesn’t the Bible speak of a lake of fire, though?  Yes, it does–late in the book Protestants call Revelation and Catholics Apocalypse (the same concept, really–“revelation” coming from the Latin for “unveiling” and “apocalypse” coming from the Greek for “uncovering”).  Almost anyone who attempts to read the book concludes that it is rich with metaphoric imagery, and this is a metaphoric image.

Besides, does it make more sense to see the devil and his angels swimming about in a lake of fire for eternity, or to assume that the fire consumes them completely so that there is nothing left?

Consider the alternative.

That has become the issue.  There are, of course, groups that believe no one goes to hell, that everyone ultimately is saved, but these are not regarded orthodox by anyone other than themselves, and their beliefs are not Biblical.  The “orthodox” alternative lies in the question, as put by John Wenham in his book The Goodness of God, of whether eternal punishment is eternal in its duration or eternal in its consequences.  Fire, one of the critical images, consumes.  If we throw someone in fire long enough, there remains nothing–even ash is reduced to gasses given enough time and enough heat.  C. S. Lewis somewhere suggested that any being separated from the source and foundation of being long enough would deteriorate into non-being eventually, and examples in his metaphorical The Great Divorce suggest that people separated from God ultimately cease to be people at all–the clever example of the issue of whether that person is merely a grumbler or has now come to be nothing more than an ongoing grumble without a person at all.  People without God are becoming less human; people in Christ are becoming more human.  Again as Lewis observed, it might be a very small change during life, but if it sets a pattern that continues into eternity, people who have begun the right pattern ultimately will be perfect, and those on the opposite track ultimately will deteriorate to nothing.

This resolves the objection, that heaven could not possibly be happy as long as hell continued.  Hell doesn’t continue; it merely happens, and those to whom it happens soon know nothing.

It comes to my attention that at least one of the creeds says that Jesus “descended into hell”.  To this, first, it should be said that the creed does not tell us what hell is; second, that creeds are not scripture but only human attempts to distill scripture; and third, that this is probably an interpretation of Ephesians 4:9 where Paul says that Jesus descended “into the lower parts of the earth” (which could mean here where we live, in the context).  The Bible does not actually say that Jesus entered any place called hell.

So what do we conclude?

We conclude that we do not really know anything at all about hell.  It is certainly not impossible that there is a place like Dante’s Inferno in which people continue to live and to suffer to varying degrees based on their wickedness and unbelief.  Those, though, are images from medieval concepts of torture, not Biblical images.  A place of eternal punishment could exist, and people could be confined there.  It could be torture, or it could be that the torture is knowing that there was a chance at something better which was rejected, or it could be that those who are there do not know or believe that death could have brought them to something better.  Perhaps they suffer only in that they don’t know what they missed, but not knowing they don’t realize that they have missed anything.

Perhaps, though, the imagery is meant to tell us that those who embrace Christ are brought into an eternally blissful existence, and those who do not do so are tossed in the trash, thrown in the incinerator, and removed from existence.

I do not say that I believe that; nor do I believe the other.  I believe that God has not clearly told us what happens to those who reject Him, partly because it is beyond our experience and therefore our understanding, and partly because what matters is we understand that whatever happens to those who reject Him is something we want to avoid in favor of what happens to those who embrace Him.  If we turn to God, we may never know what would have happened to us otherwise, and we will never need to know whether there is an eternal hell or only a terminal one.

So the answer is yes, there almost certainly is a hell–but it is probably nothing like you have imagined.

#232: Larry Norman, Visitor

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #232, on the subject of Larry Norman, Visitor.

I floated the suggestion on social media that I might begin a somewhat disjointed series of my recollections of the Christian Contemporary and Rock music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, and it was well received, so I’m going to begin.  It seems that one cannot begin such a discussion without Larry Norman, so that is where we will start.

First, though, let’s clarify my credentials.  I was in high school from 1969 through 1973 (that’s four years, fall to spring), and although the east coast was a long way from the center of the action, the Jesus Movement had hit our town hard, so I knew a fair amount of the music of the time.  I then attended two Christian colleges in succession, and after obtaining two degrees in biblical studies along with a lot of exposure to the music my peers were hearing, I tried out for an established Christian band (more on that later) and in 1979 took a job as a disk jockey on a Christian radio station, WNNN-FM, which a short time before my arrival had been ranked the #12 CCM/Christian Rock station in the country, and just before my departure was said still to be on the short list of fifty radio stations which Christian record company promotions people made sure to call every week.  We reported our top songs to the magazine then called Contemporary Christian Music Magazine, which later shortened its name to Contemporary Christian Magazine but kept the CCM logo.  More significantly, during that span of five years and a month I heard every contemporary Christian recording released by a major label, and quite a few independent ones.  I lived this music.

Of course, memory is imperfect, but it’s one of those things that the longer you think about a subject the more you recall, so we’ll be remembering a lot along the way.

Song title links are to YouTube videos; no representation is made as to whether they are legal copies.

Larry Norman Photograph by Michael Sierra upon induction to San Jose Rocks Hall of Fame

My problem with discussing Larry Norman is that I don’t really feel that I knew him all that well.  I owned a pirated copy of the live performance of Sing that Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation (link is the studio version), and I must have heard other recordings of his.  I jammed on Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus with some college friends who knew it, and knew Six-Sixty-Six, Unidentified Flying Object, and I Wish We’d All Been Ready–three songs strongly reflecting his premillenialism, the last of which made it into a few hymnals–but I was never a serious fan beyond recognizing his importance in the field.  I attended a concert he gave at Gordon College, but only remember the conversation I had with him backstage afterwards (the gist of which is given in my previous web log post #163:  So You Want to Be a Christian Musician); my wife says we heard him again at the Levoy Theater in Millville, New Jersey, but I do not remember so much as being at the Levoy.  I can picture the cover of his cleverly-entitled album Only Visiting This Planet, but barely remember the title song and am not certain I heard any more of it than that.  In the five years I was on the radio station, we never received a single recording from him, so although he was still touring for years (it’s what musicians do, apparently–I recently heard that Blood, Sweat, and Tears was playing at the Levoy) he seemed to have largely dropped off the radar by the early 80s.  He died early in 2008 at sixty years old.

Still, his impact was never insignificant.  He is known to have been instrumental in the salvation of early CCM folk-rock artist Randy Stonehill (and we did receive one album from him during those early 80s years).  He was an acquaintance of Paul McCartney, and I recently heard that Bob Dylan came to Christ in Larry’s kitchen.  He is said to have been the original Christian rock musician, and may well deserve the title.

On the other hand, it might well be argued that his early dominance can be attributed to a lack of competition.  His at times squeaky tenor voice is an acquired taste, and his songs were mostly simple pop progressions and melodies with shallow lyrics–good solid evangelistic material, most of it, but not very competitive with the sounds that would come starting in the mid seventies.  If you liked Larry Norman, it was almost certainly because he was the first decent alternative to secular rock and pop music, or because you had met him and heard him live.  He was charismatic on stage, and well worth seeing in concert.  He was a powerful personality off-stage, and a minister with keen discernment and an understanding of the people he met.  His ministry counts for a great deal, even if his music is not all that remarkable.

And in heavenly terms, that’s what really counts.

#141: The Solution to the Romans I Problem

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #141, on the subject of The Solution to the Romans I Problem.

We began this miniseries with The Sin in Romans I, where we stated

…ultimately there is only one sin listed in the first chapter of the Book of Romans:

…they did not give Him the glory or the gratitude that they owed Him, robbing Him of what He justly deserved….

We were deriving that from Romans 1:19ff.  We then continued in Immorality in Romans I to explain that the “sins” we see described in that first chapter–the immorality, homosexuality, and total depravity–are not given to us as the proof of guilt but as the demonstration of punishment, that God punishes those who fail to recognize and thank Him by delivering them to the desires that destroy them.  We ended that article with the thought

…if these are the punishment of God, why would I want them?  Obviously, there is this draw that they have, because people are drawn into them, and many Christians will admit being tempted in those directions.  The black hole of death pulls everyone toward it.  The message of the gospel includes that Jesus saves us from this, that He enables us to be free from this death.

Then I noted that there was something else, something I had missed before.  The third article, Societal Implications of Romans I explained that, that this judgment came not primarily on individuals who rejected God but ultimately on the society itself:  you could be innocent of the moral degradation of the world around you, but it was worsening, drawing in those around you.

The question here is, what can we do?  The answer is what the answer almost always is:  we need to repent.

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Some of you probably just said, “Yes, Chaplain, we need to get all those sinners, all those fornicators and adulterers and homosexuals and lesbians and generally depraved people out there, to repent and turn to Christ.”  If you said that, you missed the point.  Of course those people need to repent; but judgment begins with the house of God–and all of that, here in the first chapter of Romans, was the punishment, not the crime.  The one sin–the only sin–Paul identifies in the first chapter of Romans is failing to acknowledge God and thank Him.

Of course, we think that we do acknowledge God and thank Him.  After all, we say grace before meals, gather on weekends for worship services, make sure we set aside a little time every day for devotions–how are we not acknowledging and thanking God?

The fact is we give too much credit to ourselves, and in a lot of ways that we not only do not recognize as taking it from God but find admirable.  We are idolators, worshipping God sometimes and other gods at other times.

Our number one idol is ourselves.  We thank God for the food, but we think that we obtained it by our own labor or resourcefulness.  We do not really think that God provides our food, our homes, our clothes–we think all of that comes from our own effort.  We fail to recognize God’s kindness to us in providing all this.

There is also a great deal of patriotism:  we worship our nation.  There has certainly been much about our nation for which we should be grateful to God, but in the words of Romans 1:25, we worship the creation (“ktisis”, meaning any created object or act of creation, frequently rendered “creature”) rather than the Creator, thinking that our nation and its founders gave us what ultimately came from God.  I have been in churches where on patriotic holy days they have sung patriotic anthems and recited the Pledge of Allegiance as if it were one of the creeds.  Those who pledge allegiance to America are serving two masters.  Thank God for America, but pledge allegiance only to God, and acknowledge Him as the giver of all good gifts.

There are quite a few of us who worship capitalism and the free market.  Don’t misunderstand me:  capitalism is a brilliant and effective human method of driving a society toward prosperity, but it is not a Christian system at all.  Its central concept is that everyone not only will but should act in the most selfish self-serving way possible to bring about the maximum benefit for the most people.  A Christian system would work on the premise that everyone should and will act in the most self-sacrificing loving way possible to help others, which makes it surpisingly similar to socialism.  The problem is that most people–even most of us who espouse Christianity–are more likely to act in capitalist ways than socialist ways, and if you’re building a system it is more practical to design it to fit the way the majority of people actually do act than the way we would like them to act.  Capitalism works well precisely because people are in the main selfish and unloving; socialism fails for the same reason.  Yet we treat capitalism as if it were a codicil to the gospel, part of the divine plan.  We do not need to abandon capitalism as a society, but as Christians we need to recognize it is not the source of our prosperity but a tainted tool through which God has managed to deliver it to tainted people.

I could probably continue with our idols.  We always think that our prosperity comes from something tangible, instead of recognizing the real source of all the good we receive.  That is the repentance–the “metanoia”, the “thought change”–that we need.  We need to stop thinking that we have earned the good things we have, that we have built a society that provides them, that we should thank our nation for being a place where such prosperity is possible, and get beyond all of that to recognizing that God has delivered good things to us.  If we fail to thank Him for what He has given us, to acknowledge Him as the source of all the good in our lives; if we continue to share the credit due to Him with others who are at best instruments of His kindness; the wrath will continue to fall on our world, and we will be buried in the depravity that has grown exponentially in the short time that I have been alive to see it.

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#140: Societal Implications of Romans I

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #140, on the subject of Societal Implications of Romans I.

We began this miniseries with The Sin in Romans I, where we stated

…ultimately there is only one sin listed in the first chapter of the Book of Romans:

    …they did not give Him the glory or the gratitude that they owed Him, robbing Him of what He justly deserved….

We were deriving that from Romans 1:19ff.  We then continued in Immorality in Romans I to explain that the “sins” we see described in that first chapter–the immorality, homosexuality, and total depravity–are not given to us as the proof of guilt but as the demonstration of punishment, that God punishes those who fail to recognize and thank Him by delivering them to the desires that destroy them.  We ended that article with the thought

…if these are the punishment of God, why would I want them?  Obviously, there is this draw that they have, because people are drawn into them, and many Christians will admit being tempted in those directions.  The black hole of death pulls everyone toward it.  The message of the gospel includes that Jesus saves us from this, that He enables us to be free from this death.

Then I noted that there was something else, something I had missed before.

That is where we are today, but to get there we are going to begin with a meandering discussion beginning with divorce law.

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This has been not true for so long that some of my readers might be surprised to discover it was ever true.  At one time, when a man and a woman signed their names to a piece of paper and swore before a public gathering that they would remain together for their entire lives, the government regarded those to be legally enforceable promises which it, the public at large, and the couple themselves fully expected they would keep.  The part about “better or worse…rich or poor…sickness and health” underscored this:  there were no outs.  In England, if you wanted a divorce you often needed an Act of Parliament.

Of course, exceptions were made, what some will remember as “divorce for cause”.  The promises that were made to each other included loving and caring for each other, and forsaking all others.  If it could be demonstrated in court that one party had breached those promises, the other party was entitled to damages, including dissolution of the marriage.  If the husband beat the wife, or abandoned her; or if the wife was sleeping with the neighbor–these were causes, breaches of the promises, and the injured party could be released from the obligation, often with compensatory damages in property settlements or alimony.

Usually.

By the middle of the twentieth century, affluent Americans who believed that they had earned what they had, and forgot that God had given it to them, began to be bored with monogamy.  They felt like they should be able to divorce each other for no better reason than that they wanted to marry someone else, to find “happiness” with another lover.  Hollywood gossip certainly fueled this–the stresses on the marriages of movie stars who were frequently separated working on different projects, frequently put into close relationships with other actors, and adored by fans who made them believe they deserved better caused many of them to fail, and the tabloid press popularized the idea that a star or starlet was escaping a bad relationship for a better one.  Ordinary people thought that happiness was found in leaving the wrong person and finding the right one.  The law in most places, though, was very much against them:  you could not be divorced for a whim, only for a cause, a breach of the promise by one party against the other.

And the law was strict.  There is a New York case in which a couple wanted a divorce but could not get one without cause, so the husband arranged for his wife to have an affair with his best friend, and they went to court and presented the matter to the judge–and the judge said no, that since the husband colluded in his wife’s infidelity he could not claim that he had been harmed by it, and therefore had no cause for a divorce.  People were being forced to stay married to each other for no better reason than that at one time years before they promised each other and the government and the world at large that they would.

And somehow we no longer thought that a good enough reason.  Why should you have to do something just because you promised, and benefited from the promise?

Gradually over several decades we changed those laws, to allow ourselves to break those promises.  In the wake of that, the upcoming generation saw that the promises were becoming meaningless, and we entered the beginning of a “sexual revolution” in which such promiscuity became more open, accepted by larger and larger segments of society.  Today promiscuity is the assumed norm.  Unmarried adult virgins are treated as a comic element in popular media, a rarity, and sex among teens is expected even by their parents who don’t counsel them to wait but to be careful when they don’t.

And the law has moved to a place where it says, it is nobody’s business whether you have sex, whether you break promises made to a spouse, whether you get your pleasure from the opposite sex or the same sex.  Follow your own moral compass, and if you don’t like where it points, break it and go where you want.

In the process we have lost the ability to commit, to keep promises, to love and trust each other.  That is a serious loss.

This was the part I did not see a decade ago when I taught that class (or three decades ago when I taught Romans to those college students).  I could see that the immorality, the homosexuality, and the depravity were punishments on individuals who were destroying themselves because they refused to acknowledge God.  What I did not then see was that it was bigger than that.  It was not that Joe would not acknowledge God and now was having an affair with Alice, or that Bill was rejecting God and now found himself in a relationship with Steve, or that Mary ignored God’s kindness toward her and now could not figure out what was right and what was wrong.  That was all true, but it was also true that there were others who had failed to acknowledge God who still lived moral upright lives, who were not suffering from the punishment Paul described.  It was not targeting every individual evenly.

However, it was targeting society.  People who kept their marriage vows started to discover that their spouses did not.  People who embraced only heterosexual relationships discovered that they had homosexual children.  People who lived moral lives based on a moral compass that followed sound principles but not God found that those around them, even those closest to them, could see no reason to follow those principles and were ready to do whatever profited them, whatever felt good, whatever they wanted.  The society that rejected God, the society that failed to acknowledge Him, was falling into a downward spiral into depravity.

The wrath of God has come upon us.  We can see it in the world around us, and as Paul said, it proves that God has begun the end of the world with the judgment of those who reject Him.

There is at least one more piece to this miniseries, because this is not the end of the story.

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#139: Immorality in Romans I

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #139, on the subject of Immorality in Romans I.

We began a miniseries with The Sin in Romans I, where we stated

…ultimately there is only one sin listed in the first chapter of the Book of Romans:

    …they did not give Him the glory or the gratitude that they owed Him, robbing Him of what He justly deserved….

We were deriving that from Romans 1:19ff.

Some of you were undoubtedly struggling with that, because your understanding of Romans 1:24ff is that Paul begins cataloguing the sins for which mankind is being judged.  He starts to talk about immorality, promiscuity, segueing into homosexuality and lesbianism, and then into an entire catalog that we can best describe as total depravity.  Surely these are the sins for which men are punished, no?

Painting by Thomas Rowlandson
Painting by Thomas Rowlandson

No.

If we read what the next two verses say, we find

Therefore, God in His wrath handed them over to their promiscuous drives, so that they would lose all respect for their bodies.  He punished them because they traded the truth they had about God for a lie, and worshipped and served creatures instead of their Creator, who is the source of all good things forever, and that’s certain.

All that promiscuity, all that immorality, that is not the sin–it is the punishment.

Some of you are thinking, what kind of punishment is that?  God gets upset because we don’t recognize how good He has been to us, so He punishes us by sending us lovers, causing us to have affairs?  Bring it on!

That actually demonstrates to some degree that you are already touched by that wrath; but then, why should sexual immorality be punishment?  It has always been a temptation, something we desire.  It seems, then, if we’re bad, God gives us what we desire.  How should that be a problem?  It sounds like punishing a bad child by giving him ice cream and candy.

It should be said first that if God says this is a punishment, there must be a reason for us to perceive it as a punishment.  There must be something fundamentally undesireable about that thing that we desire.  Maybe we don’t see what it is, but it must be there.

In fact, speaking in the abstract, God never forbids anything just because He doesn’t like it.  He forbids that which is bad for us and others.  We see short-term enjoyment in promiscuity, but God sees damage to people.  Years ago I wrote a page entitled Why Shouldn’t You Have Sex If You Aren’t Married? in which I talked about all the people who are hurt by these casual liasons–beginning with the partners themselves, extending to their future loves, their children, and people around them.  There I put some time into discussing how such promiscuous conduct is self-destructive, destroying the person’s reputation, their trustworthiness, their ability to love and be loved, and never really bringing any fulfillment.

God created us to form us into creatures who could engage in honest, trusting, loving relationships with each other and ultimately with Him.  Promiscuity, immorality, adultery, fornication–whatever specific form you give it–destroys that.

So, too, as the punishment worsens, we find in 1:26f

Because they did this, God handed them over to strong self-destructive feelings; their women traded all for which their bodies were made for something unnatural, and the men also abandoned that for which women’s bodies were made and felt strong passions for each other, and so men performed indecent sexual acts with other men, and suffered the consequences of having rejected God.

–that is, God punishes those who refuse to acknowledge and thank Him by pushing them into homosexuality, another even more self-destructive conduct.  This is the punishment.  It then worsens in 1:28ff, restating the crime,

Further, since they were no longer willing to recognize God, God handed them over to depravity in their thinking, so that they could no longer understand that anything could be wrong in itself, being completely filled with injustice, cruelty, greed, malice; full of envy, killing, rivalry, deceit, nastiness; they are rumor mongers, slanderers, God-haters, insulting, prideful, braggarts, inventing new evils, disobeying parents, foolish, promise-breakers, unloving, merciless, who fully aware that God is right to sentence to death those who do things like these not only do them themselves, but encourage others to do them as well.

People who do not recognize God ultimately become parodies of what we are supposed to be.

Of course, arguably not all of them do, or at least, not that we can see.  This punishment falls on some more harshly than others.  Yet it is evident that today people are rushing into these traits.

I would say one more thing about the immorality, the homosexuality, and the general depravity before I end this article:  if these are the punishment of God, why would I want them?  Obviously, there is this draw that they have, because people are drawn into them, and many Christians will admit being tempted in those directions.  The black hole of death pulls everyone toward it.  The message of the gospel includes that Jesus saves us from this, that He enables us to be free from this death.

All of this I have covered elsewhere.  Yet there was something else I only recently realized–which will be the next article in the miniseries.

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#138: The Sin in Romans I

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #138, on the subject of The Sin in Romans I.

Just over a decade ago, on February 6, 2006, with the permission of the Christian Gamers Guild, I began using one of their Yahoo!Groups lists to teach a Bible class–something more than a Bible study, on the level of an undergraduate course but that the pace would be moderated and there would be no homework assignments.  I began with Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for some significant reasons–I had taught it as an undergraduate course before, I had recently rebuilt the notes I needed for it, and as primarily a Pauline scholar it made sense for me to begin with his most recognized and comprehensive work.  That class is still continuing, currently studying the First Epistle of John; you can read more about it here.

I mention it because there are several significant points I learned from that book that most people get completely wrong, and in those lessons (still available through Yahoo!) you can read about this in detail–but I have more recently begun to realize that there was something very important in that which I missed.

It is going to take more than one article to explain it, so I will begin by trying to get you up to speed so you don’t have to read all of those posts.

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The first thing to grasp is that this is, in a sense, Paul’s resume.  He has never been to Rome, and it appears that the people he names in the greetings he sends at the end of the letter are all people he met somewhere else.  He wants to preach in Spain, but he needs a base of operations, a church that will support him and send him that direction.  Thus he is sending a letter to them in which he lays out the message that he preaches, the gospel of Jesus Christ as he understands it.  This is what Paul preached in cities throughout the Roman Empire that changed the world; this is the fundamental Christian message.

He launches into this in the seventeenth verse, where he writes

For I am not ashamed to talk about the good news.  The good news is what makes it possible for God to save everyone who believes in God from the just punishment that comes upon all wrongdoers as the world now comes to an end, starting with the Jews and reaching to everyone else.

That’s my translation from the Greek, made with a lot of comparison to a lot of other translations and a strong reliance on whatever materials I had available at that time.  Notice, though, that what Paul is saying is that the end of the world has begun–sometime in the middle of the first century.  However, any Jew then would have told you that the there would be two things that would happen at the end of the world:  the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished.  Paul says that this is now happening, that the punishment is starting and those who believe God are being rescued from it.

Then the surprise comes in verse eighteen, where he says

The good news shows us how God is right now acting as the just judge of the world, meting out rewards and punishments even now, if we have the faith to see it.  After all, the scripture says, “The righteous person will live because of his faith.”

He in essence says that we know that the end of the world is arriving because judgment has already begun.  The wicked are already being punished, and the righteous are already being saved.

We might at this point expect that he is going to launch into a description of how the gospel saves us, but he surprises us again:

We can see God’s just judgments in the world because His wrath can be seen plainly against all the ungodliness and injustice of men who unfairly try to deny and hide the truth, because within themselves they know something about God, and God has made his existence clearly evident to everyone.  For God’s invisible attributes have been readily recognized and understood since the beginning of creation, in creation itself, which shows us His eternal power and divine nature, so that they cannot claim they did not know.  Even though they knew God had to exist, they did not give Him the glory or the gratitude that they owed Him, robbing Him of what He justly deserved, but instead started to think and believe all kinds of silly things, and all together lost the light that they had.  Claiming that they were becoming truly wise, they actually became fools, and gave up the glory of the God who remains forever in exchange for something that looked like a picture of men and birds and beasts and other creatures which all ultimately decay and are destroyed.

The chapter is going to continue to describe a lot of things God apparently thinks are terrible–beginning with immorality and infidelity, moving into homosexuality and lesbianism, and ending with a level of depravity that suggests the complete loss of any moral compass.  Many who read this chapter, many who preach on it, think that it is telling us all the wickedness, all the sins, for which men and women are being punished.  God rightly punishes people who act like that, we are told, and the punishment will come.

However, Paul’s entire case rests on the idea that the punishment already has come, and that he is going to describe that punishment which is obvious to everyone who looks at it the right way–and if those statements are the sins for which people are punished, he never gets to the punishment.

That’s because ultimately there is only one sin listed in the first chapter of the Book of Romans:

…they did not give Him the glory or the gratitude that they owed Him, robbing Him of what He justly deserved….

That is the crime of which humanity stands accused, and of which I think we all at some point have been guilty.  That is the sin of which we repent to be saved.  We agree to acknowledge that God is right, we should be grateful to Him for what He has given us, and we owe Him everything.  Otherwise, we are robbing Him.

So, what about the rest–the infidelity and homosexuality and depravity and all that?  Well, that’s the second thing everyone misses, and that’s the second article in this miniseries.

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#23: Armageddon and Presidential Politics

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #23, on the subject of Armageddon and Presidential Politics.

A popular atheist recently suggested that Presidential candidates, and particularly Republican candidates, needed to be asked a theological question:  do you believe that the end of the world is imminent, and if so is that a good or a bad thing?  If war in the Middle East is positioned to blossom into Armageddon and the return of Christ, do we want to prevent the war, or encourage it?

Austrian forces ascending Mount Zion in World War I
Austrian forces ascending Mount Zion in World War I

That might be a good question for a potential leader of the most powerful military forces in the world, but it might also be a good question for the rest of us.  At least, we should consider what answer our leader ought to give.

Despite what many prophecy teachers say, the sequence of events leading to the end of the world is not at all clear–some predictions touted as major parts of some theories are almost certainly predicting the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by Titus.  I have briefly reviewed the major theories (in The Sandy Becker Theory of Eschatology) along with some of the strengths and weaknesses of each and why I believe we cannot resolve the matter.  However, there are many who are quite persuaded of one theory or another, and the one currently in ascendancy, indeed since early in the twentieth century, has been a version of “pre-millenialism” (if you do not know what that is, read the other article and return) in which Israel plays a major role and there is a massive world war centered in the Middle East.  Every skirmish that occurs in the region, from the battles which took the territory from the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the Yom Kippur War to the current Islamic State battles, sparks anew the expectation that this might be the fight that brings all the armies of the world together to be defeated by the return of Christ.

The return of Christ is an event which Christians around the world have been anticipating for nearly two millennia, whatever our beliefs concerning what precipitates it.  Late in the first century, the book variously known as The Revelation (from the Latin for “unveiling”) or The Apocalypse (from the Greek for “uncovering”) introduced to the faith the word which in English we make “Maranatha”, “Come, Our Lord” (although whether the original was marana tha, “Come our Lord”, or maran atha, “Our Lord has come”, is a question that cannot be settled from the manuscripts).  We are instructed to watch for that coming, to anticipate it, to be prepared for it, even to want it and to work to hasten it–and in times when the world is falling into chaos and wickedness and darkness, it is easy to want it more.

On the other hand, we are told by Peter that the delay is an expression of God’s mercy:  the moment Jesus returns, the door closes, and anyone who has not entered may not do so.  It does not seem to be our place to call for the end of mercy, the closing of the door, and many of us would not do so merely because we have family or friends or colleagues who have not turned to Christ for forgiveness and salvation.  I would rather not see strangers excluded from grace, and while I often note that there is no one apart from myself I am completely certain without any doubt has been forgiven and accepted by God, with varying degrees concerning other specific persons from “almost certainly” to “probably not”, I am not really in a hurry to have God terminate the free limited-time offer of acceptance into His family, and I don’t think that other believers should be so, either.  Don’t get me wrong:  I would love to have gone home already, if I were the only person who mattered.  I just don’t think that I’m the only person who matters, even to me, nor to most believers in the world, and certainly not to God.

How, then, do we hasten the return of Christ and the end of the world, without hastening the end of the world as a path to the return of Christ?

The first thing we need to understand is that the one leads to the other, but the other is not the path to the one.  That is, whether or not theories about a literal military battle at the Valley of Megiddo (har-megeddon) in which all the armies of the world are defeated in combat against an angelic host led by the resurrected and returning Jesus, we do not make that happen, indeed, we are completely unable to cause that to happen, by leading the world into war in the region.  The return of Christ brings the end of the world as we know it, but it is possible that the world as we know it could end without bringing the return of Christ–indeed, arguably that has happened several times in history, most notably with the fall of the Roman Empire.

The second thing to grasp is that if such a battle is in fact the solution to the mysteriously metaphorical explanations of future events in John’s great apocalyptic vision, we will not be able to prevent it–but that does not mean we are not obligated to attempt to do so.  “God has called us to peace,” and while that was Paul’s reason in I Corinthians for why a Christian whose spouse had been unfaithful should let the unfaithful spouse decide whether to preserve the marriage or get divorced, it is used as a fundamental principle of Christian conduct:  we do not pick fights.  We were instructed once by Christ to take swords with us if we had them, so we certainly have a basis to justify fighting when it is clearly necessary (and to debate just what fights are clearly necessary and when the right choice is to suffer the injury, to “turn the other cheek”).  Yet our preference should always be for the peaceful resolution, even while keeping our sword within reach.

So for our Presidential candidates, the “right” answer to the question is probably this:

I eagerly anticipate the return of Christ, and whatever events will lead up to that, but I do not know with any certainty what those events are and will not be party to a war we can avoid honorably for any reason other than it is necessary for the safety of this country and the world in terms that persons of every faith or no faith can at least recognize as plausibly legitimate.

That is also the answer we should give if we are asked that question.

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