One.Life (11) Eternity.Life

The next chapter of Scot McKnight’s One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Eternity.Life

Like many others I watched the ‘firestorm’ of comment circulating the blogosphere and other media the other week about whether or not Rob Bell is about to ‘come out’ as a universalist due to (deliberately) provocative marketing of his new book Love Wins

If you don’t know who Rob Bell is, congratulations and please just skip down to the discussion on Scot McKnight’s chapter on Eternity.

The funniest post was by Ireland’s own Soapbox, also alarmingly revealing that Rob Bell’s twitter feed is @realrobbell. Other Rob Bell’s obviously aren’t real.

To be honest I found it hard to get interested. Some of the tone of the debate was downright ugly. Bell is too media savvy not to know full well what he was doing and his pre-publication publicity generating video worked perfectly.

Another reason for disinterest is that whatever Bell does eventually say, it would be very surprising if it is anything that hasn’t already been said in much more depth by theologians and scholars. So this ‘firestorm’ is really a personality-driven in-house competition for the ‘soul’ of authentic American evangelicalism.  Hence John Piper’s depressing tweet ‘Farewell Rob Bell.’

Confession: I’ve long wearied of an evangelical obsession with ‘personality pastors’, especially those in another country and very different culture.

However, in the midst of it all, some interesting things emerged.

–  The debate is largely about the character of God not about exegesis of the texts on judgement and hell (and a recent book by Robin Parry aka Gregory MacDonald has seriously engaged with the biblical material in making his case to be an evangelical universalist). See Kevin Hargaden’s link to a review of the book by Oliver Crisp and see Scot McKnight’s series on the book at Jesus Creed.

– For developing cultural and theological reasons, universalism is now one of the big-ticket ‘live issues’ within evangelicalism.

– Bell’s book will sell not just because of controversy, but because its addressing (or promises to) real questions many people have.

And so to Scot’s chapter on Eternity where he is acutely aware of those questions and sets about engaging with them. [NB – for space I’m just going to talk about what he says about hell and judgement and will return to the second part of the chapter on the New Heavens and the New Earth’.]

We live in a curious time where most people believe in an afterlife and think they will end up in heaven. Yet the notion of hell is utterly repulsive and rejected as a monstrous self-evident nonsense.

Scot says he believes in hell because Jesus did, but he wants to believe in the same way as Jesus did – not in Dante’s inferno, not in God the eternal torturer, …

1. So what did Jesus say?

Well rather a lot of uncomfortable things. Scots lists examples from one Gospel;

Matthew 7:13-4

Matthew 7:19

Matthew 10:28

Matthew 10:32-33

Matthew 18:8-9

Matthew 25:41

Scot calls this ‘death after death’ – “a final endless death after physical death”

Jesus used the word ‘Gehenna’ – the fiery dump outside Jerusalem. This is obviously a metaphorical allusion, so pointing this out, as if this solves the problem of ‘hell’, actually gets us nowhere.

The question is what does the metaphor mean? Is it to be taken literally and hell imagined as a place of actual fire that never goes out? Medieval Christians did a nice line on that imagery.

Detail of a medieval chapel wall painting in La Brigue, France

It does certainly seem to involve judgement and death, but the imagery is best not pushed too far or the metaphor takes over and twists the message itself.

2. Justice

The entire Bible is concerned with justice – and holds out the eschatological hope that while injustice, violence, pain and suffering may reign in the here and now, things will be ‘put right’ in the new creation. God’s justice will be established over all. Scot puts his hope in this sort of justice and argues that this is all we can know and need to know:

God is the judge and we’re not

What God judges will be brilliant justice but

God’s justice will be soaked in God’s grace

I hope for a final day of overwhelming grace

That swallows up all sin and injustice

This leads him to question (cautiously and un-dogmatically) the idea of eternal conscious punishment.

“one cannot justly, and I emphasize “justly”, be punished eternally for temporal sins … it is hard to imagine an eternal, endless, infinite punishment for a finite amount of sinning. Eventually justice should be served.

We ought to avoid dogmatism here, but I agree that God punishing humans eternally for a finite number of sins seems to be an intolerable injustice and unworthy of how the Bible talks about our just God.”

And so this leads to temporal sins = temporal judgement. In other words conditional immortality (immortality only for those in Christ) or annihilationism (those not in Christ cease to exist).

So what does Scot conclude? This:

“I have thought long and hard about hell and have come to the view modifies the second view above [eternal conscious punishment]: hell is a person’s awareness of being utterly absent, which is what “death after death” means, but yet in the presence of God … I am unconvinced that annihilation fully answers all that Jesus says, but I also believe the second view doesn’t contain enough mercy and grace.

One thing, though, is quite clear to me: Jesus believed that death would lead us into the presence of God to receive what is just from a God who is utterly gracious and just. There were two options in his view of judgement: death after death or life after death. Jesus warned of the former and promised the latter. And he spoke like this to awaken people to follow him and to know that what we do now and what we decide now matter – forever.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

2 thoughts on “One.Life (11) Eternity.Life

  1. Interesting… Thanks for posting. I should get this book once I make it through The Blue Parakeet!

    “hell is a person’s awareness of being utterly absent” – So, does he mean this awareness is eternal? Maybe I should just read the book…

  2. I’m not entirely clear what Scot means here either. (You out there Scot?). it sounds a wee bit like NT Wright’s (admittedly speculative) proposal that such a destiny is self-chosen and that people so separated from God lose the image of God and slip into a sort of non-being ….

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