Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Faithfulness Means Full of Faith

The most concerning theological issue related to Bellpocalpyse 2011 is not universalism (or inclusivism or annihilationism or what-have-you) but an issue that appears latent, peripheral. To get to universalism or most forms of inclusivism you've got to fudge on justification by faith. I know many who call themselves Christians make no bones about desiring evangelicals do just that, but trying to answer the question "Would a loving God send a good man like Ghandi to hell?" doesn't require us merely to wonder about eternal conscious torment; it requires us to wonder anew how one comes to enjoy eternal life with God.

The Bible is very clear on how one does that, but many of those pleading the universalist case on Bell's behalf -- which is odd since the line seems to go "We have no idea if Bell is a universalist and he's probably not, so you critics should shut up about it . . . but universalism isn't heresy." Talk about bet-hedging -- are already asking us to see the biblical references to hell as fuzzy. It is not a big leap to go from "What the traditional church believes about hell is wrong" to "What the traditional church believes about justification by faith is wrong," especially when the discussion is being framed in such a way to pit "good people" who don't believe in Christ against a caricature of an angry God arbitrarily throwing them into hell for really no good reason.

Bell may or may not believe, as he suggests in his video, that if God were truly love he would not condemn Ghandi (which begs the question, "why Ghandi?" If you're not trying to implicitly assert a works salvation, why not ask if a loving God would let Hitler into heaven?), but the trajectory of such a question leads to this: "Shouldn't a loving God let people into heaven because of their good works?"

I've already been taken to task by some inclusivist types for misunderstanding the theology here: Ghandi would not be let into heaven on the basis of his good works, they say, but on the basis of Christ's righteousness which he unwittingly was exhibiting. (This probably makes Angelina Jolie a better Christian than you, although making such judgments is silly, of course.) Aside from the idea that one can do good works unwittingly to Christ while explicitly rejecting Christ's gospel -- as Ghandi did -- being utterly unbiblical, it makes nonsensical both the Bible's passages on justification by faith alone and the passages on good works. For instance, Paul should have saved his breath with that letter to the Galatians.

The means of condemnation in the Scriptures is simply this: rejecting Christ. The idea that rejecting Christ while doing all sorts of charity -- which the Bible calls self-righteousness, which is idolatry, which God forbids and for which he promises wrath -- is still in keeping with the righteousness of Christ is ludicrous. It may make sense in the world where grace and love are defined by us, where God is made in the image of the altruistic Christian hipster who wants to be nice to everyone (except those mean Calvinists and fundamentalists), but it doesn't make sense in the Scriptures. The inclusivist would have us go to the words of Jesus on this, and to those words we'll turn, and see that this doesn't even make sense in Jesus' world. The Pharisees were awesome at good behavior. But they rejected Christ. ("Ah, but their heart wasn't in the right place," we may be told. And this is true. But "the right place" is Christ.)

Here is a passage inclusivists/universalists like to say demonstrates that Jesus lets people into heaven who do good works in his name without knowing they did:
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'

-- Matthew 25:32-40
Leaving aside the fact that as the passage continues, Jesus is sending goats to a separate place than the sheep, a place Jesus says is "eternal punishment" (although we're asked to understand here that eternal doesn't really mean eternal (except when it qualifies "life"), what does this passage as it stands teach? Does it indicate that salvation is on the basis of good works, even good works not done intentionally in Christ's name?

Using the context clues alone, we see that this conclusion is unwarranted. The "sheep" are not indicating they didn't know they were doing good works in keeping with repentance to Christ; they are indicating they didn't know they were doing good works to Christ. That is what is being revealed here. So on a basic rhetorical level, this passage is not teaching that workers of good works may be doing good works in consistency with Christian faith without having that Christian faith. They are learning that ministry to others under the Lordship of Christ is ministry to Christ. They are learning that they have built up the Body of Christ. Indeed, elsewhere we are told that good works done outside of Christ's name are filthy rags. This is true whether they're done unto Buddha or unto our own sense of being a better person. The works of the "righteous" are done unto Christ.

The other problem with thinking this is a passage teaching good works as the grounds for salvation -- aside from all the other passages teaching that good works as the grounds for salvation is not only a false gospel but a damnable false gospel -- is another, similar judgment passage from Jesus' teaching. In Matthew 7, Jesus says that many who did good works using his name will not enter heaven. The inclusivist would have us think that this actually means Ghandi has a better shot than, say, Fred Phelps, and of course, on that sort of meritorious scale, I totally agree. Ghandi is certainly more resembling of Jesus than Phelps. But the point of both passages in tension with each other and in the context of all else the Scriptures say is this: good works is no basis for eternal life.

What I love about the Matthew 25 passage is that Jesus connects good works in keeping with repentance to tending to him. And in Matthew 7 while condemning lip service he commands following the will of the Father. Is it the Father's will that we reject his Son unrepentantly and yet this faithlessness be credited to us as righteousness? When Jesus tells Peter that it is upon him and his confession "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" that he will build his church, does he mean that confessing Jesus is "John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets" is cool too?

Let God be true though every man a liar.

It is not good works that get Christ's righteousness applied to us. It is our faith in Christ, which is to say, it is our despairing of our works.

This ongoing discussion is larger than whether hell exists and if it does, what it's like. Lying in wait beneath this debate is one that is at the heart of the true Christian faith: how does one receive eternal life?

Let us commend faithfulness in caring for the least of these. When the Father welcomes his children with "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter the joy of your master," he means to commend our faithfulness. It is not optional for believers. But let's obey God remembering what the word faithfulness means: persistent obedience that is full of faith. And if faith in anyone but Christ earns a "pass," it will not mean God is love (as 1 John 4 means it) but that he's a liar.


Matthew said...

Yeah... this is good stuff. Calm, earnest, yet straightforward at the same time.

I wish this were the first post I read on the matter, instead of the last. ;)

Brian said...

Jared - one thing you didn't point out about that passage in Matt 25, that I love to point out, is the fact that before "works" were mentioned, Jesus seperated the sheep and goats by what THEY WERE. Notice that Jesus didn't mention their works until after he seperates them. I love that part. God declares us a sheep and it is only after we have been declared a sheep that he mentions our good works. But hey, that gets too much into election and predestination for some people's fancy. Good article.

Jason said...

Home run, Jared. Home. Run.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your excellent post on this topic. There is much confusion flying around the blogosphere.

I found a five-year-old sermon by Rob Bell called "Love Wins" a couple of days ago. Since it has the same title as his upcoming book, I wondered if it provided a glimpse into his thoughts on hell, justification by faith, etc.

I posted a link on my blog. Are you familiar with this particular sermon?


Clayton T. said...

Jared - I've followed this Rob Bell broo-haha with some interest because I struggle with holding together the traditional (western) Christian notion of hell with a compassionate God. I apologize in advance for how long this post is going to be.

I have never read a book or heard a sermon by Bell, McLaren, or any of the other formerly-known-as-emergent types, so I have no interest in trying to defend any specific teaching of theirs. However, you guys on the "traditional" side of the argument have failed to show me how your understanding of hell is in any way consistent with basic notions of love and compassion.

See, the problem is this: no person exists apart from the active sustaining power of God (Col 1:17). So hell cannot be a place where people exist in a state of true separation from God. This is disturbing because it means not that God sends people there and somehow forgets about them, or leaves them be. Rather, he is personally, actively sustaining their existence as they experience unspeakable pain and suffering. The most evil human who ever lived would not be so uncompassionate as to be able to burn a person alive for all eternity.

My other complaint is this: I consistently hear an example made using some terrible person, say Hitler, as being proof that hell must exist, otherwise there would be no justice for the atrocities committed by evil people against innocent victims. But my concern over this idea of hell is not about Hitler. It's about the North Korean mother who was killed having never having had the chance to hear the Gospel because she lived an oppressed life, but tried hard to raise her children to be good people as best she could within her context. And it's about the gay man who rejects the gospel because the only "Jesus" he has seen are the Christians who psychologically tortured him in high school because he was different. It's about the Muslim woman who had no choice about being born into a non-Christian religion, but dedicated her life to feeding the poor in her village, and will die with no belief in the Gospel. These are the kinds of people whose existence the God of your theology will be actively sustaining as they experience unimaginable anguish.

Until you start talking outside of your abstract theological systems and start addressing this issue on a human level, you have nothing to say to anyone who doesn't already agree with you. However, I suspect you won't dare to take a peak outside the bounds of your safe theology because you are scared of what you mind find out there.

Thanks for letting me post.

Jared said...

Clayton, thanks for your comment.

I did not cite Hitler as a defense of the existence of eternal hell -- begging "God's justice" -- as I think the Scriptures do an adequate enough job 'defending' the existence of hell themselves. If I wanted to discuss whether hell existed I would go to the relevant Scriptures, as I did 3 weeks ago when I preached a sermon on the topic.

I was citing Hitler in my question about Bell's questions. What I'm wondering is, if he wasn't trying to insinuate that good works should catch God's eye for mercy, he wouldn't have used Ghandi as an example. If he was only trying to insinuate about hell's depopulation or God's mercy for the most radical of sinners, why not use Hitler?

I think there's a reason why he went with Ghandi.

Clayton T. said...

By the way, I do believe in hell, as much as I don't want to. But I think you have a mistaken understanding of what hell is and exactly why someone would end up there. I also suspect that when you think through your understanding of hell, you do not include passages such as John 12:32, 2 Cor 5:14-19, Romans 5:12-19, Colossians 1:19-20, or 1 John 2:2. Maybe I'm wrong about you. I'd love for you to show me if I am.

Jared said...

Clayton, I don't know what you think about me -- other than your rude accusations in your original post, and I prefer not to respond to those. It should strike you as odd, though, that you're on my blog telling me I have no voice to people who don't think like I do, but here we are exchanging comments, yes?

I obviously affirm those passages you just cited and, I think, they speak to the fact that God's plan is for the restoration of all things, that redemption will be cosmic, and that the number of the redeemed populating the new heaven and the new earth will be a multitude too great to count.

This is not abstract theology. It is a robust theology that is bigger than the tagline "love wins." It is the idea that God will save people who reject Christ that makes Scripture abstract; not the idea that he won't.

I do not believe those passages you cited mean that God will redeem every individual person who ever lived. If that confirms what you think about me, I am okay with that; I try not to make my views contingent on what others want me to believe.

Doug Wilson had a great video blog on this subject yesterday, taking the trajectory of those passages you just cited into account for a "robust postmillennialism" in his view of hell. I highly recommend it.

Clayton T. said...

Thanks, I'll check out the video you mentioned. I apoligize for being rude. I'm not used to communicating on blogs, and it's easy to get carried away writing about a topic that has caused me much anguish.

jbboren said...


Your point about hell not being a place where God is not is a valid (and correct) point. God's presence will indeed be in hell, as God is omnipresent. The people who end up in hell would like nothing more than to get away from God, but they won't be able to. R. C. Sproul's teaching on this is the clearest and plainest I've ever heard. It is here-

Now, your point about even the most evil person in history not being able to burn someone for eternity shows me the real issue. You do not understand either the holiness of God or the ugliness of sin. Your use of the N. Korean mother (and the others) underscores your lack of understanding of either of these critical issues. Perhaps this book can give you a starting place on these issues-

Clayton T. said...

I just watched Doug Wilson's video. Honestly, I had no idea that the view that many, even most, will ultimately be saved was compatible with reformed theology. I'm still not sure exactly how they mesh, but I'll happily take his word for it. So again, please accept my apology for my unnessesary harshness.

My main question after hearing Mr. Wilson's explanation is, what's the beef with Rob Bell? Isn't Doug saying "love wins"?

Clayton T. said...

jbboren - You are right. I do not understand the holiness of God or the ugliness of sin. Neither do you. Neither does anyone this side of eternity. I do understand basic notions of love and compassion though, and I can't believe that God would require us to abandon those notions in order to believe in Him.

matt e. said...

Superb post, Jared.

emily said...

Excellent post. I think that Bell cites Ghandi disingenuously - not really in reference to the actual PERSON Ghandi, but to the cultural shorthand that his name represents. ("Wow, that guy is like Ghandi or something"). So when people hear Ghandi, they automatically think of a super-good-perfect passifist, and then get mad when God sends that guy to hell, even though that super-good-perfect passifist is a hypothetical construct.