tweet, tweet.

15 Mar

a week ago i made an observation surrounding the recent increase in discussion on the topic of hell (and salvation) within the christian online community, and shared it through Twitter:

‘i fear our view of God and hell in american evangelicalism is more informed by jonathan edwards than by jesus.’

on my facebook wall the tweet generated over 30 comments.  some agreed, some disagreed, and some were seeking clarification from my statement.

i received several e-mails, facebook messages, and direct messages on twitter stemming from the same comment.  hell seems to be a hot topic these days. rob bell wrote a book (released today), john piper said farewell, and then all hell broke loose.

the next several posts here at the WayWard follower will grapple with the subject and doctrine of hell, starting with the statement i made; because it’s not just jumping on the big news blogging bandwagon.  it’s truly a concern:

‘i fear our view of God and hell in american evangelicalism is more informed by jonathan edwards than by jesus.’

rob bell, in the promotional video for his new book, love wins, makes an insightful and powerful declaration: ‘see, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is, and what God is like.’  and because jonathan edwards sermon, preached over two centuries ago in connecticut, has been so drastically influential on american evangelical preaching and theology, i believe what’s been exposed is that we’ve got a pretty screwed up view of hell; and therefore a pretty screwed up view of God–who he is, and what he’s like.

‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ is the most popular and influential sermon written by american theologian jonathan edwards.  like his other sermons and writings, it combines vivid imagery of the traditional (note: traditional, not orthodox) christian concept of hell with observations of the secular world and citations of scripture.

in short, edwards tried to scare the hell out of people. quite literally.  here are just a few quotes from the sermon:

The wrath of God burns against them [sinners], their damnation does not slumber, the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames now rage and glow.  The glittering sword is sharpened and held over them, and the pit has opened its mouth under them.”

“He [God] will inflict wrath without any pity.  When God looks upon the inexpressible circumstances of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your pour soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; He will have no compassion on you, He will not withhold the executions of His wrath, or in the least lighten His hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God stop His destroying wind; He will have no regard to your welfare nor be at all careful for fear that you should suffer too much in any other sense.”

“The wrath of God is like great waters that are damned for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when it is once let loose…God should only withdraw His hand from the floodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power.”

“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice points the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one second from being made drunk with your blood.

and finally, one of the most memorable, famous (and inaccurate, damaging, and unhealthy) word pictures from the sermon:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some detestable insect, over the fire, detests you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns with fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be thrown into the fire; His eyes are too pure than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand more times abominable in His eyes, than the most hateful venomous snake is in ours.”

it is said that as edwards preached the sermon, many in the congregation (the sinners) clung to the legs of the pews for fear that the ground would give in beneath them opening itself to the mouth of hell, and sucking them into an everlasting damnation of eternal conscious torment at the hands of… you guessed it… an angry God.

listeners writhed in anguish.  some fainted.

so why does this concern me?  in the sermon, edwards likens the enemies of God to humankind ‘crushing a worm’ that we see crawling on the earth.  is that the God of the bible?  is that really how God views his precious creation, that which he called ‘very good’ in the Genesis narrative, for whom he sent his son to save?

is the primary teaching of the scriptures not one of divine mercy and grace, but one of divine anger and judgment?  is the focus of the good news of jesus not reconciliation, redemption and restoration, but rather an unavoidable eternity in everlasting conscious torment and punishment for rejecting the message and person of jesus?

is God mad? does he love us, pursue us, and attempt to have a relationship with us as his sons and daughters right up until our last breath but the moment we die pull a jekyll and hyde and if we haven’t ‘accepted christ’ throw us into a pit with the devil to be punished forever with no hope of redemption?

before we dive into hell in our next several posts… what do you think?

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7 Responses to “tweet, tweet.”

  1. David March 15, 2011 at 10:51 AM #

    Reading these exerpt’s I hear a lot of the same narrative I heard as a young boy growing up in a holiness environment. For over 40 years, I feared to tell God I was upset with Him.

    I am so glad I have become intimate with the God of the Universe. He is much different than the God I thought I knew as a child. Keep up the great work!…Dave http://dadtalk.wordpress.com

  2. Carly March 15, 2011 at 3:33 PM #

    That view of hell seems to me to result in one of two things in people who accept it–fire insurance conversions and hate. Both are in opposition to the relentless devotion and love that Jesus talked about all the time.

    What really makes me sad is that this sermon is still being printed in American Lit textbooks. I remember reading it for Junior English at my public high school. Thanks for that, Jonathan Edwards.

  3. Jim Fisher March 16, 2011 at 7:49 AM #

    I am thanking God that I have never read that sermon before today (and couldn’t read the whole thing even now). I much prefer a C.S. Lewis hell inhabited by those who choose the separate themselves eternally from the love of God. That view not only honors our gift of free will, it also exalts the patient, loving God I know so well.

    Each day as I immerse myself and soak in the love of my Creator through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I know a little of what heaven is like. I invite people into this heavenly relationship with Jesus by splashing His love around not by scaring them away from hell with fear, guilt and shame.

    Love wins. Keep preaching it brother!! Eventually the silent screams of our hearts will be heard above the din of judgment and hate.

  4. the WayWard follower March 16, 2011 at 3:58 PM #

    …do you see this view of hell expressed (either subtly or overtly) in american evangelicalism?

  5. Daniel J. Fick March 17, 2011 at 12:29 PM #

    I am willing to grant that perhaps my interpretation of this statement, “note: traditional, not orthodox”, has been “lost in translation” (although I don’t think so), however, statements like this, amongst others, seem to be teeming with a covert arrogance, namely that your interpretation (or perhaps McClaren’s, Bell’s, etc.) is, in fact, the correct (or orthodox) interpretation. It certainly seems ironic to me that the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes claimed to come from those within the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement towards the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” questioning of “traditional” biblical/theological interpretation is absolutely similar to the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes demonstrated by the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement towards the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement when they question the questioning of the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” biblical/theological interpretation. For, when those within the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement take personal jabs at the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement for being the claimed “key holders of orthodoxy”, they are, in fact, making an assertion that they are, in fact, the “key holders of orthodoxy”.

    With that said, you may consider these thoughts as “personal jabs” or, more preferably, as caveats intended to provide for additional moments of introspection and evaluation.

    Also, if we are to have a “graduated understanding” of God, in Christ, through the “biblical narrative”, then should we not also look to Revelation for help in our “graduated understanding”? For we certainly see God, in Christ, as a conqueror, judge and king over both those who have trusted in Christ and his saving Gospel during past, present and future, and those who haven’t (Rev. 14:9-11; 19:11ff; 20:11ff).

    It also seems to be contradictory that you indicate that the main message of Scripture is divine mercy, reconciliation, redemption and restoration, and, yet, you also indicate that God sent his son to save us…which seems to lead to the question…saved from what? Is it simply the evil in the world, or is it the justice, righteousness and wrath of God towards sin for which he is too holy to look upon (Hab. 1:13)?

    Therefore, yes, I do think that God is mad. I think God is mad at sin. I think that he sees sin as an affront towards His glory and that he has every right to “pull a Jekyll and Hyde” (although I don’t think that that is actually happening), and punish those who have committed treason against a most holy Sovereign.

    Regardless, I understand that sometimes these discussions can be an exercise in futility, as most, whether admittedly or not, are already deeply entrenched in their biblical/theological understandings (myself included). Perhaps this is more of plea to me and you and those following this blog, to recognize how deeply entrenched we are and, therefore, how much we (me and you and all those following this blog) use our presuppositions or acquired theology to continually influence our biblical interpretation. And, therefore, perhaps this is also a plea for us to rid ourselves as much as we can from any and all theological biases (whether “neo-Calvinist”, “emergent”, “neo-Reformed”, or “neo-liberal”) and take the texts for what they were and are.

    • the WayWard follower March 20, 2011 at 8:38 AM #

      i’m not setting out to definitively describe hell, nor heaven (nor does rob bell in his new book; that’s not the point. for a fresh and healthy perspective on what rob is writing, why he is writing, and who he is writing to about heaven and hell, see my friend’s blog here http://joeldryden.com/). i’m merely attempting to inspire followers of christ to take pause and reevaluate the condition of our collective view on hell; pointing out that it seems (to me, at least) that our view of hell is more shaped by jonathan edwards (and dante, and other works of art from the medieval period) than by jesus. regardless of your opinion, i welcome conversation, questions, and discussions; in fact, that’s one of the main purposes of this blog!

      to address some of your points:
      • on ‘tradiitonal v. orthodox.’ my perspective is that the traditional concept of fire, brimstone, burning, eternal conscious torment, et cetera is NOT orthodox, nor biblical. certainly the picture of God painted by jonathan edwards in the words of this sermon are at best inaccurate; at worst, damaging and damning.

      • you bring up the picture of jesus as conqueror, judge and king in revelation — he certainly is those things. i am suggesting, however, that he is not violent in his judgments, nor is he angry; rather, i believe that he is consistent with his nature and character that was on full display to humankind during his life some 2,000 years ago, and is loving, compassionate, merciful and gracious.

      • saved from what? i believe that we need to be saved from ourselves, saved from the evil in each of us and the evil around us. as we seek to follow God in the way of jesus, heaven comes closer to earth in eradicating the evil in our lives; and as we live out loving God and loving our neighbor, the evil around us begins to be eradicated as well (rape, incest, murder, hunger, poverty, et cetera). that’s the good news.

      • i believe we disagree on the ‘jekyll and hyde’ analogy. do you see in the overarching biblical narrative how that would be consistent with God’s character? to spend time and energy and effort in attempting to restore and reconcile his creation to himself and then ‘pull a fast one’ on us and say, ‘just kidding. i was really pissed off all along. screw you if you didn’t follow the religion named after me. go to hell.’? i cannot.

      • these discussions CAN be an exercise in futility, as has been evidenced by the multiple attack blogs that have gone up in recent days about rob bell, denouncing him or calling him a heretic without first taking pause to understand his purpose and intent. yet in all of these discussions, i think that something is taking place. i believe it’s bigger than rob bell, bigger than heaven and hell. perhaps even bigger than our definition of salvation.

      i believe that the spirit of God is doing a work in and around and through his people; and that this work is to bring us closer to him, and closer to the message of jesus. we are being forced to strip down to the basics of our spiritual theology and determine what the essentials are; and many are questioning who God is. i believe this is a tremendous opportunity in the midst of our faith’s history to influence not only the world around us, but also to influence our faith communities to become less like preachers of dogma and more like ambassadors of reconciliation.

      Unapprove | Reply | Quick Ed

  6. Daniel J. Fick March 22, 2011 at 8:15 AM #

    To address a few of your points…

    Definitive descriptions of heaven and hell: I am, at this time, unable to comment on whether Bell is “setting out to definitively describe” heaven and hell, as I have yet to receive my book from Amazon. Now, regarding Mr. Dryden’s comments, unless Bell has overtly asserted his audience (which, again, I am unable to comment on because I do not yet have my own copy), then Mr. Dryden’s comments are purely speculative. However, if Mr. Dryden’s comments are correct, and Bell is writing to “heretics”, this makes the issue no less pertinent, or dangerous, for those without critical minds or those who are not biblically astute.

    Traditional v. Orthodox: I will have to wait for any additional posts concerning the doctrine of hell, as it is most difficult to make counter-assertions, outside of the positive argument that I made on my blog regarding certain aspects of hell, when you have not provided your thoughts on the orthodox understanding of hell.

    Jesus’ consistent nature and character: If we are to only look at the earthly “narrative” of Jesus, should we not then also consider his clearing of the temple? His temple clearing seems to provide a “non-Old Testament” glimpse of God’s anger towards sin; although I would also want to point back to my original comments regarding seeing God, in Christ, within Revelation as a continuation of the graduated understanding (which I would totally agree with!) under which we develop our graduated understanding of Christology, and, perhaps, Theology Proper. In other words, I think we ought to work towards understanding all that God is, in Christ, to include the equal demonstration of his attributes, so that we are not entirely focused on his love, mercy and compassion, nor his justice, wrath and righteousness.

    Saved from what?: Is our only wish to eradicate evil so that people can have a full belly, or clean drinking water? Although I believe those things are crucial because we have been called by God to care for the orphan and widow, is that really the only message the “earthly” Jesus emphasized? Or did he not also warn of the God who can throw the body and soul into hell because of sin (Matt. 5:29ff; 10:28; 18:9)? Moreover, should we not be living towards an eradication of “evil”, which I will term as “sin” or the “effects of sin”, in order to glorify God for making us (Christians) alive in order to live unto good works (Eph. 2:1-10)?

    Jekyll and Hyde: I would begin by stating that the Greek term for creation in the “reconciliation” passages has normally been understood as identifying substances below the human level (although this understanding is not completely agreed upon); therefore, I think this, then, leaves texts like Rom. 8:19ff, etc., out of the equation. Moreover, I suppose that the question could be returned in that “do you not see throughout the ‘overarching biblical narrative’ that God is unable to be equally just, wrathful and righteous (specifically seen in Rev. 20:7ff), although he is also equally loving, kind and compassionate?” Perhaps some further thought should be given to the “narratives” of Uzzah (2nd Sam. 6) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) that would seem to point towards, and not away from, this “jekyll and hyde” personality you have described (although, again, I would not affirm this type of personality, but, rather, affirm an equal working out of God’s attributes).

    Denouncing Rob Bell: I have no reservation in conceding that within the blogosphere there has been vitriol, perhaps unnecessary at times, towards Bell; however, I think it ought to be equally conceded, as mentioned in my earlier comments, that the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” community has demonstrated a similar attitude and is not innocent of return vitriol

    Preachers of dogma: We can see throughout Christian history that dogma is certainly important, otherwise there would have been no need for the various councils and creedal affirmations. Moreover, you are, in fact, preaching a dogma about not being dogmatic…therefore, I fail to see your point on this issue, and would rather simply end by agreeing with you that I also believe that the Spirit of God is at work amongst his people.

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