A recent Homebrewed Christianity podcast episode featured a discussion between podcast host Tripp Fuller and New Testament scholar and professor Daniel Kirk of Fuller Theological Seminary. The first subject of their conversation was about labels like liberal, progressive and evangelical. Not only did it help me label myself a little better — I might be one of those elusive progressive evangelicals who really cares about science — but it was also very entertaining. Among some of Tripp’s remarks that struck me the most were the following, one of which I’ve already shared on twitter:
“God judges to purify, not to be a poop head” (the safe-for-all-ages version).
“Basically, Jesus tells two groups of people to go to hell in the Bible: 1) religious bigots and 2) rich people who don’t share.”
I’m not interested in making light of judgment language in the Bible. It’s there, and I believe it should be taken very seriously. I don’t think the prophets of Israel were bluffing when they warned God’s people to repent and turn back to mercy, justice and humility, or else be destroyed. I’m just not sure it’s always supposed to be read literally, and the language itself is rarely literal in the first place (e.g., fire, outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc.).
But like Kirk, I too am uncomfortable with efforts to pacify Jesus. As Reza Aslan argues, “zealot” is a better description of Jesus than “hippy” or “free spirit,” though obviously he differed substantially from his violence-prone counterparts — and I’m sure I don’t completely agree with Aslan. Jesus is indeed firm and quite forceful at moments in what he says. At the same time, I think the second statement above is fairly accurate: the threat of gehenna (“hell”) is mostly aimed at those who portend to play the role of God in religion, politics and economics (and today we should add, in the environment). That is, it’s a harsh warning — which is not the same thing as a prediction — to those who lack contrition in their spirits. It’s a warning to those who hate.
Tripp goes on to explain that in Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, he’s making an interpretative move with regard to the Old Testament that we ought to follow — namely, re-reading and imagining our sacred texts in the light of Jesus’s example (i.e., “you’ve heard it said . . . but I say unto you”). Let me be clear though: by saying “hell” is for “those people,” I don’t mean to let myself or anyone else off the hook! We’ve all created a lot of hell on earth for each other in history. We also create hell in our own hearts and in personal relationships. But I like the way Thomas Merton has put it in this case:
And yet the world, with all its wars, is not yet hell. And history, however terrible, has another and a deeper meaning. For it is not the evil of history that is its significance and it is not by the evil of our time that our time can be understood. In the furnace of war and hatred, the City of those who love one another is drawn and fused together in the heroism of charity under suffering, while the city of those who hate everything is scattered and dispersed and its citizens are cast out in every direction, like sparks, smoke and flame.
I don’t think it’s worth speculating much about afterlife. The gospel doesn’t have much to say about it, for one thing. What I do think is important, however, is faith and hope in the promises of God as made known in Jesus through the witness of Scripture. I’m open to looking elsewhere for God’s revelation, and in fact I have, but so far Jesus takes the cake for me. To echo the conversation from the podcast, I think one of these promises from God is essentially that humanity, creation and the whole universe has its end in God as evidenced by the testimony of the resurrection. And this must apply especially to those whose lives have already been lost and dragged through hell on earth. From here one probably needs to say as well that, from the standpoint of the Bible and the Christian tradition, unrepentant hatred does not go unpunished — even if this punishment is not vindictive. This is why I too am unsatisfied by mysticism despite being contemplative. It’s also why I’m neither a reductive-materialist nor a post-structuralist.
I believe God’s love is radically inclusive; I also believe that God’s will opposes our idolatry, which produces suffering, boredom, hate and the like. Without these two held together, it’s hard to see the goodness of God. It seems like the Bible is saying that what is associated with this idolatry must ultimately either be purged or “thrown away.” This is one of the reasons why I still think it’s an urgent matter that followers of Jesus make other followers and invite people everywhere, with boldness and sensitivity, to turn from their egoism lest they “not inherit the ‘kingdom’ of God.” This “kingdom” is a beautiful, “heavenly” society, and a gift that God wants all of us to receive.