Friday, August 10, 2018

The Character of God

I like listening to a podcast called Theology in the Raw. It is a daily radio show hosted by Preston Sprinkle. He is a professor at Eternity Bible College in Boise, Idaho. Each weekday he does his best to take a fresh look at what the Bible says. Putting down his own opinions and traditions, Preston tries to address each issue by looking at what scripture truly has to say about each topic.

In talking about his teaching style Preston says, “rather than telling students what to believe, I point them to study scripture to form their beliefs. I mean, really comb through the text and soak themselves in the biblical narrative to gain the massive view of God that Scripture beautifully sets forth.”

For several weeks the podcast has been doing an in-depth study on the doctrine of hell. The majority of the time has been spent looking into the question, is annihilation a biblical view of hell?

To give you a bit of background, the college that Preston teaches at, Eternity Bible College, is the educational arm of Cornerstone Community Church in Wildomar, California. Eternity Bible College’s statement of beliefs says, “We believe that after death, the souls of unbelievers remain in conscious misery until the Second Resurrection when they shall appear at the Great White Throne Judgment and shall be cast into the Lake of Fire, not to be annihilated, but to suffer everlasting, conscious punishment.”

After reading the statement of belief, I was surprised by the recurring theme of the podcasts on hell: Without a doubt, the annihilation view of hell is an evangelical option.

In the podcast, Preston asked for dialog via e-mail. I sent him the following e-mail. “I recently started listening to your podcast, Theology in the Raw. I enjoy the way that you really dig into the scriptures.
I appreciate your insistence that the weight of evidence; i.e., the number of verses that talk about an end to the wicked vs. those that seem to indicate something eternal. It seems to me that the white elephant in the room when Christians discuss this topic is something that you alluded to but then seemed to pass right over.  That is conditional immortality. If man's immortality is conditional, then Eternal Torment cannot be what the Bible teaches. If man's soul is immortal, then annihilation cannot be correct. I would love to hear you delve into this topic with the thoroughness that I have heard in your podcasts on hell.

One comment you made in the podcast was that our emotions shouldn't come into play when we study the topic of hell. I would like to disagree respectfully. The subject of Eternal Torment is also wrapped up into the character of God. We all have slightly different views on the character of God depending on our background and our experience, but my view of His character does affect how I discern scripture. Eternal Torment doesn't fit with my view of God's character, and I think that if most Christians really thought about their view of His character they would realize that Eternal Torment isn't compatible with their view of God either.

I appreciate a fresh voice that actually studies the scriptures instead of totally relying on church tradition.”

A few days later on the podcast, Preston referred to my e-mail and answered the question, “What role do emotions play in interpreting the Bible?”

He stated, “The reason why I try to stay clear from emotions when interpreting the text is primarily because the annihilation view often gets accused of being built on emotional arguments only. I’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘well it's obviously not in the Bible, people just want that view because they can't stomach eternal conscious torment.’ Let’s try to set our emotions aside and look at what the biblical text says apart from emotions. I don't like the fact that people write off annihilation without even looking at the Bible. So that's my main point in saying that it shouldn’t be based on emotions.

I do agree though that whether you like it or not, your emotions do play a role in interpreting scripture. That’s just a fact. Human emotions and background and baggage and culture and gender; all these things go into interpretation. They shouldn't dictate your interpretation, but they do contribute to it and shape it. I don't want to say that no, we just read the Bible with no emotions. I don't think that’s possible. We're human beings that have emotions. I just don’t think our views should be dictated purely by emotions.

This commenter said something really interesting, and I agree with this, that if our view of hell is incompatible with the character of God, then that should mean something. If my emotions regarding the nature of hell, say the eternal conscious torment view, stem from my view of God. I look in Scripture and see the character of Christ, the character of God and the Holy Spirit and that shapes my emotions and therefore my emotions have sort of an allergic reaction against eternal conscious torment; not because of just my emotions but because that view conflicts with what I know about the character of God, then I do think that that should be considered. That's different. I would call those theological emotions. These aren’t just raw emotions like, I don’t like that I will dismiss it, I like that I will take it. We can’t just pick and choose what we want to believe based on emotions, but I do think that as we reflect on the character of God certain doctrines should line up with what we know about God.

I would put the burden of proof on those who would say that the character of God in the Bible, the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, necessitates that he would keep alive people for billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of years so that he can torment them and then he is just getting started. That doesn't make sense to me when I look at the character of God. But again, I need biblical support specifically for why the view is or isn't correct.”

If you ask most Christians what hell is, most will tell you that it is a place where the wicked go when they die and are tortured in fire for the rest of eternity. This traditional view of hell is not one of disembodied spirits, but of resurrected, living people whom God has made immortal, so they can endure physical and emotional torment for all eternity.

But today there are a growing number of evangelical Christians who reject the majority doctrine of hell known as eternal conscious torment. These Christians are embracing a historical and biblical alternative known as conditional immortality. This idea is also known as annihilationism.

Many church fathers of the first four centuries of the Christian faith held this view. In the first century, Ignatius said the Lord suffered “that He might breathe immortality into His Church.” After all, “were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.” Second-century Irenaeus was clear: life “is bestowed according to the grace of God,” and whereas the saved “shall also receive length of days for ever and ever,” the lost instead “deprives himself of continuance for ever and ever” and “shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.”

Although this view was eventually replaced by what is now the traditional view, a growing number of conservative evangelicals promote it today as the doctrine of conditional immortality. According to this view, in the end God will grant immortality only to those who meet the condition of being united to Christ in faith. The risen lost will instead be annihilated: denied the gift of immortality, dispossessed of all life of any sort, and die the second death, never to live again.

I recently purchased the second edition of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. It outlines four different views of hell. The book highlights why the church still needs to wrestle with the doctrine of hell. Four leading scholars introduce the current views on eternal judgment, with particular attention being given to the new voices that have entered the debate.

In the annihilation section, the book outlines four main points. As we go through these points, you might want to take some notes and write down some texts. We will not have time to go through them all this morning.

Point Number 1 - Scripture consistently teaches that the fate of the unsaved is to die, to perish, to be destroyed forever—in ways those words are ordinarily understood.

Peter says the reduction to ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the death of their inhabitants is an example of what awaits the ungodly. (2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7). He compares the future fiery destruction of the wicked to those who perished in Noah’s flood (2 Peter 3:6–7). Jesus indicates that God will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:4). He also tells a parable in which weeds are burned up (Matt 13:30). Jesus then interprets his parable, saying the wicked will likewise be thrown into a fiery furnace (Matt 13:40–42), alluding to Malachi’s prophecy that the lost would one day be reduced to ashes beneath the feet of the righteous (Mal 4:1–3).

The book goes on to say that, “We have been trained—intentionally or unintentionally—to overlook the plain meaning of some of the most famous Bible verses. Paul says, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Jesus, too, says “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Overwhelmingly the Bible uses death and destruction language to describe the final fate of the lost; fifty verses in the NT alone.

Point Number 2: Scripture consistently teaches that human beings are mortal and will not live forever unless God grants them immortality. This he will grant to the saved but will withhold from the lost, who therefore will not live forever.

God had warned Adam that “in the day” he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die (Gen 2:17). The Hebrew phrase translated “in the day” often just means “when,” and doesn’t mean literally within 24 hours any more than when one says, “When you eat too much, you get fat.” It is a true statement, but it doesn’t happen in one day. When God carries out the sentence of which he had warned, that sentence is clearly literal death.

He says that “to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and he evicts Adam and Eve from the garden so that they will not “live forever,” lacking access to the tree of life (Gen 3:22–23). So mankind fell into mortality; as Paul later writes, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Rom 5:12).

However, there is still hope. Immortality can be sought and granted (Rom 2:7). The tree of life, which would have sustained the lives of Adam and Eve indefinitely, reappears at the other end of the Bible in Revelation, where the saved—and they alone—enjoy its fruit (Rev 22:2). Paul says that resurrected believers will become immortal, made fit to inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor 15:50–55); Jesus himself says they, the sons of God, will be unable to die anymore, implying the lost will be able to die (Luke 20:35–36).

Point Number 3: Scripture consistently teaches that as a substitutionary atonement, Jesus suffered the wages of sin—death—in the place of his people. Those who reject his gift, therefore, will pay those wages themselves.

Jesus took the place of sinners and suffered what they would have suffered, in their stead. That fate was death (Rom 5:6, 8; 1 Cor 15:1–4; 2 Cor 5:15). Were there any lingering suspicion that what Jesus suffered was anything other than literal death, Peter says he was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Pet 3:18), and the author of Hebrews says that what was offered was his body (Heb 10:10). Those who must suffer his fate themselves will therefore likewise die, rather than live forever.

Point Number 4: Proof-texts historically cited as support for eternal torment prove upon closer examination to be better support for conditional immortality and annihilationism.

Isaiah 66:24 says of the wicked, “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” Alluded to by Jesus in Mark 9:48, this is often understood as meaning the fire will forever have fuel to burn, and that the worms will forever have food to eat. As that food and fuel, the living wicked will, therefore be tormented forever, or so the reasoning goes.

In reality, unquenchable fire burns up irresistibly (Ezek 20:47–48; Jer 17:27; Amos 5:6). So, too, undying worms and other unstoppable scavengers completely devour corpses (Deut 28:26; Jer 7:33).
Daniel is told that only the righteous will be granted eternal life, while the unrighteous will be raised to “eternal contempt” (Dan 12:2)—the Hebrew dērāʾôn refers to something held in contempt by others, not to something felt by those who are themselves contemptible (Isa 66:24). Jesus likewise limits “eternal life” to the righteous, suggesting that by “eternal punishment” he means eternal capital punishment—death forever (Matt 25:46). Paul confirms this conclusion, saying the wicked will pay the penalty of “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:9), alluding to Isaiah’s scene in which God’s enemies are slain and their corpses completely consumed. The phrases “eternal punishment” and “eternal destruction” do not imply ongoing activity any more than “eternal salvation” and “eternal redemption” imply ongoing saving or redeeming (Heb 5:9; 9:12).

John’s apocalyptic, symbolic vision (Rev 14:9–11; 20:10) draws upon OT language and themes to communicate the final destruction of the lost: drinking God’s wrath (Job 21:20–21; Jer 25:15–33), fire, sulfur, and rising smoke (Gen 19:24, 28; Isa 34:9–10)—the latter of which is used elsewhere in John’s vision to predict the destruction of a city (18:7, 10, 15, 21; 19:3). John and God interpret the lake of fire imagery as symbolizing the “second death” of human beings (Rev 20:10, 14; 21:8),
Let’s take a look at these second death texts.  Revelation 2:11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”’ Those who overcome don’t experience the second death. We could say that another way. Those who do not overcome will experience the second death.

Revelation 20 mentions the second death two times. Revelation 20:6 “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” The second death has no power over those who reign with Christ.

Revelation 20:13-15 “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Being cast into the lake of fire is the second death.
Revelation 21:7,8 “And finally He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Hell is equivalent to the second death. God will not subject the wicked to eternal torture in the flames of some underworld or some remote region of His universe. They will be resurrected to face the record of their lives in one final reckoning; then they will be eternally annihilated “as though they had never been” (Obadiah 16). Here's the most remarkable thing of all: not one person needs to experience the second death because Jesus experienced it for all of us—and conquered it. He alone tasted the second death for every person, and He alone could not be held in it because He alone was sinless.

Once we understand the nature of the second death in contrast to the first death, we are ready to comprehend what Jesus endured for us as He agonized in Gethsemane and died on the cross. Both the first death and the second death are the result of sin, but the first is temporary and occurs by physical causes, such as disease or tragedy or old age. The second death, however, does not occur on merely a physical level, but on the psychological level as well, due to the lethal power of one’s guilt. The first death, in a sense, is not really death at all. Jesus called it sleep.

When the Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), it does not merely mean the first death. Many die even though they are saved. When the Bible says of Jesus “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and that He went to the cross so that He “might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9), it does not merely mean the first death. The ultimate wages of sin is the second death. It logically follows that Jesus can only save us from what He has endured and conquered for us. If Jesus only experienced the first death, then he can only save us from the first death, and we must still face the second ourselves. However, the glorious good news is that Jesus faced the full, horrific reality of the second death.

Pay attention as Jesus and His disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is staggering under the weight of some invisible burden. The disciples can see that something is wrong. Jesus explains what’s happening to Him: “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Here He explains the nature of His suffering. Notice that He used the same word He had used earlier to describe the second death as distinct from the first death: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Again, the word here translated “soul” is psyche in the Greek text and that is precisely the word Jesus uses now to communicate what He’s enduring. In Gethsemane, Jesus says He is dying at the psyche level of His being. He is dying from the inside out, under the lethal power of our sin and guilt.

No physical abuse has yet been inflicted upon Him. And yet, He is dying! No blood has yet been spilled from His body by violence. And yet, He is bleeding! Luke tells us: “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He is bleeding through His pores due to the intense internal stress the shame of our sin is imposing on Him. Isaiah 53 offers astounding insight into what Jesus endured for us. Notice verse 6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Then verse 10 says “His soul” was made “an offering for sin.” And, finally, look at verse 12: “He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

This is nothing short of astounding because this means that Jesus entered the darkness of our sin and shame. He took it all into His own conscience as if He were the guilty party instead of us. From Gethsemane, Jesus is taken to the cross. Yes, nails were hammered through His hands and feet. Yes, His body was tortured. And yet, He never uttered a word about the physical pain, because His mental suffering was so intense that it nearly eclipsed His physical pain. I don't think that Jesus could see through to the other side of the tomb. He was afraid that sin was so offensive to God that their separation was to be eternal. At the cross he cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46

For a sustained period, as our guilt enveloped His heart in impenetrable emotional darkness, Jesus could not see life for Himself beyond the grave. But here’s the amazing thing: He was not trapped. His back was not up against a wall with no way out. There are two things He said before the cross that indicate that He was not trapped:

“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17, 18). “Do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).

Don’t miss what this means. Jesus faced the prospect of eternal death, and yet, because he loves you and me, He did not pull back. He was literally willing to die forever and never be reunited to His Father to save us.

This is the incredible truth the conditional immortality understanding of death and hell opens to view. This is the truth that the false doctrines of natural immortality and eternal torment block from view.
Not one person need experience the second death because Jesus experienced it for all of us—and conquered it. He tasted the second death for every person and He alone could not be held in it because He alone was sinless.

Jesus never sinned. Under the fiercest temptations to save Himself, He kept on loving all of us at any cost to Himself. That selfless love, maintained with unbroken integrity straight through Gethsemane and Calvary, was in perfect harmony with the law of God. By love alone, Jesus triumphed over the second death. Therefore, it was impossible for the second death to hold Him. His resurrection is proof of His victory over our sin, our guilt, and our death.

I’m amazed that Jesus could He love me so deeply, so passionately, so selflessly. Is this really what God is like? Can it truly be that the Almighty God of the universe is this incredibly loving?  The answer is YES!

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