How Shall Christians Understand God’s Definition of Hell?

I share the view along with many liberal theologians that hell is not a physical place – it is a state of mind of any one choosing to avoid the presence of God in this life.

In support of this concept, I believe God establishes the criteria for righteous living given to us in the life, death and teachings of Jesus, and if individuals reject or ignore his guidelines for living forever, they will stay on a wrong course and drive themselves into an “eternal state of hell” – both in this life and the life hereafter.

However, the majority of Christians, including all fundamentalists, believe hell is a physical place. There are a number of scriptures (particularly in Matthew) that support their theological position.

Many in the clergy, maybe one half, believe the scriptures describe hell as a symbolic place of dissent, suffering and pain after death, where sinners, by the grace of God, may, over time, receive expiation for their sins. The Catholic Church expresses this intermediary condition as “purgatory” where lost souls may be redeemed after a period of suffering and misery.

It is hard for me to accept Biblical statements that condemn   any of God’s children to experience pain and suffering – forever. Why would our God of the N.T. give us his son to suffer and die for us and then cut off some of his children – forever?

Is it possible that the word “lost” should be interpreted to mean – temporarily “lost”? If we believe that God loves us all, then our God of love, forgiveness and redemption must surely provide a path of salvation for even life time common criminals and terrorists. With some period of proportional punishment, after death, could it be that all will be given a chance to be reconciled to God through a change of heart? Maybe for some, this process will take a hundred years or more to be converted and saved. It should not be easy, but I believe it should be possible.

This theological rationale is compatible with what Jesus said to one of the convicted criminals on the cross. When the criminal confessed that he wanted to be saved, Jesus,  in Luke 23:43 said: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”. According to the dictionary, and I quote, “paradise is an intermediate place or state where the righteous departed await resurrection and judgement”. It would appear that the criminal was given a chance to be redeemed and saved prior to entering into heaven.

In Romans 5:10, we are assured that all persons shall be reconciled to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And so there may be a temporary state where all sinners may be reconciled to God before being accepted into heaven.

Some additional thoughts for our consideration are:

  • Church going or non-church going does not decide who is saved or who is not. Personal resumes’ are not important – only honest, sincere Christian beliefs, attitudes and loving actions count in God’s sight.
  • God presents the path to eternal life, but each individual must choose to obey and follow, and as sinners, continuously ask for forgiveness for our transgressions.
  • Temptation is not a sin – Jesus was tempted. True and honest ignorance is not a sin – however, most of us know when we sin and cannot hide behind “ignorance”.
  • God does not directly punish people for their sins while they are living. People during their lives may receive suffering (punishments) as the result of their conduct as acts of free will.

In conclusion, this writing has been composed after considerable pray, study and thought. It is my hope that our God of love, forgiveness and redemption, presented to us in the New Testament, prevails over any concept of God of wrath and condemnation.

W.F. Peck

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The Evolution of a Christian Prayer Life

The heart and soul of a Christian life is our prayer life. Any Christian seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus, has an active prayer life. However, overtime, conscientious Christians learn to grow in their knowledge and depth of how to talk to God.

Here are descriptions of possible types and levels of praying that most of us may experience as we grow in our Christian faith:

  1. No active prayer life – praying spontaneously only when serious needs arise
  2. Periodic “routine” praying – “now I lay me down to sleep” – “Our Father who art in heaven… “
  3. Periodic private prayers – occasional, inconsistent but sincere prayers
  4. Social praying – an accepted public prayer, before a group
  5. Personal praying – a commitment to pray privately and regularly
  6. A complete prayer life – talking daily with God on a continuing  basis

The best model for praying, the Lord’s Prayer, was given to us by Jesus. It begins with praise and adoration, then asks for forgiveness, cautions about temptations and concludes with expressions of trust in the power and glory of God. Much can be learned by a thorough study of this prayer.

The Bible, in most every book, offers many beautiful prayers from the prophets and the gospel writers. In Psalms 103:1, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name”. Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” – and in Philippians 4:6, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”.

Sometimes we fall into the habit of repetitive praying and fail to remember there are many types of prayers. Some of the most common prayers may focus on:  Thanksgiving, Forgiveness, Praise and Adoration, Intercessory, Resting, or Suffering prayers. There are two approaches to praying – Ritualistic praying and Informal praying. Both have a proper place and both are entirely acceptable to God.

God accepts all types and levels of praying from all peoples from every age, race, ethnic, religious or national background. He is open to the most simple to the most complex prayers we chose to submit. When and where we pray does not matter. In the midst of our greatest sins, God encourages us to pray. He always accepts and loves us as we are.

It is very human that some prayers center on the needs and feelings of the person praying. Others seek to express our concerns for the needs of others – both nearby and far away.   Sometimes we find ourselves “telling” God what needs to be done – fully realizing he already knows. It is very human- particularly when things are not going well- for us to ask God to intervene in the lives of people. I think this sincere asking is acceptable by God – but it seems rare for him to interfere with his created laws – accept when he decides a miracle is warranted. Miracles do happen – but sometimes they are delayed or changed by God. Under these special circumstances, mature Christians learn to trust in the fact that our heavenly Father is:  all powerful, all knowing, all present and all caring.

In the middle of all that our lives experience, we must remember that the lifelong goal of praying is to continue to strive to align our lives to the Will of our heavenly Father.

W.F. Peck

Key Theological Messages from “Making Sense of the Bible” By Adam Hamilton

making-sense-of-the-bible

Adam Hamilton is not only a great speaker and writer, but he is pastor of the largest Methodist church in the world in Leawood, Kansas, The UMC of the Resurrection. I am attracted to his theology because it makes great sense and answers many troublesome questions Christians face today in a world where understandings of the bible range from super conservative “fundamentalists” on one end to “progressive or liberal thinkers” on the other end. My theology has evolved through the years from lessons learned from a devoted Christian mother who was a traditional fundamentalist –  raised and taught in small Methodist churches in the South. Over time, study, prayer and counsel with theologians, I have developed a more liberal view of the Bible but still hold tightly to the messages of Jesus presented to us in the gospels and in many of Paul’s writings.

The most troublesome scriptures, for me, are found in the Old Testament. One must start by asking this question: Is the God of Old Testament the same God as the God of the New Testament? And the answer has to be – of course he is – God does not change, but perhaps people’s understandings of him change.Most of us were taught at an early age that: “The Bible is God’s Word”. Well, in a broad sense, this statement is okay – but it can cause problems if the reader interprets this to mean – every single word in the Bible comes from God. I do not support this position. In the Torah, the Mosaic Law says: “Thou shall not work on the Sabbath subject to the death penalty.” Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man – not man was made for the Sabbath”. It makes more sense to say: “The Bible contains God’s Word”. There are just too many passages written by priests, scribes, prophets and historians in the first century AD, that just do not ring true to the messages given to us by Jesus in the New Testament.

Adam Hamilton presents a strong case in explaining that “divine Inspiration” does not mean that God commanded or directed or even wrote any of the words of scripture. The word “inspiration” applied to scripture should be understood the same as “inspiration” received by pastors and Sunday school teachers in our modern world. They all pray for guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire their thoughts and biblical messages.

Some still think “inspiration” means that God composed the bible word for word. But the word “inspiration”, at least in English, is quite different in meaning from the words “composition or dictation”. “Inspiration”, at least in English, does not mean perfection.
Adam Hamilton said: “Just precisely how does inspiration work? We feel moved, provoked, aroused, stimulated, influenced, urged to do something. Paul may be saying: each biblical author was moved , provoked, roused, stimulated, influenced or urged to write. “

Here are further quotations from Adam Hamilton that have helped me understand “inspiration”: “Many Christians read the word “inspired” or “God breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 and immediately give a definition that Paul himself did not give. To them “God breathed” means something very close to “God dictated”. This doctrine is often referred to as verbal, plenary inspiration. Verbal, plenary inspiration is not taught in the Bible” ….. “Plenary” means – complete in every respect and absolute. “ It was a way of building a fence around the Bible and making it impossible to question it or any doctrine built around it” – says Hamilton.

Verbal, plenary inspiration and the doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible go hand in hand” – Says Adam Hamilton. “This new foundation for the Christian faith, namely that Christianity is true because the Bible is infallible, inerrant, totally true and trust worthy, feels to me like a house of cards that can easily be brought down.” John Wesley gave us direction to make serious decisions or interpretations of scripture using a combination of; Tradition, Experience, Reason and Scripture.

The people who wrote the various books of the Bible shaped their views according to the times in which they lived and the limitations of their knowledge. To those of us who teach Bible, it involves reading, praying and interpreting scripture with the help of our faith, the experience of the Holy Spirit and the use of human reason. We are then able to view the bible, to hear God speaking through it, but to still understand that we may question certain things presented in scripture that may not represent God’s true character nor his will for our lives today. It seems fair to conclude that the words of the bible reflect in some places, the limitations, biases and interpretations of its human authors.

Hamilton tells us that God speaks to us in many ways other than the Bible:

  • Through the created world
  • The whisper in our hearts
  • Through human prophets, teachers, and preachers
  • Through friends and parents
  • Other written words – outside the Bible
  • Through music – both contemporary and classical
  • Through visions and dreams

Another outstanding quote from Hamilton’s book is:
“So the phrase “the Word of God” as it is used in the Bible is almost always a message from God, disclosed at times through angels, sometimes directly to the heart of the individual, sometimes through dreams and visions, often through preaching and teaching and at times through a whisper. The phrase is used to describe a message conveyed, most often, through human beings, but which is believed to express or reveal God and God’s will.”

“The bible is not an autobiography. You can read God’s actual words in many places, but you can also hear the human author’s reflections upon God and their attempts to put into words the nature, character and will of God” – says Rev. Hamilton.

When Biblical authors wrote, they did not enter into a trance like state in which God dictated the scriptures word for word. Paul wrote what was on his heart and mind. He did not claim to be speaking directly from God. He assumed the responsibility for his own sermons and writings. Luke or John, in their writings, did not claim that God told them what to say.

Many fine Christians hold strongly to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Adam Hamilton had the courage to state: “If by Biblical inerrancy we mean that “those truths that God wants humanity to know, are preserved without error in the Bible, I’m ready to sign on. But if by Biblical inerrancy we mean that the bible contains no errors, no logical inconsistencies, no facts that are not historically accurate, I’d have to say, no, the Bible is not inerrant.”

Some would argue: if there is an error anywhere in the Bible, how can we trust anything it says? The answer is simple – we are constantly trusting the words of people whom we have found to be trustworthy, even though none of them are inerrant or infallible.

He further said, “No pastor is infallible or inerrant. God knows this and chooses to use fallible people to do his work. God doesn’t make them infallible when they step into the pulpit, yet God works through them nonetheless. The divine inspiration of scripture was not God dictating the scriptures but God working in the hearts and minds of the biblical authors”.

It is important to remember that as we work to interpret scripture, we must not discount what is inconvenient or challenging simply because it is difficult. When we find something that is inconsistent with the way God reveals himself through Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask questions. It is Jesus and his teachings that serve as the final Word by which other words are to be judged.
Adam Hamilton speaks eloquently about the story of beginnings. Genesis 1 is a majestic, beautiful and poetic. It is not a lesson in cosmology, it is a creed. It is not a science lecture – it is poetry. It makes a claim not about scientific knowledge but about truth and theology. As a creed, a hymn of praise to God, and a theological lesson about the ultimate nature of existence – yes – but as a scientific text – no. … It tells us what late Bronze and Iron Age people of the ancient Near East believed about the order of creation. When we treat this text as a scientific account, we miss the point, and we end up with bad science.

“I appreciate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution”, says Hamilton. “Evolution does not diminish God’s glory, as some Christians seem to believe. To me it magnifies God’s glory. Science teaches one kind of truth, and it is really important and wonderful. The Bible teaches another kind of truth – about the meaning of existence, the nature of God and what it means to be human.”

“Sometime, maybe as early as, 35,000 to 45,000 years ago, there was an upright, bi-pedal hominid that began to think in ways other hominids did not. The biblical language for what was taking place is that God breathed into these hominids the “breath of life”: and they became “living beings” – fully human and made in the image of God. The story of Adam and Eve, their temptations and mistakes, is the story of all of us. It is the story of the earliest modern humans and how God gave them a soul and of their initial choice of “free will” that lead them to act against the will of God.

And then we have the story of Noah and his ark. Did God destroy every animal and every human being on the earth –except Noah and his family on the ark about 4300 years ago? Hamilton says – “I don’t think so”. The story seems to be anchored in historical events that happened at the end of the last Ice Age when floods and volcanic eruptions were common. But is the story of Noah’s ark true? Well, literally – no – but in a theological sense – yes, it is absolutely true! Like the Creation story, this story teaches profound truths.

So in summary, from what we have learned, we can state without any doubt that:

  • The vast majority of scriptures reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.
  • There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament.
  • There are scriptural passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery.
  • The bible is not a theological textbook, a book of praise or an owner’s manual. It is a compilation of various types of literature, including short stories, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophetic warnings, gospels and letters written over the course of 1,400 years.
  • The words of Jesus are the words by which all other words should be interpreted and understood.
  • You are not dishonoring God by asking questions of scripture that seem inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge or geography or history.
  • You are not being unfaithful to God if you ask questions of a verse that seems inconsistent with the picture of God seen in life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The Holy Spirit prompts and inspires you, but it does not dictate what you think, say or do.
  • You are not judging God by wrestling with the Bible, you are asking questions of the human authors of scripture.

This writing does not do full justice to this marvelous book: “Making Sense of the Bible” by Adam Hamilton. It has been a blessing in my life and I’m sure it would be the same for any open minded Christian.
W. F. (Bill) Peck